Friday, December 21, 2007

Zell As Shining Example for Wordsmiths Everywhere

If I had a nickel for every time an English teacher told her students that language skills are essential for success, I still wouldn’t be as rich as Sam Zell, the Chicago kerjillionaire who ascended from humble beginnings as a garden gnome to become king of Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and some stuff to do with sports.

So I can’t help but think of those poor teachers as I reflect on something Zell said in yesterday’s press conference regarding his conquest of All Things Tribune. The question wasn’t audible, at least not to those of us listening in via the Tribune website, but through context clues (a concept I learned in an English class) I was able to figure out that a reporter had asked Zell whether he wanted to get involved in the editorial side of the newspaper business. Zell answered with a loud and resounding no, which he punctuated by adding that he got “shitty grades in English.”

There’s a lesson here for kids: If you want to be successful, don’t listen to your English teacher. She’ll never tell you that, in this world, success comes to those who have more use for the word “shitty” than for the word “subjunctive.”

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Great Moments in Copy Editing

"For a five-minute bathroom cleaning, try an all-purpose cleaner and
sanitizer on your bathroom mirrors, sinks, counters and stool."

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

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


1. Given to stopping and refusing to go on: a balky horse; a balky client.
2. Difficult to operate or start: a balky switch; a balky engine.
-- American Heritage Dictionary

given to balking; stubborn; obstinate: a balky mule --

Came across this in this Los Angeles Times photo caption about the Mars rover: "A balky wheel on Spirit, one of two rovers that landed on Mars in 2004, scraped the soil to uncover silica deposits that could be evidence of ancient conditions hospitable to life."

Which leaves me to wonder: Could an ancient civilization on Mars have been any less familiar with the word "balky" thank I was?

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Words That Should Get a Divorce (One in an occasional series on words whose relationships have grown tired)

various and sundry

... and it's sundry who should file. Various runs around town with countless other words while poor sundry sits home patiently and codependently waiting for various to validate it. It's just not right.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Though and although

Temperance asks:

In graduate school, a particular professor excoriated (a friend) for
starting sentences with “Though.” Though, if “although” and “though” are
synonymous – as several web sources seem to suggest – why is it okay to start a
sentence with one and not the other? Or was Professor Particular simply acting
as a Grammar Snob?

My answer:

There's nothing grammatically wrong with starting a sentence with "though" or "although." But this practice can set up a very bad sentence. Long introductory clauses and phrases can suck the life out of a sentence like nobody's business. I suspect that's what the professor was talking about.

There are two ways such introductory matter can hurt a sentence: 1. by demoting the main clause/point of the sentence to a much lower position or, worse, 2. by cramming important information in as mere introductory matter.

"Though he had killed everyone in the house with a rusty ladle and served their organ meat to the dogs, he wasn't tired."

What's the main clause in this sentence? It's "he wasn't" (tired). All the interesting stuff is crammed in before a comma in a portion that reads like it's squeezed into one deep breath. (Read the sentence aloud or hear it in your mind and notice implied exhalation at the comma. Notice the hurried tone before you get to the comma. )

This is why "though" and "although" can be a bad way to start a sentence. They can also be a great way to start a sentence if the writer knows what she's doing. My guess is that your friend's professor was responding to a problem common in his recent experience and his caveat was either overstated or taken as gospel when it wasn't meant as such.

Does that help?

I should add:

"Though" and "although" are subordinating conjunctions. They subordinate information. That's a good thing, until someone uses them to subordinate info that should be getting top billing in its sentence.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Monday, November 26, 2007

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


I've been complaining about this word for a long time -- ever since I was an editor at Business Wire where it seemed that every single press release I read said that something "underscores our commitment." Despite its usefulness the first jillion times it's used, this expression became as tired and meaningless as "Have a nice day" or "Employees must wash hands before returning to work."

Then, on Saturday night, I was at a performance by the Groundlings -- a local improv and sketch troupe. Director Karen Maruyama was setting up an improv scene in which two actors had to perform a very mundane task -- scrapbooking -- in high-intensity Mission Impossible style. Karen turned to the pit musicians, asking them to "underscore" the scene with action-scene-type music.

In all my years of criticizing the overuse of this word, I never once noticed its musical implications. If you can score a film, it seems pretty natural that you might underscore a scene. Suddenly, I had a whole new appreciation of underscore.

Unfortunately, most dictionaries don't share my appreciation. Webster's New World College lists just one definition underscore: "a line drawn under a word, passage, etc., as for emphasis."

A search shows that American Heritage Dictionary says it means just to "underline," "emphasize" or "stress."'s own database is the only one that specifically mentions the word's musical implications: definition No. 4: "music for a film soundtrack; background for a film or stage production."

Of course, this does little to underscore my reasons for ceasing to hate underscore.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Fun with Google Searches

’Tis the season: 1.36 million hits
’Tis the season to be jolly: 126,000 hits

Apparently, ’tis always the season to chop up this song lyric for one’s own purposes in everything from magazine articles to blog entries. Maybe ’tis time to give it a rest.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Fun with Google Searches

sneak peek: 1,670,000 hits

sneak peak: 1,170,000 hits

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Words That Should Get a Divorce (One in an occasional series on words whose relationships have grown tired)

in and actuality

In fact, here's hoping that the "in" in this relationship soon becomes a widow.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Words That Should Get a Divorce (One in an occasional series on words whose relationships have grown tired)

echoed and sentiments

As in:
"We believe in creating jobs," said Senator B. Lowhard. His colleague,
Senator Hautair, echoed his sentiments. "Yes! Jobs!"


Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Words That Should Get a Divorce (One in an occasional series on words whose relationships have grown tired)

peals and laughter

Once upon a time, back when it was still kosher to make fun of Siegfried and Roy, I visited their Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat at the Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. (Some of you are already seeing a potential connection with peals of laughter. But the comedy gets better.)

I visited the exhibit after having seen their show. (See, I told you the comedy gets better.) As the show began, the lights dimmed and the dramatic music began. Then, about four seconds after the curtain went up, I looked over at my fiance Ted, and noticed he was choking with laughter. The show was, well, a little flamboyant by his standards.

It was almost worth the $100-a-ticket and two-drink minimum just for this precious memory alone. Almost.

The Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat, however, I loved unabashedly. (Well, it got a little abashed when listening to the recorded audio tour, in which Roy himself spoke of a deep, almost mystical connection he experienced one time when looking into the eyes of one of his white tigers. The story went something like this: Roy and the tiger were wrestling, and then at one point the tiger just looked into Roy's eyes and Roy could see that the tiger had been taken over by the savage animal inside. He was going to kill Roy. And then he didn't -- a testament to Roy's magical connection with the beasts. Quite a story, huh?)

But the animals were cool. All the literature and audio assure visitors that the animals only sit a few hours a week in the zoo and spend most of their time happily roaming on wide expanses of land.

The Dolphin Habitat was especially entertaining, and afforded me a chance to ask a question I'd always wanted to know: If dolphins must keep moving at all times, how do they sleep?

The guide/dolphin expert answered: They're not sure, but they think that they sleep one half of their brains at a time.

And with that, we arrive back at my original point, because, by my math, that's half a brain more than is needed to write the brain-dead, overused, spewed-without-thinking cliche that is peals of laughter. Further, I'd bet that anyone who uses the term would do no better than your typical dolphin at answering the question: What's a peal?

Friday, November 2, 2007

Words That Should Get a Divorce

Nominated by Linnee and seconded by me:

safe and haven

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Words That Should Get a Divorce (One in an occasional series on words whose relationships have grown tired)

torrential and rain

This cliched coupling is made worse by the fact that torrent, the root of torrential, means, among other things, "a violent downpour of rain." So torrential rain basically means "heavy-rain-like rain."

I'm not saying it's wrong. It's an accepted idiom that appears in the dictionary. I just wish -- oh, how I wish -- we could find an alternative that's not so incredibly tired.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

"Whomever" Hits Primetime

Yes, they got it right (pretty much) on last week's episode of "The Office" when the team at Dunder Mifflin found themselves in a debate on the difference between "whoever" and "whomever."

Pam and Toby were among the workers who knew that "whoever" is a subject and "whomever" is an object. (Kevin claimed to know, too, but that's kind of hard to believe from a thirtysomething guy in a Police cover band and who once told Ryan he's "so money.")

Of course, that doesn't help you enough in situations such as my oft-quoted real example from NPR: "The United States will work with whomever wins the election."

Yes, "whomever" is an object in this sentence -- an object of the preposition "with." But it's also a subject -- the subject of its own clause "whoever wins." And the rule is, whenever you need a pronoun that's both a subject and an object, the subject form wins.

So it's "We'll work with whoever wins the election." NPR got it wrong. Just like Michael Scott.

Friday, October 19, 2007

On doohickeys

As I was saying more than a week ago, I had looked up "doodad" to find a word for little graphics images I was creating. But since then, I've come up with a better term. For small graphics files used on message boards and elsewhere on the Internet as zingers, jokes or commentary, I hereby coin the term:

"image quip"

Of course, when I google "image quip," I see it's been used before, but only by about three people and none of them to refer to the above-described doohickeys.

I created these image quips as a form of rather shameless self promotion, hoping they'll catch on like wildfire on message boards across the globe, skyrocketing me and my little grammar books to international fame or a least into one more printing. So, the-forgive-the-shameless-self-promotion qualifier now stated, here they are. Use them liberally.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Words Should Compose and Comprise Your Real Meaning

Lieven asks:
I was just looking up 'comprise' and 'contain' after a student wrote: 'Being fat
contains a series of problems'. Surely the word should be 'comprises'? But I
haven't found exactly why that is. Abstract (comprise) vs concrete (contain)? I
teach Dutch - English translation in Belgium.

I answer:

Funny. I keep running into issues of imprecise word choice. For example, yesterday I edited an article that said that Such-and-such famous athlete had had his plate full this year with chores such as product endorsements, tournaments, kids and a vacationing with his family. While it's true that any vacation with my family is a painful chore, this guy can afford any family he wants. So I don't think the writer chose the right word.

In your case, I think the problem is that the student didn't stop and ask herself/himself, "What, exactly, does being fat do?" After all, it's a verb we're looking for, so it's about the doing.

Being fat presents problems.
Being fat creates problems.
Being fat causes problems.
Being fat invites problems.

Any of these may say exactly what your student meant. Then again, they might not.

My guess is that "presents" better captures the intended meaning than contains or comprises. But again, that's something only the writer can say for sure.

Comprise and contain are synonyms, but, to my ear, they have different connotations. "Contains" almost seems to suggest volume, where as "comprises" seems to suggest a group of individual things. That's why I kind of agree with you that "comprises" would be a better choice -- almost like you can count "problems" but you can't fill a milk jug with them.

My Webster's reinforces this, if only slightly. All its entries for "comprise" use countable examples -- "a nation comprising 13 states." But one of its entries for "contain" uses a measurable but not countable example, "tea": "the can contains tea."

All that is subjective and highly debatable, but just my sense of things.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Is a question really the end?

R.S. asks:

A question I have not had much luck in finding an answer to if you have a moment. If I am asking a list of questions (each question ending with a question mark) should each question begin with a capitalized letter or lower case? I have not been able to find any clear answer on this!

June answers:

Do you mean in running text in a paragraph?
Will Harry Potter be able to defeat Voldemort? Will he win the Somethingsomething cup? Will he get a comb?

Usually, a question mark is a "terminal punctuation" mark, meaning it ends a sentence. And when a sentence officially ends, the next one starts with a capital.

In rare cases, a question mark can be non-terminal, appearing in the middle of a sentence. Per the Chicago Manual of Style:

A question mark is used within a sentence at the end of a direct question. If the question does not begin the sentence, it need not start with a capital letter.

Is it worth the risk? he wondered.

The question, how can the two be reconciled? was on everyone's mind.

So usually, each question begins with a capital letter. But in rare cases, the continuation of a sentence after a question mark doesn't have to.

Does that answer your question? If not, give me some examples and I'll take another crack at it.

-- June

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

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


n. (see DOOHICKEY) [Informal] 1. a trinket;
bauble; 2s any small object or device whose name is not known or is
temporarily forgotten

Actually, I was looking for doo-dah, which wasn't in there at all. But it turns out that doodad was the word I was looking for anyway. I wanted to explain that, the reason I haven't posted in a few days, is that I was busy making and learning the finer technical points of using, you guessed it, doodads.

Here's one -- a doodad that took me a whole day to make, though it would have taken a skilled person about 30 minutes.

Oh, well. At least I learned that "doodad" has the synonym "doohickey."

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Postcards from WeHo: A Grand Illusion

It's a half hour before my panel discussion at the West Hollywood Book Fair when I walk into the green room -- a land of bottled water, Oreos and people wearing badges you can't quite make out. There's only one open table left. It's a big one -- a ten-seater -- but it's either that or sit down with strangers and try to make conversation (presumably about why I sat with them instead of taking the open table). So I plunk down my stuff at the empty table and head to the ladies' room.

Five minutes later I'm back, freshly lipsticked, and there's a man sitting at the other end. Nothing left to do but schmooze. "You know, you're going to have to talk to me now," I tell him, doing my best Gen X Katherine Hepburn thing.

"I'll talk to you," he says.

And he does. He introduces himself as Chuck. He lives in Florida, where I'm from. So we talk that for a while. Then we get to the meat of the conversation, "So, what do you do?" (i.e. "Why are you here in the green room at a book fair and are you someone whose butt I should be kissing?" That's my inner voice talking, by the way. He doesn't seem nearly as interested in finding out whether I'm J.K. Rowling or Danielle Steele. I'll soon find out why.)

"Oh, I started out as a teacher. But then I got into the music business."

He looks the part. He's in his 50s, with funky, clunky silver bracelets and an overall look of someone who doesn't make his living in insurance or banking.

"Oh?" I ask. "Anything I'd know?"

"I don't know," he says casually. "Ever hear of a band called Styx, S-T-Y-X?"

That's right, "Come Sail Away," "Fooling Yourself," "Too Much Time on My Hands," "Miss America," "Grand Illusion," four-consecutive-platinum-albums, 54-million-records-sold Styx. I was talking to Chuck Panozzo, bassist for the band and subject of the new book, Grand Illusion: Love, Lies and My Life with Styx.

Per a website I found: "The Grand Illusion is a no-holds-barred, backstage pass to the journey of one of the world’s most revered bands, and the true story of Chuck Panozzo’s 50-year struggle to reconcile his public life as a rock star with his private life as a gay man."

"How many people," I ask, "when you say, 'Ever hear of a band called Styx?' actually say 'No'?"

"Oh, you can never assume," the platinum-selling rock star of three-decades-long fame tells me.
We talk a bit about his struggles as a kid coming to realize that he was, in fact, a gay kid. Then, before we can get to any of the juicy stuff, it's time to leave for my panel.

"I'm going to tell everyone that I'm one of your good friends and a close confidante you talk to about your childhood."

"That's okay," he says. "You can do that."

And now I have.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Postcards from WeHo: Why I love Henry Winkler

I love Henry Winkler.

I don't just mean his work. Sure, he created one of the most legendary characters in television history, the Fonz, and more recently was freakin’ hilarious on “Arrested Development.” But that’s not why I love him. I love him because, fresh from my second Winkler sighting, I have decided he may be the most everyday-people of all the world’s TV legends.

My second Winkler sighting took place yesterday at the West Hollywood Book Fair, where I was on a panel plugging “Grammar Snobs” as well as my upcoming book, “Mortal Syntax.” I was wandering around the grounds and there was Henry, just sort of trekking his way across a grassy area, like a normal guy. (He looked really good, by the way, sort of healthy and invigorated.) A moment later, he was surrounded by two or three people who may have been friends or fans – you just couldn’t tell from how Henry was talking to them. It was like any group of friends standing around at any public gathering. Add to that the fact that Henry, in his gestures and facial expressions, just looked really nice – really real.

My first Winkler sighting was also at a book event. He was in an open courtyard at Dutton’s Brentwood Books to attend a book signing by writer Joe Keenan. Keenan, a former writer for “Frasier” who is now working on “Desperate Housewives,” was promoting his humor novel “My Lucky Star.” From what I could overhear at the signing, Winkler and Keenan were working together on some TV project and, as a friend of Keenan’s, Winkler had come out to “support his new book.”

Again, he was just sitting there like a guy who was perfectly prepared to talk to and be nice to anyone who might approach him.

Think about it: This is a guy who, over the last thirty years, has had to endure countless jillions of wiseacres thinking they’re incredibly clever for coming up to him and saying, “Heyyyy! Sit on it!” Yet he still mingles with the masses.

My fiancé, Ted, affirms my Winkler-is-a-wonderful-guy suspicion. On a class trip when he was in grad school, Ted attended a taping of some show Winkler was working on. After the taping, Winkler came out and answered questions, let all the students get their picture taken with him, and, according to Ted, gave a talk to the aspiring filmmakers that was “very inspirational.”

That’s why I love Henry Winkler.

I have some more good stuff to share from the book fair, but right now I have some copy to edit. So, until they, “Heyyy. Sit on it.”

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Infuriating Moments in Copy Editing

The following is a rewritten opener of an actual story I edited recently about a world-famous athlete. The names and details have been changed to protect the ignorant. Don't pay attention to the sentence structure; in the original article the sentences themselves were okay. It's the story organization that interests me.

Bear in mind that it's being reported in September.

After winning the Crisco Classic in December, champion bowler Strike Splitsville vowed he would take a vacation -- and it was a promise he kept.

"We went to Dollywood and it was very relaxing," he said in January as he geared up for the Beerbelly Championship in Milwaukee. "But it's good to be back on the lanes competing in the game I love."

Splitsville won at Beerbelly Lanes, afterward answering questions not just about his victory but about the knee surgery he had scheduled for July. "I think it will probably affect my game for a while, but I'm determined to come back."

His victory at Pinultimate proved he was already on top of his game. He won that match in a lockout before going on to win the trophy at the Desenex Bowl, defeating Fats Fingerholes.

Did you actually just read all that? Impressive. I couldn't -- and I was getting paid to. I kept getting tripped up on the single biggest issue in this article, which can be summed up as, "Mother of !@!# pearl, what the !%&$! is this !#$@! article about?!?"

There were two major problems in the piece -- problems that I think will be of interest to writers and readers.

Issue No. 1: This story starts in December, then jumps to January for a quote reflecting back on December before mentioning a victory that took place in January after which the victor speculated about something that was going to happen July even though speculation was already moot since the story came out in September.

Issue No. 2: Real articles written by sober people usually contain something called a "nut graf" or just a "nut." In pretty much every article, near the beginning, you'll find one or two sentences that tell you what the story is about. In straight news stories, it's often the first sentence, "Congress on Tuesday voted to club to death the author of a bad sports article." With features and anecdotal ledes, the nut comes immediately after the introductory illustrative stuff:
When John Badwriter felt the club on his head, he at first thought it was a just piece of his brain falling off -- a regular occurrence for him. But when he looked up and saw a copy editor holding a club, Badwriter realized he was being held accountable for his work.

Writer clubbing is a crime on the rise, experts say. In Los Angeles alone, two writers were clubbed on the noggins last month."
That second paragraph is the nut. It tells us the main point of the story.

After reading the sports article for a period any medieval dungeon master would have dubbed inhumane, I learned from the assigning editor what the story was about: It was a chronological look at a year in the life of the athlete.

Once I knew this, both problems in the story could be fixed with a simple bridging nut graf.

After winning the Crisco Classic in December, champion bowler Strike Splitsville vowed he would take a vacation -- and it was a promise he kept.

"We went to Dollywood and it was very relaxing," he said in January. But as he stood at Beerbelly Lanes preparing for the first match of the year, he was more focused on the year to come. It was a year that would make headlines across the globe, with stunning wins and a well-publicized medical success story. And for Splitsville, that year began at that bowling alley in Milwaukee.

"It's good to be back ..."

In other words, all this story needed was a simple sentence or two to tell the reader what the article is about and set it in motion.

I believe C&C Music Factory put it best in their prophetic dance hit "Gonna Make You Sweat" with the line: "I'm just a squirrel trying to get a nut."

Great Moments in Copy Editing

Mike Wilson is a veteran hiker from the 1980s.

(Note: Names have been changed to protect the innocent and prevent others from finding out where they've hidden their time machines.)

Monday, September 24, 2007

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


Not the one that means "to buy." But the one I've come across countless times without ever really registering and that I came across again in an article that read:

"Desperate to hold on to something, to gain some purchase, Clive started to keep a journal"

Here's that definition of "purchase," per Webster's New World College Dictionary":

"a firm hold applied to move something mechanically or to keep from slipping b) any apparatus for applying such a hold."

Now I know.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

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


Is it "kitty-corner"? "Catty-corner"? I've always wanted to know. Now that I finally have an audience (you) to witness my discovery, I can find out.

So I finally look it up and I see that, most properly, it's neither.

(noticed the "d" at the end)

adj., adv. cater-cornered: also, kitty-corner

That's from "Webster's New World College." "American Heritage" says the same thing: that the proper term has a d at the end (I don't like that one little bit. Who's going to say, "The post office is kitty-cornered from the drugstore"?)

So, for schticks and giggles, I checked my 1933 "Oxford Universal Dictionary." According to this one, there is no "kitty-corner." There is no "kitty-cornered." There is no "cater-cornered" (apparently back in those days nothing was ever located diagonal to anything else). So I looked up "cater," which had some obvious definitions plus another that was a new one on me:

"To set rhomboidally; to cut, go, etc. diagonally."

Perhaps it wasn't until 1934 that someone first observed a cat blatantly disregarding a marked crosswalk.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Moments in Copy Editing (As notable as "Great Moments," just not as funny)

Tardiness is disrespectful of "other peoples' time."

Should be: other people's.

Those funky plurals like people, children, women, sheep, etc. always mess me up when possession gets tossed into the mix.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Words I'm Looking Up

I bet I've looked up comprise about once a year for the past 10 years. And the most that ever sticks is that comprise doesn't go with of.

Anyway, here I go again. Per the AP Stylebook:

Compose means to create or put together. It commonly is used in both the active and passive voices: She composed a song. The United States is composed of 50 states. The zoo is composed of many animals.

means to contain, to include all or embrace. It is best used only in the active voice, followed by a direct object:
The United States comprises 50 states. The jury comprises five men and seven women. The zoo comprises many animals.

In other words, if you can swap it out for contain, comprise is likely the word you want. Therefore, my brain comprises very little accumulated knowledge about the word comprise.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

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

Stockholm syndrome

a psychological condition in which a person taken hostage sympathizes with or becomes emotionally involved with his or her captors. -- Webster's New World College Dictionary


This term doesn't quite work for my purposes -- those purposes being to describe a bizarre psychological ailment affecting Los Angeles drivers. Yes, there's a story behind this -- a story originally to be titled "How to Beat Vegas-to-LA Holiday Traffic" but now called "I Fought the 15 and the 15 Won and Clearly Angelenos are Mental."

It all began on Labor Day morning as my fiancé and I faced a dilemma: Do we check out of our room at the Golden Nugget a little early to drive our friends to the airport? Or do we leave 'em high and dry to spend a few more hours at the pool? Since the Golden Nugget is in the north side of town and the airport is south, the only logical thing to do after an airport run is to just keep going. In the end, that's what we decided to do. And after a quick and clean airport drop-off in which only one airport employee yelled at me, "You can't stop here," albeit several times, we hit the 15. The 15, for those of you too smart to either live in LA, visit Las Vegas or both, is the main north-south-drag from California to Nevada. And on a day like, oh, I dunno, Monday, Sept. 3, it can be notoriously congested.

But this was the third year in a row we had passed the Labor Day weekend watching people gamble away the fruits of their labors, and we'd had good luck in the past. So no one was more surprised than we to find ourselves among countless hundreds of cars moving about 4 miles per hour.

So how was it that last year, for example, had been such a breeze? Ah, yes, we remembered. Last year we had purchased an extra half-day at our hotel and hit the road much later, albeit much more sunburned, too.

The flash of genius came right as we hit the town of Primm, Nev. -- the last bastion of gambling and 99-cent shrimp cocktails before hitting the California state line: We'll stop here, see if we can get a $30-ish room at any of the three elegant properties with names like Whiskey Pete's and Buffalo Bill's. (The entire hotel group, by the way, is named Terribles. And when they answer the phone at any of their hotels, they use this name -- not, as I had expected, with French pronunciation -- "tare-REE-blays," but exactly as you would in American English -- "terrible" with an s on the end.

After being greeted with the word "terribles," it seemed like less of a score to learn that, indeed, $32 hotel rooms were available.

We checked in at Buffalo Bill's, where we found the rooms not scary and the pool decidedly more appealing than a car in 4-mile-per-hour traffic.

All went well for the first two hours or so until we had our next flash of genius: "Let's ride the roller coaster!" Not only would it be fun, but it would offer us a clear view of how traffic was doing on the 15.

Now, Ted and I like roller coasters. But we made an important discovery: We don't like roller coasters that are both really fast and seem to be so poorly maintained that they rattle like an earthquake 15 stories in the air as centrifugal force tries to hurl you into space. Our screams weren't of the fun, fast-ride variety. They were real.

Was it worth risking our lives for a look at the freeway? No. But did it save us from getting on the 15 too soon? Yes.

So it wasn't until after several more hours spent in the arcade (where I learned Ted's pretty good at Galaga), playing nickel video poker and eating chicken noodle soup that we finally hit the road.


We were flying. It was 5:40 p.m. and the roads were wide open, traffic moving at about 75 miles per hour, until …


We would later learn from a screaming northbound driver what had happened. Somewhere farther south a minivan had flipped over, the woman hollered from her driver's-side window to southbound cars, "Turn back! Both lanes are closed! Nothing's moving!"

The car in front of us made a U-turn and headed back toward a little cluster of fast-food places and coffee shops. But we had just spent five hours waiting out traffic. At that point, the car seemed like as attractive a place as any to sit and wait.

So, after 20 or 30 minutes of moving at full speed and congratulating ourselves for our clever layover in Primm, we were at a dead stop. And there we stayed. After an hour and a half, we had moved maybe a mile.

We passed the time listening to NPR podcasts (Did you know that Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer was for years the justice responsible for opening the chamber door every time someone knocked?) and hailing the miracle that my normally demi-tasse-sized bladder was suddenly displaying venti capacity (i.e. not torturing me).

We were cheerful -- cheerful -- for the duration of the two-hour delay. The drivers in the cars around us -- all of them with California plates -- seemed to be taking it just as well.

And that's when I realized there's something very, very wrong with Angelenos' attitude toward traffic -- a sort of lie-down-and-take-it, denial-ridden almost blissful acquiescence that will one day, no doubt, capture the fascination of the mental-health community.

Until then, I expect I'll keep spending my Labor Day weekends baking by the pool in Sin City.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

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

adj. [Slang] displaying a contrived, often pretentious, sophistication,
opulence, etc.
-- Webster's New World College dictionary

This caught my eye as I was looking up another word. Like any self-respecting 11-year-old, I had to stop.

To the grown-up part of me, one of the most interesting things is that comma after "pretentious." I'm not sure that's not a typo. Since when do you put a comma between a modifier and its immediately following subject? Even if there's more than one adjective, you usually don't.

a tall, powerful man.

Not: a tall, powerful, man.


I also find it surprising that the definition doesn't contain more emphasis on ... hmmm ... well ... scumminess. Seems like this should describe Cletus on "The Simpsons" scooping up a dead raccoon with a shovel and saying, "Girly Sue's gonna have an elegant wedding feast!"

Most surprising, though, is that this is the first word I've come across that is in my Webster's New World College Dictionary that's not in its computer version -- which came from a disk which came with that same book. Odd.

By the way, I found piss-elegant while looking up:

piste (always italicized, on account of it's a French word not used enough by English speakers to justify calling it an English word -- think "ennui.")

n. a ski run of hard-packed snow -- Webster's New World College

Yes, it had potential. But in the end, it definitely was not as much fun as piss-elegant.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

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

Most major publications have both an official style guide and an official dictionary they turn to to make decisions. For example, some dictionaries my spell "air conditioning" with a hyphen while others don't. The only way a copy editor can know which one to use in her publication is to check the official dictionary for that publication.

Of course, in my case, the official dictionary for the publication I'm copy editing is on somebody else's desk, all the way across the room. So I often just check first, as I did for a recent article that referred to cute, "wisp thin," fashionable young women as "gamins."

n. a neglected boy left to run about the streets; street urchin --

n. an often homeless boy who roams about the streets; an urchin
-- American Heritage Dictionary

I was in a conundrum. Sure, I could just change the word. But then I'd be up a creek when the editor who had already edited the story -- and left "gamin" in -- wanted to know why I changed a perfectly good word. So I hauled my poor self all the way across the room and opened our official dictionary, Webster's New World College Dictionary:

1. a neglected child left to roam the streets; street urchin 2. a girl
with a roguish, saucy charm: also gamine

It was official. One out of three dictionaries approved use of "gamin" for a girl, albeit without really emphasizing the skinny part that was central to the story. In the end, I decided that I still didn't like it. It was too distracting, taking the reader (or at least one reader) out of the story. I changed it to "waif."

Friday, August 24, 2007

Media Moment (First in an occasional series on notable uses of language in the media)

NBC correspondent Tim Russert, when asked on Aug. 23 how big was the news that Republican Senator John Warner had broken ranks with the president on the war issue, answered:
"In a word: Very big."

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

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

adj. Slang Used as an intensive: He's a helluva great guy.
Alteration of 'hell of a.'
-- American Heritage Dictionary

* adj. phonetic sp. of 'hell of a' -- Webster's New World College
Take that anyone who believes that words don't evolve from misuse and misspellings.

* Asterisk stands in for the little star Webster's uses to denote an "Americanism." If only I had a British English dictionary I'd check under "b" for "bloodyhelluva."

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Great Moments in Copy Editing (First in an occasional series)*

I've been doing some freelance copy-editing/proofreading work lately. I don’t want to say for whom, because that would make it rather uncool of me to share this incriminating little tidbit:

In an article about lighting fixtures used in interior design, today I corrected not one but two instances of the term "wall scones."

Mmmmmm ... wall scones.

* I changed this header after realizing this could be an ongoing thing.

Comma Magic

Reporters who do not read the style guide should not complain about their

Reporters, who do not read the style guide, should not complain about their

Big difference, huh? (I had forgotten about this example until I rediscovered it in a style guide yesterday.) The rule at play: Use commas to set off nonrestrictive clauses -- i.e. clauses that don't restrict or narrow down the subject. Use no commas when the clause is designed to do just that -- i.e. narrow down the set of reporters to just those who don't read the guide (instead of suggesting that none of them do.)

Monday, August 13, 2007

Reading for Writing?

A few days ago, RS commented:
I was thinking of this rather tired statement today: "The more you read the
better your writing will be." Any opinion on the subject?

Hmmmm. I dunno. In these situations, I always feel as though I should have an opinion and, if I don't, that I should form one on the spot. So I'll take a crack at it.

Reading seems to have helped my writing. I think there's a lot of truth to the aphorism. But these things, it seems, are never universal.

Augusten Burroughs comes to mind. In "Running with Scissors," he mentions that it never really occurred to him he might become a writer because he had never been a reader. (He grew up in an environment so chaotic it would have been nearly impossible for a child to develop reading habits.) This was true even though he had been journaling (if I remember right) most of his life.

Reading "Running with Scissors," it seems pretty clear that Burroughs is a natural.

I think reading really, really helps. If nothing else, it opens up your writing options by showing you different styles and approaches and genres. But I don't see a universal rule.

Of course, if you were to state the question as, "I want to be a writer. Do you think it would be helpful if I made it a point to read a lot"? the answer would be, "Hell, yes."

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Clearly, I'm a Dink (First in an occasional series on why, clearly, I'm a dink)

In my last post, I blathered on about how none of my three most-used dictionaries contained an entry for the word "Hallows" as a noun. As of today, however, close readers will notice that "three" has been changed to "two."

That's because yesterday, my fiance, Ted, opened up our 1933 Oxford Universal Dictionary (one of the three I had accused of neglecting the word), pointed to a page and said, "Didn't you see this?"

It was right under my nose.
Hallow: usu. in pl. hallows. 1. A holy personage, a saint. ... 2. In pl., the
shrines or relics of saints, the gods of the heathen or their shrines.

And lo and behold, with one reference to "relics" we get a really solid clue about how the word evolved from "saints" to "spooky stuff."

On a similar note, did you know that the word "gullible" is not in the dictionary? Better yet, would you believe that I fell for that gag not once but twice?

Dinkily yours,

Monday, August 6, 2007

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

"hallows" (as in "Harry Potter and the Deathly")

More than halfway through the book, I finally realized that I really should look up "hallow" -- a word with which I have no better than a nodding acquaintance. I had only heard it in adjective form, "hallowed be thy name," and have occasionally heard it used as a verb, "to hallow" something, as in to revere.

Surely, the Florida public school system can be faulted for my not knowing it's also a noun, right?

Maybe not.

As I open up my two most-used dictionaries, I see a lot of entries for "hallow" the verb. But there are no entries for "hallow" as a noun. Here's a typical definition:
vt 1. to make holy or sacred; sanctify; consecrate; 2. to regard as holy, honor
as sacred; venerate
-- Webster's New World College Dictionary
Indeed, if Webster's New World College Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary make the rules, there is no noun called "hallow."

They remind me, however, that this can't have always been the case. Most of us have heard the etymology of the word "Halloween." It's an evolved term meaning (or once meaning) "all hallows' eve," a synonym for "all saints' eve."

I bet if I had $800 to spend on an Oxford English Dictionary (hint, hint all you Santas out there in cyber-land), I would find more information about "hallow" as a noun and its relationship to the word "saint." But even then I'd still be scratching my head right now because, in the book, the things referred to as "hallows" are definitely not saints. I'm not sure what they are, but that much I know.

Wikipedia gives me my best clue. According to this source I don't quite trust yet find myself relying on more and more all the time, "The word 'hallows' has been used in legends to represent important and powerful objects."

A lot of this seems to center around Irish lore, in particular a legend that has come to be known as the "Hallows of Ireland." There's also an instance of the word in the "Lord of The Rings" -- "kings and stewards of Gondor were laid to rest in tombs in 'the Hallows' of Rath Dínen," Wikipedia says.

And, in Arthurian legend, the Thirteen Royal Treasures of Britain have been called the "Hallows of Britain."

So clearly, it's a UK thing. Now I'm just wondering why this well established noun isn't in my supposedly "English" dictionaries.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Dissecting You-Know-Who

If you cruise any of the Internet message boards where amateur writers post their work for critique, you'll come across passages like this:

The Wilsons arrived the following morning at eleven o'clock. Dylan, Paul, Emma,
and Beth were feeling quite resentful toward the Wilsons by this time, and it
was with ill grace that Paul stumped back upstairs to put on matching socks, and
Dylan attempted to flatten his hair. Once they had all been deemed smart enough,
they trooped out into the sunny backyard to await the visitors.

If I saw this on a please-critique-me message board, my first note would be: Look at the sequence of events. The passage starts with "The Wilsons arrived," then you jump to a time fifteen minutes earlier when others are preparing for their arrival, then you end the paragraph with Dylan and co. still waiting for the Wilsons to arrive. Worse, the way it's written, it takes the reader several full sentences to realize they've jumped back in time.

A major problem? Hardly. But when a work is riddled with stuff like this, it demonstrates lack of skill on the writer's part. Especially when a simple fix, "The Wilsons were to arrive," could help the reader tremendously.

Another questionable choice: "Once they had been deemed smart enough." Deemed by whom? Aren't actions usually more interesting when a character you know is doing them?

You see this lack of skill all the time in amateur writing. But when one of the most successful writers of all time consistently writes this way, well, that's when you know you've got some blog fodder on your hands. You see, I changed the names. The Wilsons are really the Delacours. Paul, Emma, and Beth are really Ron, Hermione, and Ginny. And Dylan, if you haven't guessed it, is Harry. Harry Potter.

Yes, I'm splitting hairs. But the real problem with J.K. Rowling's writing is that there are so many hairs to split. Here's another passage from "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows":

Harry looked around at the stacked shoes and umbrellas, remembering how he used
to wake every morning looking up at the underside of the staircase, which was
more often than not adorned with a spider or two. Those had been the days before
he had known anything about his true identity; before he had found out how his
parents had died or why such strange things often happened around him. But Harry
could still remember the dreams that had dogged him, even in those days:
confused dreams involving flashes of green light and once -- Uncle Vernon had
nearly crashed the car when Harry recounted it -- a flying motorbike.

It's that last sentence that interests me. It starts with a "but," suggesting that what follows will be logically contradictory to something before. But that's not the case. The bigger problem occurs when Uncle Vernon pops into the story. Harry is in a house, looking at shoes and reminiscing. Then we're hearing about his dreams. Then suddenly we're forced to piece together something that happened long ago.

Apparently, sometime before, Uncle Vernon was driving Harry in the car and Harry shared with him (which seems implausible to anyone who knows their relationship) a dream about a flying motorcycle. This was so shocking to Uncle Vernon that it nearly caused him to crash.

But, in expecting us to piece together a past event, Rowling doesn't even give us the clues in chronological order. They're all in reverse, forcing us to work backwards.

"Uncle Vernon had nearly crashed the car when Harry recounted it -- a flying motorbike."

First comes Uncle Vernon, then comes the near crash, then comes Harry recounting something, then comes the something: the big reveal -- the shocker -- a flying motorbike. The sentence has a lot more impact if you nix the reference to Uncle Vernon altogether.

Again, not an unforgivable literary crime, unless you're a habitual offender:

The first sound of their approach was an unusually high-pitched laugh, which
turned out to be coming from Mr. Weasley, who appeared at the gate moments
later, laden with luggage and leading a beautiful blonde woman in long,
leaf-green robes, who could only be Fleur's mother.

Now that's a bad sentence. The subordinate clauses stacked one on top of the other. The choice of lame verbs over action verbs -- "was," "turned out to be," "appeared," "be." The fact that Rowling does not actually set a scene here. She could have said, "Harry and Ron were standing in the yard when they heard an unusually high-pitched laugh." In other words, she could have told of the sound from the perspective of the character hearing it. She could have told us where that person was and what he saw and heard. But she didn't.

Rowling is not a terrible writer, but she's not a good one, either. Still, despite her shortcomings, she created a world so many of us want to visit for so very long. The lesson here? I don't offer one. I don't want to make overly broad, embittered statements about how bad writing pays, nor do I want to slam the tastes of the masses.

I just want to say that, by taking a moment to look at another's writing weaknesses, we can understand how to be better writers ourselves.

And with that, I return to my reading.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Possessives -- Possessed by Satan?

Style guides' "helpful" advice. Behold pure evil!

Chicago Manual of Style
James's words
James' sake
James's seat

Associated Press Stylebook
James' words
James' sake
James' seat
The boss's words
The boss' sake
The boss' seat

Strunk & White's The Elements of Style*
James's words
James's sake
James's seat
Jesus' words
Jesus' sake
Jesus' seat

* As I've noted here, Strunk and White have less authority than these other two.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

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


n. The uncontrolled, often obsessive use of obscene or scatological language that may accompany certain mental disorders, such as Tourette's syndrome. -- American Heritage Dictionary

Root: Greek "lalia," meaning "babbling" or "meaningless talk"

Prefix: Greek "copro," meaning "dung, excrement, feces"

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Bogus Usage Assertions (First in an occasional series on bogus usage rules some people assert)

You can't use "hopefully" to mean "I hope" or "it is hoped

"Hopefully, I'll see you there."

adv. 2 it is to be hoped that -- Webster's New World College Dictionary

Thursday, July 12, 2007

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

Webster's New World College Dictionary:


n. an adherent of Islam


n. an advocate or supporter of Islamic, esp. orthodox Islamic, political rule

* * *

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition:


n. 1. also Moslem. A believer in or adherent of Islam

"Islamist" (sub-entry of "Islamism"); "Islamism"

n. An Islamic revivalist movement, often characerized by moral conservaatism, literalism, and the attempt to impement Islamic values in all spheres of life. 2. The religious faith, principles, or cause of Islam.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

The Real Top 10 "Simpsons" Episodes

Vanity Fair has just published a list of its top 10 Simpsons episodes. Isn't that adorable? It's like the New Yorker running a list of the top 10 grunge bands (you GO, Osmonds!).

Step aside, Vanity Fair, and let a real fan tell you which Simpsons are the top 10.

10. Treehouse of Horror IV -- Season 5. Homer sells his soul for a donut; spoof on Bram Stoker's Dracula. Highlights: Hell's "Ironic Punishment Division," in which Homer is force-fed thousands of donuts -- and keeps saying, "More, please." Homer, when asked whether something seems funny about Burns (secretly Dracula), responds: "Yeah, his hair looks so queer."

9. Homer the Great -- Season 6. Homer joins a fraternal organization called the Stonecutters. Highlights -- lyrics to the Stonecutters song include, "Who holds back the electric car? Who makes Steve Guttenberg a star? We do!"

8. A Streetcar Named Marge -- Season 4. Marge stars in a musical production of "Streetcar" -- which has a happy ending. Highlights: Lyrics to the musical's main theme call the city of New Orleans, among other things, "brackish"; Apu as the paper boy; the final number -- a rousing, happy show tune proclaiming, "You can always depend on the kindness of strangers!"

7. El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Homer -- Season 8. Homer eats a chili pepper that sends him on an acid-like trip. Highlights: Surreal visuals of Southwestern landscape. Homer's comment when his spirit guide says Homer must learn a lesson: "If it's about laying off the Guatemalan insanity peppers, I'm way ahead of you."

6. Homer's Barbershop Quartet -- Season 5. Beatles spoof in which Homer is in a wildly popular barbershop quartet (hey, something had to fill the gap while the world awaited the arrival of "Achy, Breaky Heart.") Highlights: To come up with a band name, Principal Skinner says they need something "that sounds less funny every time you hear it." Thus were born the B Sharps. Homer on Dexy's Midnight Runners: "You haven't heard the last of them."

5. Children of a Lesser Clod -- Season 12. Home on disability, Homer begins his own daycare center. Highlight: Arnie Pie's narration of a televised high-speed chase after Homer abducts the children in a truck then crashes. Kent Brockman: "Arnie, Arnie: How are the children?" Arnie: "I can't see through metal, Kent!"

4. Flaming Moe's -- Season 3. Moe takes credit for Homer's drink recipe and gets rich. Highlights: Homer in the rafters as a spoof of "Phantom of the Opera." Graphics accompanying the takeoff on the "Cheers" theme.

3. Little Big Mom -- Season 11 (One of Dan Castellaneta's favorites as well). After Marge is injured in a skiing accident, Lisa takes over the household. Highlights: Homer loses control while skiing and, in trying to remember his skiing lesson, can't blot out the image of Ned Flanders' taut, wiggling bottom in a skin-tight ski leotard. Homer cries out, "Stupid sexy Flanders!"

2. A Fish Called Selma -- Season 7. Selma learns her marriage to washed-up movie star Troy McClure is a sham to resurrect his career. Highlights: Troy lands a part in a musical version of "Planet of the Apes," in which the song "Rock Me, Amadeus" is adapted as "Help Me, Dr. Zaius."

1. Behind the Laughter -- Season 11. Mock VH1 documentary examining the rise of TV's first family. Highlights: Most of the narration. For example, in recounting the story of Homer's desire to create a TV show, Marge says, "So I told him: Do it! (Bleep) or get off the pot." Then, cutting to a shot of Homer working at a typewriter, the narrator says, "And (bleep) he did."

Honorable mention: Marge Gets a Job; Simpsons Bible Stories; Rosebud; Who Shot Mr. Burns? Selma's Choice; Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk; 22 Short Films About Springfield; Weekend at Burnsie's. Whatever recent episode it was in which, when it was pointed out that Jesus wore sandals, Homer said something like, "Maybe if he wore better shoes they wouldn't have caught him."

Friday, July 6, 2007

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

"Ipso facto" (Latin)
by that very fact -- Webster's New World College Dictionary
noun -- by the fact itself; by the very nature of the deed: "to be condemned ipso facto." --

Interestingly, Webster's doesn't say what part of speech it is, but does. It calls it a noun, but uses it in an example in which it seems to be more of an adverb -- reinforcing my theory that all this language stuff is either 1. the blind claiming they can see as they lead the blind, or 2. a conspiracy to make us all feel stupid.

Indeed, when I turn to a third source, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, I see it dubbed an adverb, reinforcing my other theory: I'm good.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Beware the Ides of June

Ever since I was a little girl, I've had an old lady name.

Family lore has it that my father wanted to name me Joan. My mother, having a twin sister named Joan, was perfectly horrified by the idea, and pulled out of her backside the first old-timey name should thought would pacify him. "Uh, how about June?"

And thus was born a June that blustery March day. Sure, with just a little more effort they might have been able to come up with a more appropriate name for a baby born on St. Patrick's Day. But on the other hand, with just a little less effort, I could have ended up with the name Moremorphineplease. So I'm not complaining about having an old lady name.

Yet since about the thousandth time I heard someone say, "Oh, I have a great aunt named June!" I've been waiting for my name to come back into vogue.

Recent name trends have given me hope: Emma, Isabelle, Jane, Kate -- they were all old lady names, too. Now they're the starting lineup for every AYSO team in America. Then, the year before last, I dared to let my hope bubble to the surface as I sat in a movie theater listening to a whole auditorium full of actors chant, "June! June! June! June!" in the hit movie "Walk the Line."

So I finally decided to look into it. Landing at a Social Security Administration website that compiles the top 1,000 baby names for each year, I finally faced the unpleasant reality.

Yes, June was a very popular girls' name, ranking number 39 -- in 1925. It's been plunging like Oleo sales ever since, ultimately falling out of the top 1,000 in 1987. No sudden resurrection in 2005 or 2006. No chance that I'll one day be as hip as an 80-year-old who today is named Brittany or Jenna or Amber.

Last week I was in the cell phone store, where the twentyish young woman looking up my account asked me my name.

"Oh, I've never heard that name before," she said.

I'd hoped she was talking about my last name. But no, she meant my first.

"Yeah, it used to be really popular," I told her. "But those Junes are all dead now."

Friday, June 29, 2007

Delicious Slip of the Tongue

Peter Sagal*, host of NPR's "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me," was interviewing filmmaker Michael Moore, when he mentioned Moore's first hit documentary, "Roger and Me." But, speaking hurriedly, he left out the "and," instead saying to Moore in very direct terms:

"Roger me."

(* I don't mean to pick on Peter. I love Peter. It's just that I listen to podcasts of his show while I exercise, which is why I ended up catching two Sagal slips in a short period of time.)

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Linguistic Fraud at My Local Cafe

I'm angry at apple wood smoked bacon.

Now I know what you're about to say: "Gee, June. That's perfectly sane."

But before you reach for a tranquilizer gun and a large net, just hear me out.

Apple wood smoked bacon is lately everywhere I want to be. It's in the quiche at the fru-fru little café where I sometimes sit and work, it's in the club sandwich at the other fru-fru café where I sometimes go to write, and it's in the BLT at the slightly less fru-fru café where I sometimes work. What's more, it's usually a headliner in any dish in which it's served, getting top billing in the list of ingredients and often in the name of the dish.

Yet I'm here today to say that I believe the increasing popularity of apple wood smoked bacon is a piece of linguistic fraud designed to pass off greasy pork as a crisp and fresh gourmet delight.

Think about the words: apple wood smoked bacon. (I prefer to spell and punctuate it applewood-smoked bacon, but that form doesn't seem to show up as often.)

What's the first sensory association that comes to mind? If you're like me, your ear picks up mainly on the first word, "apple," and stops there. You think crisp, sweet, healthy, fresh. But in fact what you're ordering is about as un-apple-like as you can get.

Here's how far removed this foodstuff is from its alpha word, apple.

* It's not apple. It's bacon.
* It's not apple-flavored. It's smoked (smoke-flavored).
* It's not smoked with apples. It's smoked with wood.
* What kind of wood? Apple wood.

What the hell is apple wood/applewood? I' m still not sure, but I bet it tastes a lot more like wood than like apples. And I can confirm that its smoke, when engulfing a side of pork, retains for its finished product about as much apple flavor as the steak from a cow that once grazed in a field a half mile from an apple orchard.

And that's why I'm angry at apple wood smoked bacon.

Next week: Why drawn butter is useless when dealing with crabgrass.

Monday, June 25, 2007

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


When I was a kid, I heard that gelatin was made out of hooves. Cow hooves, I presumed. And, later in life, The Simpsons' Mr. Burns confirmed this belief. But when I looked up "gelatin" recently in Webster's New World, I didn't like what I saw:

the tasteless, odorless, brittle mixture of proteins extracted by boiling skin,
bones, horns, etc.; also, a similar vegetable substance: gelatin dissolves in
hot water, forming a jellylike substance when cool, and is used in the
preparation of various foods, medicine capsules, photographic film, etc.

So I kept looking. Next stop, the online Columbia Encyclopedia, where I finally found confirmation of this piece of disturbing trivia from my childhood.

gelatin ... foodstuff obtained from connective tissue (found in hoofs,
bones, tendons, ligaments, and cartilage) of vertebrate animals by the action of
boiling water or dilute acid. It is largely composed of denatured collagen, a
protein particularly rich in the amino acids proline and

So now, with one question neatly answered, I find myself grappling another: Why did Columbia write it "hoofs" instead of "hooves"? The answer I found by going back to my first reference, Webster's, which says that both "hoofs" and "hooves" are acceptable as the plural of "hoof," but it prefers "hoofs." (Who knew?)

Of course, all these answers led me to what may be the most important question of all: Who was the first person to say, "Mmmm. Boiling skin, bones, and hooves! I bet that would be delicious with fruit cocktail!"

Friday, June 22, 2007

Words I'm Looking Up (First in an occasional series about words I'm looking up.)


Imagine you're building a hotel/casino in Vegas with a beachy, tropical paradise theme. You'd probably want to name it something beachy and/or tropical paradisey, right? You'd eschew names like "Anchorage Bay," "Greenland Bay," and "Newark Bay" for something practically synonymous with sipping mai tais. Lahaina, Montego, Cancun, Miami, Bora Bora. As someone who spends most of her time daydreaming about sunny vacation spots, I've heard of a lot of them. But "Mandalay"? Where the heck is that and how lame am I that I have to look it up?

Enter my shameful confusion about the naming of the Vegas hotel "Mandalay Bay," where I just spent four fun-filled days and nights splashing in fake waves on a fake beach.

Well, my embarrassing ignorance ends now, with this entry from Webster's New World College Dictionary:

Mandalay: city in central Myanmar, on the Irrawaddy River: pop.

Myanmar? As in, "We used to be known as Burma but now we're best known for brutal repression and human rights abuses"?

Yeah, that's a party all right.

A little more research shows that Mandalay is the second-largest city in the nation and was the last Burmese capital before Britain pulled a Columbus and claimed the whole country as its own.

I remain baffled as to why the builders chose this as a theme for their sun-and-fun hotel/casino. But I can take a guess at their logic: "Hey, if people are dumb enough to think a city on a river in a repressive regime sounds like a good beach vacation spot, maybe they'll be dumb enough to drop $60 playing three-card poker."

And in my case, they would be right.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Strunk, Whited Out (First in an occasional series on what White did to Strunk)

As I wrote for my upcoming "A Word, Please" column:

To read the back cover of Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style," you'd think it was God's gift to the English-speaking world -- "excellent," "timeless," "delightful," "… should be the daily companion of anyone who writes for a living and, for that matter, anyone who writes at all."

That's a lot of sunshine blowing around. But something about the beloved nature of this little book has always sat funny with me.

For one thing, most other style reference books get updated from time to time. But "The Elements of Style's" status as a "classic" means no one dare touch it (except maybe to add pictures) -- even when its prescriptions become ridiculously out of date.

But there was something else that bothered me about this "beloved" little book that I was never able to put my finger on until I scored a copy of the original "Elements of Style" by Cornell professor William Strunk, Jr., long before his student E.B. White landed the job of revising it.

Consider this entry in the original "Elements of Style"

Headings. Leave a blank line, or its equivalent in space, after the title or
heading of a manuscript. On succeeding pages, if using ruled paper, begin on the
first line.

Ruled paper?

Now, I had always known that "The Elements of Style" was born of a college classroom. But it never really occurred to me what a fraud was perpetrated on the reading public when White "revised" the thing. Basically, his task was to take a book written for a small and specific group of students and make it marketable to you and me. Sure, this happened because the original "Elements of Style" had already found an audience outside Strunk's classroom. It sort of caught on like wildfire. But White nonetheless pulled a fast one on us when he tried to make Strunk's student instructions required reading for everyone who might ever hold a pen.

For example, before Strunk's passage above, White inserted:

"If the manuscript is to be submitted for publication …"

Then he nixed that reference to "ruled paper," knowing full well that newspaper editors, resume writers and business-correspondence writers who were the book's new target market don't use ruled paper.

But Strunk never meant "The Elements of Style" to be a book of iron-clad rules for you and me:

"This book … aims to lighten the task of instructor and student by concentrating attention … on a few essentials."
Yes, "The Elements of Style" contains some great wisdom, mixed in with some old-fashioned silliness. But unless you're a Cornell student stuck in a time warp, don't consider it an ultimate authority.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Smart People Flubbing It (First in an occasional series of grammar-savvy people flubbing their grammar)

Peter Sagal, host of the NPR show "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me" demonstrated that even the whom-wise can flub "whom." On a recent show, he asked a contestant:

Unlike the rest of his fellow soldiers, (Oregon National Guard Private Duncan Schneider) has a slight disadvantage because his company's first sergeant is whom?
Peter clearly gets the basics of how to use "whom." But like most people, he's thrown off when a predicate nominative comes into the mix.

The predicate nominative is the grammatical reason people say "This is she" instead of "This is her."

The predicate nominative is:

noun or pronoun + to be + noun or pronoun (that's the same person or thing as the first noun or pronoun)

The rule is that the second noun is in the nominative (subject) not objective case. In other words, "she" instead of "her" in "This is she."

So, paring down Peter's sentence, we find the predicate nominative:

The first sergeant + is + ______.

That's why there's no reason to use the object "whom." Peter should have used the subject case, "who," saying, "His company's first sergeant is who?"

What's the moral of this story? NOBODY'S grammar is 100% bullet-proof. So don't let that insecure, "Oh, no. I should know it all and I don't" voice make you feel overwhelmed.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Blogging: So it's come to this.

People keep telling me I should blog. The first few to tell me this got slapped. But then I looked up the word "blog" and, well, let's just say shame on me.

I've resisted blogging because (typical writer's whine) I haven't known what to say. Sure, I could model mine after the "Be an expert in your field and offer brilliant insights not found anywhere else" blogs. I'd love to do that. But in my case that would be akin to Woody Allen blogging about fatherhood. Serious credential problems.

I could also model mine on the "OMG did u SEE american idle last night?!?!?!?" blogs. But I'm far too old to start huffing paint thinner (again).

So, for lack of something to say that's interesting and neither incriminating nor actionable, I've been mum. But then it occurred to me, "Hey! My readers have interesting stuff to say! Why not pilfer that?"

The people who read my newspaper columns and my book sometimes drop me a line to ask questions or share insights or rants. These notes are often interesting and highly educational. And when they're not, they're even more fun. (For example, I'm already anticipating one attacking the first sentence of this paragraph for saying that mulitple people drop me "a" line. Let me nip that in the bud: I don't have a good reason other than "people drop me lines" sounds ridiculous.)

Then a funny thing happened on my way to blatant exploitation of my readers: I realized I really could blog about other stuff -- everything from grammar to my cat Tibor to my cat Maddie to my cat Smudge or even my cat Susie! (I'm renaissance-y like that.) The whole blogging world is my oyster. So to kick us off, here's an e-mail I got recently from a reader, followed by my reply. I look forward to hearing you tell me I'm an idiot.

June: I often see big headlines in sale papers proclaiming "SAVE 50% OFF". Or even worse, sometimes it's "SAVE 50% OFF ON EVERYTHING IN THE STORE". This doesn't seem right. Would it be more correct to simply say either "SAVE 50%" or "50% OFF"? Just one of those little things that bugs me. Thanks for your
attention. -- M.D.

* * * *

Hi, M.D. Thanks for the note.

You wrote, "... wouldn't it be more correct to simply say ..." And therein you've touched on the real issue.

Would it be BETTER to opt for your wording? Absolutely. But correctness is a lot more elusive. For one thing, there's the question of idiom - which renders even ungrammatical constructions grammatical. Preposition issues often fall into this category.

From "The Careful Writer": "Is it dissimilar 'from' or dissimilar to'? Is it enjoin 'to,' 'from,' 'against,' or what? The proper preposition is a matter of idiom, and idioms, if they do not come 'naturally' must be either learned or looked up."

Add to that the fact that, there really is no place to look most stuff like this up. And even if there was, it would likely be some expert's best guess and not anything that qualifies as an official determination of "right" or "wrong."

Welcome to my nightmare.

For my money, "save 50% off" sounds acceptable. "Save 50% off on ..." well, that's pretty goofy -- goofy enough that I might venture to say it really is wrong. But it's possible I could be wrong. So I tread with caution.

Either way, these advertisers' choice of words could definitely be better.

Hope that big mess is at least partly as helpful as it is messy.

- June


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