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Confessions of a Guerrilla Grammarian

I was on a mission. It was dicey. It was bold. It had cloak-and-dagger undertones, although the weather was too balmy for a cloak, and rather than a sharp weapon I was wielding a Sharpie Permanent Marker.

Let me set the scene. I live in a charming little tourist trap in Northern California. A couple of years ago the town built a state-of-the-art downtown public restroom. This smallish structure is sleek and sturdy: red brick with gray granite base molding and thick translucent glass-brick detailing.

It opened to great fanfare, but right from the start, something was amiss. And I came to realize that if I didn’t fix it, who would?

I will leave it to my fellow nitpickers to determine whether what I did was the act of a righteous crusader or a nuisance with too much time on his hands.

The two entrances to the facility each feature a white-tile sign. One says “MENS RESTROOM” and the other says “WOMENS RESTROOM.”

For months I walked by those illiterate signs, trying not to look. And as I’d pass, it seemed the signs would taunt me: “Hey, grammar boy,” they’d sneer. “Apostrophes? We don’t need no stinkin’ apostrophes!”

Finally I snapped. One sparkling summer evening I grabbed my Sharpie and fairly galloped downtown. I made my way through a swarm of out-of-towners and painstakingly affixed the requisite punctuation mark to each sign.

I felt I was striking a blow for all long-suffering sticklers who have to stand by helplessly as innocent apostrophes are routinely abused and neglected. Believe me, the sight of MEN’S and WOMEN’S has never been so sweet.

My deed went unnoticed by the early-evening crowd, most of them woozy from exorbitant gourmet burgers and extortionate Hawaiian ice cream. But had I been arrested for defacing public property, I’d have said: “Officer, this is not vandalism. The vandals are the ones who put up those brain-dead signs. What sort of terrible example is this town setting for young people, or visitors from other countries who are trying to learn English?”

I hope you don’t see me as one of those so-called taggers—no-talent grandstanders who go around sabotaging public property with their garish, illegible, or vulgar graffiti. On the contrary, what I did was more like removing a road hazard. That is just good citizenship.

Try telling it to the town’s maintenance department. Every time I walk by the building now, I notice my apostrophes getting fainter—someone is rubbing them out. In what bizarre universe does that constitute civic improvement?

I have a feeling that those signs haven’t seen the last of me and my Sharpie.

Tom Stern


Pop Quiz

The following were taken from actual public signs. Can you fix what ails them? The answers are below.

1. “No dog’s allowed except guide dog’s”

2. “Employee’s must wash there hands before returning to work”

3. “Amazing value everyday”

4. “Violators will be towed and find $50”

5. “Use as part of a prudent diet together with regular excercise”


Pop Quiz Answers

1. “No dogs allowed except guide dogs

2. “Employees must wash their hands before returning to work”

3. “Amazing value every day

4. “Violators will be towed and fined $50”

5. “Use as part of a prudent diet together with regular exercise


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Posted on Wednesday, June 29, 2016, at 10:01 am

Clear as Mud

In the print and broadcast media, new catchwords appear out of nowhere—and suddenly they’re everywhere. Often these are familiar words that have taken on different meanings which no one ever bothers to explain. Today, let’s discuss a couple of these ubiquitous buzzwords.

Optics  This overblown word has become commonplace in news reports. Some random examples:

• “[He] should resign from the commission given the problems associated with the optics of a conflict of interest.”

How important are the optics of this war, and who’s managing them better?”

• “Early in the interview, King demanded: ‘Are you disappointed in the optics of this?’ ”

• “Well, I think, you know, on the optics, optics are politics.”

Used this way, optics is no more than a contrived term for “appearance” or “public perception.” But it sounds oh so scholarly and analytical. At least it did at first.

Pivot  We have the tech world to thank for this one. In the language of that exclusive club, pivot means “to adopt a new strategy when your startup is floundering.”

Nothing is trendier than Silicon Valley, so it is no surprise that we hear a lot of its jargon in the media, where journalists have further modified pivot for their own purposes. Examples:

• “Presumptive candidates pivot to general election.”

• “Parties pivot to capture pre-poll votes.”

• “Trump pivoted to the gun issue.”

• “Did Hillary Clinton’s pivot to Asia work?”

Why not use familiar words like shift or refocus or concentrate on? When journalists opt for re-engineered words like optics and pivot, too often it’s a triumph of affectation over good reporting. We should use words to be clear, not to sound as if we know a secret language.

*                                                         *                                                        *                                                      *

An announcement of a public piano recital included this information: “Sunday, July 17, 2016 from 4:00 PM to 6:00 PM (PDT)

• The rules of punctuation require a comma after 2016. But more to the point, why include the year? Does anyone think this event may be happening in 2017?

• There is no need for :00 after the 4 and the 6. What’s wrong with 4 PM or 6 PM?

• The phrase “from 4:00 PM to 6:00 PM” is ungainly and rambling; make it “4-6 PM.”

• And what could be less necessary than including PDT.* An event taking place on the West Coast would not list a starting time in a different time zone.

So here is our version: Sunday, July 17, 4-6 PM. That says everything the original says, in less than half the space. Why overcomplicate the simple question: When?


*Pacific Daylight Time

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Posted on Wednesday, June 22, 2016, at 10:37 am

Test Your Vocabulary

“Words have a longer life than deeds.”

“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.”

“Proper words in proper places make the true definition of a style.”
—Jonathan Swift

“The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.”
—Ludwig Wittgenstein

Here is another of our intermittent vocabulary tests. The answers directly follow the quiz.


A) sad
B) unaffected
C) humorous
D) agile


A) inspire
B) reduce
C) resist
D) contradict

3. laconic

A) defiant
B) devious
C) lacking energy
D) using few words

4. respite

A) depression
B) constant anger
C) a short period of rest
D) a loud noise

5. ubiquitous

A) everywhere
B) enormous
C) swerving
D) weakened

6. ruminate

A) think deeply about
B) minimize
C) make space for
D) copy

7. demagogue

A) madman
B) outlaw
C) great leader
D) agitator

8. brusque

A) brilliant
B) cheerful
C) abrupt
D) easily offended

9. obfuscate

A) complain
B) clarify
C) confuse
D) mumble

10. ad hominem

A) a tactic used to wear down an opponent through constant repetition
B) a tactic used to win an argument through personal attack
C) a tactic used to distract an opponent by introducing another topic
D) an argument that assumes the truth of a statement that is unproven


1: C) humorous. Her droll observations had me laughing all evening.

2: B) reduce. The panel submitted a plan to mitigateand manage the causes and consequences of violent conflict.

3: D) using few words. His laconic young friend rarely said more than two words at a time.

4: C) a short period of rest. The treaty gave the country a respite from twenty years of war.

5: A) everywhere. Computers have become ubiquitous in everyday life.

6: A) think deeply about. They spent long hours ruminating on what needed to be done.

7: D) agitator. He’s just a power-hungry demagogue with no coherent plan.

8: C) abrupt. I gave him a brusque reply because I was too busy to chat.

9: C) confuse. This is an effort by the agency to obfuscate, misdirect, and conceal.

10: B) a tactic used to win an argument through personal attack. The mayor ignored the issue and launched a ten-minute ad hominem assault on Wilson.

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Posted on Tuesday, June 14, 2016, at 4:26 pm

Copy Editors Are People Too

There can’t be many books about the life and adventures of a professional word doctor, but one that came out in 2015 is definitely worth a look.

It’s Between You and Me, by Mary Norris, a longtime New Yorker copy editor who calls herself a “comma queen.” Norris admits that the book’s very title is a grammar lesson: “My fondest hope is that just from looking at the title you will learn to say fearlessly ‘between you and me’ (not ‘I’).”

Copy editors are those driven souls who spend their days fixing authors’ manuscripts. They cherish a perfectly sharpened No. 1 pencil as if it were a flawless diamond. And they look askance at technology, which breeds terrible language habits. Norris once texted a friend “Gute Nacht” (good night in German), and her autocorrect changed it to “Cute Nachos.”

Norris touches lightly on her pre-New Yorker days. In her teens she checked swimmers’ feet at a public pool and later delivered dairy goods on a milk truck. She first started reading The New Yorker in graduate school at the University of Vermont. She got an entry-level job at the magazine in 1978 and worked her way up to copy editor, working with a roster of illustrious writers that included Philip Roth, James Salter, and George Saunders.

Much of this tidy two-hundred-page book is an informal but informative discourse on grammar and punctuation. The author’s voice is warm and cordial, and also self-assured and feisty. Reading Between You and Me is like sitting at Norris’s table while she speaks about her life and her passion for language.

There are ten chapters, whose titles reflect the book’s breezy tone. Chapter One is called “Spelling Is for Weirdos.” A later chapter is titled “A Dash, a Semicolon, and a Colon Walk into a Bar.”

Early in the book Norris profiles Noah Webster, whose greatest achievement was 1828’s An American Dictionary of the English Language. This hugely successful work established the legitimacy and singularity of the American language.

Webster was an odd man who sometimes just made stuff up and claimed it was true. But he was a scholar of great influence who counted George Washington and Benjamin Franklin among his friends (Franklin felt that the letters c, w, y, and j should be removed from our alphabet).

We have Webster to thank for the American spelling of jail instead of gaol and mold instead of mould. America’s u-less spellings of words like color and flavor (as opposed to the British preference for colour and flavour) are Webster’s doing. He also got the k removed from the end of such words as music and traffic, and got re changed to er at the end of theater and center. But he was unsuccessful in his attempt to get ache changed to ake or soup to soop.

Norris is no prude. She sometimes uses language that would make your Aunt Matilda blush. (“Profanity ought to be fun.”) Still, she is a traditionalist. Even though some publications are now endorsing the “singular they” in sentences such as  someone forgot their keys, instead of his or her keys, Norris won’t hear of it: “ ‘their’ when you mean ‘his or her’ is just wrong.” This past January must have been a bleak month for Norris. That was when the American Dialect Society proclaimed the singular they the Word of the Year for 2015.

This “comma queen” takes her commas seriously: she once asked a writer to justify his use of the comma in “a thin, burgundy dress.” But then Norris is deadly serious about all punctuation—that’s her job. Most amateur writers misuse or ignore hyphens, but they are crucial in the war against ambiguity—can you see the difference between a high-school principal and a high school principal? (“If the school principal is high she should be escorted off the premises.”)

Apostrophes are also endangered. “Are we losing the apostrophe?” Norris asks. “Is it just too much trouble?” The mark’s mistreatment has led to the formation of England’s Apostrophe Protection Society.

Dashes—as opposed to hyphens—can replace quotation marks, periods, colons, and semicolons. Ah yes, semicolons: “Used well, the semicolon makes a powerful impression; misused, it betrays your ignorance.”

Copy editors have devoted their lives to the principle that if people would be conscientious about English, more would be right with the world. Those to whom good grammar and good writing are stimulating topics should spend a little time with Mary Norris. She’s classy company.

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Posted on Wednesday, June 8, 2016, at 9:38 am

Might You Mean May?

What is the difference between may and might? There may have been a clear difference long ago, and there still might be a difference in some sticklers’ minds, but today the two verbs are, with few exceptions, interchangeable.

Grammarians tell us that might is the past tense of may, but that fact, while interesting, does not offer much guidance, considering how frequently we use both may and might to talk about the present (I may/might be ready to leave now) and the future (I may/might call you tomorrow).

Many scholarly discussions of may vs. might state that may is used when something is more likely to happen, and might is used when something is less likely to happen. So when you say I may be ready to leave, there is a good chance you are departing, but when you say I might be ready to leave, you’d probably prefer to stick around awhile.

It is remarkable how many authorities, even today, buy into this. In the 2016 revised edition of Garner’s Modern English Usage, Bryan A. Garner writes, “May expresses likelihood … while might expresses a stronger sense of doubt.”

We find this assertion baffling, and we are not alone. The online American Heritage dictionary says in a usage note: “It is sometimes said that might suggests a lower probability than may … In practice, however, few people make this distinction.” This echoes what the language scholar John B. Bremner wrote forty years ago: “Some lexicographers see a nuance between may and might in the context of probability … If such distinction exists in common language, the distinction is even thinner than nuance.”

Here are some exceptions to the interchangeability of may and might:

• Sometimes might means “should”: You’d think he might be more careful means he should be more careful. No one who speaks fluent English would substitute may for might in that sentence.

• Most of us choose may over might in wishful or hopeful statements, such as May they live happily ever after.

• When a hypothetical sentence is set in the past, might is usually a better option: If she had worked harder, she might have kept her job. But when such sentences are in the present tense, either may or might can be used: If she works harder, she may/might be able to keep her job.

• And you will note that the first word in the title of this article could not possibly be “May.”

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Posted on Tuesday, May 31, 2016, at 4:43 pm