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 fiancĂ©, 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.”


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