Friday, January 30, 2009

Why Can't Junie Read (or Make Time to Do Crunches)?

The Health section of Monday's Los Angeles Times had a small article about ab workouts. The headline was "Flatten that paunch." The first sentence began: "To challenge your core muscles and flatten a lower-ab pooch ..."

I've heard people use "pooch" to refer to a protruding lower tummy before. I never hear any of the words that come after. I get stuck. Hmmm. Pooch. It's cute. It somehow nails it. But it also sounds like you're reaching for "paunch" or "pouch" but just didn't know which word to choose. Still, there's something so natural about it. Do I like pooch? Do I hate pooch? And why is this person still talking and thus rudely disturbing my ruminations on pooch?

Webster's New World Collge Dictionary has a definition for pooch that approaches this usage, but doesn't quite nail it: "to cause to protrude, or bulge outward." Its definition is a verb only, and Webster's adds that this pooch is "used only in the phrase 'pooch out.'" Obviously, the LA Times' use of pooch is just a noun form meaning such a protrusion. But Webster's isn't documenting this one yet.

Anyway, it should go without saying that I never finished the article. I just sat there scratching my head for 10 minutes mumbling "pooch, pooch" and then it was time to drag my weak core work.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Great Moments in Copywriting

From today's Los Angeles Times:

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Words Writers Are Too Dependent On


Seems every house, hotel, or restaurant is "nestled " into or alongside something -- hills, a shoreline, mountains, golf courses.

I don't have any better suggestions. But someone should come up with some because "nestled" is so overused that it's starting to make "situated" sound good in comparison.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Words I Can't Decide How to Pronounce

Pecan — Is it me, or does "pe-CAN" sound low rent and "pe-CAHN" sound like low-rent trying to sound high-rent?

Apricot — I wouldn’t care if I didn’t have an apricot tree in my backyard and if I did not, every year, have a friend ask if she can come over to pick “APE-ricots.”

Err — Traditionalists say it rhymes with “spur.” But no one knows that, so everyone pronounces it “air.” That’s why the dictionary allows both. Still, I’m not comfortable saying it either way.

Niche — The preferred pronunciation rhymes with “itch.” But, sorry, Webster’s, I like “neesh.” So I wish you’d stop making me feel bad about it.

Caribbean — This one is only a problem when it follows “Pirates of.” In every other usage, it’s cuh-RIB-be-an, but when Disney’s involved, it’s care-ib-BEE-an.

Forte — I once read a rather obnoxious installment of the obnoxious comic strip “Mallard Fillmore” in which the author demanded it’s pronounced “fort.” And my Webster’s agrees. But, come on. If you say, “Accounting is not my fort,” it’s almost guaranteed you’ll elicit the quip, “And English is not your garrison.” Seems to me that "for-tay" is the new "forte."

Casagrande — Yeah, I know. I’m working on it.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

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

snicker = 1,480,000 hits
snigger = 409,000 hits

Dictionaries treat "snigger" as a secondary spelling of "snicker." I was just curious how secondary it was. It's more popular than I would have guessed.

(To control for the candy bar, the actual search terms were "snicker -snickers" and "snigger -sniggers. [Who knew that I would ever find occasion to use the term "control for the candy bar"?])

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Friday, January 23, 2009

It Works on So Many Levels

In an old "Simpsons" episode, Homer laughs hysterically after seeing a short film in which a man gets hit in the groin with a football. Guffawing uncontrollably, he says, "It works on so many levels."
That's how I feel about this ad.

Sorry I couldn't make it the image bigger or clearer. It says: "Who's Lips are These?" It gives you the choices: Tom Hanks. Mel Gibson. Brad Pitt. And there's a picture of Brad Pitt. What's the grand prize for the savant who gets the right answer? Why, a gift certificate to Olive Garden, of course. What else?
Oh, one more thing. When you right click the ad to save it as graphics file, you see that the file name contains the words "Brad Pitt lips."

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Sweet Inspiration for Learning to Pronounce 'Scallop'

I don't watch reality TV. I've never seen American Idol or Survivor or Big Brother or Nanny 911 or that home makeover thing with the guy who looks like a leathery incarnation of a cartoon dog.

But I make one exception: Ace of Cakes on Food Network. I figure it doesn't count, because I'm not into the reality, I'm just into the sugar. If they existed, I would also watch King of BonBons, Queen of Pudding, and Jack of Blancmange.

And today, I was finally vindicated.

The gang on Ace of Cakes had to make a cake in the shape of a scallop shell. Duff, the owner, and several of his designers got into a tussle over how to pronounce scallop. Duff, a New Englander, pronounced it as though it rhymes with "trollop." Others argued for the pronunciation that rhymes with "gallop."

This has actually come up with my New England in-laws. They're in the "trollop" camp. A Floridian, I was always more inclined to use words like "vittles" and "gator meat." But, on the rare occasion when I was walking barefoot and straw-hatted in the vicinity of a seafood restaurant, gazing hungrily at a menu, we would use the "gallop" pronunciation.

I've been meaning to look that one up for a couple of years now. But it took three pounds of fondant and some stuff called "gum paste" to finally inspire me. And the answer is ....

Of course, both pronunciations are acceptable. But Webster's New World prefers the trollop pronunciation. That's right. Somehow, Floridians came out looking less literate than them there Boston types. How? I might could never know, y'all.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Some Tips for Resume Writers

Reading a lot about our country's economic woes today, I'm feeling the urge to try to be helpful. So, straying a bit from my usual tone, here are some language tips for job seekers and resume writers. I hope someone finds them useful!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

* Be consistent in your sentence structure. If, under employer XYZ Co., you write “Led a team of eight,” do not under employer Widgets Inc. start adding the pronoun "I," as in, “I led a team of eight.” Sentence fragments are fine on resumes, but inconsistency can disorient your reader.

* Speaking of “Inc.,” you don’t have to set it off with commas. But if you choose to put a comma before it, put one after it, too:

“I worked for Widgets, Inc., in the 1980s.” = Good
“I worked for Widgets Inc. in the 1980s.” = Also good
“I worked for Widgets, Inc. in the 1980s.” = Bad

* Similarly, for years in dates, be sure to use a comma before and after:

“I worked for Apple from Dec. 1, 1999, to July 22, 2008, designing software.” = Good
“I worked for Apple from Dec. 1, 1999 to July 22, 2008 designing software.” = Bad

* Know “it’s” from “its”: You helped the company usher in its strongest quarter, NOT it’s. The reason: “its” is an exception to the possessives rule. The possessive form takes no apostrophe. “It’s” is a contraction of “it is” or “it has.” “It’s good to see you.” Consider this a priority. Any employer who knows the difference will likely look down on you if you don’t.

* Don’t mess up “there,” “their,” and “they’re.” The first one’s a place, the second shows possession, the third is a contraction of “they” and “are.” When in doubt, look them up.

* Before sending your resume/letter, try to get a friend to read it. A reader can often catch things that the writer cannot. Then read the whole document aloud. It’s the best way to assure you stay focused on close reading during a final proofread. Also run spellcheck, but beware that it’s not totally reliable.

* The past tense of “lead” is “led,” NOT “lead.” Don’t confuse the past tense of the verb with the stuff in your pencil. Yesterday, I led a team of eight in designing lead pencils.

* Remember the basic possessives rule: For singular nouns, add an apostrophe and an S: “The dog’s tail.” For plural nouns, add just the apostrophe: “All the dogs’ tails.” Words and names ending in S confuse everybody. Style guides disagree on how to handle them. Just remember the two basic rules and you’ll be okay. (If that's not good enough, consult either the Chicago Manual of Style or the Associated Press Stylebook.)

* Don’t worry about whether publication titles should be in quotation marks, in italics, in all capitals, or underlined. This is a style choice. Just pick one style and be consistent. Ditto that for questions of whether to spell out numbers, whether to abbreviate months, etc. Shoot for consistency.

* In a list like “red, white and blue,” the question of whether to put a comma after “white” is a style choice. Some publications (especially books) say you should insert the extra comma, called the Oxford comma or serial comma. Other publications (especially newspapers) say you shouldn’t. Don’t worry about right and wrong. Again, worry about being consistent.

* Additional spelling/word choice issues to watch out for: achieve, than/then, privilege, personnel, complimentary/complementary, affect/effect, a lot (never one word), precede/exceed/supersede, judgment, passed/past, weather/whether, stationary/stationery, add/ad, edition/addition. When in doubt, look them up and read all definitions. For example, “effect” is usually a noun (“side effect”) but by reading all definitions you learn that in “effect change” it’s a verb.

* Opt for “I appreciate your taking the time to meet with me” instead of “I appreciate you taking the time to meet with me” – not because it’s better but because a lot of people think it’s better. If you really want the job, you probably don’t want to risk offending the reader.

* Don’t worry about “whom” unless you’re confident in how to use it. Better to write informally than to attempt formality and demonstrate that you don’t know what you’re doing.

* Similarly, don’t worry too much about hyphenation. Unless you want to take the time to hunker down and “learn” hyphenation (tricky since there’s much art to it), you will probably be okay if just go with what looks right. If that's not good enough, consult either the Chicago Manual of Style or the Associated Press Stylebook.

* Don’t assume your grammar is woefully inadequate compared to others’. The person reading your resume doesn’t know all there is to know about grammar either. Really.

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


This word seems to have fallen out of my world for more than a decade. I had almost forgotten it. Then, yesterday, Michelle Obama's outfit revived this word in my mind. From Webster's New World:

Chartreuse (after La Grande Chartreuse, Carthusian monastery in France) trademark for a yellow, pale-green, or white liqueur made by the Carthusian monks
1 [occas. c-] this liqueur
2 [c-] pale, yellowish green
[c-] of the color chartreuse

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Most Underrated Outrage of the Last Eight Years

I can never stop being a waitress. I did the job off and on for perhaps ten years. But at one point it seeped into my skin and became part of who I am. So I'm forever condemned to having to fight the urge to bus unbussed tables in restaurants, to run over to the soda fountain to refill my own glass, and to call strangers "hon." (Okay, maybe not that last one.)

Similarly, I can never stop being a journalist. Though my reporter gigs were in the bottom rungs of the business — community news — the ethos of that job seeped in. So I'm forever condemned to countering almost any bit of information I hear with, "Says who?" (a habit that will forever keep me off the guest lists of Trivial Pursuit parties) and mentally sifting through spin and fluff to find the "nut" — the main kernel of information in any report. (What do you mean by "You look good in those pants"? Are you implying something about how I look in other pants?)

Anyway, on this, the first day of a new administration, it's my inner-journalist who has something to say about the last eight years. The last administration gave us — all of us — many reasons to be outraged. But there's one I'll never forget.

On Jan. 9, 2005, it came to light that the Education Department had paid $240,000 to commentator Armstrong Williams to promote the "No Child Left Behind" program. The consequences of this action were mild compared to the deceptions of marketing the war in Iraq. But the process by which this deception was perpetrated was far more insidious.

When the vice president of the United States tells the people that Saddam Hussein has attempted to purchase nuclear materials, he is taking responsibility for the information. He's putting his byline on the report, so to speak.

But when a government contracts an independent commentator, it is purchasing the guise of independence. It is attempting to pull off a deceit that violates the public trust on a level that to-our-face lies do not. It's an attempt to supplant news with public relations. (Indeed, public relations firm Ketchum was involved in brokering the transaction.) And it's a violation whose lessons I hope we never forget — just as I will never forgot the time George H.W. Bush yakked at Japanese banquet (not because it was an outrage to my inner-journalist but because it was horrifying to my inner-waitress).

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Things I Think About on a Monday

There's a musical production/film called "Mamma Mia!"
There's a comic strip called "Momma."
Today I saw a bumper sticker, "Another mama for Obama."

Webster's New World College Dictionary allows all three spellings but prefers "mama."

It just goes to show you: Sometimes, the English language is a real mother.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Single Quotation Marks = Quotation Marks 'Lite'? Nope

If regular quotation marks can be used for unfamiliar terms, then single quotation marks must be for kinda-sorta unfamiliar terms, right?

For some reason, this idea seems to be growing in popularity with writers whose work I copy edit. They're writing stuff like:

The episode's 'reveal' came when Joe turned up alive.
Elizabeth 'showcased' her talents.
The poker player had a serious 'tell.'

While I can see why someone would think this, it's officially getting on my nerves (since I have to fix them).

In American style, quotation marks are used mainly for direct quotations, to denote irony, or to denote unfamiliar terms: You can "showcase" your "awesome" car by parking it out front.

Single quotation marks are usually just for quoted matter within quoted matter: "Joe told me to 'pipe down,'" Becky said. The biggest exception is in headlines, where a lot of styles call for single quotation marks instead of regular quotation marks: Body Surfing 'Totally Rad,' Obama Says.

But, according to most mainstream style guides, that's about it. They're not quotation marks "lite."

(Sorry if I sound "cranky," but I'm very "busy" working for an "employer" whose recent Chapter 11 filing is causing them to make a mockery of the word "compensation.")

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

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


Hey, remember "Hey, Remember the '80s?"? I didn't think so. Then you probably don't remember quaaludes, either. Actually, I myself never had any firsthand experience with these once-popular-for-recreational-purposes pills. I was usually too drunk to hold in my hands anything smaller than a large Jack Daniels bottle or an average-sized steering wheel. But I did derive a great deal of pleasure from quaaludes as punch lines.

What's wrong with Diane? 'Ludes, man.
How did you spend the weekend? 'Ludes, man.
How do you explain Reagan's hair? 'Ludes, man.

See how that never got old?

Anyway, today's my husband's birthday and, as old folks in their autumn years are wont to do, he said, "You never hear anybody talk about angel dust anymore." (We share a nostalgia for simpler, more innocent times.) That's when I remembered that, for years, I've been meaning to look up quaaludes. Here's Webster's New World.
Quaalude: [a former trademark] methaqualone.

Once again, ladies and gentlemen, Webster's New World.
methaqualone: a white, crystalline powder, C16H14N2O, used in the form of its hydrochloride salt as a sedative and hypnotic.

Sounds like it might be related to the stuff all the kids are doing these days -- you know, the angel dust or the reefers. I wouldn't know. I recently had to downgrade from Coke to Sprite. I learned that, since I reached a certain age, all that carmel coloring (as Grampa Simpson says) "angries up the blood." But I remember Coke.

Hey, remember New Coke ...?

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Monday, January 12, 2009

The Road 'Few' Traveled

A NexTag ad I saw on Yahoo today entices readers to "Earn a Degree in as Few as Two Years!"

How does this happen? Most likely, some copywriter wanted to write as "in as little as two years" then, half-remembering something a teacher had once said about "few" and "fewer" being more proper, decided to play it "safe."

Bad call.

"As little as two years" sounds better for a reason: It is better. "As few as two years" emphasizes years as two individual units. "As little as two years" suggests a span of time, which is probably what was intended. Besides, "as little as" is a well-known figure of speech (12.4 million Google hits) while "as few as" is less common (1.6 million hits) and therefore less natural sounding.

The lesson: Your ear is a usually better guide than some vague half-recollection of some supposed rule. The natural choice is often the best choice.

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Happy Monday

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Friday, January 9, 2009

The Newspaper Apocalypse Officially Begins — In My Living Room

For some time now, people have been predicting the end of newspapers. Until yesterday, it was all just speculation. But as of 6:06 p.m. last night, it’s official. Newspapers are dead. A shocking and heretofore unheard-of event has heralded their certain demise and stands irrefutably as the seventh sign of the newspaper apocalypse: I returned a reader’s phone call.

Until now, such an event was unthinkable. I learned years ago, while working as a community newspaper reporter, that any reader who calls to talk to you is a reader you don’t want to talk to. Either he’s calling to accuse you of being in the pocket of developers who want to build a Jiffy Lube in his neighborhood or he’s calling to demand you write a feature story about his granddaughter’s finally mastering “Chopsticks” on the piano.

Of course, as a reporter, I was required to play dumb — to disguise my knowledge that all readers’ calls were things to be 1. dodged and 2. never, ever returned. So in that job I was obliged to sometimes answer the phone. Sometimes I even listened to my voice mail.

But I’m not a staff reporter anymore. I’m a columnist, with all the rights and privileges that come with not having a desk in a newspaper office or a published phone number or a 401K plan. You want to talk to me about my latest column about dangling participles? Send an e-mail. Maybe I’ll write back. (I won’t, but that’s another story.)

So yesterday, there was a palpable reaction in my gag reflex when I received the following e-mail from an editor of one of the papers in which my grammar column runs: “A local English teacher has a grammar question for you, but he refuses to use computers or e-mail. He asks that you call him at …”

All the old righteous reporter indignation came rushing back. “We’re running a newspaper here, pal, not a personal information retrieval service. I’m not your fact valet. Get a book. Kiss my grits.” And so on.

Then, without thinking or explanation, as if suddenly possessed by a powerful evil spirit, I watched my own right hand reach for the telephone and dial the man’s number.

The man sounded (brace yourself for a big surprise) old. He was looking for an answer to a question that had plagued him since he was in school (no doubt studying alchemy or the medical application of leeches).

Why, he wanted to know, was he taught it’s right to say “I appreciate your meeting with me” as opposed to “I appreciate you meeting with me”?

That’s when the evil supernatural forces at work unleashed their full wrath. I found myself not just wanting to help, but actually (shudder) enjoying the conversation.

I gave him a speech about both being acceptable (he already understood that) before getting to the heart of his question: What, exactly, is the difference and why do some people consider the one with "your" superior to the one with "you"? I told him that the answer hinges on the question: Is your –ing word a gerund or is it a participle?

In “I saw him walking,” the object of the verb “saw” is the pronoun “him.” So what’s that “walking” doing there? It’s a participle. Participles are modifiers. This one is modifying the pronoun “him.”

Compare that to “I saw his walking.” Here, the object of the verb – the thing being seen – is the walking. “His” is not the object. It’s modifying the object “walking.” So because “walking” is working as a noun, it’s a gerund. (
Obviously, the speaker's intention is crucial here. And, FYI, this construction is often called the "possessive with gerund.")


-ing form as noun = gerund
-ing form as modifier = participle

The people who oppose "I appreciate you meeting with me" sometimes call it a fused participle. In that sentence, the speaker likely means that he appreciates the act — the meeting. So, according to this view, the whole gerund/participal distinction is violated. If "meeting" is intended as a thing and not a modifier, then what's that "you" doing in there? It's like saying, "I enjoy ham salami." Again, that's just the hardliners' line. Both forms really are acceptable.

I’ve written a bit about this issue before, but I’d never really had the chance to talk to someone about the mechanics. I was enjoying it. I felt so dirty.

The man was respectful, grateful, and hanging on my every word. He thanked me for indulging what he suspected was an uncommon request and perhaps an imposition. That led to the question: How often, he wanted to know, did I talk to readers on the phone to answer questions like these?

“There’ve been a number of times over the years that editors have e-mailed me to ask me to call readers,” I told him. “Until today, I had never returned one of those phone calls. Not ever.”

He laughed: “Why me? Why now?”

Rather than admit that my body had been possessed by the underworld’s most accommodating demon, I let the demon do the talking: “Well, you know, I used to have this attitude that I didn’t have to provide that kind of service. But newspapers are in trouble. Big trouble. And I guess I just figured that, if I can provide an extra layer of value to a reader, maybe I should.”

Mark January 8 on your calendar. Because the day I’m so afraid for the future of newspapers that I actually return a reader’s call is the day newspapers are officially toast.

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Thursday, January 8, 2009

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

All who doubt the word-conspiracy theory I wrote of yesterday, behold: Not 24 hours after I blogged that the word "Columbia" was out to get me by trying to pass itself off as "Colombia," I found this in a story I was editing:

(The restaurant) Botero, features ... original paintings by the Columbian artist along the walls.

So I thought I'd do a Google search see whether this spelling is spreading its poison across the Web. Yup.

Bogota, Columbia -Colombia = 72,800 hits

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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Words Are Out to Get Me. No, Really.

I’m not paranoid. I just happen to know that a well-organized cabal of sinister words is out to get me. They’re out to publicly humiliate me by proving that my copy editing skills are somewhere between those of George W. Bush and those of Dan Quayle.

For example, yesterday, after twice going through an article I was copy editing, I took one last look at the document and saw this: “Lisa enjoyed math class more then history.” That’s right, that evil little “then” got past me twice. I know the difference between “then” and “than.” It’s simple. Yet this sneaky, evil little bugger almost made a fool out of me.

Here’s another I came across not long ago. “The golfers come from such places as Buenos Aires, Argentina; Caracas, Venezuela; Bogota, Columbia; and Sao Paulo, Brazil.” Catch it? If so, you’re doing better than spell check and better than I did on a first read. It’s Colombia. Not Columbia.

If there’s a leader of the conspiracy, it’s “lead.” Like some kind of evil twin, “lead” likes to stand in for “led,” knowing full well that the metal “lead” sounds exactly like the past tense of the verb, which is spelled “led.” The dastard.

Occasionally, “lead” will recruit new words for its evil cause. Take “peddling,” which recently tried to pass itself off as “pedaling.”

These are ones I caught. Have others gotten past me? Will any of these get past me tomorrow? Are they concocting ever-more-clever ways to get past me, for example, by using words like “complement” and “judgment” to create a diversion while they slip a misused “there” past me?

Not if I remain in a state of cat-like readiness -- a caffeine-fueled, edge-of-my seat mindset characteristic of one of those Jason Bourne movies. If, every time I enter a document, I look under every pronoun, stare down every past participle, then those sinister little words can’t take away my job or my self-respect.

But what’s most important is knowing, deep down in my heart, that I’m not paranoid.

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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A Copy Editor's Lament

I'm vexed by agreement issues lately.

For example, an article I recently copy edited said something like, "The suites feature Jacuzzi tubs and a balcony." Here's another example, "Homeowners throughout the country should buy an insurance policy tailored to their unique needs." All parents should come to the school by 6 to pick up their child."

Besides aiming for clairity, the copy editor's job is also to aim for precision. So we have to think about possibly implying that multiple suites share a single balcony. We have to think about whether all homeowners can collectively buy a single insurance policy. We have to worry whether a sentence suggests that dozens or perhaps hundreds of parents all come to pick up one child.

The alternatives get messy, and writing around the problems isn't always ideal, either.

"Suites have Jacuzzi tubs and balconies" -- Making the items all plural is imprecise and can lead to potential misreadings. Does each suite just one one tub and one balcony? Or might some have more? From the way this is written, there's no way to be sure.

"Each suite features a Jacuzzi tub and a balcony" -- Making the items singular is often a handy way around the problem, but it can get very old very fast. And in some contexts it just doensn't work, like when you're talking about many different types of suites and keeping them straight means keeping them as groups.

That's what I usually try to do, though the result is usually far short of ideal.

Of course, I wouldn't change "All dogs have four legs" to "Every dog has four legs." But that just further shows the insidiousness of subject-object agreement.

It's frustrating because, in a job that offers some very solid satisfactions, there's no way to feel good about a lot of these situations. (Or maybe I'm just whiny because tomorrow the company I'm working for filed Chapter 11 but keeps swearing that I'll get they money they owe me. Yeah, that could be makin' me whiny.)

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Friday, January 2, 2009

Pasadena Dreamin'

In "Mortal Syntax," I wrote a little ditty about what it's like on January 1 to live within walking distance of Colorado Boulevard. Specifically, I wrote about what Colorado is like after the floats have gone by and the crowds have dispersed.

So this year I thought I'd document it visually. Here's Colorado Boulevard at about 3:30 p.m. January 1:

Twenty-four hours later: Spotless. Five and a half miles of Colorado cleaned up by elves (whose salary I help pay) magically and overnight. I'm so damn impressed at how welll they clean it up, that I don't even get mad at the mess.

Here's the "after" photo:

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