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Media Watch

What better way to begin a Media Watch column than with headlines? Here are two recent ones that got our attention:

• “Bacteria has sickened more than 100.”
• “Foreclosure crisis makes taught thriller.”

“Bacteria has sickened” is incorrect because has is singular and bacteria is the plural of bacterium. If the headline writer balked at “bacteria have sickened” or “bacterium has sickened,” we can sympathize, sort of—but why not instead write “Germ has sickened more than 100”?

As for that second headline, who confuses taught with taut? This looks like the work of a distracted multitasker.

• “Hundreds packed the stands, looking for a chance to relish in a sense of community.”

You can revel in a sense of community, or you can relish a sense of community, but “relish in” is nonsense.

• “A completely new species of rat was discovered.”

This sentence gives adverbs a bad name. What does “completely” add, except flab?

• “He was forbidden from giving his name.”

Handy rule: Use to, not from, with forbid: “He was forbidden to give his name.”

• “The CEO receives nearly 2,000 times the compensation as an employee.”

Where did “as an employee” come from? It doesn’t fit. Did a prankster sneak in and write it? Make it “The CEO receives nearly 2,000 times the compensation that an employee receives.”

• “Her rivals tried to emulate her.”

Delete “tried to” and make it “Her rivals emulated her.” One does not “try to emulate.” To emulate means “to try to be as good or successful as.” So when we emulate, we’re already trying. The original sentence is gibberish: Her rivals tried to try to be as good as she was.

• “Stainless steel appliances await whomever inhabits the chef’s kitchen next.”

The whomever is incorrect. The writer would argue that whomever was required as the object of “await.” But then the verb “inhabits” would have no subject, because whomever is always an object. You can’t have a verb without a subject, and objects can’t also be subjects, so it has to be “Stainless steel appliances await whoever inhabits the chef’s kitchen next.”

• “He was clutching the leash of his dog, who was also shot.”
• “This is about political influence by a public utility who spends a lot of money in Sacramento.”

The pronoun who applies only to humans. The writer of the first sentence balked at using “which” for the dog. The writer of the second sentence decided that corporations are people. They’re not, at least not grammatically. The fix is easy: “a public utility that spends a lot of money in Sacramento.”

 

Pop Quiz

The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can make them better. Answers are at the bottom of the newsletter.

1. “Neither her mother or the police believed his denial.”
2. “He is one of the men they can most afford not to lose.”
3. “I see you nodding your head no.”
4. “A cable from he himself established that.”
5. “I am one of many people that are trying to advance the art form.”

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. “Neither her mother nor the police believed his denial.”
2. “He is one of the men they can least afford to lose.”
3. “I see you shaking your head no.”
4. “A cable from him himself established that.” (Correct grammar isn’t always pretty.)
5. “I am one of many people that are trying to advance the art form.” CORRECT

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Posted on Tuesday, November 3, 2015, at 10:51 pm


When Idioms Become Monsters

Close but no cigar, fly off the handle, he is pulling your leg, I was beside myself—we see idioms like these all the time, even though the closer we look, the less sense many of them make.

Sometimes two familiar expressions get jumbled. When that happens, the result is what you might call a “Frankenstein formation,” a nod to the mad scientist who created a monster by conjoining parts that didn’t belong together.

One Frankenstein formation that may never go away is center around. You see and hear it everywhere. Two of the numerous examples found online: “The conflict centers around the atrocities of war.” “My research centers around the geometry of moduli spaces.”

The language scholar Wilson Follett calls center around a “geometrically senseless expression.” It results from mashing together center on and revolve around. Because those phrases are roughly synonymous, over time they merge in the mind.

Some otherwise intelligent language mavens now defend center around, apparently reasoning that if enough heedless people keep saying something, it becomes acceptable. Others are having none of it. As Paul Brians says in Common Errors in English Usage: “Two perfectly good expressions—‘center on’ and ‘revolve around’—get conflated in this nonsensical neologism. When a speaker says his address will ‘center around the topic of’ whatever, my interest level plummets.”

Another hardy Frankenstein formation is fall between the cracks: “News reports flash a daily barrage of stories about children who fall between the cracks.” “Every day this country’s health insurance situation lets people fall between the cracks.”

The original expression is fall through the cracks. People or things that “fall through the cracks” slip away unnoticed and are soon forgotten. If we take a close look at fall between the cracks, we find that it doesn’t convey the intended meaning.

Picture a road surface after an earthquake. Large cracks have opened up. If people fall between these cracks, they have fallen onto the hard surface of the roadway.

Such a fall would certainly do some damage, but when people fall between the cracks, at least they do not disappear through the cracks—we can see them lying on the ground, and maybe we can be of some assistance.

Fall through the cracks refers to a different kind of painful experience: the pain of suffering in isolation.

Fall between the cracks seems to have resulted from scrambling fall through the cracks and fall between two stools, an idiom roughly meaning “to fail,” which dates back to the late fourteenth century.

Although some idioms are revealed as absurd under close analysis, many of them made more sense before time or misuse undermined them. Even if they now strike us as a bit off, like a daft but well-meaning old friend, it is up to us to ensure that nobody addles them further.

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Posted on Tuesday, October 20, 2015, at 9:52 am


Slipshod Extension

Henry W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, published in 1926, is still the greatest of all English grammar guides. The first edition or the lightly revised second edition (1965) is highly recommended.

Sprinkled among Fowler’s entries are topics that typify the author’s innovative approach to the study of grammar. His titles for these entries are often sly, with a soupçon of snark. Some examples: Sturdy Indefensibles, Presumptuous Word-Formation, Unequal Yokefellows, Pairs and Snares, Slipshod Extension.

That last topic is today’s focus, because slipshod extension may be more widespread nowadays than it was ninety years ago. The phrase refers to the maddening tendency of careless or ignorant speakers and writers to debase a word by overextending it beyond its proper meaning.

Calling a spider an insect is slipshod extension of the word insect: a spider is an arachnid. Calling a whale a fish is slipshod extension of the word fish: a whale is a marine mammal.

Here are a few of the countless other words that are susceptible to this lamentable practice:

Alibi  Be careful when you use alibi, originally a Latin word meaning “somewhere else.” When you say, “I have an alibi,” it means that you can prove you were elsewhere when the crime occurred. Fowler said of alibi: “That it should have come to be used as a pretentious synonym for excuse is a striking example of the harm that can be done by SLIPSHOD EXTENSION.”

Dilemma  The di in dilemma (like dichotomy or dioxide) indicates two: if you have a dilemma, it means you’re facing two tough choices. Do not use dilemma when all you mean is predicament. Fowler: “The word is a term of logic, meaning an argument that forces an opponent to choose between two alternatives both unfavourable to him: he is … on the horns of a dilemma, either of which will impale him.”

Literally  As all nitpickers know well and grow weary of saying, literally should be used only with the bare facts—no exaggerations, no analogies. Yet statements like They literally threw him under the bus show no sign of abating. What could be more slipshod than applying literally to an incident that literally never happened? Fowler: “Such false coin makes honest traffic in words impossible.”

Two revised editions of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage have been published in the last twenty years, but those in charge of editing these later versions have overruled many of Fowler’s traditionalist views and insights. In the process they have stifled one of the most distinctive and delightful voices in the field of linguistics.

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Posted on Tuesday, October 13, 2015, at 2:01 pm


Why Irregular Verbs Are Strong

When the authorities labeled certain verbs “irregular,” it was never intended as a putdown. Quite the opposite: another term for irregular verbs is “strong verbs.”

In A Dictionary of Modern American Usage Bryan A. Garner explains: “Irregular verbs are sometimes called ‘strong’ verbs because they seem to form the past tense from their own resources, without calling an ending to their assistance. The regular verbs are sometimes called ‘weak’ verbs because they cannot form the past tense without the aid of the ending (most often –ed).”

For those of you still unclear on regular and irregular verbs, there is a concise overview in our
post Irregular Verbs Can Be a Regular Pain.

See how you do on the irregular-verb quiz that follows. The answers are directly below the test.

Irregular Verb Pop Quiz

1. Storm clouds ___ unnoticed over the distant mountains.

A) creeped
B) crept
C) A and B are both correct

2. You have really ___ a lot taller since last year.

A) grew
B) growed
C) grown
D) groan

3. Someone kept banging on the door as she ___ there trying to sleep.

A) lay
B) laid
C) lain
D) lied

4. Oliver ___ next to his younger brother’s bed.

A) kneeled
B) knelt
C) A and B are both correct

5. By the time we arrived, they had already ___ back east.

A) flied
B) flue
C) flew
D) flown

6. We ___ back to shore as the sun set.

A) swum
B) swam
C) swimmed

7. Alf had ___ down and couldn’t get up.

A) fell
B) fallen
C) falling
D) felled

8. Have you ever ___ off a high cliff?

A) dived
B) dove
C) A and B are both correct

9. She had long ago ___ away her high school yearbooks.

A) threw
B) through
C) throwed
D) thrown

10. Luckily, the guide found them and ___ them to safety.

A) led
B) lead
C) A and B are both correct

 

ANSWERS

1: B) crept

2: C) grown

3: A) lay

4: C) A and B are both correct

5: D) flown

6: B) swam

7: B) fallen

8: A) dived

9: D) thrown

10: A) led

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Posted on Tuesday, October 6, 2015, at 11:05 am


Each Other vs. One Another

There are still sticklers among us who see a distinct difference between each other and one another. They use each other when discussing two people or things, and one another when discussing more than two people or things.

According to this system, the following sentences would both be correct: The twins told each other everything and The triplets told one another everything. But The twins told one another everything and The triplets told each other everything would both be incorrect.

This rule has been around since the eighteenth century. Yet it is routinely ignored by just about everyone, including our finest writers. Nowadays, virtually no one even knows it exists.

Taken literally, the phrase each other does seem limited to two entities only, represented by the singular pronoun each and the singular pronoun other.

The twins told each other everything means that each twin told the other twin everything. So far, so good. But The triplets told each other everything means that each triplet told the “other” triplet everything—which makes no sense because there are two other triplets.

So instead the sticklers demand The triplets told one another everything. To them, other means “one of two” and another means “one of more than two.” By this reasoning, one another refers to a group of three or more whose members include one and another.

The sticklers reject The twins told one another everything because it means that one twin told “another twin” everything. To the sticklers, “another twin” means the impossible: three (or more) twins.

The trouble with the rule is that each other and one another were already long-established idioms in the eighteenth century, and many idioms fall apart under this sort of tortured scrutiny—try analyzing as it were or by and large sometime.

Whether some people like it or not, each other and one another are synonyms. So let’s move on.

The possessive of each other is each other’s, never each others’. Although a lot of neophytes write each others’, the authorities agree unanimously that each other’s is the only acceptable option. Same with one another’s.

A thorny problem with each other’s and one another’s is illustrated in the sentence that follows. Should we say The lawyer and the banker admired each other’s car or admired each other’s cars?

The traditionalists are at odds here. In The Careful Writer Theodore M. Bernstein claims that each other’s is equivalent to their. So Bernstein would say admired each other’s cars. But Bryan A. Garner leans toward the singular car. In A Dictionary of Modern American Usage Garner says “the noun that follows is often plural <each other’s cars>, but the more logical construction is singular <each other’s car>.”

Did he say “logical”? When it comes to each other and one another, logic is beside the point.

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Posted on Tuesday, September 29, 2015, at 9:31 pm