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You Lost Me After “Feb”

Feb-yoo-ary. Febber-ary. Feb-wary. Can’t anyone around here say “feb-roo-ary”?

It’s time to revisit dissimilation, the labored linguistic theory that purports to explain why so many of us don’t say February’s two r’s. The online American Heritage dictionary has the following usage note at “February”: “The loss of the first r in this pronunciation can be accounted for by the phonological process known as dissimilation, by which similar sounds in a word tend to become less similar.”

Translation: the second r in February makes people mispronounce the first r.

My first reaction was that some intellectuals with too much time on their hands had come up with a fancy term for slovenly speech. Isn’t dissimilation merely an erudite synonym for tongue-twister? I’m not quite ready to buy all this “phonological process” business; the simple truth is that people generally are hurried speakers, and saying words like February takes a little extra care.

Here are some other hard-to-enunciate dissimilation words:

Asterisk  The second s gets dropped, and we are left with the icky “aster-ick.”

Candidate  People say the first two syllables as if they were saying “Canada.”

Hierarchy  You often hear “high-arky,” with the er slurred. We should aim “higher.”

Prerogative  I bet most people think this word is spelled “perogative,” because that’s typically what you hear. Only careful speakers say the first r: pre-rahg-ative.

Minutiae  Here’s a word no one says right. The traditional pronunciation, believe it or not, is min-OO-she-ee or min-YOO-she-ee. Good luck with that. I’ve never heard anything but “min-oo-sha,” because “sha” is a whole lot easier than saying two long-e syllables, one right after the other

*                                          *                                          *                                          *                                        *

I’ve put in enough time on this odd little topic to observe that dissimilation has a flip side. I’m calling it “impulsive echoing”: the tendency to irrationally add similar sounds within words, despite their spelling. Check these out:

Ouija board  If you are American, either you or someone you know says “wee-jee.” The standard pronunciation is WEE-ja. How does ja become “jee” unless impulsive echoing is real?

Cummerbund  Look at that spelling and then tell me why so many speakers add a phantom b: “cumber-bund.”

Pundit  I’ve heard seasoned public figures—hello, Hillary Clinton—say “pundint.”

Whirlwind  I’ve also heard veteran TV journalists—hello, Wolf Blitzer—say “world wind.”

Sherbet  That’s how you spell it, all right. What happens when the people who add a second r and say “sher-bert” meet the people who drop the first r in February?

—Tom Stern

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Posted on Wednesday, February 3, 2016, at 11:26 am


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


Ain’t That a Shame

We are gratified that our readers are uncompromising about the English language. Over the course of fifty articles annually, we get our share of lectures, challenges, and rebukes. We welcome all your comments, but before you write, keep in mind the final edict in last week’s Stickler’s Ten Commandments: Be sure you are correct before you cry foul.

• One correspondent admonished us to replace over with more than in sentences like the package weighs over ten pounds. This myth has been around a long time, but few if any language scholars take it seriously. In an article titled “Non-Errors” the eminent grammarian Paul Brians says, “ ‘Over’ has been used in the sense of ‘more than’ for over a thousand years.”

• When we wrote “formulas,” a reader said that the correct plural is formulae, and those who write “formulas” are “the same lazy folk who would use ‘octopuses’ rather than ‘octopi.’ Please, don’t be lazy.”

While it is true that formulae is preferred in scientific contexts, formulas is most writers’ choice in other applications. The Associated Press Stylebook does not even acknowledge formulae. As for octopi, it is listed in most dictionaries, but that does not make it correct. In his book What in the Word? Charles Harrington Elster states that octopuses is the right choice: “Because octopus comes from Greek, not Latin, the Latinate variant octopi is inappropriate and is frowned upon by usage authorities.”

• But the biggest tiff of 2015 was over the use of that in sentences like She is a woman that likes to laugh. There is nothing grammatically wrong with a woman that likes.

Oh, but try telling that to all the readers who wrote in insisting that that must never be used to refer to humans. In 2014 we ran two articles which we hoped would put this dreary matter to rest forever (you can read them here and here). We’ll say it again: The pronoun that applies to humans as well as nonhumans. You may not care for how it sounds. You may not like how it is used nowadays. But rules of grammar transcend our personal preferences.

Most of the correspondence on this topic included some variation on “this is how I was taught.” Well, maybe so, but as the years pass, sometimes the memory plays tricks. And teachers are not infallible. Even the best ones harbor their own opinions, biases, and delusions, which might slip out in the classroom and be taken as fact by a callow student.

Too many of us cling to cherished misconceptions out of loyalty, sentiment, nostalgia—or sheer force of habit. If Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity were disproved tomorrow, would any reputable scientist disregard the overwhelming evidence because of his allegiance to Einstein?

 

Pop Quiz

Correct any sentences that need fixing.

  1. That basketball player is over seven feet tall.
  2. I prefer people that don’t tell everything they know.
  3. A couple dollars is all that place charges for a great taco.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

  1. That basketball player is over seven feet tall. CORRECT
  2. I prefer people that don’t tell everything they know. CORRECT
  3. A couple of dollars is all that place charges for a great taco.

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Posted on Tuesday, January 12, 2016, at 2:14 pm


Resolutions for Word Nerds

Below you’ll find our New Year’s resolutions for self-appointed guardians of the English language. We language cops need our own code of ethics to protect us from ourselves and shield others from our self-righteousness.

The Stickler’s Ten Commandments for 2016

1) Thou shalt proofread. Proofreading your work is a dying art—but why is that? Do we really think that everything we write is effortlessly perfect on the first try?

2) No correcting someone’s informal correspondence. If you get an email that says, “We just want whats our’s,” stifle that impulse to respond with a dissertation on apostrophes. Maybe your correspondent is just kidding around—or didn’t proofread.

3) … And casual conversation gets a lot of leeway too. Language purists ought to ease off when people are just relaxing and making small talk. No one ever mistook a Super Bowl bash for a summit conference.

4) No using fancy words when simpler ones will do. A barrage of big words is impressive the way a mesomorph bench pressing six hundred pounds is impressive.

5) Always look it up. Twenty-first century technology makes it quick and painless to look up words like mesomorph. But for whatever reason, most people just won’t do it.

6) No correcting strangers. Grownups are so touchy nowadays.

7) Do correct your kids’ grammar. It’s not belittling if you do it right; they may even thank you someday. The English they hear all the time—from their peers, the media, even some teachers—sets a horrid example. Good English deserves equal time.

8)But keep it private. Never give grammar lectures within earshot of innocent bystanders or service animals.

9) No excuses when you slip. We all make mistakes. If you’re nailed red-handed, don’t try to wiggle out of it.

10) Know what you’re talking about. Here is something your English teacher never told you: the rules change. So before you cry foul, how do you know you’re right? There are many myths about “proper” English floating around.

A century ago, contact as a verb was banned in polite society, and anyone who said, “I will contact you soon” was dismissed as a philistine. In the 1970s, hopefully was considered a ghastly vulgarity, and anyone who said, “Hopefully, the disco won’t be too crowded tonight” could be ostracized from the cool crowd. Today, no one has a problem with contact or
hopefully … but you may find yourself ostracized for saying “disco.”

• Do you have your own “commandments” to add to the list? Please send them in. We would enjoy receiving and sharing them.

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Posted on Tuesday, January 5, 2016, at 11:09 am


Year-End Quiz

To close out 2015 we have put together a comprehensive pop quiz based on the year’s GrammarBook.com grammar posts. The quiz comprises twenty-five sentences that may—or may not—need fixing. Think you can fix the ones that need help?

You’ll find our answers directly below the quiz. Each answer includes, for your convenience, the title and date of the article that raised the topic.

This quiz is not for dilettantes. Good luck, and we hope to see you back here after the holidays.

 

Jumbo Pop Quiz: 2015 in Twenty-five Questions

1. I have an affinity for pizza.

2. People that like a couple drinks before dinner are my idea of good company.

3. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.

4. We dined with people from Chicago, Illinois, Brooklyn, New York, and San Diego, California.

5. There are three different pools on the property.

6. Do you have any future plans you can tell us about?

7. It was a hazel doormouse with golden-brown fur and large black eyes.

8. Fifty dollars are too much to pay for a toaster.

9. The differences between us and them are miniscule, so take your pick.

10. Toby has gotten himself into trouble this time.

11. The dry soil has drank up every last raindrop.

12. The hotel is in close proximity to the corporate, financial, and fashionable heart of the city.

13. In Big Sur the view from our balcony was simply incredulous.

14. Erik was born on June 5, 1975 in Oslo, Norway.

15. Hanging around with fantastic writers rubs off on you after awhile.

16. Choose the more likely sentence:
A) Ruben compared Giorgio’s spaghetti to dog food.
B) Ruben compared Giorgio’s spaghetti with dog food.

17. Here is what I want from the store: Onions, potatoes, and broccoli.

18. The challenge so enervated her that she rushed out and sprinted two miles.

19. These two crooks just wanted to steal each others’ money.

20. Storm clouds creeped unnoticed over the distant mountains.

21. Luckily, the guide found them and lead them to safety.

22. She loved three men equally, so choosing a husband was a difficult dilemma.

23. McCloy knew he’d lied to Anita, but his alibi was, “I didn’t want to hurt her.”

24. The conflict centers around the atrocities of war.

25. I am writing in regards to employment opportunities at your firm.

 

Jumbo Pop Quiz Answers

An asterisk (*) indicates that there are more correct answers than one.

1. I have a fondness for pizza.* (Words in Flux, 1-13)

2. People that like a couple of drinks before dinner are my idea of good company. (Nice Publication—Until You Read It, 1-27)

3. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone. CORRECT (Media Watch, 2-17)

4. We dined with people from Chicago, Illinois; Brooklyn, New York; and San Diego, California. (The Man Who Hated Semicolons, 3-31)

5. There are three pools on the property. (Media Watch, 5-5)

6. Do you have any plans you can tell us about? (A Twenty-first Century Usage Guide, 5-12)

7. It was a hazel dormouse with golden-brown fur and large black eyes. (A Twenty-first Century Usage Guide, 5-12)

8. Fifty dollars is too much to pay for a toaster. (What Kind of Rule Is Usually?, 5-19)

9. The differences between us and them are minuscule, so take your pick. (Spell Check, 5-26)

10. Toby has gotten himself into trouble this time. CORRECT (Misbegotten Views on Gotten, 6-30)

11. The dry soil has drunk up every last raindrop.
(Irregular Verbs Can Be a Regular Pain, 7-7)

12. The hotel is close to the corporate, financial, and fashionable heart of the city.* (Don’t Put It in Writing, 7-14)

13. In Big Sur the view from our balcony was simply incredible. (Grammar, Vocabulary Go Hand in Hand, 7-28)

14. Erik was born on June 5, 1975, in Oslo, Norway. (Media Watch, 8-4)

15. Hanging around with fantastic writers rubs off on you after a while. (Media Watch, 8-4)

16. A) Ruben compared Giorgio’s spaghetti to dog food. (Compare To vs. Compare With, 8-18)

17. Here is what I want from the store: onions, potatoes, and broccoli. (Colons and Capitals, 8-25)

18. The challenge so energized her that she rushed out and sprinted two miles. (You Can Look It Up, 9-15)

19. These two crooks just wanted to steal each other’s money. (Each Other vs. One Another, 9-29)

20. Storm clouds crept unnoticed over the distant mountains. (Why Irregular Verbs Are Strong, 10-6)

21. Luckily, the guide found them and led them to safety. (Why Irregular Verbs Are Strong, 10-6)

22. She loved three men equally, so choosing a husband was a difficult predicament.* (Slipshod Extension, 10-13)

23. McCloy knew he’d lied to Anita, but his excuse was, “I didn’t want to hurt her.”* (Slipshod Extension, 10-13)

24. The conflict centers on the atrocities of war.* (When Idioms Become Monsters, 10-20)

25. I am writing in regard to employment opportunities at your firm. (Give the Gift of Pedantry, 12-1)

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Posted on Tuesday, December 15, 2015, at 2:31 pm