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Pronunciation Only Matters When You Speak

A cautionary tale for those who are cavalier about pronunciation: In 2003, the then president of the United States made his first presidential visit to Nevada and repeatedly pronounced it “nuh-VAHD-a.” Residents of the state got testy—it’s nuh-VAD-a, and they felt that the commander in chief should know it. The next time he spoke there, he made sure to say “nuh-VAD-a,” adding archly, “You didn’t think I’d get it right, did you?”

Here are some other pronunciations to ponder:

Vase  The Brits say “vahz,” but we don’t. It rhymes with face or phase in American speech.

Decadent   Given the state of things, this is a word you hear a lot, but not its traditional pronunciation: dik-CAY-dint (first two syllables pronounced like decay), rather than DECK-a-dint. We have to admit that this one is all but a lost cause, although if you think about it, it makes sense to stress the decay in decadent.

Cadre  We recommend CAD-ree. Yes, we know cadre is now commonly pronounced KAH-dray, but it wasn’t always so. In the 1960s the preferred pronunciation was KAH-der, with CAD-ree as an alternative. KAH-dray was not an option.

Culinary  You can’t go wrong with KYOO-lin-ary, although these days you are more likely to hear CULL-in-ary, or even COO-lin-ary. In 1956, Webster’s New World listed only KYOO-lin-ary. In 1966, The Random House Dictionary of the English Language preferred KYOO-lin-ary but made CULL-in-ary a second option. Regrettably, the online American Heritage dictionary now leads with CULL-in-ary, but it lists KYOO-lin-ary second.

Acumen  This word for “keen insight” is usually pronounced “ACK-ya-min,” but many sticklers object. The 1956 Webster’s allowed only uh-KYEW-min (rhymes with luck human), but ten years later, Random House listed ACK-ya-min as a second choice. The Oxford online dictionary accepts ACK-ya-min but still prefers uh-KYEW-min. So do we.

Schizophrenia  We prefer skit-sa-FREE-nia, and so do we (joke). Nowadays there is general agreement on the first two syllables: skit-sa. But are the next two syllables pronounced “FREE-nia” or “FREN-ia”? The 2014 Webster’s New World and the online American Heritage accept both. But going back a few decades, the 1968 Random House American College Dictionary accepts only FREE-nia. And get this: it prefers skiz-a-FREE-nia, the “skiz” rhyming with whiz. It lists skit-sa-FREE-nia second. No FREN-ia in sight.

Halley’s Comet  Make it HAL-lee’s. The two l’s make Halley an exact rhyme with valley. The last name of the astronomer Edmund Halley (1656-1742) is often mispronounced HAY-lee. That would be understandable if it were “Haley’s Comet,” a frequent misspelling. Some say HAH-lee’s or HAW-lee’s, both of which are more acceptable than HAY-lee’s.

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Posted on Tuesday, April 26, 2016, at 4:46 pm

The Rise and Fall of Vogue Words

In the last two weeks, on various radio and television programs, I have heard the word granular used no less than five times, in sentences like “The commission was hoping for a granular analysis of the problem.”

The word got my attention, but I didn’t know what it was supposed to mean. All I knew was that the pundits who said “granular” were not talking about actual granules or particles or grainy surfaces.

I looked up granular on the regularly updated online American Heritage dictionary, and found this: “Having a high level of detail, as in a set of data: a more granular report that shows daily rather than weekly sales figures.”

Are we witnessing the birth of a new fad word? We’ll see if granular catches on—it’s off to a pretty good start.

Language watchers have taken notice. One of them groused on the internet: “What is wrong with using words we already have available, like specific versus general and detailed versus summary? There is no good reason to posit another meaning of ‘granular’ simply in order to sound more attuned to the latest fad in management … This impoverishes the language.”

In 1926, the linguist Henry Fowler coined vogue word to describe a word that emerges “from obscurity” to become inexplicably popular. “It is often, but not necessarily, one that by no means explains itself to the average man, who has to find out its meaning as best he can.” Fowler added, “Ready acceptance of vogue words seems to some people the sign of an alert mind; to others it stands for the herd instinct and lack of individuality.”

Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage has a substantial list of vogue words and phrases that includes downsize, empower, proactivesynergy, user-friendly, at the end of the day, and worst-case scenario. These have all made the transition from fresh and edgy to stale and tedious. Today’s catchiest vogue words and phrases will be tomorrow’s clichés. The rest of them just wear out and vanish after a period of manic overuse by the public.

Many vogue words are lifted from science, technology, and academia. People use these imposing expressions with little or no understanding of their meanings. Why say it raises the question when saying it begs the question sounds smarter? But to beg the question means something else entirely: it is a scholarly term for reaching unwarranted conclusions.

And why say limits or boundaries when you can wow ’em with parameters, which made a splashy debut as a vogue word a few decades ago. Soon after the word took off, the language scholar Theodore Bernstein wrote, “Parameter is a mathematical term … that many people are using—correction: misusing—to sound technical and impressive.”

Finally, let’s not overlook the commercial potential of trendy language. If big corporations co-opt vogue words to move products, that’s just savvy marketing. A fast-food chain now offers an Artisan Grilled Chicken Sandwich. At first glance it looks like any other assembly-line sandwich, but I know it’s artisan—that means good, right?—because it says so in big capital letters right there on the cardboard packaging.

—Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, April 19, 2016, at 7:54 pm

Punctuation or Chaos

She said I saved the company

No one knows for sure what the above sentence means. It consists of six everyday words, and the first five are monosyllables, yet this simple declarative sentence has at least three quite different
meanings—maybe more, because with no period on the end, the reader can’t even be sure the sentence is complete. As it stands, we don’t know whether “she” or “I” saved the company. We don’t even know who was talking. Look:

She said I saved the company.
• She said, “I saved the company.”
• “She,” said I, “saved the company.”

Without punctuation marks, a sentence is thrown into chaos. So please spend a few minutes assessing your punctuation proficiency by taking the quiz below. The answers directly follow the test.

* NOTE: This quiz addresses punctuation rules and conventions of American English.

Punctuation Quiz

A) The ship arrives at 8 p.m.. Be on time.
B) The ship arrives at 8 p.m. Be on time.
C) A and B are both correct.

A) The teacher said, “This is an example of ‘an eye for an eye.’ ”
B) The teacher said, “This is an example of ‘an eye for an eye’.”
C) The teacher said, “This is an example of ‘an eye for an eye’ ”.

A) Lamar is a bright, happy, child.
B) Lamar is a bright happy child.
C) Lamar is a bright, happy child.

A) If I may be perfectly frank I think it’s a bad plan.
B) If I may be perfectly frank, I think, it’s a bad plan.
C) If I may be perfectly frank I think, it’s a bad plan.
D) If I may be perfectly frank, I think it’s a bad plan.

A) Ask me Wednesday. We will know more then.
B) Ask me Wednesday; we will know more then.
C) A and B are both correct.

A) We have come up with a travel choice for this summer; Mexico City.
B) We have come up with a travel choice for this summer: Mexico City.
C) A and B are both correct.

A) The four siblings can read each other’s minds.
B) The four siblings can read each others’ minds.
C) The four siblings can read each others’s minds.
D) The four siblings can read each others minds.

A) All the student’s favorite teacher is Mrs. Baines, but Mrs. Baine’s idea of a good time is fishing.
B) All the students’ favorite teacher is Mrs. Baines, but Mrs. Baine’s idea of a good time is fishing.
C) All the student’s favorite teacher is Mrs. Baines, but Mrs. Baines’ idea of a good time is fishing.
D) All the students’ favorite teacher is Mrs. Baines, but Mrs. Baines’s idea of a good time is fishing.

A) Our daughter is two-years-old now.
B) Our daughter is two years old now.
C) Our daughter is two-years old now.
D) Our daughter is two years-old now.

A) After reviewing the up to date documents, she pushed for environmentally-friendly practices.
B) After reviewing the up to-date documents, she pushed for environmentally-friendly practices.
C) After reviewing the up-to-date documents, she pushed for environmentally-friendly practices.
D) After reviewing the up-to-date documents, she pushed for environmentally friendly practices.

A) These are just words on paper- you can choose to disagree with them.
B) These are just words on paper – you can choose to disagree with them.
C) These are just words on paper—you can choose to disagree with them.
D) A, B, and C are all correct.

A) I hope you enjoyed yourself (why do I worry about that?).
B) I hope you enjoyed yourself (why do I worry about that?)
C) I hope you enjoyed yourself (why do I worry about that.)
D) I hope you enjoyed yourself (why do I worry about that).



1. B) See Periods, Rule 2

2. A) See Quotation Marks, Rule 7

3. C) See Commas, Rule 2

4. D) See Commas, Rule 4a

5. C) See Semicolons, Rule 1a

6. B) See Colons, Rule 1a

7. A) See “Each Other vs. One Another” (Newsletter of Sept. 29, 2015, tenth paragraph)

8. D) See Apostrophes, Rules 1c and 2a

9. B) See Hyphens, Rule 4

10. D) See Hyphens, Rules 1 and 3

11. C) See Hyphens, intro (first paragraph)

12. A) See Parentheses, Rule 2b

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Posted on Wednesday, April 13, 2016, at 9:43 am

When Branding Undermines Spelling

• Spring is in the air, which means that in America, major-league baseball is on the air. In San Francisco, two members of the hometown Giants’ broadcast team are former major-leaguers Mike Krukow (pronounced CREW-ko) and Duane Kuiper (KY-per). The team’s publicity department refers to these popular announcers as “Kruk” and “Kuip,” which we are meant to pronounce “cruke” and “kipe.” But baseball greenhorns see “Kruk” and “Kuip” and say “cruck” and “quip.”

• In Hollywood, good things have started to happen for a talented young entertainer called King Bach, who got his start by making YouTube videos.

Most readers over thirty will look at the name and pronounce it “King Bock.” But once you learn that the young man’s real name is Andrew Bachelor, you realize that “Bach” is supposed to rhyme with match.

Why the haywire spelling of celebrity nicknames nowadays?

The culprit is “branding,” which a business website defines as “the process involved in creating a unique name and image for a product in the consumers’ mind.” By the way, note the cynicism lurking in that phrase “consumers’ mind”—shouldn’t it be “minds”? Evidently, marketing departments view the public as little more than a pliable homogeneous organism.

Why can’t Krukow and Kuiper be “Kruke” and “Kipe”? And why doesn’t Andrew Bachelor call himself “King Batch”? Apparently, a commandment of branding is that you may lop letters off if it makes the moniker more catchy, but you must not alter the spelling to make the pronunciation more reader-friendly, because that would taint the brand and perplex the pliable homogeneous organism.

Subverting long-established conventions of phonetic spelling with sobriquets like “King Bach” and “Kruk” and “Kuip” may irk some of us, but these corporate misspelling tactics mirror the popular culture’s penchant for glib but irrational abbreviations. Consider the mass acceptance of “mic,” which has been driving word nerds batty for years.

“Mic” is a bogus abbreviation of microphone. (Chances are, your neighborhood pub has a regular “open mic” night on its calendar.) But for decades before the intrusion of “mic,” the word was mike: “Ike is good on a mike” went a line from a popular early-1950s jingle about presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower.

There is also a verb to mike, meaning “to place a microphone near.” But if you buy into “mic,” what would the past tense of “to mic” be? Was the speaker micd? mic’d? miced?

A bicycle is a bike, not a “bic.” So let’s get over this dopey notion that a microphone is a “mic.”

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Posted on Monday, April 4, 2016, at 6:32 pm

Autoantonyms Speak with a Forked Tongue

An autoantonym (pronounced auto-ANTA-nim) is a word with two opposite meanings. A familiar example is the Hawaiian word aloha, which means both “hello” and “goodbye.”

Autoantonyms (also known as contranymscontronyms, and Janus words) are not rare. We see, hear, and use them all the time. Too often, miscommunication ensues.

It’s awful when you think you said “purple” but the whole world heard “green.” The great challenge of speaking and writing is to convey your intended meaning and avoid misunderstandings. This is why autoantonyms, with their split personalities, must be recognized and remedied before they do their mischief. Here are a few examples:

Off  It doesn’t necessarily mean “not operating”: First the lights went off, then the alarm went off. What happened after the lights went off? Did the power outage trigger the alarm system or shut it down?

With  This word can mean “side by side” or “in opposition to.” Maxine fought with Charles to gain custody of her daughter. It is unclear whether Charles was helping or hindering Maxine in her efforts to gain custody.

Finished  Accomplished successfully or ruined? Thanks to my investors, this film is finished. Either the investors’ generosity was instrumental in the film’s completion or their interference doomed the project.

Oversight  It is the act of rigorously keeping your eye on something or negligently taking your eye off something.  Your oversight proved to be the difference between success and failure could mean “your diligence was crucial to our success” or “your carelessness caused us to fail.”

Trim  After we trimmed our Christmas tree, it was a perfect fit for the living room. Did the family adorn the tree or prune it?

Left  Who’s left? It can mean “Who has departed?” or “Who is still here?”

Some autoantonyms are phrases, even complete sentences. The expression I could care less has befuddled linguists for decades because it usually means “I could not care less.”

The hipster culture devises autoantonyms to confound society’s mainstream. Throughout most of the twentieth century, jive meant both “jazzy, swinging” and “empty, fraudulent.” For over fifty years, bad and wicked have been hip terms for “great.” More recently, sick has come to mean “ridiculously excellent.” A bomb used to be an embarrassing flop, but all that changed when it’s da bomb! became high praise.

The standard definition of uptight is “inhibited, unable to enjoy life.” But it once meant “as good as it gets.” The singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder scored a big hit with his 1966 album Up-Tight. Would Wonder have chosen an album title that meant “inhibited”?

Slim chance—or, to put it another way, fat chance.


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Posted on Thursday, March 31, 2016, at 7:29 am