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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

Media Watch

The following are less-than-exemplary snippets from recent newspapers and magazines …

• “The suspect was linked to at least nine different bank robberies.”

Why not just “nine bank robberies”? It would be interesting to know what compelled the writer to add “different.” However, this sentence is not a total loss; it could be shown to youngsters to illustrate the meaning of superfluous.

• “Each has spent their adult lives demeaning and scapegoating.”

This abject sentence could not exist if the writer or his editor had been paying attention. Each is a singular pronoun, and we know the writer knew that, because he wrote “has” rather than the plural “have.” But after the first two words, he got distracted and started writing plurals (“their,” “lives”). The fix is simple: “All have spent their adult lives demeaning and scapegoating.”

• “The company has never been reticent to send promotional missives.”

Reticent is not a fancy synonym for reluctant, as this sentence’s author seems to believe. Reticent traditionally means “silent” or “uncommunicative.” That doesn’t fit here. Still, reticent to is now inescapable, and some authorities consider it acceptable. We consider it an affectation.

• “Brown grew up in a poor, predominately black neighborhood.”

Sometimes writers mistakenly use predominately as an alternative to predominantly, meaning “chiefly, primarily.” Although predominately is technically a word, it’s not easy to pinpoint what it means.

• “Fake it ’til you make it.”
• “And the party rocked on ’til sunrise.”
• “On politically correct language: don’t knock it ’til you try it.”

We see such sentences constantly, but here’s some sound advice: always use till. Many assume that ’til, a contraction of until, is correct. However, till predates until by several centuries, and you won’t find a reference book anywhere that endorses ’til. The writer John B. Bremner declares brusquely, “Either till or until, but not ’til.”

• “At the same time, as other Americans of faith, the majority also identify strongly with their religion.”
• “The enemy wore Army green, just like she did.”

The proper use of as and like continues to elude many writers. In formal writing, both of the above sentences are incorrect. In the first example, make it “like other Americans of faith.” As would be correct only if a verb were involved, e.g., “as other Americans of faith do.” Like is a preposition meaning “similar to” or “typical of,” and that’s what is needed here.

In the second example, the verb “did” in “just like she did” means like is the wrong choice—just similar to she did is clearly nonsense. Use as instead, and make it “just as she did.”

General rule: Use like when it is followed by a noun but no verb: Do it like me. But replace like with as, as if, as though, or the way preceding subject-verb constructions: Do it the way [not like] I taught you. Do it as if [not like] you meant it.


Pop Quiz

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

  1. “He is trying to appeal to both sides, and neither of them are going to be satisfied.”
  2. “There’ll be some upheaval in the market irregardless of who wins.”
  3. “He is relishing in the American dream.”
  4. “It looked as though they just laid down.”
  5. “Clinton vies for support in newly-competitive red states.” (TV graphic)


Pop Quiz Answers

  1. “He is trying to appeal to both sides, and neither of them is going to be satisfied.”
  2. “There’ll be some upheaval in the market regardless of who wins.”
  3. “He is reveling in the American dream.”
  4. “It looked as though they just lay down.”
  5. “Clinton vies for support in newly competitive red states.” (do not hyphenate adverbs ending in ly)

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Posted on Monday, August 15, 2016, at 5:26 pm

Arcane Words and the “Intuitive” Reader

Serious readers, when they are reading literature they consider important, routinely look up any words they do not know.

But there are also “intuitive” readers, who consider themselves of sufficient wisdom to figure out a word just by reading the sentence and trusting their life experience and common sense to grasp the writer’s meaning. Today we will try to expose this policy as wishful thinking.

The three examples below are sentences you might find in print or online. Each contains a possibly unfamiliar word which, if misinterpreted, sabotages the meaning of the sentence.

On a blistering August morning we came upon a 1960 Buick coruscating in the sun.

Understanding coruscating is the key to understanding the sentence. The Intuitive Reader ponders the word, with its echoes of corrosion and rust, and concludes that the car was falling apart. A reader’s first impressions matter, and this reader now is picturing a broken-down old wreck. But coruscating means “sparkling.” In fact, the car in the tale has been lovingly maintained by its owner. The reader now has a distorted view of the author’s main character, and may well go on to misread the intent of the story.

What we heard on the demo sounded like a bashful lad with a limpid voice.

The Intuitive Reader doesn’t have to look up limpid to know that the kid on the demo can forget about a singing career. You can’t make it in the music business with a “limpid” singing voice, for what else could limpid mean but “weak” or “lifeless”? But the reader has it wrong: a limpid voice is pure and crystal clear. The kid’s future looks bright. If he can sing in tune, and his material is strong, he could go places.

The man was in a parlous condition, and a lot of his friends headed for the exit.

Intuitive Readers know what parlez-vous français means, and they know that parlance is a style or manner of speaking. So to them, this sentence might appear to tell a cautionary tale about a “parlous” fellow who gets a proper comeuppance for hogging the conversation one time too many. But in reality the situation is far darker: parlous means “dire” or “precarious.” This man is in trouble. He deserves our compassion, and his fair-weather friends deserve our scorn.

Thanks to the internet, it has never been easier or less time-consuming to look words up. Those who refuse to do so are in constant danger of missing the point.

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Posted on Tuesday, August 2, 2016, at 10:47 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.

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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