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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.

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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

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

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

No Question About It

Let’s see if you can spot what is wrong with this sentence? On closer inspection, most of you will see that the sentence should end in a period rather than a question mark.

Question marks are used only with direct questions. The sentence above certainly contains a direct question: what is wrong with this sentence? However, Let’s see if turns the sentence into an indirect question.

Here is the difference between direct and indirect questions: Do you agree? is a direct question. That same question is embedded in I wonder whether you agree. But now the sentence is a statement. The question is still there, but it is no longer direct.

Sentences that start with Let’s see if, I wonder whether, and the like are statements that ask questions in a roundabout way. Avoid the trap of ending such sentences with question marks.

Some sentences that sound like direct questions are really declarations (What wouldn’t I do for you), requests (Why don’t you take a break), or demands (Would you kids knock it off). Questions like these, which do not require or expect an answer, are called rhetorical questions. Because they are questions in form only, rhetorical questions may be written without question marks.

One-word questions within sentences do not ordinarily take question marks either. There might conceivably be a good reason to write The child asked, why? but that sentence is heavy-handed compared with The child asked why.

When direct questions of more than one word occur in the middle of a sentence, they are generally preceded with a comma, or sometimes a colon, and some writers capitalize the first word: Rantos wondered, How will I escape?

It is not wrong to capitalize a direct question in midsentence. Sometimes it’s a good idea, other times it can be distracting. Many writers would prefer Rantos wondered, how will I escape?—no capital—because the question how will I escape? is clear and concise.

The venerable Chicago Manual of Style offers this handy guideline: “A direct question may take an initial capital letter if it is relatively long or has internal punctuation.” Chicago then provides an example: Legislators had to be asking themselves, Can the fund be used for the current emergency, or must it remain dedicated to its original purpose?

You will notice that the stylebook says “may take,” not “must take.” When it comes to writing questions there is a lot of leeway. Some writers use a colon where others use a comma. Some capitalize where others do not. But an uncalled-for question mark is amateurish in anybody’s book.


Pop Quiz

Fix any sentences that need fixing. Our answers are below.

1. I’d like to ask, what makes you so sure?

2. Why don’t you run along home now?

3. The question is not only how? but also why?

4. I wonder if they’re coming over tonight?

5. I’d like to ask what makes you so sure?


Pop Quiz Answers

1. I’d like to ask, what makes you so sure? CORRECT

2. Why don’t you run along home now.

3. The question is not only how but also why.

4. I wonder if they’re coming over tonight.

5. I’d like to ask what makes you so sure.

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Posted on Tuesday, March 8, 2016, at 3:59 pm