Thursday, April 30, 2009

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


APPLE PANDOWDY (1795–1805, Americanism; perh. var. of obs. dial. [Somerset] pandoulde custard)

apple pandowdy

a deep-dish apple pie or cobbler, usually sweetened with molasses

It's true. Due to my penchant for bizarre word associations, all this pandemic talk is making me hungry.

Actually, it gets even weirder when you consider that 1. I've never had anything served under the name of pandowdy and 2. I don't even know how I learned the word. Might have been in a nursery rhyme I heard as a child. Or maybe I'm confusing it with someone named Pam whom others called dowdy (or perhaps doughty. Either way, she sounded delicious).

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Wonderings and Archive Searchings (Wherein I wonder about words, then I search for them in newspaper archives)

"Obama's first 100 days."

Seems we've been hearing this phrase for a long, long time. So I searched the Los Angeles Times archives for the exact phrase. The earliest usage I found was on January 20.

So we've been talking about Obama's first 100 days for 99 days now.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Wikipedia, F*@! Yeah!

In Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies, I tried to position myself as the Beavis and/or Butthead of the grammar world. It looks like I have some competition.

Wikipedia, in its entry for "Sentence," says under the subhead, "Components of a sentence":

A simple complete sentence consists of a subject and a predicate. The subject is typically a pornstar ...

And it gets worse. Here's the link.

I was so thrown that I actually looked up "pornstar," wondering if it was some linguistics term I didn't know. Nope.

I tried to fix it, along with some choice sentence examples that appear later in the piece. I can't. Wikipedia won't let me. Seems someone whose IP address is similar to my own -- i.e. issued by the same huge conglomerate that issues my dynamic IP address -- has given our IP address range a bad name.

Sure, they'll let in some schmuck who not only thinks it's funny to insert the term "porn star" but who can't even spell it.

But me, I'm just not Wiki-worthy.

Dillweeds, indeed, Mr. Butthead. Dillweeds, indeed.

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America, F*&! Yeah!

The Supreme Court has voted to uphold penalties for "fleeting expletives" uttered during primetime broadcasts.

Their moral leader on this one was Justice Antonin Scalia, who derided "foul-mouthed glitteratae from Hollywood."

This coming from the justice who bears a creepy resemblance to Tony Soprano. "Hey free speech, fungu!"

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Monday, April 27, 2009

Wonderings and Archive Searchings (Wherein I wonder about words, then I search for them in newspaper archives)

I noticed in a New York Times piece today that the the New York Times called itself The New York Times, with a capital T.

I noticed it because, in my copy editing work it seems I spend about half a day every day lowercasing the T in "the." In running text, my stylebook says, you lowercase it -- even if it's part of a proper name.

There will be a tribute show to the Beatles at the Venetian starring members of the Who reading from the Holy Bible and the Wall Street Journal.
It took me a while to get used to this style convention. But now I'm way used to it. The alternative, to me, looks like crap.

There will be a tribute show to The Beatles at The Venetian starring members of The Who reading from The Holy Bible and The Wall Street Journal.

No doubt, some will disagree. But to me, all those capital Ts interrupt the visual flow of the sentence. Still, it's not my call. I just do what the style guide tells me -- whichever style guide I happen to be bound to that moment. And the style guide I've been working out of says lowercase that T in running text.

The sassy New York Times, however, loves to defy conventions observed by other publications. Most notably, the New York Times' style guide says to use an apostrophe in numeric decades: 1980's. Most other pubs scoff at that decision, taking the position that 1980s poses no potential for confusion that would justify the apostrophe.

I agree, by the way. I'm all for apostrophes in a sign like "CD'S ON SALE TODAY." But I see no benfit for it in 1980s. Still, I just does what they tells me.

Anyway, inspired by the observation, I searched the New York Times archive for the term "the Los Angeles Times." The search is not case sensitive. Sure enough, the New York Times capitalizes T in "The Los Angeles Times," as well as in its own paper.

In some uses, this didn't look so bad -- especially where the "the" might be modifying something other than the newspaper name, i.e.: "based a book by the Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez" Personally, I think they should have ditched the "the" altogether. But who am I tell the mightiest paper publishing since the "1800's" what to do?

Some of the New York Times' uses of a capital T in The Los Angeles Times looked really bad:

And The Los Angeles Times's Jerry Crowe takes a look back at how the Lakers can trace their roots

The position right after the capital A in And is yucky. The resulting string of capitals is super-yucky: A, T, L, A, T, J, C. -- all in a row.

Then, after searching the New York Times for references to the Los Angeles Times, I searched the Los Angeles Times for references to the New York Times. Yup. Lowercase Ts for all.

I saw this coming because most of my copy editing work these days follows Los Angeles Times style. So I knew the guide says to lowercase these Ts in running text.

But the LA paper's style guide make one exception. Even in running text, The Times takes a capital T in The. And, no, "The Times" in their pages never means a paper out of New York.

So if you ever see me doing anything crazy, like screaming at a pharmacist to give me meds or gouging my eyes out with a red pen, chalk it up to a sign of "The Times."

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Words That Should Get a Divorce

"fall" and "precipitously"

As in, "Today we saw stocks fall precipitously."

For one thing, "precipitously" is codependent, following "fall" around like a puppy dog, as if there's no other word in the world it could modify. (I mean, even "profusely," which is way too codependent on "sweating," spends some time hanging out with "bleeding.")

More important, once I looked it up, I saw that "precipitously" is in a weird state that, according to American Heritage, constitutes a bona fide "usage problem."

Per American Heritage, "precipitously" is muscling in on the turf of "precipately." That is, whereas it traditionally meant "steeply," it's being used a lot to mean "hastily" or "rashly."

Personally, I don't see why being in a transitional state constitutes a usage problem. Lots of words are in transition. Perhaps most of them. In this case, the real problem seems to be that the dictionary makers are just being too stubborn to admit the damn usage already.

But this does bolster my position that it's a lousy word. I don't think I've ever heard anyone use it to mean "steeply." Instead, it seems everyone thinks it means "wildly" or "like crazy" or "really, really fast."

Mainly, though, I just don't like parasitic words that can't man up and branch out every once in a while. (Hey, I never said I was sane.)

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Omit Needless Books

I can't be impartial on the subject of Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style." I know the book contains some good advice that has helped some people. But I find it too troubling that, through some smoke-and-mirrors marketing, this book continues to pass itself off as something it's not. (It's a century-old classroom guide for the students of one English professor -- not a list of official style rules.)

That's why I'm as irritated as an open sore in a salt marsh to report on a recent love fest for the "Elements of Style."

And it's why I make no attempt to conceal my bitterness as I say: What next? National Phrenology Fest? Leech-application Awareness Day? Cheney for President 2012?

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Every Time a Major News Website Makes a Typo, an Angel Gets Her Wings

I love it when the big boys of the journalism world make little typos — not because the typos are egregious or even funny, but because they help me put my own skills in perspective. So here's a headline from the main page at today's

A Boston University medical student charged in the hotel slaying of a masseuse and the robbery of a another preyed on women he found through Craigslist and investigators are looking for other possible victims, authorities said.

When I was city editor at a community newspaper, I assumed I stunk. Little typos like "a another" would get past me all the time. I was always apologizing to reporters for letting those boo-boos appear under their names.

I had no idea.

The place I worked at was very low-budget (think: full-time, work-their-butts-off reporters making $425 a week). So there weren't many layers of editors — usually just me and a lone overworked copy editor. Sometimes just me.

Now I freelance at a better-funded place. And now I know. Every piece that goes to print is edited in the computer twice then proofread on the page by at least two different people. No fewer than four people read each story. And this is marketing copy — not even the serious editorial stuff in which typos are most taboo.

I don't know how many layers of proofing/editing the Los Angeles Times now applies to its Web headlines. (Hell, these days they're lucky they can afford those little pads and pens for their remaining reporters.) But I'm sure they still have a decent number of people trolling for these types of boo-boos.

Yet some still get through.

Ipso facto: Maybe I didn't stink so bad after all.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Words My Sister's Looking Up (Similar to one in an occasional series on words I'm looking up, just with less work for me)


n. Fear of long words --

Somewhat reluctantly, I 'spose I should add that neither Webster's New World College Dictionary, Merriam-Webster online, or American Heritage online recognize this word. Still. Fun stuff. Shout out to my sister Diane for calling this to my attention.

And there was something else she called to my attention. Our mother's maiden name was Little. So in a culture where children take the mother's name followed by the father's name, our name would be, in essence, Little Big House.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Hello, Fodder

I have a weird problem. (Well, lots of them, actually, but you don't need to hear about cats who pick the exact worst time to plunk down on a sleeping person's full bladder or how I never tasted a Zima.)

Since 2002, I've been writing a column on grammar and usage for a couple of little newspapers, including the Burbank (Calif.) Leader supplement to the L.A. Times. And, every week for seven years, I experience the same unfounded panic: Oh, crap. I have no idea what I'm going to write about this week. I'm all out of topics. I'm all out of ideas. I'm going to blow deadline then I'll lose the column then I'll no longer be able to afford to indulge my penchant for dental floss and store-brand cola.

Of course, if that were a valid fear, I wouldn't be in my seventh year of writing the dang column. Yet every week, the same stupid fear. It's like Pavlov's dogs continuing to salivate long after they learn that bell ring is only going to get them a bonk on the head.

Anyway, I was just starting to stress over this week's column when I saw NY Times website today. There's a piece by a Times staffer about little language issues that perplex writers and editors at the paper. Not very interesting issues, as far as I'm concerned, but whatever.

However, the comments left by readers are pure gold. They include an assertion that you can't use "like" to mean "such as" (you can), a rant about "one of the only" (sticklers insist it should be "one of the few"), overstated complaints about the Times style of putting apostrophes in numerically designated decades like "1930's" (a bad but nonetheless defensible choice on the Times' part) and unfounded peeves against stuff like "in the hopes that" and "iconic."

Houston, we have a column ...

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Friday, April 10, 2009

Confidence-undermining, Noodle-scratching, Either-I'm-a-dink-or-something-just-ain't-right-here Observation from the AP Stylebook

I usually check the AP Stylebook only for AP style matters -- never for grammar issues. So if I want to know whether to write "six-foot-long" or "6-foot-long" for a newspaper article, I check AP. But for grammar stuff, I consult books like the Oxford English Grammar then compare those findings to the advice of usage guides like Garner's and Fowler's.

But today I wanted to know what AP says about the subjunctive. I'm sure I've checked it before, but it's been years.

As I suspected, the book's explanation was incomplete and a little doofy. Like so many other style and usage guides, it tells you when to use the subjunctive, but it doesn't tell you how. (Here, by the way, is how.)

But one of AP's examples has me doing an extended double take. AP says that the subjunctive is used in, among other things, "expressions of doubt" (my other sources don't put it that way), and the book gives the example, "I doubt that more money would be the answer."


The form of to be in this sentence is "be" not because this is subjunctive, but because of how we use modal auxiliaries.

The modal auxiliaries, as listed by "Oxford," are can, could, may, might, shall, should, will, would and must. Unlike the primary auxiliaries be, have, and do, the modals address ability, permission, and probability.

They have some special properties and we use them flawlessly every day without a second thought. For example, modals don't have an -s form. That is, whereas a regular verb like "give" in some uses takes on the form "gives" (think "he gives"), there's no equivalent "he cans," "she mights," "we coulds."

It's one of those grammar matters native speakers don't have to understand to get right every time. In fact, thinking about it makes it harder -- turning stuff we know inside out and putting it under a microscope. Often, the result is that we feel the rug has been suddenly pulled out from under us.

Anyhoo, back to our AP thing. An indicative form of AP's example is: "More money is the answer."

A subjunctive equivalent, according to their (questionable) guidelines, is: "I doubt that more money be the answer.

As is explained in the document linked above, the subjunctive in the present tense applies to all verbs. (He knows math = indicative. It's imperative that he know math = subjunctive.) In the past tense, it applies to only one verb, "to be," and is conjugated with "were." (I was younger then = indicative. I wish I were younger = subjunctive.)

But, based on all I've read, that applies only to the simple past tense. I've never read anything that mentioned subjunctive forms in compound past tenses such as "have been" or "might have been." (Indeed, if any of the rules I've read applied to these tenses, you would hear stuff like "have were" or "might have were.")

In other words, I'm pretty sure AP's example is a mistake.

Of course, I might could be were wrong.

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Moments in Copy Editing

Correct hyphenation per the style guide I'm working from today:


(I'm changing that last one to co-founder. To hell with the style guide.)

Oh, almost forgot: Also correct for today's purposes:

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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

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


In his Los Angeles Times column today, Michael Hiltzik writes, "Housing and easy money are unlikely to be the engines of growth in the Twenty-tens that they were in the Twenty-oughts." And, in doing so, he stirred up the mush of information I carry around in my head -- a shockingly large portion of which traces its origins to "Simpsons" episodes.

You see, Grampa Simpson uses "ought"/"aught" this way all the time -- albeit while referencing a period about a century prior. "The year was Nineteen-aught-six. The president was the divine Miss Sarah Bernhardt ..." But, without thinking about it, I had associated "ought"/"aught" with "twenty" instead of with "zero."

And I just now figured out why: In a different episode, Grampa goes off on a yarn that begins: "Now, my story begins in Nineteen-dickety-two. We had to say 'dickety' 'cause the Kaiser had stolen our word 'twenty.' I chased that rascal to get it back, but gave up after dickety-six miles …"

So I had remembered that Grampa used an old-timey word to stand in for "twenty," but I had forgotten that it was one of two words he used in place of years.

Anyway, I was thrilled to see this in Hiltzik's column because, in 2009, it's the first time I've seen anyone use a name for the current decade in the way we used to say "the nineties," the "eighties" and so on. I realize that this could evoke a "Where've you been?"-type response from people who've already observed such a term. That's why I'm a little reluctant to admit all this. But I'm emboldened by the fact that the 2008 book The Stuff of Thought by all-around smart person and keen language observer Steven Pinker also notes that our culture has no nickname for our decade. So wherever I've been is also where he's been, which is not a bad place to be.

Anyhoo, here's the definition:
aught (also ought)
a cipher; zero
archaic: nothing
American Heritage Dictionary

And here's a bonus:

Recipe for June Brain Mush
4 parts sitcom
1 part scholarship
Shake vigorously for 20 years and allow to set in a room tempered by intellectual boredom and post-vacation restlessness.

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Monday, April 6, 2009

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

"essence of essential" = 26,100 hits

If there is ever a planet-wide contest to determine the greatest geniuses in the world, my vote will go for copywriters who write about spas. If there is ever a planet-wide contest to determine the people with the world's biggest cojones, again, I'm voting for the copywriters working for spas.

It takes both -- unparalleled genius and unmitigated hubris -- to write stuff like, "Our signature Pineapple Peppermint Rejuvenating Eye and Toe treatment uses the essence of essential oils to inspire the skin's inner youth energies and create a luxuriant glow."

Who are the nincompoops who say, "Wow! Sign me up for $120 worth of that!" and am I right to suspect that they're the same people who buy Chia Pets (or who bought that whole Iraq WMD story)?

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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Moments in Copy Editing

"She is the star of countless Broadway dramas and musical reviews."

Changed to:

" ... musical revues."

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