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Nothing Poetic About This Verse

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 smug, as if saying “verse” were something to be proud of? Are they proud because they know about the r? At least they don’t pronounce it “viss.”

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We saw an article online titled “11 overused words you and your friends need to stop saying right now.” The first three on this list are not words so much as verbal tics: like (as in they were, like, an hour late), you know, and um. The rest of the list consists of familiar offenders, including dude, freakin’, and whatever.

We think the author should have added a twelfth entry, one that is right there in his title: need to. This pushy phrase turns mere wishes or opinions into decrees: I need you to open this door. You need to exercise more. He needs to read the Bill of Rights. They need to get it together or go home.

Those who use need to like this are speaking as authorities or moralists who know what is best for all concerned. When something needs to be done, there is no room or time for discussion—just do it or you’ll be sorry.

But examine the next sentence you come across with need to in it. In many cases a more honest—and civil—choice would be it seems advisable, maybe it’s a good idea, would you please, or anything else that’s not so strident and overbearing.

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While we’re at it, there is another phrase that deserves a comeuppance, as seen in these sentences culled from the internet: “He expounded on the concept of mercy.” “She expounded on the virtues of solar power.” “McGrady expounded on the dangers of high-octane fuel leaks.” The writers have misused expound—in all three sentences the correct phrase would be expand on, which means “to discuss at length or in detail.”

To expound is to explain or describe. And expound does not traditionally take the preposition on. Here are a few examples of expound used correctly: “She expounded her theory further in the course of her talk.” “He expounded his materialistic philosophy in a number of books.” “The Masters expounded their teachings in a series of propositions.”

Expound on is popular because it sounds more impressive than the pedestrian expand on … but impressive to whom?

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


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


Media Watch

Let’s begin this installment of “Media Watch” with a headline we could do without:

• “Manning and Co. bring in ’da noise”

Did you catch it? Why the apostrophe? It should not be there unless one or more letters are omitted from the front of da (like the missing be in ’cause). That’s not the case; da is a condescending spelling of the, as uttered by a rowdy football fan. It appears that the headline writer added the apostrophe as a wink to the reader, a way of saying, “Of course, I don’t talk like these hooligans.”

• “This ugly episode must be overcome in favor of defeating ours’ and Russia’s mutual enemy.”

Another diseased apostrophe. The possessive pronoun ours never takes an apostrophe, any more than yourshers, or theirs does. But even if we remove it we are still left with the frightful ours mutual enemy. The sentence calls for the possessive adjective our. So make it either our and Russia’s mutual enemy or Russia’s and our mutual enemy.

• “RMJ is an acronym for Recycle My Junk.”

No, RMJ is an initialism. There is a key difference between acronyms and initialisms. If you can say it as a word, as with NASA or ROM, it is an acronym. If you pronounce each letter, as with FBI or RSVP, it is an initialism.

• “His choice is Jackson, whom he said already knows the job.”

Why is it that so many people seem to use whom only where they shouldn’t? Look what happens if we move he said to the back of the sentence: His choice is Jackson, whom already knows the job, he said. Obviously, the right choice is who, the subject of knows—and emphatically not the direct object of said. So make it His choice is Jackson, who he said already knows the job.

• “Ironically, Shakespeare’s greatest literary contemporary died the same day he did.”

The first word should be “Coincidentally.” When something is ironic, it has a grimly humorous or paradoxical twist, as if the universe were playing a wicked practical joke. Thus, it is ironic if a speeding car crashes into a “drive carefully” sign. But where is the irony here? Do not use ironically when referring to an odd or remarkable coincidence, such as two famous writers dying on the same day.

• “Before they fled, he and his mom had a going-away party.”

The article was about a fugitive who had committed quadruple homicide. We understand that we’re living in the Age of Informality, but there is something spectacularly inappropriate about calling a sociopath’s enabler mother “his mom.”

 

Pop Quiz

The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can make them better.

  1. “It fell a tenth of an inch short of the all-time record.”
  2. “It’s complete trash, garbage—there are other adjectives I’d like to use.”
  3. “One of the suspects immigrated from Syria.”
  4. “How dare him say that?”
  5. “He and his company are flaunting the system.”

 

Pop Quiz Answers

  1. “It fell a tenth of an inch short of the record” (all-time record is a pleonasm).
  2. “It’s complete trash, garbage—there are other nouns I’d like to use.”
  3. “One of the suspects emigrated from Syria.”
  4. “How dare he say that?”
  5. “He and his company are flouting the system.”

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Posted on Tuesday, February 9, 2016, at 3:19 pm


Pleonasms Are a Bit Much

The term pleonasm comes from pleonazein, a Greek word that means “more than enough.” When you use a pleonasm, you are repeating yourself.

The jolly man was happy is a pleonasm: The man was happy says the same thing without the unnecessary addition of “jolly.”

Serious writers want to make their point with a minimum of fuss and clutter. Nothing says fuss and clutter like an ill-advised pleonasm, which can come across as long-winded, pompous, ignorant, laughable, or any combination thereof.

Some pleonasms are obvious (true fact, free gift), others are less noticeable (pick and choose, young boy). They hide in our writing, then jump out and jeer at us for not catching them when we had the chance.

Here is a selection of pleonasms from a variety of sources:

PIN number  PIN is an acronym for “personal identification number.” So a PIN number is a personal identification number number.

“Woman arrested after verbal argument”  The creator of this headline forgot that all arguments are verbal.

“GED graduation begins with unexpected surprise”  Is it a surprise if it’s expected?

“Tips from a self-confessed project management nerd”  Too bad the author of this post wasn’t also a language nerd: self-confessed is a classic pleonasm.

“I’m trying to decide whether or not someone’s worth dating”  Delete “or not” and you’ve said the same thing.

“So blind he can’t see”  This is a line from “Drink Up and Go Home,” a country song from the fifties. It’s supposed to be poignant, but the pleonasm is a distraction.

“I’m told you are a very clever genius”  Attributed to Samuel Goldwyn, American movie mogul (1879-1974).

Some pleonasms are used intentionally, for emphasis. An exasperated mother tells her unruly child, “Never, ever do that again!” Few parents would second-guess that “ever.” A jilted lover writes to his sweetheart that she has left him “utterly devastated.” The poor man is swept up in the trauma and drama of rejection. Who would be so peevish as to inform him that, technically, “devastated” by itself gets the point across?

In A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage Cornelia and Bergen Evans defend purposeful pleonasms: “A man who never said an unnecessary word would say very little during a long life and would not be pleasant company … In writing, as in conversation, an economical use of words is not always what we want.”

However, we think the Evanses would agree that a mindless redundancy is not ever what we want.

 

Pop Quiz

The sentences below contain pleonasms. Which words or phrases could be removed with no change in meaning? (Example: the word true in true fact is superfluous.) Our answers are below.

  1. Too late the soldiers realized that they were surrounded on all sides.
  2. Randy wore a big smile on his face.
  3. When we saw the final results, we were all in shock.
  4. We were given a grand tour of the capitol building.
  5. Rachelle has been appointed to the post of director of information.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

  1. on all sides
  2. on his face
  3. final
  4. building
  5. to the post of

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Posted on Tuesday, January 26, 2016, at 2:38 pm


Rules, Policies, and Judgment Calls

Readers seemed to enjoy “Are Two r’s One Too Many?” our column about the pronunciation of February. But we also received a few emails like this one: “Why on earth is there an apostrophe in the title??”

We understand the reader’s concern. Starting in grade school, English teachers rail against sentences like “Banana’s make good snack’s.” Students learn early on that only careless or clueless writers use apostrophes to pluralize nouns.

However, there are certain exceptions. When a rule leads to perplexity rather than clarity, writers and editors will make adjustments. For instance, the use of apostrophes strikes us as the simplest and most practical way to pluralize is and was in a sentence like Jones uses too many is’s and was’s. You may feel you have a better solution, but the is’s and was’s solution is not wrong. It is endorsed by many reputable language authorities.

These days, initialisms like TV or RSVP are made plural simply by adding a lowercase s without an apostrophe: TVsRSVPs. But to pluralize abbreviations that end in S, we advise using an apostrophe: They sent out two SOS’s.

Imagine the confusion if you wrote My a’s look like u’s without apostrophes. Readers would see as and us, and feel lost.

This brings us back to our title and the phrase “two r’s.” The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) endorses “Mind your p’s and q’s.” The Practical English Handbook by Floyd C. Watkins, William B. Dillingham, et al., sanctions “four c’s,” but the book also accepts “four cs,” presumably because the difference between c in italics and s in roman typeface is sufficient for attentive readers.

There is no definitive rule for using apostrophes (or not) to form plurals in special cases like these. For many decades The New York Times wrote the 1920’s. Then the paper changed its policy in late 2012, and now writes the 1920s like most of the rest of us. And though CMOS recommends “p’s and q’s,” it prefers yeses and nos to yes’s and no’s. One wonders if CMOS would prefer ises and wases to is’s and was’s—because to us, ises and wases is too obscure to be a practical solution.

So to avoid similar confusion, we went with “Two r’s” and not “Two rs” in our title. We didn’t feel comfortable signing off on something that looked like a typo.

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Posted on Tuesday, February 10, 2015, at 4:23 pm