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A Sportswriter Cries “Foul!”

by Bruce Jenkins, San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist

The hyphens are coming, and beware—they’re taking over. Commas, not so much. Commas have gone extinct. These are a couple of my pet peeves when it comes to grammatical violations in print. More on that later. In the meantime:

Somehow, a guy named Al showed up in all right, and it’s now “alright.” Nope. Wrong. And I have no time for “anytime.” It has to be two words: any time. Once you’ve written “any hour” or “any minute,” how can you go with “anytime”?

How about the second time in as many days? As many days as what? Should be in two days.

Going forward. It’s not bad grammar, it just has no place. What, as opposed to going backward? Eliminate going forward from every usage, in print or conversation, and it won’t be missed.

Then there’s the sentence that takes forever to reach the point—and by the time you get there, you’re no longer interested:

“The occasion of the Wallace brothers burning down the Gazebo with the very last match at their disposal and then pretending it never happened at the after-party at Bob’s house takes a special place in history.” Taken literally, what takes a special place in history?

As for hyphens, here are a few really dreadful ones I’ve seen in responsible newspapers lately:

The tension-level was high
He’s the odd-man-out
Dare-we-say he was confused?
That’s the elephant-in-the-room
The best record of all-time

Commas? Somehow, they have been deemed unnecessary. More actual examples:

Thanks for trying guys (maybe you should go back to gals)
Don’t go Tiger (go ballistic, or go east)
Say It Ain’t So Spain (it ain’t so hot, either)
“Meaning what ace?” (actually saw this in a David Milch script)
“This isn’t a funeral you know.” (True, but I think my friend Pete recognizes it.)

Then there’s the misplaced apostrophe, so common on the street:

“Fresh sandwich’s”
“She fly’s with her own wing’s”

Long ago, in the press box of the old Comiskey Park in Chicago, there was a sign on the women’s bathroom that said “Ladie’s.” It was a charming sign, in the form of a baseball—seams and all—but that apostrophe drove me nuts. Year after year, covering the Oakland A’s, I wasn’t able to walk past that thing without seething.

Then in 1990 the park closed down. Visitors knew they’d be making their last visit to the storied old yard. On my last night there, about a month before the season ended, I dawdled and stalled until I was the last person in the press box. And I was prepared. I whipped out a bottle of Wite-Out and made that apostrophe vanish.

Postcript: Wayne Hagin, a broadcaster at the time (can’t remember what team), knew about my mission. One night near the very end of the season, he yanked that sign off the bathroom wall and stashed it in his briefcase.

It now resides in the guest room of my house. Ladies welcome.

 


Bruce Jenkins’s new book, Shop Around: Growing Up With Motown in a Sinatra Household, is available in bookstores and on Amazon.com. Jenkins is the son of Gordon Jenkins, who worked with all the greats of the pre-Elvis era (including Judy Garland, Nat “King” Cole, and Sinatra). The Miracles’ “Shop Around,” the first big hit of the Motown empire, turned Bruce’s life around at the age of 12. Shop Around is a book for soul-music lovers and anyone whose parents were on entirely different musical wavelengths.

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Posted on Tuesday, July 26, 2016, at 1:30 pm


The Haves and the Have Gots

In a recent post we bemoaned the widespread overuse of surreal: “Why keep regurgitating surreal when something atypical happens—is that all you’ve got?” A reader found the sentence objectionable: “Really? ‘is that all you’ve got?’ How about ‘all you have’?”

His email insinuated that “all you’ve got” is unacceptable English. Many grammar mavens down through the years have challenged the legitimacy of have got, claiming that the phrase is no more than an ungainly and protracted way of saying have.

But we see an appreciable difference between is that all you’ve got? and is that all you have? Our sentence was meant to convey exasperation—is that all you have? just doesn’t work there. It sounds too dainty.

All you’ve got is good idiomatic English. “Love life. Engage in it. Give it all you’ve got,” wrote the poet Maya Angelou. Does anyone think that changing the last sentence to Give it all you have would be an improvement?

Our emailer will be heartened to learn that an anonymous eighteenth-century grammarian (quoted by Eric Partridge) agreed with him: “It may, therefore, be advanced as a general Rule,—when Possession is implied, it is vulgar to use HAVE in Construction with GOT.”

But today this “general Rule” seems to have gone the way of promiscuous capitalization and commas before long dashes. We consulted our reference library and came up with the following:

Have got has been used … in literary English for more than four hundred years … It is found in the writings of Scott, Austen, Thackeray, Dickens, Morris, Ruskin, Carlyle, and most of the great nineteenth century English authors.” —Bergen and Cornelia Evans, 1957

“The words have got, as in ‘I have got a really good car,’ have long been put down by schoolmaster sticklers as an error, but most authorities agree that it is not.” —Theodore M. Bernstein, 1977

“The phrase have got—often contracted (as in I’ve got)—has long been criticized as unnecessary for have. In fact, though, the phrasing with got adds emphasis and is perfectly idiomatic.” —Bryan A. Garner, 1998

“It’s idiomatic, standard, and especially common when special emphasis is intended … No modern authority with a reputation to lose cares if you use have got for have or must, and you needn’t waste your own energy worrying about it either.” —Charles Harrington Elster, 2005

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Posted on Tuesday, July 19, 2016, at 11:02 am


Spell Check

An online company’s research department has revealed the top misspelled word in each state, based on search-engine queries.

In Iowa and Kentucky the chief troublemaker is maintenance. Arkansas and Utah apparently can’t spell leprechaun—but why would Arkansas and Utah want to? For irony aficionados: drought-plagued California’s top misspelled word is desert. Florida struggles with tomorrow (in more ways than one). Michigan and Oklahoma wonder how to spell gray. We wonder how to misspell it—both gray and grey are acceptable, and it’s hard to imagine any other option. Mississippi has trouble with sergeant, but in all fairness, many sergeants can’t spell Mississippi either. Oh, and Alaska can’t spell Hawaii.

Here is another of our spelling drills. In keeping with our policy, these are words that you hear all the time. You’ll find the answers directly below.

1. Her ___ is her mother’s best friend.

A) step father
B) steppfather
C) step-father
D) stepfather

2. The executives sent a letter of ___ to their best agent.

A) congrachulations
B) congradulations
C) congratulations
D) congrajulations

3. He was acting in ___ to his conscience.

A) obediance
B) obedience
C) obediense
D) obedianse

4. The changing of the seasons is a natural ___.

A) occurence
B) occurance
C) ocurrance
D) occurrence

5. The man wore a suit and had ___ just come from work.

A) evidently
B) evadentally
C) evadently
D) evidentally

6. Tests in the ___ have so far been encouraging.

A) labratory
B) laboratory
C) labrotory
D) laborotory

7. Shonda read the class an ___ from her new play.

A) excerpt
B) excerp
C) excert
D) exerpt

8. The movie was called a ___ by the critics.

A) debokle
B) dibacle
C) debacle
D) dibakle

9. Blane transformed the firm into a sleek ___ that dominated the market.

A) juggernot
B) jugernaut
C) juggernat
D) juggernaut

10. I think I’ll drive to ___ tomorrow.

A) Massachusets
B) Masachusetts
C) Massachusetts
D) Masachusets

 

ANSWERS

1: D) stepfather

2: C) congratulations

3: B) obedience

4: D) occurrence

5: A) evidently

6: B) laboratory

7: A) excerpt

8: C) debacle

9: D) juggernaut

10: C) Massachusetts

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Posted on Wednesday, July 13, 2016, at 7:36 pm


Small Dishes

• Here is the type of sentence that makes grammar sticklers crazy: one of the students forgot to bring their lunch. You probably know this old tune: laissez-faire scholars and editors say the sentence is just fine, whereas nitpickers demand a rewrite because one is singular and their is plural. Things took a turn in January, when the American Dialect Society, siding with the freethinkers, proclaimed the singular they the Word of the Year for 2015, hoping to put to rest a rancorous, energy-draining dispute that has raged for decades.

We now expect to see a revival of themself, as in one of the students helped themself to my lunch. Many proponents of the singular they reject themself, although it has been around for centuries. But when they is singular, themself rather than themselves seems the logical choice. Surely anyone who champions the singular they should also embrace themself, recognizing that monumental decisions have unintended consequences.

May the best man win is an old catchphrase that boxing referees used to say to two fighters about to contend for the championship. It has also been applied to politics—the author Gore Vidal wrote a memorable 1960 Broadway play titled The Best Man, a sophisticated study of two political rivals vying for the presidency. The saying seems to violate a basic grammatical principle: A superlative adjective (best) should only be used to compare three or more entities. When comparing A to B, we say A is better than B; we do not say A is the best of the two. Therefore, shouldn’t the referee say, “May the better man win”? And shouldn’t the play be retitled The Better Man?

Context is all. To qualify for a shot at the boxing championship, both combatants have had to take on and beat top contenders in their weight class. So when the referee says “best man,” he is including and saluting all the valiant fighters who came up short. Similarly, in U.S. politics the race comes down to the nominees from the two major parties, but only after a ferocious, protracted process of elimination. Anyone who witnessed the 2016 presidential brawl, with its never-ending parade of challengers, will vouch for the legitimacy—grammatically speaking—of Vidal’s title.

Amazing and awesome are the two reigning go-to adjectives for those afflicted with acute vocabulary anemia. Now a third word has joined this select company: surreal. It is used to describe everything from a transformative experience to a chocolate cookie. Some random online examples: “It is, in many ways, a surreal conflict.” “Realtor: Irvington housing market is surreal.” “ ‘It’s a surreal moment I’ll never forget,’ Carlson said of putting on the Cardinals uniform.”

Why keep regurgitating surreal when something atypical happens—is that all you’ve got? If you dig deep, you might come up with astounding, memorable, outlandish, peculiar, startling, unearthly … really, the possibilities are endless.

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Posted on Tuesday, July 5, 2016, at 1:07 pm


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