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Sabotage in Broad Daylight?

If you like being punched in the gut, type the word literally into Google, everyone’s favorite Internet search engine. Here is what you’ll find:

  1. In a literal manner or sense; exactly: “the driver took it literally when asked to go straight over the traffic circle”.
  2. Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.

If you’re like most sticklers, definition 2 just ruined your day. When literally can mean “not literally true,” aren’t we living an Orwellian nightmare?

Since when is Google qualified to redefine words? A closer look reveals that Google’s self-appointed experts don’t even know the basics of capitalization or punctuation. For instance, why no capital T for “the driver…”?

Also, keep in mind that in America, periods never go outside quotation marks, and Google is an American company. What contortions would a Google spokesperson have to go through to defend the period placement at the end of definition 1?

Look at the wording of definition 2: “Used to acknowledge…” Does this strike you as a bit coy? Note the passive voice, which allows Google to duck the key question: “Used” by whom? Well, you hear it (ab)used a lot by education-challenged 18- to 49-year-olds who clearly have not bothered to learn what the word means. That’s why they say things like, “She literally threw me under the bus” and “I’m literally freezing to death.”

This is the very demographic that produced Google’s founders, and most of its employees. These literally-torturers are the people who make the company profitable. So Google “gives back” by legitimizing its best customers’ sabotage of this powerful word.

We language watchdogs may not like it, but for Google, showing solidarity with its contemporaries—even to the point of endorsing their ignorance—is a savvy business decision.

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Posted on Saturday, August 24, 2013, at 3:39 pm


I’ll Be Hanged! Or, Have I Just Gone Missing?

Several readers responded to Tom Stern’s article The media made me do it which asked for alternatives to gone missing. Interestingly, the overwhelming choice was to simply replace the phrase with missing.

This is fine in many, perhaps most, cases, e.g., The man was missing instead of The man went missing. But it’s no help at all in sentences such as The man went missing two days ago. For such sentences, we have few options other than disappeared or vanished, which, as Stern pointed out, sounds as if the man in question were more the victim of a magic trick than a potential tragedy.

So dig deeper, readers! If you can come up with an inspired alternative to The man went missing two days ago, many will thank you for having done our beloved language a great service.

HANG IT ALL

Speakers and writers who value precision know that the past tense of hang, when it means “to put to death using a rope,” is hanged, rather than hung. This applies to both the active and passive voice: They hanged the prisoner and The prisoner was hanged.

For inanimate objects, use hung. Under unusual conditions, people also hung or are hung, e.g., He hung from the tree with one hand or He found himself hung upside down.

POP QUIZ
Select the correct word for each sentence.

1. We hung/hanged the stockings by the chimney with care.
2. The angry mob hung/hanged the outlaw Gomer Dooley.
3. The disgraced prime minister was hung/hanged from a lamppost in the town square.
4. An effigy of the prime minister was hung/hanged from a lamppost in the town square.
5. The man hung/hanged from the rafters with a rope around his waist.

POP QUIZ ANSWERS

1. We hung the stockings by the chimney with care.
2. The angry mob hanged the outlaw Gomer Dooley.
3. The disgraced prime minister was hanged from a lamppost in the town square.
4. An effigy of the prime minister was hung from a lamppost in the town square.
5. The man hung from the rafters with a rope around his waist.

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Posted on Monday, July 29, 2013, at 9:29 pm


The Media Made Me Do It

I heard from a correspondent who hates the phrase gone missing. His e-mail called it an “ear-abrading” and “vulgar” usage. “Sends me right round the bend, mate!” he said.

I did a little digging and found that he’s far from alone. “Gone missing,” according to a word nerd at the Boston Globe, is “the least loved locution of the decade.”

According to the Globe piece, this “chiefly British” phrase has been around since the 19th century, so it’s not some trendy new grotesquerie. It’s also not ungrammatical—if you can go insane, you can surely go missing. So what makes people hate it so much?

Especially considering the lack of a good alternative: I’ve always felt that “vanished” and “disappeared” sound like the missing person was the victim of a magic trick. And “turned up missing”? Please spare me. Anybody with something better than gone missing, please write.

Maybe it’s that we have a complicated relationship with European savoir-faire in general…and the Brits in particular. Young American males, for instance, deal with a perceived sophistication gap, believing with some justification that English accents and guys named Colin get all the babes.

Ever since that little 18th century uprising of ours, many Americans traditionally have viewed Mother England with an uneasy mix of nostalgia and rebellion, so Brit-isms like “gone missing” can be irksome. Don’t you get irrationally annoyed when your artsy friend says, “Let’s wander about” instead of “around”? Or how about those people who write their phone numbers with periods instead of hyphens: 555.2940 instead of 555-2940…why do I hate that? Even someone putting that heinous horizontal bar through a 7 makes me crazy: “Look at me; I’ve been overseas, and now even my 7’s are refined.”

How many otherwise sensible Americans are mesmerized by Britain’s royal family? And from Cary Grant to Hugh Grant, there’s never been a shortage of British actors in Hollywood. In the early days of talkies, except for gangsters, cowboys, and blue-collar parts, leading men and women had distinct English accents, even though some of them came from Hell’s Kitchen.

Now that my correspondent has exposed my unthinking use of “gone missing,” it’s made me a kinder, gentler word nerd. Remember how the old, intolerant word nerd always blamed pretentiousness when people said “more importantly,” “close proximity,” or “comprised of”? I was being too hard. In fact, we are bombarded with these expressions daily by high-profile media hotshots till our resistance breaks down. With repetition by smug authority figures (who couldn’t pass English 101), some of the worst barbarities gain respectability.

Since we’re on this subject, let’s look at some words that broadcasters mangle.

Envelope, envoy, enclave Though you’d never know it from what you hear over the airwaves, the preferred pronunciation of these words’ first syllable is “enn” rather than the faux-French “ahn.”

Alleged It must come as a shock to many announcers, but alleged is a two-syllable word. It’s pronounced uh-LEJD, not uh-LEDGE-id.

Camaraderie is a five-syllable word, but you usually hear only four in the media. That letter a before the r should be a clue to say comma-ROD-ery, not com-RAD-ery.

Bestiality Everyone’s wrong about this one, because it’s not BEAST-iality. Look at the spelling and then tell me: how do you pronounce b-e-s-t?

Homage This word has spun out of control in the last several years, but for most of my adult life it was correctly pronounced HOMM-ij. Then came AHM-ij, and it went downhill from there. Now we have everyone sounding oh-so-elegant with the pseudo-sophisticated oh-MAHZH, for which there’s really no excuse.

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

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Posted on Thursday, July 4, 2013, at 10:04 am


Basically, Why Your Cohort Isn’t Your Buddy

I received an e-mail from a fellow fussbudget deploring “basically.” He considers it meaningless and useless, and if you think about it, he has a point. Say any sentence with it and without it, and basically there’s no change in meaning (see?).

Perhaps the most basic use of basically is as a promise to cut the nonsense and get down to business: “This plan is basically unworkable.” Fundamentally, essentially, and the bottom line is…are similar expressions.

Some people use basically as a sort of curtain-raiser, to give their remarks a smooth opening, like “I’d just like to say…” The trouble starts when it’s overused, and becomes a verbal crutch, alongside “um,” “like,” and “y’know.”

Sometimes basically can reflect a goal or a wish, like theoretically or in an ideal world. “Basically, I’m trying to work out four times a week.” Other times, we use it to temper our statements so that they don’t seem aggressive or bombastic. “I just basically feel that the country’s headed in the wrong direction.” We don’t want to come off as overbearing, and this use of basically is a way of backing off a bit, conveying what the user hopes is some measure of humility and humanity.

So, yes, basically is extraneous—but at least it’s innocuous if used sparingly. The question my correspondent raised is if it ever adds anything meaningful to a sentence. A whole lot of smart, articulate people use it; you really do hear it everywhere. It must fill some arcane need.

Maybe it’s because on its best day, basically can be used in all the senses discussed above: “I’d just generally like to say in all humility that essentially, in an ideal world, the bottom line is…” If you can express all that in one word, go ahead and use it.

As for me, though, here’s a sentence I have no problem with: Basically, avoid using basically.

On to this week’s nominees for the Hall of Shame:
Cohort Your friend is a crony, confidant, or collaborator, but not a cohort. In ancient Rome, a cohort was a division of 300-600 soldiers. So careful speakers and writers avoid cohort when referring to one person. Your cohort is not your comrade, ally, teammate, or assistant. It’s a whole group, gang, team, posse: “A cohort of laborers went on strike.”

Nauseous Once upon a time, if you said “I’m nauseous,” it meant you were disgusting. Yes, it’s true, nauseous and nauseating once were synonymous. Years of carelessness shifted the focus of the adjective from the cause of the nausea to the person affected. Still, word nerds get a secret chuckle from hearing an obnoxious person say he was “nauseous” last night.

Blond, blonde A blonde is a woman with blond hair. Note the different spellings. The e at the end applies exclusively to women, except when the word’s an adjective. According to the Associated Press Stylebook, both men and women have blond hair—no e in either case. (For the record, a man is a blond.)

Prone, supine “The victim was found lying prone, her eyes gazing sightlessly at a full moon.” Sorry, but this is a maneuver only the swivel-headed girl from The Exorcist could pull off, because when you’re prone, you’re lying on your stomach. Make that supine, which means “lying on one’s back.”

Indicated that “A full 72 percent of respondents indicated that they have a room in their home devoted to entertainment.” Indicated? How, by charades? Smoke signals? Some writers will do anything to avoid said. Don’t fuss up your writing with indicated, stated, asserted, uttered, averred, etc. I’m obviously not vetoing words like replied, added, declared, explained, which have valid shades of meaning. But when reporting simple speech, just go generic with sweet little ol’ said, over and over again. No one will notice and no one will mind.

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

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Posted on Saturday, June 15, 2013, at 12:38 pm


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