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Word Nerds: Verbal Custodians Trapped in a Time Warp

A big drawback to a column like this is being perceived as having insufferable attitude: “So, Mr. Expert, I guess you think you’re so superior.”

It’s not like that. Word nerds do custodial work. A lot of brilliant people can’t write. Ernest Hemingway was a terrible speller. Word nerds don’t think they’re “better”—do janitors think they’re better than the office workers they clean up after?

I often wonder why I bother about details that concern so few normal people. Oh, I know what Arthur Conan Doyle said: “[T]he little things are infinitely the most important,” but on the other hand, I once saw Dick Cavett take a swipe at noted Harvard law professor-author Alan Dershowitz by correcting his grammar. Dershowitz made a sour (but unperturbed) face and shot back that unlike Cavett, he was too busy making a difference in the world to worry about language trivia.

So it’s not about word nerds’ delusions of superiority. We feel like anachronisms, displaced in a world of shifting values and priorities. We live in an idealized past. We each have our own preferred era, be it the time of Shakespeare or Swift or Dickens or Twain or Shaw, when people read a lot more and savored the mot juste.

Oh, and everyone you knew could write, spell, and punctuate, and felt enriched by a good vocabulary.

Anyway, onward to this week’s entries of infamy…

Irregardless I’ve heard a lot of bright people say this nonsense word, which results from confusing and combining regardless and irrespective. If people would just think about it, what’s that dopey ir- doing tacked on? In technical terms, ir- is an “initial negative particle.” So if “irregardless” means anything, it means “not regardless” when its hapless speaker is trying to say the exact opposite.

Center around The whole play centers around the consequences of ill-gotten gains. This common, misbegotten expression results from the unhappy union of two similar terms: center on and revolve around. Because the phrases are roughly synonymous, if you use them both enough, they merge in the mind. What’s annoying about “center around” is that it’s imprecise, and disheartens readers who take writing seriously. The center is the point in the middle. How, exactly, would something center around? You get dizzy trying to picture it.

Hone in This is another mongrel, like the two that preceded it. It’s the brain-dead combo of hone and home in. We simply can’t allow confusion to be the basis of acceptable changes in the language. In recent years, “hone in” has achieved an undeserved legitimacy for the worst of reasons: the similarity, in sound and appearance, of n and m. Honing is a technique used for sharpening cutting tools and the like. To home in, like zero in, is to get something firmly in your sights: get to the crux of a problem.

Reticent This trendy word properly means “uncommunicative,” “reserved,” “silent.” But sophisticates who like to fancy up their mundane blather are now using it when they mean “reluctant.” I was reticent to spend so much on a football game. When I hear something like that, I wish the speaker would just reticent the heck up.

Allude Allude to means mention indirectly. In one of its most unspeakable moves, Webster’s lists refer as a synonym. Horrors! When you refer to something, it’s a direct transaction: I refer to Section II, paragraph one, Your Honor. When you allude to something or someone, you don’t come out and say it; you’re being subtle, sly or sneaky: “Someone I know better wise up.”

Off (of) “Hey! You! Get off of my cloud,” sang the Rolling Stones, unnecessarily. The of is extraneous, and off of is what’s known as a pleonasm. That means: starting now, avoid it.

Couple (of) Hey, gimme a couple bucks, wouldja? When I was a kid, this is how neighborhood tough guys talked, while cracking their chewing gum. Don’t drop the of; one more little syllable won’t kill you.

This grammar tip was contributed by veteran copy editor and word nerd Tom Stern.

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Posted on Friday, May 17, 2013, at 9:59 am


Nuggets from Ol’ Diz

Let’s welcome baseball season with this item by veteran copy editor and word nerd Tom Stern.

Baseball’s back. I realize a lot of people don’t care. To them, sports fans are knuckle draggers who probably also read comic books while chewing gum with their mouths open.

But baseball isn’t called “the grand old game” for nothing; it’s been a staple of American popular culture since the 19th century. Renowned authors from Ring Lardner to Bernard Malamud to John Updike have sung its praises.

But now let’s talk about Jay Hanna “Dizzy” Dean—because not many people do anymore. The Hall of Fame pitcher from the Deep South would have been 104 years old this past January. “Ol’ Diz” was a tall, rangy right-hander who was discovered on a Texas sandlot. During the Great Depression, an era of fearsome sluggers and high-scoring games, Dean dominated with an unhittable fastball and unshakable self-confidence. Of his cockiness he once said, “It ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up.”

From 1933 to ’36, Dean put together four spectacular seasons. He won 30 games in 1934, a feat that has been accomplished only once since. Diz was beaned in the ’34 World Series by an infielder’s throw while sliding into second base. A newspaper headline the next day said, “X-ray of Dean’s Head Shows Nothing.”

He went on to become a popular radio and TV sportscaster who visited mayhem upon the language to the delight—sometimes outrage—of his listeners.

The St. Louis Board of Education tried to yank Diz off the air. His response: “Let the teachers teach English and I will teach baseball. There is a lot of people in the United States who say ‘isn’t,’ and they ain’t eating.”

Dean’s calculated simplemindedness led to on-air pronouncements such as: “He nonchalantly walks back to the dugout in disgust” and “Don’t fail to miss tomorrow’s game.” Both sentences are variations on his clueless-rube routine: In the first one, he uses “nonchalantly” in place of “slowly” (the logical choice). Since both can mean “unhurriedly,” he figures they must be interchangeable. In the second, he makes us all dizzy trying to navigate three negatives (“don’t,” “fail,” “miss”)—whereupon we realize he just told us to miss tomorrow’s game!

One of Diz’s most infamous butcheries was, “He slud into third.” Dean vehemently defended “slud” over “slid,” insisting the latter “just ain’t natural…‘Slud’ is something more than ‘slid.’ It means sliding with great effort.”

In his prime, Diz once said, “I know who’s the best pitcher I ever see and it’s old Satchel Paige, that big, lanky colored boy.” And this: “If Satchel and I were pitching on the same team, we would clinch the pennant by July fourth and go fishing until World Series time.” Dean made these statements a decade before African-Americans integrated major-league baseball in 1947. Reading those two quotes, I was heartened by the generosity of spirit peeking out from behind Dean’s shroud of buffoonery.

Maybe Ol’ Diz knew the score in more ways than one. Later in life he said, “I ain’t what I used to be, but who the hell is?” Could that there Shakespeare fella have said it any better?

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Posted on Tuesday, April 9, 2013, at 4:24 pm


More Mangled Language and Pompous Usages To Avoid

This column is mostly concerned about the written word, but even so, pronunciation will inevitably enter the picture from time to time.

The expressions chomping at the bit and stomping ground are both corruptions of the original champing and stamping. People find this incredible. But, for instance, consult the 1961 cult-favorite western film One-Eyed Jacks, and you’ll hear Marlon Brando clearly say, “I know all his old stampin’ grounds.” My 1968 Random House dictionary and my 1980 American Heritage dictionary (the one with its own usage panel) don’t even list stomping ground, only stamping. Nor do they list chomping at the bit, only champing.

My 1999 Webster’s lists both, but Webster’s is more permissive by design; it’s what’s called a descriptive dictionary, as opposed to prescriptive ones like American Heritage, which presume, unlike Webster’s, to act as guardians of proper English.

Here are some more words and phrases that make word nerds wince:

Kudos  To this great man, kudos are overdue. That’s not a sentence that would raise many eyebrows, but kudos is not the plural of kudo. There’s no such thing as a kudo. Kudos is a Greek word (pronounced KYOO-doss or KOO-doss) meaning praise or glory, and you’d no more say kudos are due than you’d say glory are due. You must change are to is: kudos is overdue. Of course, if you ever said that, everybody’d think you’re strange—everybody but that word nerd skulking in the corner.

Snuck  A lot of people these days think this is the legitimate past tense of sneak. A lot of people are wrong. The past tense of sneak is sneaked. Even my Webster’s has a problem with snuck, calling it “informal.”

Flaunt, flout  He was a rebel who flaunted the rules. Make that flouted. To flaunt is to display ostentatiously; to flout is to ignore, disregard. Don’t flaunt your ignorance by flouting the correct usage of flout.

Close proximity  Also commonly used by a lot of smart folks who should know better. There is a creek in close proximity to the cabin. This is ill-advised for a number of reasons. First, proximity already means “closeness,” so the phrase is redundant: “close closeness.” And this is just an affected way of disdaining nice clear words like near, nearby, et al. What’s wrong with “There’s a creek near the cabin”? Word nerds believe that the fewer words and syllables it takes to get your point across, the better a writer you’ll be.

More importantly, most importantly  When grammatical cluelessness combines with a desire to sound glib, we get maddening phrases like these two. I’ve been a pedantic prig, er, copy editor, a long time and I’ve never seen a valid use of more or most importantly. Just drop the -ly and make my day. More important, you’ll be using good English. Most important, you won’t sound like some pseudo-scholarly fusspot.

Impostor, imposter  This word helps illustrate my frustration with Webster’s and its “descriptive” approach. Dictionaries like Webster’s don’t exist for that purpose; dictionaries like American Heritage do. Counting the one on my PC, I have eight different dictionaries in my home (what’d you expect?) spanning the period from the 1940s to the present. In not one of the pre-’90s editions is imposter an acceptable alternative spelling of impostor. In fact, one of them defines imposter as a different word altogether (a low-level bureaucrat who determines customs duties). But my 1999 Webster’s and the dictionary on my computer acknowledge both spellings. This is a revoltin’ development; the long-established impostor goes up in smoke, because now people can “look it up in the dictionary” and believe imposter is acceptable.

Well, it isn’t. All Webster’s is doing is noting that a lot of lazy people have started spelling the word with that -er. Webster’s doesn’t judge; it just records changes in the language. Change is good, you say? Sure—sometimes. But imposter is a sign of cirrhosis of the language. It’s change born of ignorance, not evolution.

If enough people make the same mistake, Webster’s feels compelled to acknowledge it, which to word nerds is unimaginably infuriating, especially because people think all dictionaries are the ultimate authority.

This grammar tip is by veteran copy editor and word nerd Tom Stern.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Wednesday, March 13, 2013, at 10:40 am


The Word Nerd: Six Pitfalls Writers (And Others) Should Avoid

That’s right, I admit it. I’m a word nerd. I pick, pick, pick at the way you express yourself.

Despite protests of apathy, people of all ages care about how well they express themselves. Deep down, everyone likes to be right about language, and you can even hear little kids teasing each other about talking funny. We word nerds have an advantage here, but we certainly don’t choose to be word nerds. It’s thrust upon us. Believe me, a lot of us would rather be star quarterbacks. No one ever got a date by discoursing on split infinitives.

I thought you might be interested in some of the current trends and tendencies in modern ignorance. It might be fun to watch with me the inexorable erosion of our language—and civilization—and we can gnash our teeth and wring our hands and feel secretly smug and superior. That’s what word nerds do for a good time. So let’s roll:

Fortuitous  It most emphatically does not mean “lucky” or “fortunate”; it simply means “by chance,” a much less optimistic denotation, since you can win the lottery fortuitously or get flattened by a truck fortuitously.

Notoriety  Another badly botched word these days, “notoriety” has somehow become a good thing: “Burgess gained notoriety with his wildly popular children’s books.” But can’t you hear the “notorious” in “notoriety”? There are all kinds of fame; “notoriety” is one of the bad kinds, just down the pike from “infamy.”

Impact  “How does the proposition impact property taxes?” or “Greenhouse gas emissions negatively impact the environment.” This is pretentious twaddle. “To impact” means to pack tightly together, as in “an impacted tooth.” In sentences like the two examples above, simply use “affect” instead, and you’ll sleep the serene slumber of the saintly.

Literally  “Literally” is supposed to mean “100 percent fact”—period. But not today, when “literally” now is commonly used figuratively! How sad that a no-nonsense word with such a strict meaning has been so hideously compromised. Any sentence with “literally” means what it literally says, and when we hear it, we are being asked to believe our ears, rather than interpret or infer. So if you tell me you “literally hit the ceiling,” I’d suggest you move to a place with higher ceilings.

I recently read about a couple whose dreams “literally collapsed” when, unfortunately, a fixer-upper they bought came down in a heap as they started working on it. Now, we know what the writer meant, but just don’t mess around with “literally,” OK? The house literally collapsed, not the dream. How could a dream, the very essence of all that is beyond materiality, literally collapse? It’s utter gibberish.

The simple solution? Just say “virtually.” “Virtually” allows you to enhance and embellish to your heart’s content, options you relinquish by using “literally.”

Comprise is the most misused and misunderstood two-syllable word in common English usage. It seems straightforward enough: it means to contain, consist of, take in, embrace. But when used on its own, it’s usually mangled. “Joey, Johnny, and Fritz comprise a group of daredevils.” Sorry, but the group comprises (contains, consists of) Joey, Johnny, and Fritz. Which brings us to…

Comprised of  This ubiquitous phrase is wrong every time. It’s the result of confusing and incorrectly combining “comprise” and “composed of.” It’s both ignorant and pompous, a lethal combo. “Composed of” is so mundane and “comprised of” just sounds ever so much cleverer, doesn’t it? Too bad there’s no justification for it. Quick fix: simply replace it with “comprise.” Wrong: “The team is comprised of Chicagoans.” Right: “The team comprises Chicagoans.” Far better: The team is composed of Chicagoans.

Well, that’s all we have time for this week. Now you know why I spend my Saturday nights alone, watching mysteries.

This grammar tip was contributed by veteran copy editor and word nerd Tom Stern.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Monday, January 28, 2013, at 1:50 pm


Stubborn Stinkaroos

This election year’s political dialogue has divided the country into the obscenely ultra-rich one percent and the ninety-nine percent who comprise the poor, the shrinking middle class and the, I guess you could say, tastefully affluent.

Compare that with the literary one-percenters, a mulish minority of nitpickers who believe “proper” speaking and writing preserve English’s power and beauty. Most other people by contrast are unapologetically indifferent, and tend to dismiss these sticklers as socially challenged nerds and snobs.

When government policies seem to court and coddle the wealthiest one percent, populists call it a violation and betrayal of American principles.

Not so in the world of letters, where the best writers write for the one-percenters — and why not? Who better to appreciate your writing than those who study and cherish English? Besides, it’s not a class thing. Language aficionados come from all walks of life.

America has always been enamored of its rebels and mavericks — and ambivalent toward those who follow the rules. But rules and laws are the distillation of hard lessons learned by our forebears. Rules wouldn’t exist if this flawed species didn’t need them.

When grammarians say a sentence is “right” or “wrong” they mean it adheres to or defies rules that have endured through the years and proved time and again to be the straightest path to the truth.

The following is a list of bad choices that you see and hear all the time. They’re not major blunders, but they’re misguided in a way that can compromise serious discourse.

Utilize All the way back in the 1940s George Orwell blew the whistle on this pretentious word. Orwell advised writers to get over themselves and go with “use.” But use is so humble, so mundane, whereas utilize really sounds like something. Bureaucrats in particular love to use “utilize.”

Fulsome Many people take fulsome to mean “abundant” or “lavish.” But be wary of writing the likes of “He received a fulsome tribute” or “Please accept my fulsome apology.” The word actually means something darker: “excessive,” “fawning,” even “disgusting.”

Youth There aren’t many synonyms for children. After kids, young people, and youngsters, the pickings get slim, especially if you eschew cutesy-poo. So, rejecting non-options like little ones, tykes, and tots, many writers eventually come around to youth. Trouble is, youth is singular; it’s cheesy to say, “Youth today are facing new challenges.” The obvious fix is “youths today,” even though a lot of scribes think “youths” is clunky.

Cliché It’s a noun, not an adjective. Yet more and more you hear things like, “I know it sounds cliché, but …” There’s an easy remedy: just add “like a”: “I know it sounds like a cliché.” What’s so hard about adding two painless syllables? You’ll make a word nerd’s day.

This grammar tip was contributed by veteran copy editor and word nerd Tom Stern.

Pop Quiz
Choose the correct or preferred sentence.

1A. We enjoyed a fulsome feast at Aunt Rose’s house for Thanksgiving.
1B. We enjoyed a lavish feast at Aunt Rose’s house for Thanksgiving.

2A. I don’t know how to use even half of the functions available on my smart phone.
2B. I don’t know how to utilize even half of the functions available on my smart phone.

3A. Sorry, Joe, this may sound cliché, but right now two’s company and three’s a crowd.
3B. Sorry, Joe, this may sound like a cliché, but right now two’s company and three’s a crowd.

4A. Do you think today’s youth read less than their counterparts of twenty years ago?
4B. Do you think today’s youths read less than their counterparts of twenty years ago?

Pop Quiz Answers

1B. We enjoyed a lavish feast at Aunt Rose’s house for Thanksgiving.
2A. I don’t know how to use even half of the functions available on my smart phone.
3B. Sorry, Joe, this may sound like a cliché, but right now two’s company and three’s a crowd.
4B. Do you think today’s youths read less than their counterparts of twenty years ago?

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Posted on Saturday, November 24, 2012, at 12:52 pm