Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Amnesia? That's No Excuse for Bad Grammar

You get bonked on the head. Bad-like. You get anterograde amnesia, which means you can't form new memories (think: "Memento," tattoos optional). Someone gives you a bike. You ride it. You stink at first. But then you get a little better.

The next day, you don't remember getting the bike. You ride it again. You're actually better at riding it than you were the day before. Repeat. Repeat. Soon, you're a perfectly proficient bike rider who, every morning, doesn't recognize his own bike.

Now, lemme ask you: If I teach you a sentence, will you, shortly afterward, retain some concept of: 1. what the sentence meant, 2. what the syntactical structure was, 3. neither, 4. both?

According to a
recent study reported in Science Daily, you won't remember the meaning of the sentence or its words. But you will retain some memory of the sentence's syntax.

Funky, huh?

The researchers say this demonstrates that, unlike word definitions, "syntactic persistence" -- "the tendency for speakers to produce sentences using similar grammatical patterns and rules of language as those they have used before" -- is associated with what's called "procedural memory."

Procedural memory, they say, is one of two types of memory. The other is "declarative memory." Declarative memory is how you remember events and facts, like receiving a bike as a gift. Procedural memory is the place where you store things like knowledge of how to ride a bike. And, according to these researchers, it's also where you store information about how to order words in a sentence.

Why am I writing about this? Well, fresh from a family wedding weekend that involved lots of small talk, too much food, and some truly amazing dance-floor feats by drunk Uncle Al, I can't quite remember how to form original thoughts or craft them into original blog posts.

Now, what's this bike doing here?

Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The D-Word

The D-Word

I know I said I was offline, but I became so obsessed with a word today that I had to blog about it.

Unlike my usual posts, this is not inspired by a word that I’ve been hearing. It’s about a word I HAVEN’T been hearing. Ben Bernanke hasn't said it. President Bush didn't say it when he made an emergency-feeling address to the nation tonight. None of the congressional leaders dealing with this financial crisis have said it, either.

In talking about our financial crisis, the Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke has said several times that we are staring down a possibility so dire that it justifies a $700 billion bailout of mishandled financial firms. The threat, he said, is recession.

But, funny thing that. Some experts and pundits have been arguing for at least a year that we are already in a recession, or something close to it.

So is it possible that the real threat is so dire that our leaders, Bernanke, Bush and Barney Frank included, are literally too afraid to say it? That the real threat starts not with an R but with a D and is best known for a Great one we had 60-odd years ago?

And is it possible that this word, if spoken by certain high-ranking officials, could almost will itself into existence?

Let’s hope not.

Bookmark and Share

Getting a Word in Before Going Dark ...

I'm going AWOL until probably Tuesday*. Family wedding this weekend. Meaning lots of people in my customarily not-very-peopled existence. Plus other perks like cake and (hopefully) bad wedding dancing. (Love that. Go, Uncle Al!)

But, first, I leave you with this word: "both."

I'm hypersensitive to this word because I so often see it used the way the following AP story used it:

AP - Executives whose companies get a piece of the $700 billion government
bailout will have their pay packages strictly limited under proposals that are
broadly supported by both Republicans and Democrats.

Now, this isn't wrong, per se. But it has always struck me as imprecise. Obviously, "both" is meant to modify two things -- Republicans and Democrats. But because the first of those two things is plural, there's a potential for momentary confusion that's always troubled me.

In other words,

Fine = "... both the Republican and the Democrat on the committee ..."
Less fine (says I) = "... both Republicans (That's right, there are still two left. Named George and Newt, though Newt seems to have been eyeing the exits for some time now) and Democrats ..."

Here's hoping I chose good wedding shoes and won't be looking up definitions of "blister" on Tuesday ...

* Late addendum: I'll still be checking in and able to read and post any comments. I just don't expect I'll post any new entries of my own until prolly Tuesday.
Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Wonderings and Googlings* (Wherein I wonder about words, then I Google them)

*(see late addendum below)

The reason is threefold = 419 hits
The reasons are threefold = 597 hits

I've mostly heard people use that plural one. But today I came across the "the reason is threefold" (Yes, it's another thrilling day of copy editing).

Dictionaries don't address this issue directly. But, the way I read their definitions, it seems to make more sense to use it with the singular.

Webster's New World:

threefold adj. 1. having three parts. 2. having three times as much or as
many. adv. three times as much or as many.

Dictionary.com offers examples:

a threefold program
a threefold return on an investment

So does Webster's Revised Unabridged (via Dictionary.com)

A threefold cord is not quickly broken. -- Eccl. iv. 12

Seems to me that when someone says, "The reasons are threefold," they're using "threefold" as a synonym for "three." (Answer me these questions three.) But none of the dictionaries I checked treats them as synonyms.

* Addendum:

I hadn't had much time to look at the news until late in the day, but this is for those of you who were interested in the politics of yesterday's post: The Center for Responsive Politics has released a report on how much money congress members got from banking/financial company donations in the years before a 1999 vote on removing some regulations. As also reported in the Los Angeles Times, the report demonstrates a clear correlation: Reps who got the most money from this industry were pretty much the same people who voted yes on the deregulation measure. Here's the link, where you'll also find a full list of names and dollar amounts: http://www.opensecrets.org/news/2008/09/money-and-votes-aligned-in-con.html

The Times also reported today the stuff that was on the Wall Street Journal's website yesterday about lobbying by banks, etc. to capitalize on the bailout plan.

Bookmark and Share

Monday, September 22, 2008

More on How to Read the News

In yesterday’s post, I ranted a bit about the quality of information sometimes presented to general news consumers.

Today, if you’ll indulge my getting off the grammar topic just a bit longer, here’s a sample of the starkly higher quality of information presented to a subset of news consumers – those who read the Wall Street Journal.

The whole story is
here. The nuggets I found most notable are excerpted below.

In short, banking-industry lobbyists are all over the government’s proposed $700 billion financial system bailout to assure the most favorable distribution of the dough. At the same time, they are openly lobbying to assure that defaulting homeowners in bankruptcy don’t receive any breaks. (Oh, and they want to make sure that foreign banks with exposure to the bad mortgages get some of the U.S. taxpayer money, too.)

Yup. While NBC News serves stories like the one I wrote about yesterday, this is the kind of news being served to Wall Street Journal readers.

Here are the excerpts:

* Lobbyists and financial-services executives are working deep connections within the administration to ensure as many institutions as possible benefit from a $700 billion federal mechanism to buy distressed assets, then sell them off in better times.

* They also oppose proposals by Democrats in Congress to provide mortgage reductions for homeowners facing bankruptcy. Bankers say such a move would raise rates for mortgage seekers, as banks factor in the possibility that a loan would be restructured in court.

* "How you publicly oppose loan modifications and bankruptcy law while at the same time advocating a huge taxpayer bailout is beyond me," said a lobbyist for a major bank holding company. "Pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered."

* Foreign-owned institutions with U.S. mortgage-market exposure are fighting to benefit from the federal rescue.

* By Sunday, the group (the Financial Services Roundtable, a group of chief executives of the nation's most powerful banks, brokerages and insurers and a leader in the lobbying) had gained the support of Mr. Paulson for its stance that foreign-owned banks must be included in the rescue.

* The industry has gone directly to the SEC demanding a letter changing U.S. accounting rules that require banks to state the value of their assets at the market price. Banks say that without such a change, the government would pay an artificially low price for distressed assets.

* Banks and brokerages have banded together to push back against any effort by Congress to include a provision in the bill allowing judges to decrease the amount homeowners must pay on mortgages that are part of a bankruptcy proceeding.

Bookmark and Share

Sunday, September 21, 2008

If I Could Edit All the World … (Wherein I react to the financial crisis with a stunning display of powerlessness in the form of unsolicited editing)

Copy editors don’t just catch missing hyphens. We’re also responsible for assuring clarity, asking questions like: Does this make sense? Did the writer connect the dots? Are we speaking to the reader at his own level, or are we talking down to him or talking over his head? Is there missing information? Is this piece clear, logical, and flowing?

When we see overarching problems, we type notes right in the story document (OFTEN IN OBNOXIOUS ALL CAPS that I’ll replace here in red) then send it right back to the reporter to fix.

Normally, I get paid for this. (Up until my 2 p.m. sugar crash, I’m pretty good at it). But today I’m working pro bono.

Here’s the full text of a segment from Friday’s NBC Nightly News broadcast. The purpose of the piece is to explain how the current financial crisis came about.
(If you want to see it live or check my typing, it’s here.) After this comes the same story, but this time with the notes I would have included had this come across my desk for editing.

* * *

This segment, after the introduction by Brian Williams, is pre-recorded and relies primarily on B-roll and graphics for its visuals, with those visuals narrated by reporter Dylan Ratigan. A few sentences before the end, we cut to visual of Ratigan in the studio.

(Open on Brian Williams)

Williams (on camera): The swiftness and the intensity of this week’s events have caught even many financial experts by surprise, so we asked CNBC’s Dylan Ratigan to step back, take a look at how we got here in the first place.

Ratigan (narrating over graphics and B-roll): This financial crisis started with the availability of cheap credit. In the old days, to get a mortgage, a buyer would go to the bank, show proof of an income, provide a substantial down payment and become a homeowner. In the new model, banks were encouraged and even got fees to loan money to homebuyers with poor credit and no money down. Making things worse, Wall Street got into the game …

(Graphic shows a street sign of “Wall Street” Under it are graphics of street signs with the names “Lehman Brothers,” “Bear Stearns” and “AIG” written on them)

… agreeing to insure the banks in case homeowners didn’t pay their home loans. But the trouble is Wall Street didn’t keep enough money in reserves—one dollar for every 30 lent out. And when homeowners began defaulting, Wall Street couldn’t keep up, bringing the American Financial system to the brink. So who’s to blame? In a sense, we all are. From the small mom and pop that took advantage of the low minimum payment on their credit cards to grow their business to trillion-dollar institutions. If you thought you could reap the rewards of easy credit without the consequences, this is the proof that you can’t.

Leaving the U.S. government to decide that it had to step in and assume the mortgages. Why? So American banks could function again and continue lending you money. Dylan Ratigan. CNBC.

* * *
(Same story with my “edits” for the reporter …)

Ratigan: This financial crisis started with the availability of cheap credit. In the old days, to get a mortgage, a buyer would go to the bank, show proof of an income, provide a substantial down payment and become a homeowner. In the new model(You reference the “new model” as if viewers are already fully familiar with it. They aren’t. Mention when and how this “new model” came into existence.), banks were encouraged and even got fees to loan money to homebuyers with poor credit and no money down (Classic example of a bad passive. “Encouraged” by whom?). Making things worse, Wall Street (Be more specific. What types of players on Wall Street? Everyone knows AIG is an insurer, but our graphic suggests you’re saying that brokerage houses also suddenly began insuring the banks. Is that true?) got into the game …

(Graphic shows “Wall St.” street sign with “Lehman Brothers,” “Bear Stearns” and “AIG” under it)

… agreeing to insure the banks in case homeowners didn’t pay their home loans (When did they “get into the game”? Wasn’t AIG always in that game? What, exactly, had changed?) But the trouble is Wall Street didn’t keep enough money in reserves: One dollar for every 30 lent out (Is that legal? Aren’t insurers subject to regulation designed specifically to ensure they can cover losses?). And when homeowners began defaulting (Quantify. Like, “Homeowners began defaulting to the tune of $200 billion in two years.”) Wall Street couldn’t keep up, bringing the American financial system to the brink (“Bringing to the brink” is a very vague verb phrase. Are any more specific ones available?).

(Cut to: Ratigan in studio)

So who’s to blame? In a sense, we all are. From the small mom and pop that took advantage of the low minimum payment on their credit cards (You have utterly failed to demonstrate how taking advantage of a low minimum payment on a credit card factored into a process set in motion by mortgage defaults) to grow their business, to trillion-dollar institutions (You say, “We all are,” but your “from … to” spectrum includes only businesses. Are non-business-owning individuals also to blame?). If you thought you could reap the rewards of easy credit without the consequences, this is the proof that you can’t. (Why are you editorializing instead of explaining? It’s all the more troubling because you’ve failed to explain the stuff on which you’re basing your editorial conclusion.)

Leaving (Classic example of a bad dangler. What, exactly, is “leaving” the U.S. government to decide this? The proof that the viewer can’t reap the rewards of easy credit? Or just his fondness of easy credit? You’re implying a causality but you're stopping short of actually saying or showing it. Make clear or delete.) the U.S. government to decide that it had to step in and assume the mortgages. Why? So American banks could function again and continue lending you money (Viewers aren’t going to buy that. To them, this isn’t just about whether someone will loan them money. It’s about their holdings, the value of their securities, and the very real question of whether there’s going to be a run on the bank that’s holding their savings. Relate this to all viewers -- not just the guy whose only concern is whether he can finance a new Xterra.) Dylan Ratigan. CNBC.

(Dylan: Did we bite off more than we could chew by asking you to explain a highly complex chain of events in just over 200 words? How can we make this whole piece manageable and actually helpful? We can’t run it as-is.)
Bookmark and Share

Friday, September 19, 2008

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional, cleverly named series on words I'm looking up)


One of the editors at one of the pubs I copy edit asked me to research whether it's best used as an adjective (a transgender person), a noun (Chris is a transgender), or whether it's "transgendered."

Answer: oy.

Webster's New World College Dictionary, which this newspaper group follows, say it's only an adjective and that "transgender" is preferred but "transgendered" is also okay. Merriam-Webster online agrees.

Dictionary.com gives it first billing as a noun but also lists it as an adjective. Plus it allows "transgendered."

American Heritage (via Dictionary.com) doesn't allow the spelling "transgender." It's "transgendered," say they, and it's only an adjective.

Bookmark and Share

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The More I Think About Short Sentences ...

... the more I realize I have more thinkin' to do.

Here's the first sentence of a novel I just started reading. (The name of the character has been changed.)
The play—for which Jane had designed the posters, programs and tickets,
constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and
lined the collection box in red crepe paper—was written by her in a two-day
tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch.

Now, if this landed on my desk as the first sentence in a feature article, I would rip it to shreds. A 32-word insertion between the subject and the verb? That whole insertion teetering on the past perfect verb "had designed"? A list separated by commas ("posters, programs and tickets") WITHIN a list separated by commas within that insertion? Then, after working through the insertion, finally getting to the main verb of the main clause to find it's passive ("was written by her")? Then, just for measure, a participial phrase tacked on the end ("causing her to miss ...")?

But see, here's the thing. This is not the work of some hack writer schelepping $200 feature articles for an advertorial section of the Polukaville Post. It's the first sentence of a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice novel, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and a Booker Prize finalist.

Swap out "Jane" for "Briony" and you have the first sentence of Ian McEwan's "Atonement."

I haven't read enough yet to assess whether McEwan's mastery of the language in general and the sentence in particular is, overall, good or bad. But I have a feeling he didn't get all those prizes for nuthin'.

So, what does this tell us about the adage "short sentences are best"? I haven't decided yet. I still greatly prefer short sentences. But I can see a clear difference between the long sentences constructed by novice feature writers and long sentences like the ones I see in the New Yorker and ones written by Cormac McCarthy, Truman Capote, and Ian McEwan.

Some hacky stuff I come across might read like: "After realizing that the walking of the dog had already been done by her mother, on this particular Sunday after getting out of school, Beulah happily informed her family of the impending visit of her beau." There's a real difference between crap like this (which I just made up as example) and those masterful long sentences. But I'll be damned if I can sum it up in a neat little package—yet.

Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Vocabulary Lesson from a Killer

I'm reading Truman Capote's In Cold Blood about the 1959 murder of a Kansas family. If Capote's account is to be believed (And I'm not sayin' it is. It's a great yarn, but the whole thing has a pre-James-Frey-James-Frey quality to it.), one of the murderers, Perry Smith, fancied himself a would-be intellectual and grammar stickler.

Capote reported that one of Smith's notebooks was a "personal dictionary" of words Smith believed "beautiful" or "useful" or at least "worth memorizing."

Examples are given in red with Smith's definitions, followed by present-day dictionary definitions:

"thanatoid = deathlike"

Neither Webster's New World nor American Heritage has this, but American Heritage Stedman's Medical Dictionary (via Dictionary.com) does: "1. resembling death. 2. mortal; deadly."

"omnilingual = versed in languages"

Not listed in WNW, AH or Dictionary.com. But "omni" is a prefix and thus can be used to assemble words not listed in dictionaries. Of course, "omni" means "all" or "everywhere," according to WNW. So Smith's definition was imprecise.

"amerce = punishment, amount fixed by court"

American Heritage defines it: "to punish by a fine imposed arbitrarily at the discretion of the court."

"nescient = ignorance"

AH says it's "nescience" that means "ignorance."

"facinorous = atrociously wicked"

Neither WNW nor AH has this. Interestingly, Dictionary.com retrieves a definition from a source I've never seen there before. (If you're unfamiliar, Dictionary.com retrieves stuff from its own dictionary as well as from other sources.) For this word, Dictionary.com cites Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary to say the word means "atrociously wicked."

"hagiophobia = a morbid fear of holy places and things"

WNW, AH, D.com: not found

"lapidicolous = living under stones, as certain blind beetles"

WNW, AH, D.com: not found. Having once done a feature article on "lapidary" (work with gems/precious stones), I was curious about this one. So I pulled out my 1933 Oxford Universal Dictionary. Still didn't find "lapidicolous," but found another notable word: "lapidate. To throw stones at; also, to stone to death."

"dyspathy = lack of sympathy"

WNW, AH: not found. Dictionary.com: "antipathy"

There are more, but I want to get back to my book.

Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Copy Edit du Jour (or at least du matin)

Like the presidential election, change is a popular theme at Widgets Inc. this year.

Changed to:

As in the presidential election, change is a popular theme at Widgets Inc. this year.

The reason: The first sentence parallels "change" with "the presidential election" -- suggesting that change is like the election. That's clearly not what the writer meant.

Bookmark and Share

Monday, September 15, 2008

Making 'Em Gasp in Grammar Class

A while back I devised a little grammar/style course for Mediabistro, which I taught again recently. I noticed that there are a few issues that always elicit gasps of surprise from students. So I thought I’d pass along a few.

* I always ask students, which is right: “I can’t wait ’til tomorrow” or “I can’t wait till tomorrow”? They always answer the first one and they’re always shocked to learn that the preferred form is the second one. As a shorter alternative to “until,” the preferred form is till, not ’til, because till is a synonym for until that actually predates it. Therefore, there’s no need to shorten until. (Indeed, in-the-know folks consider this a point that separates themselves from less-savvy writers, such as the people behind those “No payments ’til January” ad copywriters.)

* The reason “I feel bad” is usually the correct choice over “I feel badly” is the same reason we say “I feel happy” instead of “I feel happily.” The concept is that of linking verbs, also called copular verbs. These special verbs take adjectives, not adverbs, as their complements.

* I always ask students: Which is right: "In school I got As and Bs” or “A’s and B’s” or “A’s and Bs”? They always answer the first or second one. None of them ever guesses the third or the possibility that all are correct. But they are all acceptable.

In fact, the third example, which uses an apostrophe in A’s but none in Bs is taken straight off the front page of the Los Angeles Times. It's their style. The reason: Apostrophes, which most often form possessives or denote omissions (as in contractions), can also be used “to avoid confusion.” With the letter grade of B, adding an S does not form a new word. But add S to the letter A, and you have a new word: As. That’s why all three of these choices are valid options.

Bookmark and Share

Friday, September 12, 2008

Four Opening Sentences from the New Yorker, Four Opening Sentences from the Atlantic

I'm fascinated with sentences. I'm also fascinated with the New Yorker. The latter not necessarily in a good way. And that's all the context I can offer to explain why today I'm asking you to compare some opening sentences from the Atlantic magazine to some from the New Yorker.

Here are the first sentences of four feature articles in the October 2008 Atlantic:

  1. For a military accustomed to quick, easy victories, the trials and tribulations of the Iraq War have come as a rude awakening.
  2. These are boom times for wind power.
  3. In a much-ridiculed speech at the 1996 Republican National Convention, Newt Gingrich hailed beach volleyball as the embodiment of all that makes America great.
  4. June was the deadliest month for the U.S. military in Afghanistan since the invasion in October 2001.
Now here are the first sentences of three feature articles and one 'Talk of the Town' piece in the Sept. 8, 2008, New Yorker.

  1. Alec Baldwin, who stars in "30 Rock," the NBC sitcom that has revived his career and done noting to lift his spirits, has the unbending, straight-armed gait of someone trying to prevent clothes from rubbing against sunburned skin.
  2. Early in 2007, when David Petraeus became Commanding General of United States and international forces in Iraq, he had in mind a strategy to manage the political pressures he would face because of the unpopularity of the war, then four years old, and of its author, George W. Bush.
  3. In the autumn of 1998, when Karl Rove was contriving to make Governor George W. Bush President and to build a lasting Republican majority, he came upon "The Catholic Voter Project," a study of voting behavior in national elections since the Kennedy-Nixon contest of 1960.
  4. Rosalind Wyman--seventy-seven years old; doughty feminist; political fund-raiser and philanthropist; hostess to J.F.K., Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton, and Hollywood types too numerous to count; youngest elected member of the Los Angeles City Council (at the age of twenty-two); first woman to run a national political convention (the Democrats in San Francisco, 1984)--may well be the most indomitable member of Hillary Clinton's Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Suits.

Now, I know that a number of you may be looking at this and trying -- perhaps without sufficient linguistic expertise -- to understand the dynamic at play. So allow me, if you would, to offer my professional-wordsmith assessment:

What the f***?!?!?

There's a lot of good stuff said about the New Yorker -- much of it true. Many people also find the magazine pretentious. But, seems to me, the well-heeded viscera might tell of something else. Something a little toxic. As if the act of opening a copy of the New Yorker were distant cousin to the act of receiving a snake bite.

I can never quite nail down what's "wrong" with this magazine. For one thing, I don't read it enough to fairly assess it on even a superficial level. But it's always seemed to me as if they're mocking their readers. They start with a piece of conventional wisdom (like "short sentences are good"), openly defy and transcend it, then serve it up to their readers as if it were evidence of their readers' inherent superiority. But deep in the heart of an anthropomorphized New Yorker, the magazine know it's just a gimmick. So the joke's on the readers.

I'm not even willing to say that the above New Yorker sentences are bad. On the contrary, at times they seem very effective (as do many similarly leviathan-like sentences throughout the Alec Baldwin piece). Other times, the sentences seem almost to serve no purpose other than to prove the writer is so agile he can set up hurdles just for the joy (and spectacle) of clearing them.

Of course, everything I'm saying is biased by jealousy over the fact that I can't get published in the New Yorker. Give me a byline there and I'll change my tune real quick-like. But even adjusting for my jealousy, it's clear that there's something funky going on that the word "pretentious" doesn't quite capture.

* * *

P.S. This issue of the Atlantic has at least one article that begins with a New Yorker-esque length sentence. But nowhere near enough to balance with the New Yorker's. The Alec Baldwin article, for example, was riddled with long sentences that heaped modifier upon modifier upon parenthetical insertion. Also, there were lots of quotations that really begged for prior set-up but didn't get explained until after the closing quote. These post-quotation quotation set-ups were jarring enough that, in the end, I decided they didn't work. They came off not as showy but as inept.

Bookmark and Share

Thursday, September 11, 2008

When English in Rome ... (English words the Italians have incorporated -- and hate themselves for it)

'Weekend', 'welfare,' 'OK', 'briefing', 'mission', 'know how', 'shampoo' and 'cool'.

According to a Telegraph.co.uk article, these are a few of the English words that Italians say are stinking up their language.

Yeah, WE'RE the contagion. I'll try to remember that every 20 minutes when I have to listen to the term "venti latte macchiato con panna."

Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Evidence the 'Chicago Manual of Style' and AP Are Conspiring to Make My Head Blow Up

I do a lot of copy editing for publications that follow Los Angeles Times style, which is just a slight variation on AP style. More recently, I’ve begun copy editing publications that follow the Chicago Manual of Style.

AP says not to use the serial comma, or Oxford comma: “The flag is red, white and blue.”
Chicago (and most English teachers) say to use it: “The flag is red, white, and blue.” That difference tests my attentiveness on a daily basis. But it’s the little things—the curve balls—that are most likely to give me an aneurysm. Here are some terms that have come up in both my AP-style client's work and in my Chicago-style client's work:
shower head/showerhead
AP’s default dictionary, “Webster’s New World College Dictionary,” says it’s two words. Chicago’s default dictionary, “Merriam-Webster” says it’s one.
health care/healthcare
When I’m copy editing for my magazine client, I have to remember to use “health care." For the newspapers, it’s “healthcare.” Again, that’s because of their fallback dictionaries. Merriam-Webster says it’s two words. Webster’s New World has “healthcare” as one.
nightlife/night life
In Chicago it's one word. In AP it's two.

And don't even get me started on underway and under way.

Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional, cleverly named series on words I'm looking up)

Came across this* while copy editing:

Ever since the creators of 'I Love Lucy' first broadcasted the program into
American homes ...
That, in turn, led to the question: What's the past tense of "broadcast"? Is it "broadcasted" or just plain old ed-less "broadcast"?

The answer: Both are correct, but one is a clear favorite.

Three out of three dictionaries prefer the past tense form "broadcast" -- no "ed." But all three -- Webster's New World College Dictionary, American Heritage online, and Merriam-Webster online -- allow both.

The copy editor's rule, of course, is to use the dictionary's preferred definition. So I dropped the "ed."

*As always, the wording has been disguised.

Bookmark and Share

Monday, September 8, 2008

A Grammatical Analysis of the Strunk and White Snow Job

Comments on Saturday’s blog post about Strunk and White got me thinking. Specifically, I've been thinking about the grammar behind the shift of meaning that occurred when E.B. White took William Strunk Jr.’s classroom guide and marketed it to the masses.

It has to do with the grammar of imperative sentences, that is, commands.

"Go lie down."
"Have a Coke and a smile."
"Eat 'shrooms and die."

An important difference between an imperative sentence and a delcarative sentence is that in the declarative the subject of verb is explicit: "I have a Coke and a smile," "He has a Coke and a smile," "Mike has a Coke and a smile." But when we put the verb into command form, the subject becomes implicit. Yet it's still there. It's "you."

"(You) go lie down." "(You) have a Coke and a smile." Etcetera.

Strunk's original Elements of Style was full of imperatives — imperatives that were preserved in White's version. "Omit unnecessary words" may be the most famous example, but much of the book is written in the imperative. In those sentences, the Strunk's subject was "you," by which he meant "you students."

But after Strunk died, when White and a profit-savvy publisher marketed this book to the masses, they quite literally changed the subject of the verbs — even those in the sentences they left unchanged. "You students" was invisibly changed to "you everybody."

I believe that a sentence's meaning can change based on three things: context, speaker/writer, and listener/reader.

Context: If I shout, "Fire!" that will mean something very different if I'm in a crowded theater than it would if I were duck hunting with Dick Cheney and Antonin Scalia (very different.)

Speaker/Writer: A word like "women" has a subtle difference depending on the speaker. But, subtle as it is, the difference is so huge it can make the word its own opposite. When I say "women," it's another word for "us." When a man says "women," it's another word for "them." (This, by the way, is why double-standards for racial terms are fair and valid.)

Listener/Reader: If I'm talking to a Canadian, the word "Canadian" means "you" (singular or plural). If I'm talking to an American, it means "them."

So when Strunk wrote, "Do not affect a breezy manner," he meant "You students." He did not mean "You everyone, including you 21st century writer of feature articles on gardening for the Polukaville Post."

White meant no harm. On the contrary, his motives were likely pure. He believed his late teacher's wisdom could help the masses. And it has. But it has also hurt because people don't realize that the imperatives in the book aren't universal. So people run around believing Strunk's imperatives on how to form possessives, even though those imperatives are his alone and the "Chicago Manual" and other style guides disagree.

There's lots of great wisdom in The Elements of Style. But it's useful only if it's understood as what it is: one teacher's century-old serving suggestions.

Bookmark and Share

Saturday, September 6, 2008

White Snows Another Victim

In today's Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley sings the praises of Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style."

And, once again, I'm amazed at the snow job White pulled. Basically, he took a book of instructions for students writing term papers for one teacher a century ago and marketed it as "rules" for you and me.

It's like me telling you that you can't chew gum because one of my teachers used to forbid it.

Yes, the book contains some great advice. (Just as my telling you not to chew gum would be helpful if you were on your way to a job interview.) But as I've written before, there are two problems with "The Elements of Style":

1. It contains overbroad statements that Prof. William Strunk Jr. surely knew did not apply outside his classroom.

2. It's pretty much the only book that's widely considered a style authority but is NEVER UPDATED.

If you don't think that's a problem, compare Strunk and White's "rules" on the words "healthy," "nauseous," and "like" versus "as" with any current dictionary. Compare their "rules" on forming possessives with the "Chicago Manual of Style." Or compare the original "Elements of Style" to the version that was born when White got his hands on it.

The author, Strunk, never meant this book to go public. He wrote it for his students as instruction for how to hand in their papers. (That's why the pre-White version contains references to "ruled paper" -- references White took out.) Only after Strunk's death did his former student White team up with a clever publisher to spin it into something it's not.

I'm sure White wasn't deliberately trying to pull a con. I'm sure he believed that his former teacher's "rules" were law. So the snow job goes on ...

Bookmark and Share

Thursday, September 4, 2008

What's the Word for 'Meme'? (A word meme thing)

I've heard these little pass-'em-on question lists called "memes," but if we're to trust Wikipedia, my understanding of that word was a little off. In the broadest sense, a meme is an academic concept meaning "any thought or behavior that can be passed from one person to another by learning or imitation." An Internet meme is pretty much anything on the Web that gets passed around and spreads quickly (insert your own Paris Hilton joke here).

Anyway, here's a word-related laundry list I made up and am reluctant to call a meme in part because I'm none too comfortable with the word "wiki." Feel free to spread it as an infection and/or post your own answers here. (I'd love to hear others' answers.)

A word I use too much: defensible

A word I should use more: work

A word I wish I used more: royalties

A word that hurts my ears when others say it: chick

A word that doesn't feel right in my mouth when I say it:

A word used too much in novels: idyllic

A word that's used too much in newspapers and magazines: bucolic

A word that's used too much in broadcast news: horrific

A word that evokes for me a visual image, taste, smell, tactile sensation,
or sound other than the word itself: bourbon

A word I'd like people to use about me: gorgeous (but I'll settle for

A word I think more people should be aware of: adverbial

A word that makes me feel stupid: adverbial

A word that makes me feel smart: adverbial

A word I remember learning as a kid: ambivalent

A word I say just for fun: Tibor (pronounced TEE-bore -- one of my cats' names)

Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

This'll Date Me

Long before I ever heard the word "tat" used to mean tattoo and long before comedian Dennis Miller started letting his idiot flag fly, he had a standup comedy special I enjoyed. I think it was called "Mr. Miller Goes to Washington."

One of his jokes struck me as particularly funny. It was the stand-alone, non sequitur line: "What is tat, and where do I get it?"

This week, Boston Globe columnist Jan Freeman writes about "tit for tat." Turns out it came from "tip for tap," which Freeman says is a "less gory version of 'an eye for an eye.'"

So it turns out Miller had "tat" all along. A pair, in fact.

On a barely related note, my above use of "non sequitur" got me wondering about this term, too. Specifically, I wondered: does anyone recognize it minus the "non"?

Short answer: No. American Heritage, Dictionary.com, and Webster's New World College Dictionary all have listings for "non sequitur," but none lists just "sequitur." Nonsensical? Perhaps.

Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Palin-drone: 'Blue Collar' versus 'Working Class'

A funny little game of words is taking place between the lines in the news this week. Vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin's blue-collar husband is being hailed as evidence of Palin's connection to working-class Americans. And the terms "blue-collar" and "working-class" are cropping up side-by-side in stories about the candidate. It's as if they're synonyms. But a quick look at Dictionary.com shows they're not.

class includes the defintion: a social stratum whose members share certain economic, social, or cultural characteristics: the lower-income classes.

In my experience, the word is most often used to make reference to that "economic" part.

blue collar has a slightly different emphasis: of or pertaining to wage-earning workers who wear work clothes or other specialized clothing on the job, as mechanics, longshoremen, and miners.

Palin's husband indeed works in a world of work-clothes-wearing laborers and probably works really hard himself. He's an oil production manager and a commercial fisherman. But class-wise, his income helps put the family well outside the group that's often called "working class" and that struggles to get by in today's economy. According to Slate, the Palin family's annual income is about $225,000, which includes Palin's $125,000-a-year income as governor plus those state of Alaska payments to residents that represent shared oil tax revenues.

So she may indeed have a strong connection to blue-collar workers, but that doesn't mean the term "working class," with all its economic emphasis, applies. The terms may have some overlapping definitions and implications, but perfectly interchangeable synonyms they ain't.

(Shout out to my husband, Ted, for calling this little word-switcheroo to my attention.)
Bookmark and Share

Wonderings and Googlings (Special edition inspired by yesterday's Weekend Word Wonderings)

"Tim could kick your ass." = 2 hits
"Tom could kick your ass." = 6 hits

Bookmark and Share

Monday, September 1, 2008

Weekend Word Wonderings -- Silly Stuff I Belabor While at Leisure

If I had to get into a fight, I'd rather get into a fight with a Tim than with a Tom. The vowel sound, to me, makes Tim sound less tough. (Tinny even. Perhaps even tiny.)

However, I don't feel the same way about Jim and John. Jim sounds, to me, as tough or more tough than John.

(This is what it's like in my head all the time, that is, when I'm not obsessed with alliterative combinations such as Palin pregnancy paternity political.)

Bookmark and Share


Bookmark and Share