Sign Up For Our Free Grammar E-Newsletter

Give the Gift of Pedantry

If there is a logophile—word lover—on your holiday gift list, you can’t go wrong with What in the Word? by Charles Harrington Elster. Elster is a formidable scholar, but he has written a book that is fun to read, yet packed with information.

Scattered throughout the book’s seven chapters are astute quotations, “fascinating facts,” and “bodacious brainteaser” quizzes on grammar trivia. Numerous sidebars hold forth on topics that range from frivolous to esoteric. We learn, for instance, that “there are more synonyms for drunk than for any other word in the language”—over 2,660 of them (including quilted, upholstered, and iced to the eyebrows). And did you know that Noah Webster, who wrote the first American dictionary, was an insufferable prig; and Socrates was an “arrogant runt” whose wife despised him?

Each chapter has a brief introductory essay, followed by a series of questions and answers. The questions are from the author’s readers and fans. This format could quickly become tedious, but the discussions are on topics every armchair linguist has wondered about, and the answers are crisp, informed, and entertaining.

Chapter One deals with “word histories, mysteries, hoaxes, and hype.” A couple of examples: all decked out does not come from sailing. It comes from dekken, a Dutch word meaning “to cover.” Xmas (as a stand-in for Christmas), thought by some to be a modern monstrosity, has been around since the sixteenth century.

Chapter Two covers bad usage that is gaining acceptance. The author’s contempt for comprised of (always incorrect) and ’til (use till instead) will warm every nitpicker’s heart. In the chapter’s intro, Elster discusses good and bad change: “Change that springs from creativity, that is advanced by need, and that is reinforced by utility is unobjectionable. But change that results from ignorance, pomposity, eccentricity, a mania for fashion, or a desire for novelty is suspect.”

Chapter Three offers a trove of esoteric words: The philtrum is the groove that runs from the nose to the upper lip. A logophile loves words, but a logolept is obsessed with them. A librocubiculist is one who likes to read in bed (the author made that word up—he does that).

Chapter Four deals with “distinctions, clarifications, niceties, and other little things” that may help writers refine their style. Use a, not an, before historic, heroic, and other words that begin with an audible h. Avoid in regards to (make it in regard to) and shun irregardless (just say regardless). Anyone who disagrees is a grobian (“a rude, clownish, blundering oaf”).

Chapter Five, on the spoken word, mainly addresses pronunciation. When we say homage and flaccid, we should pronounce them HAHM-ij and FLAK-sid, not oh-MAHZH and FLASS-id. We should also enunciate clearly and not say “claps” instead of collapse, “yerp” for Europe, or “jeet” when we ask, “Did you eat?”

Chapter Six covers Americanisms. Jim Crow was originally a nineteenth century song-and-dance number. Thomas Jefferson made up the word belittle. And who knew that glitch is a Yiddish word? In this chapter the author claims—apparently in all seriousness—that the word ginormous was invented by his daughters. (If so, Dad should be proud that ginormous is listed in the 2014 edition of the Webster’s New World College Dictionary.)

The seventh and final chapter is a catch-all for information that “just didn’t fit anywhere else.” Here are some highlights:

• The second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary contains around 616,500 words. (Approximate number of words in the German language: 185,000.)

• The average educated adult’s vocabulary: twenty-five thousand to forty thousand words.

• The word nth is one of English’s very few legitimate vowel-less words (two others: hmm and psst).

• The word set has more meanings (almost two hundred) than any other word in English.


Pop Quiz

Here are a few quiz questions from What in the Word? by Charles Harrington Elster. Answers are at the bottom of the newsletter.

1. We write P.S. to add something at the end of a letter or an email. What does P.S. stand for?

2. Which is the correct spelling:
A) forceable
B) force-able
C) forcible
D) forcable

3. Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Frost, Allen Ginsberg: Which poet wrote which famous first line?
A) “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”
B) “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”
C) “It was many and many a year ago”

4. What well-known proverbs are hiding in these pompous paraphrases:
A) Hubris antedates a gravity-impelled descent.
B) Abstention from speculatory undertaking precludes achievement.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. In Latin, postscriptum; in English, postscript.

2. C) forcible

A) Frost, “Mending Wall”
B) Ginsberg, “Howl”
C) Poe, “Annabel Lee”

A) Pride comes before a fall.
B) Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Monday, November 30, 2015, at 6:43 pm

They Never Said That

The popular culture has always had an uncanny ability to misuse, misinterpret, misrepresent, and misquote. Its adherents believe that Columbus discovered America and George Washington had wooden teeth and dog saliva cleanses flesh wounds.

The other day I heard a goofy radio guy say, “Till death do we part.” He thought “do us part” was ungrammatical. (He was wrong: it’s not we who are doing the parting. The line means “until death parts us.”)

Here are some other familiar sayings that have run into a little turbulence along the way …

“Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink. The words “and not a” can’t be found in the famous couplet from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798). Here is how Coleridge wrote it: “Water, water, everywhere, / Nor any drop to drink.”

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. There are several memorable lines from Alexander Pope’s 1711 poem “An Essay on Criticism.” This is almost one of them. But Pope wrote that “a little learning” is a dangerous thing. Knowledge and learning are hardly synonyms.

“Gild the lily” is supposedly from Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John. The correct quotation is, “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily.”

• “Come up and see me some time” was actress Mae West’s signature line, but the bodacious blonde didn’t say it. In She Done Him Wrong (1933), Ms. West says to Cary Grant, “Why don’t you come up some time and see me.”

“Play it again, Sam. That line might put a lump in your throat if you’ve ever seen the 1942 movie Casablanca. But it’s nowhere to be found in that great film. What Ingrid Bergman says is, “Play it once, Sam. For old times’ sake.”

“Elementary, my dear Watson.” Everyone knows this patronizing utterance by Sherlock Holmes to his overmatched colleague Dr. Watson, but the line appears nowhere in any of the books and tales by Holmes’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I’m told it comes from the 1929 film The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Watson says, “Amazing, Holmes.” Holmes replies, “Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary.”

“Beam me up, Scotty” was never said by William Shatner’s Captain Kirk in the original Star Trek TV series.

“Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast.” This is a misquotation from William Congreve’s play The Morning Bride. Congreve (1670-1729) wrote “savage breast,” not “beast.” I’m guessing the error can be attributed in part to good old American prudery, as demonstrated by this passage from a recent newspaper column: “He actually wrote ‘the savage breast.’ But this being a family newspaper, we went with the popular misquote.” Very good, sir. And tonight’s special is mesquite-grilled chicken chest.

Tom Stern

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, November 24, 2015, at 2:09 pm

Things We Will Never Say

There are certain words or phrases that seem to cast a spell over people. All at once some expression is all the rage, and there is no escaping it. It is hard to say anything positive about this particular manifestation of herd mentality but we’ll try: It’s better than a lynch mob.

Have you noticed how many conversations now start with the word so? “So last night I fell asleep reading War and Peace.” What does “so” add? Where did this come from? How did it start? When did this measly mundane monosyllable become hip?

Here are a couple of other usages that are playing havoc with our blood pressure:

Incentivize  Although a worthless jargon word, incentivize is warmly embraced by the business community. It means simply “to offer incentives to or for.” Some random examples among the many found online: “We ought not to incentivize ignorance of the law.” “Professor says legislature should incentivize utilities to improve efficiency.” “If you are going to incentivize anyone, incentivize the buyer.”

Are you impressed yet? Anyone can turn nouns or adjectives into fancy-sounding verbs by tacking ize on the end, but why do it in this case, when words like motivate, inspire, encourage, and influence are readily available?

Incidentally, not all management mavens welcome incentivize with open arms. The following unhinged disclosure is from a business website: “Next time I hear someone use this I will reach across the board table, smack them with my laptop, then stand over their prostrate body and pour a hot cup of coffee into their ears so the last thing they hear is my voice screaming ‘Incentivize is not a word you ignorant corporate drone!’ ” Uh-oh. Someone has been watching too many Quentin Tarantino movies.

That’s a GREAT question  Up until a few years ago, one might respond to a thoughtful, challenging query with “That’s a good question” or simply “Good question” before answering. It was a low-key, cordial acknowledgment. It was no big deal.

Nowadays, when some big shot is being interviewed, it won’t be long before we hear a hearty “That’s a great question,” even when the question is obvious or routine or insipid.

“That’s a great question” could be dismissed as just a tic, a mindless, reflexive throwaway line. But is it? There may be something else at play. Some interviewees deliver this empty compliment to assume the upper hand—beneath the flattery is a hint of condescension. “That’s a great question” is a double threat: tedious and devious. It’s rarely heartfelt. It is more likely either a stalling tactic or the verbal equivalent of an aristocrat tossing spare change to a peasant.

P.S.: As a public service, this entire article appears with no mention of “trending.”

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, November 17, 2015, at 10:49 am

The Oxymoron: Simply Complicated

An oxymoron is a turn of phrase that contains a contradiction or paradox. Some familiar examples: definite maybe, same difference, poor little rich girl.

The word oxymoron derives from Greek: oxus means “sharp; quick,” and moros means “dull; foolish.” Sharply foolish? Eureka! Oxymoron is itself an oxymoron.

The plural is traditionally oxymora, but some now consider oxymorons acceptable also.

Oxymora have been around for centuries but have never gone out of date. Shakespeare’s plays and poems are teeming with them: “virtuous lie,” “tragical mirth,” “unpriz’d precious maid.” “I must be cruel only to be kind,” says Hamlet. “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” says Juliet to Romeo.

What are we to make of this line from Macbeth: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”? Like any good oxymoron, this one jolts the reader. But when we consider that the words are spoken in tandem by three malevolent she-devils, the paradox makes sense.

Romantic poets like John Keats (“delicious diligent indolence”) and Lord Byron (“melancholy merriment”) were devising oxymora two centuries after Shakespeare. In the twentieth century, this durable figure of speech was embraced by a wide range of artists, from Ernest Hemingway (“young and lovely with the warm, scalding coolness”) to Andy Warhol (“I am a deeply superficial person”). And let’s not forget baseball’s Yogi Berra (“It gets late early out there”).

“The Sound of Silence,” a hit song of the sixties, employed oxymora in both its title and its lyrics: “People talking without speaking, / People hearing without listening.” More recently, the singer-songwriter Ne-Yo’s song “Beautiful Monster” became a No. 1 hit.

Movies have always used oxymora to grab our attention: Where East Is West, Urban Cowboy, Back to the Future, True Lies, Eyes Wide Shut, Slumdog Millionaire, The Little Giant (1933) and The Little Giants (1994), and at least three films titled Silent Scream. The late-sixties shocker Night of the Living Dead inspired the cable-TV megahit The Walking Dead, right down to the oxymoron in the title.

Countless oxymora have made their way into everyday speech: open secret, dry ice, benign neglect, wireless cable. The formal term for a piano, pianoforte, is an oxymoron—in Italian it means “soft loud.” And a sophomore is a “wise fool”—in Greek sophos means “wise,” and moros, as we’ve seen, means “foolish.”

The oxymoron has endured because it is so effective. We never seem to tire of this hardy rhetorical flourish. The mystery of the paradox commands our attention. We ponder the words and ask: How can fair be foul? How can a scream be silent? A great oxymoron underscores life’s ironies and reminds us that the things that matter are complicated.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Wednesday, November 11, 2015, at 12:44 pm

Media Watch

What better way to begin a Media Watch column than with headlines? Here are two recent ones that got our attention:

• “Bacteria has sickened more than 100.”
• “Foreclosure crisis makes taught thriller.”

“Bacteria has sickened” is incorrect because has is singular and bacteria is the plural of bacterium. If the headline writer balked at “bacteria have sickened” or “bacterium has sickened,” we can sympathize, sort of—but why not instead write “Germ has sickened more than 100”?

As for that second headline, who confuses taught with taut? This looks like the work of a distracted multitasker.

• “Hundreds packed the stands, looking for a chance to relish in a sense of community.”

You can revel in a sense of community, or you can relish a sense of community, but “relish in” is nonsense.

• “A completely new species of rat was discovered.”

This sentence gives adverbs a bad name. What does “completely” add, except flab?

• “He was forbidden from giving his name.”

Handy rule: Use to, not from, with forbid: “He was forbidden to give his name.”

• “The CEO receives nearly 2,000 times the compensation as an employee.”

Where did “as an employee” come from? It doesn’t fit. Did a prankster sneak in and write it? Make it “The CEO receives nearly 2,000 times the compensation that an employee receives.”

• “Her rivals tried to emulate her.”

Delete “tried to” and make it “Her rivals emulated her.” One does not “try to emulate.” To emulate means “to try to be as good or successful as.” So when we emulate, we’re already trying. The original sentence is gibberish: Her rivals tried to try to be as good as she was.

• “Stainless steel appliances await whomever inhabits the chef’s kitchen next.”

The whomever is incorrect. The writer would argue that whomever was required as the object of “await.” But then the verb “inhabits” would have no subject, because whomever is always an object. You can’t have a verb without a subject, and objects can’t also be subjects, so it has to be “Stainless steel appliances await whoever inhabits the chef’s kitchen next.”

• “He was clutching the leash of his dog, who was also shot.”
• “This is about political influence by a public utility who spends a lot of money in Sacramento.”

The pronoun who applies only to humans. The writer of the first sentence balked at using “which” for the dog. The writer of the second sentence decided that corporations are people. They’re not, at least not grammatically. The fix is easy: “a public utility that spends a lot of money in Sacramento.”


Pop Quiz

The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can make them better. Answers are at the bottom of the newsletter.

1. “Neither her mother or the police believed his denial.”
2. “He is one of the men they can most afford not to lose.”
3. “I see you nodding your head no.”
4. “A cable from he himself established that.”
5. “I am one of many people that are trying to advance the art form.”


Pop Quiz Answers

1. “Neither her mother nor the police believed his denial.”
2. “He is one of the men they can least afford to lose.”
3. “I see you shaking your head no.”
4. “A cable from him himself established that.” (Correct grammar isn’t always pretty.)
5. “I am one of many people that are trying to advance the art form.” CORRECT

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Monday, November 2, 2015, at 10:51 pm