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Things We Will Never Say

There are certain words or phrases that seem to cast a spell over people. All at once some expression is all the rage, and there is no escaping it. It is hard to say anything positive about this particular manifestation of herd mentality but we’ll try: It’s better than a lynch mob.

Have you noticed how many conversations now start with the word so? “So last night I fell asleep reading War and Peace.” What does “so” add? Where did this come from? How did it start? When did this measly mundane monosyllable become hip?

Here are a couple of other usages that are playing havoc with our blood pressure:

Incentivize  Although a worthless jargon word, incentivize is warmly embraced by the business community. It means simply “to offer incentives to or for.” Some random examples among the many found online: “We ought not to incentivize ignorance of the law.” “Professor says legislature should incentivize utilities to improve efficiency.” “If you are going to incentivize anyone, incentivize the buyer.”

Are you impressed yet? Anyone can turn nouns or adjectives into fancy-sounding verbs by tacking ize on the end, but why do it in this case, when words like motivate, inspire, encourage, and influence are readily available?

Incidentally, not all management mavens welcome incentivize with open arms. The following unhinged disclosure is from a business website: “Next time I hear someone use this I will reach across the board table, smack them with my laptop, then stand over their prostrate body and pour a hot cup of coffee into their ears so the last thing they hear is my voice screaming ‘Incentivize is not a word you ignorant corporate drone!’ ” Uh-oh. Someone has been watching too many Quentin Tarantino movies.

That’s a GREAT question  Up until a few years ago, one might respond to a thoughtful, challenging query with “That’s a good question” or simply “Good question” before answering. It was a low-key, cordial acknowledgment. It was no big deal.

Nowadays, when some big shot is being interviewed, it won’t be long before we hear a hearty “That’s a great question,” even when the question is obvious or routine or insipid.

“That’s a great question” could be dismissed as just a tic, a mindless, reflexive throwaway line. But is it? There may be something else at play. Some interviewees deliver this empty compliment to assume the upper hand—beneath the flattery is a hint of condescension. “That’s a great question” is a double threat: tedious and devious. It’s rarely heartfelt. It is more likely either a stalling tactic or the verbal equivalent of an aristocrat tossing spare change to a peasant.

P.S.: As a public service, this entire article appears with no mention of “trending.”

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Posted on Tuesday, November 17, 2015, at 10:49 am

The Oxymoron: Simply Complicated

An oxymoron is a turn of phrase that contains a contradiction or paradox. Some familiar examples: definite maybe, same difference, poor little rich girl.

The word oxymoron derives from Greek: oxus means “sharp; quick,” and moros means “dull; foolish.” Sharply foolish? Eureka! Oxymoron is itself an oxymoron.

The plural is traditionally oxymora, but some now consider oxymorons acceptable also.

Oxymora have been around for centuries but have never gone out of date. Shakespeare’s plays and poems are teeming with them: “virtuous lie,” “tragical mirth,” “unpriz’d precious maid.” “I must be cruel only to be kind,” says Hamlet. “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” says Juliet to Romeo.

What are we to make of this line from Macbeth: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”? Like any good oxymoron, this one jolts the reader. But when we consider that the words are spoken in tandem by three malevolent she-devils, the paradox makes sense.

Romantic poets like John Keats (“delicious diligent indolence”) and Lord Byron (“melancholy merriment”) were devising oxymora two centuries after Shakespeare. In the twentieth century, this durable figure of speech was embraced by a wide range of artists, from Ernest Hemingway (“young and lovely with the warm, scalding coolness”) to Andy Warhol (“I am a deeply superficial person”). And let’s not forget baseball’s Yogi Berra (“It gets late early out there”).

“The Sound of Silence,” a hit song of the sixties, employed oxymora in both its title and its lyrics: “People talking without speaking, / People hearing without listening.” More recently, the singer-songwriter Ne-Yo’s song “Beautiful Monster” became a No. 1 hit.

Movies have always used oxymora to grab our attention: Where East Is West, Urban Cowboy, Back to the Future, True Lies, Eyes Wide Shut, Slumdog Millionaire, The Little Giant (1933) and The Little Giants (1994), and at least three films titled Silent Scream. The late-sixties shocker Night of the Living Dead inspired the cable-TV megahit The Walking Dead, right down to the oxymoron in the title.

Countless oxymora have made their way into everyday speech: open secret, dry ice, benign neglect, wireless cable. The formal term for a piano, pianoforte, is an oxymoron—in Italian it means “soft loud.” And a sophomore is a “wise fool”—in Greek sophos means “wise,” and moros, as we’ve seen, means “foolish.”

The oxymoron has endured because it is so effective. We never seem to tire of this hardy rhetorical flourish. The mystery of the paradox commands our attention. We ponder the words and ask: How can fair be foul? How can a scream be silent? A great oxymoron underscores life’s ironies and reminds us that the things that matter are complicated.

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Posted on Wednesday, November 11, 2015, at 12:44 pm

Media Watch

What better way to begin a Media Watch column than with headlines? Here are two recent ones that got our attention:

• “Bacteria has sickened more than 100.”
• “Foreclosure crisis makes taught thriller.”

“Bacteria has sickened” is incorrect because has is singular and bacteria is the plural of bacterium. If the headline writer balked at “bacteria have sickened” or “bacterium has sickened,” we can sympathize, sort of—but why not instead write “Germ has sickened more than 100”?

As for that second headline, who confuses taught with taut? This looks like the work of a distracted multitasker.

• “Hundreds packed the stands, looking for a chance to relish in a sense of community.”

You can revel in a sense of community, or you can relish a sense of community, but “relish in” is nonsense.

• “A completely new species of rat was discovered.”

This sentence gives adverbs a bad name. What does “completely” add, except flab?

• “He was forbidden from giving his name.”

Handy rule: Use to, not from, with forbid: “He was forbidden to give his name.”

• “The CEO receives nearly 2,000 times the compensation as an employee.”

Where did “as an employee” come from? It doesn’t fit. Did a prankster sneak in and write it? Make it “The CEO receives nearly 2,000 times the compensation that an employee receives.”

• “Her rivals tried to emulate her.”

Delete “tried to” and make it “Her rivals emulated her.” One does not “try to emulate.” To emulate means “to try to be as good or successful as.” So when we emulate, we’re already trying. The original sentence is gibberish: Her rivals tried to try to be as good as she was.

• “Stainless steel appliances await whomever inhabits the chef’s kitchen next.”

The whomever is incorrect. The writer would argue that whomever was required as the object of “await.” But then the verb “inhabits” would have no subject, because whomever is always an object. You can’t have a verb without a subject, and objects can’t also be subjects, so it has to be “Stainless steel appliances await whoever inhabits the chef’s kitchen next.”

• “He was clutching the leash of his dog, who was also shot.”
• “This is about political influence by a public utility who spends a lot of money in Sacramento.”

The pronoun who applies only to humans. The writer of the first sentence balked at using “which” for the dog. The writer of the second sentence decided that corporations are people. They’re not, at least not grammatically. The fix is easy: “a public utility that spends a lot of money in Sacramento.”


Pop Quiz

The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can make them better. Answers are at the bottom of the newsletter.

1. “Neither her mother or the police believed his denial.”
2. “He is one of the men they can most afford not to lose.”
3. “I see you nodding your head no.”
4. “A cable from he himself established that.”
5. “I am one of many people that are trying to advance the art form.”


Pop Quiz Answers

1. “Neither her mother nor the police believed his denial.”
2. “He is one of the men they can least afford to lose.”
3. “I see you shaking your head no.”
4. “A cable from him himself established that.” (Correct grammar isn’t always pretty.)
5. “I am one of many people that are trying to advance the art form.” CORRECT

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Posted on Monday, November 2, 2015, at 10:51 pm

When Idioms Become Monsters

Close but no cigar, fly off the handle, he is pulling your leg, I was beside myself—we see idioms like these all the time, even though the closer we look, the less sense many of them make.

Sometimes two familiar expressions get jumbled. When that happens, the result is what you might call a “Frankenstein formation,” a nod to the mad scientist who created a monster by conjoining parts that didn’t belong together.

One Frankenstein formation that may never go away is center around. You see and hear it everywhere. Two of the numerous examples found online: “The conflict centers around the atrocities of war.” “My research centers around the geometry of moduli spaces.”

The language scholar Wilson Follett calls center around a “geometrically senseless expression.” It results from mashing together center on and revolve around. Because those phrases are roughly synonymous, over time they merge in the mind.

Some otherwise intelligent language mavens now defend center around, apparently reasoning that if enough heedless people keep saying something, it becomes acceptable. Others are having none of it. As Paul Brians says in Common Errors in English Usage: “Two perfectly good expressions—‘center on’ and ‘revolve around’—get conflated in this nonsensical neologism. When a speaker says his address will ‘center around the topic of’ whatever, my interest level plummets.”

Another hardy Frankenstein formation is fall between the cracks: “News reports flash a daily barrage of stories about children who fall between the cracks.” “Every day this country’s health insurance situation lets people fall between the cracks.”

The original expression is fall through the cracks. People or things that “fall through the cracks” slip away unnoticed and are soon forgotten. If we take a close look at fall between the cracks, we find that it doesn’t convey the intended meaning.

Picture a road surface after an earthquake. Large cracks have opened up. If people fall between these cracks, they have fallen onto the hard surface of the roadway.

Such a fall would certainly do some damage, but when people fall between the cracks, at least they do not disappear through the cracks—we can see them lying on the ground, and maybe we can be of some assistance.

Fall through the cracks refers to a different kind of painful experience: the pain of suffering in isolation.

Fall between the cracks seems to have resulted from scrambling fall through the cracks and fall between two stools, an idiom roughly meaning “to fail,” which dates back to the late fourteenth century.

Although some idioms are revealed as absurd under close analysis, many of them made more sense before time or misuse undermined them. Even if they now strike us as a bit off, like a daft but well-meaning old friend, it is up to us to ensure that nobody addles them further.

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Posted on Tuesday, October 20, 2015, at 9:52 am

Slipshod Extension

Henry W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, published in 1926, is still the greatest of all English grammar guides. The first edition or the lightly revised second edition (1965) is highly recommended.

Sprinkled among Fowler’s entries are topics that typify the author’s innovative approach to the study of grammar. His titles for these entries are often sly, with a soupçon of snark. Some examples: Sturdy Indefensibles, Presumptuous Word-Formation, Unequal Yokefellows, Pairs and Snares, Slipshod Extension.

That last topic is today’s focus, because slipshod extension may be more widespread nowadays than it was ninety years ago. The phrase refers to the maddening tendency of careless or ignorant speakers and writers to debase a word by overextending it beyond its proper meaning.

Calling a spider an insect is slipshod extension of the word insect: a spider is an arachnid. Calling a whale a fish is slipshod extension of the word fish: a whale is a marine mammal.

Here are a few of the countless other words that are susceptible to this lamentable practice:

Alibi  Be careful when you use alibi, originally a Latin word meaning “somewhere else.” When you say, “I have an alibi,” it means that you can prove you were elsewhere when the crime occurred. Fowler said of alibi: “That it should have come to be used as a pretentious synonym for excuse is a striking example of the harm that can be done by SLIPSHOD EXTENSION.”

Dilemma  The di in dilemma (like dichotomy or dioxide) indicates two: if you have a dilemma, it means you’re facing two tough choices. Do not use dilemma when all you mean is predicament. Fowler: “The word is a term of logic, meaning an argument that forces an opponent to choose between two alternatives both unfavourable to him: he is … on the horns of a dilemma, either of which will impale him.”

Literally  As all nitpickers know well and grow weary of saying, literally should be used only with the bare facts—no exaggerations, no analogies. Yet statements like They literally threw him under the bus show no sign of abating. What could be more slipshod than applying literally to an incident that literally never happened? Fowler: “Such false coin makes honest traffic in words impossible.”

Two revised editions of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage have been published in the last twenty years, but those in charge of editing these later versions have overruled many of Fowler’s traditionalist views and insights. In the process they have stifled one of the most distinctive and delightful voices in the field of linguistics.

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Posted on Tuesday, October 13, 2015, at 2:01 pm