Thursday, December 15, 2011

Copy Edit du Jour

"A display of the collection will be on site in the main pavilion"

Changed to ...

"The collection will be on display in the main pavilion."

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

How to Tell If You're a 'Real Writer'

These days, everyone’s a writer. Advances in technology have allowed anyone with a keyboard and a traumatic childhood to claim the title of “published writer.” Of course, this has frustrated “real writers” who believe they shouldn’t be clumped in with the high school sophomore who made $11.50 in Amazon Associates income by blogging “gott my period 2day LOL.” But what, exactly, separates the “real writers” from heartsick middle-schoolers, illiterate manifesto writers, and Dean Koontz?

Prominent scienticians have recently isolated some unique characteristics of true wordsmiths. Based on their findings, here’s how to tell – once and for all –if you’re a “real writer.”

1. Your mother keeps mailing you study guides for the Civil Service exam.

2. You’re no longer slave to the arbitrary social constructs that separate pajama pants from real pants.

3. Your friends all know you mean it when you say, “Don’t get me started on Dan Brown.”

4. You’re out of cat litter (nonfiction writers).

5. You’re out of vermouth (literary fiction writers).

6. You’re out of Nicorette (crime fiction writers).

7. You’re never out of Paxil (romance writers).

8. Your creativity informs every aspect of your life, especially your tax returns.

9. You qualify as “extremely liberal” on free speech, deadlines, and food expiration dates.

10. You qualify as “extremely conservative” on speech in the form of Amazon user reviews.

11. You use the phrase “lost sense of community” a lot, but you’re usually talking to your dog.

12. Your pristine copy of The Collected Works of Shakespeare is prominently displayed on your bookshelf.

13. Your decaying, bathtub-splashed Stieg Larsson paperbacks are stashed under your futon.

14. You haven’t read a book since 1998 (screenwriters).

15. You have attempted to calculate J.K. Rowling’s royalty income.

16. Your math skills rendered this task impossible.

17. You’re trying to copyright your recipe for ranch dressing on stale saltines.

18. You have worked the word “factotum” into a conversation (literary writers).

19. You have worked the word “gams” into a conversation (noir writers).

20. You have worked the words “my place” into a conversation (romance writers).

21. You have worked the word “loan” into a conversation (all writers).

22. You laughed when a friend gave you scratch tickets for Christmas, then hastily disappeared into the bathroom with a quarter (a borrowed quarter).

23. You love the Kindle, you fear the Kindle.

24. You consider a shower to be foreplay.

25. You consider a wet washcloth to be a shower.

26. When you say “my doctor,” you mean Dr. Oz.

27. You feel closer to your protagonist than even to the girl across the street with the really sheer drapes.

28. You spend six hours a day tweeting about how you should spend more time blogging.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Copy Edit du Jour

What's more -- aside from a specialized curriculum -- private schools are notoriously known for their smaller classrooms.

Changed to:

Private schools are known for their smaller class sizes.

(Other bad choices aside, I can't BELIEVE the writer used "notoriously known" -- and for something positive, no less. That's the kind of thing I might make up as a ridiculous example of a bad adverb/flabby writing.)

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Friday, October 14, 2011

Copy Edit du Jour

"Our office handles a full range of podiatric needs including sports medicine and deformities of the foot such as Bunions, Hammertoes and Neuromas."

Changed to:

"... bunions, hammertoes and neuromas."

Classic example of overuse of capitals. Though I almost like the idea of Hammertoes as a proper name - a former ballet dancer turned hard-boiled detective? (Couldn't be any worse that the current prime-time lineup.)

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Thursday, October 13, 2011

10 Signs the Online Article You're Reading Is Completely Devoid of Substance

As you know, substantiveness is all about substance. And that’s exactly what we’re seeking every time we click an enticing headline from AOL News or Yahoo! Health or CNN Money – meatiness, meat, carne.

But too often, the popular online articles that lure us in with headlines promising interesting facts contain only facts that are kind of interesting or interesting things that are not really facts or factual things that aren’t terribly interesting or things we already knew but didn’t know we knew because they were presented to us as things we didn’t know. The result? We’re left disappointed by the articles’ utter insubstantiveness and shocking lack of substance.

I, for one, like many, for example, possibly you, have wasted many a half-hour chunk of time reading about how to pare down my leg-shaving expenses, interpret my cat’s nonverbal cues, and take 10 years off my earlobes. Luckily, the time wasted usually belongs to an employer and not to us. Nonetheless, it's time you could have spent learning how to gauge the power of your own handshake or channel Warren Buffet or paint on the perfect eyeliner “cat eyes.” So here are 10 surefire signs that the article you’re reading is a pile of hooey not worth the precious time you’ve stolen from your employer.

1. The article begins with “as you know.”
2. The article that begins with “as you know” follows up by stating something you know.
3. The bulk of the information is conveyed through images of beautiful married twentysomethings under the covers or Photoshopped blueberries.
4. The article’s best money-saving tip is “don’t spend money.”
5. The article’s best weight-loss tip is “don’t eat.”
6. A little math reveals that the article is telling you to eat 48 shiitake mushrooms and eight pounds of wild salmon a day and wash it all down with four gallons of green tea.
7. The sole source quoted in the article is credentialed as “resident” or “laid-off employment counselor” or “Fox News analyst.”
8. The article is written in the first person by someone you’ve never heard of but is proud she no longer spends $480 a month on NetFlix.
9. The article contains a numbered list.
10. The list of tips is a nice round number like 10, even though the writer clearly ran out of material at 9.

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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

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

I'm no spring chicken = 647,000 hits
I'm a spring chicken = 18,000 hits

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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How to Speak Elevator

Welcome, visitors to the United States! While you’re here, you’ll probably have lots of opportunities to ride American elevators. Don’t worry! Navigating them is easy with this handy guide:


1 =
Ground floor OR
The first floor above the ground floor OR
The first floor below the ground floor

2 =
Second floor OR
Second floor not counting the ground floor

14 =
14th floor OR
13th floor OR
Certain death

P =
Parking OR
Penthouse OR
Pool OR
Patio OR
Presidential suite OR
Parking level Pink OR
Parking level Purple OR
Parking level Pocahontas OR

P1 =
Up one floor to lowest level of parking structure OR
Up multiple floors to the highest level of parking structure OR
Down one floor to the highest level of subterranean garage OR
Down multiple floors to the lowest level of parking garage OR

G =
Ground floor OR
Garage OR

GL =
Same as G

G1 =
Up one floor to lowest level of multi-story parking structure OR
Up multiple floors to highest level of multi-story parking structure OR
Down one floor to nearest level of subterranean parking garage OR
Down multiple floors to lowest level of subterranean parking garage OR
Lowest ground floor of a split-level area OR
Highest ground floor of a split-level area

B =
Basement OR
Balcony OR

B1 =
Highest underground level OR
Lowest underground level

R =
Roof OR
Reception OR
Rear door open OR
Restaurant level OR
Retail level

F =
Front door open OR
Fitness center OR
First floor OR
Faculty OR
Sound fire alarm

L =
Lower level OR
Lobby OR
Loge OR
Lower level of underground parking OR
Library OR

LL =
Lower level OR
Lobby OR
Loge OR
Loge Lounge OR

M =
Mezzanine OR
Maternity ward OR
Men’s department

C =
Casino level OR
Conference center OR
Cosmetics department

Two triangles pointing away from each other =
Open door OR
Close door with a hollow gesture of courtesy to the sprinting passenger you’re slamming the door on

Two triangles pointing toward each other =
Close door OR
Feel like you’re doing something productive as doors continue to close at the same speed they would have had you not pushed the button

Telephone symbol =
Call for help OR
You better have a cell phone because it’s the only way anyone will ever know you’re stuck here

Framed elevator inspection certificate =
This elevator has been inspected for safety within the last 12 months OR
The city official who oversees elevator inspections is blowing his bribe money in the Caribbean OR
Thank you for buying this ACME elevator-ready frame. Place your own certificate here.

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Monday, April 11, 2011

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

"I'm special" = 2,800,000 hits

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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Subject-Object Agreement? Don't Hold Your Breaths.

Here's a headline from today's New York Times:

At Particle Lab, a Tantalizing Glimpse Has Physicists Holding Their Breaths

Breaths? Really?

I've written before about subject-object agreement, like "Users who experience dizziness should call their doctor."

The bottom line is there's no right answer in most of these situations. But I bet that about 99 out of 100 editors would have made "breath" singular -- a collective concept -- in that NYT headline. " Breath" isn't usually treated as a count noun. It's more of a mass noun. And if a nation can breathe a collective sigh of relief, can't breath be as collective as sigh?

Odd choice. Not wrong, per se. Just odd.

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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Women: What Your Favorite Classic Rock Band Says About You

My friend, author Treacy Colbert, was inspired recently by a viral e-mail about classic rock bands to put a female spin on the subject. So we both chipped in ideas and came up with ....

WOMEN: What Your Favorite Classic Rock Band Says About You

Van Halen: You can play ping-pong with your hands tied behind your back.

Dan Fogelberg: You are sexually aroused by doilies.

James Taylor: You're appalled by how much the average consumer spends on shampoo.

Aerosmith: You can tie a cherry stem into a knot in your mouth.

Motley Crue: You can tie a cherry stem into a knot in someone else's mouth.

The Indigo Girls: You always cry at commitment ceremonies.

Gordon Lightfoot: The rose tattoo on your breast is now long-stemmed.

Air Supply: You have a standard poodle named Skyler.

Journey: You have a daughter named Skyler.

Spandau Ballet: You have a son named Skyler.

Celtic Woman: You’re on your third name change, first Summer, then Skyler, now Windstar.

Ronnie James Dio: You're on your third sloe gin fizz.

The Doors: You're on your third liver.

The Who: You have a “Teenage Wasteland” bumper sticker on your Rascal.

Boston: You can confirm the veracity of reports about the man from Nantucket.

Loverboy: You know a website that sells Bartles & James wine coolers.

Cyndi Lauper: You still bop even though it inflames your carpal tunnel syndrome.

Lynyrd Skynyrd: Two words: government cheese.

Rolling Stones: You've said "Welcome to Walmart" so many times the words have lost all meaning.

Joni Mitchell: You have used a speculum as a roach clip.

The Beatles: Your hedge fund outperformed the S&P by three percent.

America: It has never occurred to you that “the heat was hot” is redundant.

Bread: You have satisfied the munchies by eating one of your scented candles.

Seals and Crofts: You own a large collection of mismatched, partially shredded knee-highs.

Al Stewart: You’re surprised when the bartender doesn’t know what a kir is.

Rod Stewart: You still own—and wear—the outfit you had on in the family photo taken in 1970.

Jackson Browne: Ativan is now your favorite controlled substance.

Grateful Dead: You slept with your son's roommates at Tufts.

Pink Floyd: You married your dealer, then dumped him to run off with his dealer.

Bob Dylan: Haybuh homa fleege, trumuh fleege, maddle flooge.

Sammy Hagar: You keep your G.E.D. certificate in the back of your Ford Maverick, along with all your other possessions.

Ozzy Osbourne: You campaigned for Lyndon LaRouche, but only because you had him mixed up with a cartoon skunk.

Allman Brothers Band: Your kids call the Health and Human Services outreach specialist “Uncle Greg.”

AC/DC: If you can read this, you don’t really qualify as an AC/DC fan.

Yes: Your subwoofers are the envy of your assisted-living facility.

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Friday, March 4, 2011

Gaddafi: It only took me 20 years to look it up

I took a year of Arabic in college. I'm not sure why. I didn't have much educational guidance up to that point, or education, for that matter. I had dropped out of school without completing the ninth grade. So by the time I found my way onto a college campus, I was just sort of running around pell-mell looking at every educational opportunity as unbelievably neato.

What's more, I'd never had a chance to learn about much about the world outside of my beach bum community in central Florida and, as a result, tore through the class catalog like an Adirondack lottery winner tearing through a Sharper Image catalog.

Anyone with even the slightest interest in the Arabic language knows Moammar Gaddafi as the quintessential example of confusing transliteration. It's been spelled with a G, a Kh, and a Q, with variations in the subsequent letters as well.

In the class I took, we followed a transliteration system that used Q to denote the Arabic letter "qof," which has no direct English translation because it requires a throat clucking we don't make except, perhaps, after a regrettable trip to Taco Bell. We used Kh to indicate the letter "kha," which is a throat-rasping K sound that seems to be a little more iconic to the language, at least among Americans. G we reserved for the letter "ghain," which sound almost as if it begins with an R and was described to us as the French R (voice a good, rich "au revoir" and that's the sound we were taught to make). And that's the closest to an English G as you'll find in Modern Standard Arabic.

I knew Gaddafi started with qof, so when I saw it spelled Khaddafi, I figured it was just some alternate transliteration system.

But then at one point, the media started leaning away from the Khaddafi and toward a version that started with a G. I was baffled. Why on earth, in an age where everyone follows the Q-for-qof system when writing Al Qaeda, wouldn't they use a Q for Gaddafi as well?

Finally, I looked it up. According to this article, it's a dialect thing. In Gaddafi's Libya, the qof sounds a lot like our G, so we write it that way. Ironically, finally finding an answer left me just as baffled as I'd been before. Here's why: The first thing they taught us in Arabic class was that different countries and groups have different dialects, but they all speak and understand a universal language, Modern Standard Arabic, which was the language used by the media. To claim to "know" Arabic, you had to know the universal media kind plus at least one dialect. And some dialects varied greatly from Modern Standard Arabic.

And that leads me to wonder why, if the Arab-speaking world can have a whole language that's universal and a perfect fit for mass media, why can't English-speaking outlets take a similarly universal approach to just the Arabic alphabet? If Al Jazeera broadcasts to Libyan viewers in something other than Libyan dialect, can't we all just qof alike?

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It's National Grammar Day!

Celebrate by not looking surprised if someone says, "Happy National Grammar Day."

Other ways to celebrate:

* Impress a friend by using "whom" in a sentence.

* Annoy a stickler by not using "whom" in a sentence.

* Spread the word that there's no rule against ending sentences with prepositions or splitting infinitives.

* Spread the word that Strunk and White didn't understand passive voice.

* Tell a friend who believes "between you and me" is wrong that it's actually better than "between you and I."

* Brush up on one grammar term you either don't know or have forgotten, such as object complement, predicate nominative, or subjunctive.

* Start a sentence with "and."

* Warn a school kid or college kid that even educators can sometimes spread bad grammar advice and that he can always check facts in a good usage guide like Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, Garner's Modern American Usage, or Fowler's.

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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

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

I noticed recently that both major style guides' preferred dictionaries advocate the spelling "doughnut."

Merriam-Webster, which is followed by most book publishers says that "donut" is a variant spelling of "doughnut." Translation: Down with "donut."

Webster's New World, which is followed by most news media, says that "donut" is informal for "doughnut." Translation: We're down with "donut," too.

But the masses, it seems, beg to differ. Doughnut gets about 6.8 million hits on google. But donut gets about 9,830,000.

Usually, I'm pretty awed by lexicographers and how well they do their job. But every once in a while, I just gotta poke holes ...

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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Copy Edit du Jour

The road leads you through flourishing rainforests, flowing waterfalls,
plunging pools and dramatic seascapes.

Changed to:
The road leads you through flourishing rainforests AND PAST flowing
waterfalls, plunging pools and dramatic seascapes.

Any road that leads you through pools isn't much of a road. (I'm still thinking on "flourishing" and "plunging." I'm not too keen on those, either.)

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Monday, January 3, 2011

Enough about me. Let's talk about grammar.

Today marks the launch of my new grammar tips site, Grammar Underground, at

It will have podcasts and blog posts on the topics people ask me about most, approaching the topic from a perspective that’s neither prescriptivist nor descriptivist and but instead focused on helping users blaze their own trail through these warring factions.

I'll continue to blog here the same type stuff I've been doing all along (the whatever-catches-my-fancy-and-hopefully-yours topics). The new site is instructive and focused more specifically on grammar, usage, and punctuation.

Podcasts and blog posts will be updated every Monday. (Yes, I take requests.) And “Snobservations” -- hilariously incorrect grammar rants -- will be updated periodically (I welcome all submissions!).

Grammar Underground is on Twitter at @grammarunder ( and on facebook as Grammar Underground.


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