You Can’t Coin What’s Already Coined

Posted on Tuesday, September 20, 2016, at 12:24 pm

Sometimes you hear statements like this: They threw him under the bus, to coin a phrase or To coin a phrase, he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Those who say such things do not understand coin a phrase. You cannot coin a phrase that other people have already used. When you use phrases that have been used before, you are borrowing or repeating a phrase. To coin a phrase is to make one up. For example: To coin a phrase, he’s not the brightest bauble in the brooch. (OK, it’s not great, but at least it’s original.)

We were surprised to find that online dictionaries give the benefit of the doubt to those who misuse coin a phrase. “Said when introducing a new expression or a variation on a familiar one,” says the online Oxford Dictionary. So far, so good. But then Oxford adds, “or ironically to show one’s awareness that one is using a hackneyed expression.” To traditionalists, that part of the sentence is preposterous.

Incredibly, other reputable online dictionaries no longer even acknowledge the original meaning of coin a phrase. The online dictionary produced by Collins, a company that has been around for two centuries, gives only this definition: “said ironically after one uses a cliché.”

The next time you hear someone say coin a phrase, see if you detect an ironic tone. In our experience, very few people use this expression “ironically.” They say it cluelessly.

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The phrase you guys has been around a long time, but it has gained acceptance as the culture becomes more and more informal. Long ago it meant you men, but then girls and women started calling one another “you guys.” At that point, guy took on the meaning it has today: a casual synonym for person.

Many people prefer not to be called a “guy”—especially by overfamiliar strangers. But the specific circumstances should be considered. I’ll be right with you guys would not be out of place down at the neighborhood bar and grill, but it seems inappropriate in expensive restaurants or at formal occasions.

Meanwhile, back at the bar and grill, your waitperson says, “I’ll be right back to take your guys’s order.” Whoa—did you say your guys’s?

It can’t be your. In the phrase you guys, the word you acts as an adjective (like two in the phrase two guys). Adjectives do not change form when the nouns they modify become possessive.

Nor can it be guys’s. Plural nouns ending in the letter s add only an apostrophe to the possessive. We write one guy’s order or two guys’ order, but never two guys’s order. It can only be guys’.

Therefore the correct sentence, if you must say it, is I’ll be right back to take you guys’ order.

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What Is-Is Is, Is Exasperating

Posted on Wednesday, September 14, 2016, at 1:15 pm

Leave it to academia to invent lofty labels for obnoxious habits. You might not know the term nonstandard reduplicative copula, but you probably know what it refers to, and chances are it drives you crazy. We call it “the is-is hiccup”: the addition of a redundant second is in sentences like The truth is is …

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Test Your Vocabulary

Posted on Tuesday, September 6, 2016, at 11:33 am

“One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.” —Johann Wolfgang von Goethe We try to ensure that our vocabulary tests concentrate on “reasonable words.” Do you know the ones listed below? The answers …

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Hyphens: We Miss Them When They’re Gone

Posted on Tuesday, August 30, 2016, at 2:33 pm

Most people ignore hyphens. Those who don’t ignore them often misuse them. “Nothing gives away the incompetent amateur more quickly than the typescript that neglects this mark of punctuation or that employs it where it is not wanted,” wrote the language scholar Wilson Follett. The writer-editor Theodore M. Bernstein was more sympathetic: “The world of …

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Nothing Poetic About This Verse

Posted on Tuesday, August 23, 2016, at 4:42 pm

Have you noticed how the abbreviation vs., meaning “against,” is pronounced these days? People read “Serbia vs. USA for the Gold Medal” and say “Serbia verse USA.” Yes, “verse”—one syllable—although vs. stands for versus here. That’s “verse-uss”—two syllables. When we hear this gaffe over the airwaves, are we imagining things or do the announcers sound …

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