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Media Watch

Here is another batch of fizzles and fumbles from dailies and periodicals.

• Headline for an editorial: “Let he who is without spin.” It’s clever, it’s glib, it’s … a disaster.

It’s supposed to be a twist on a well-known biblical verse, but that verse is routinely misquoted. Many people believe it goes like this: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Here is the actual quotation from the Gospel of John: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” Note the wording: “let him.” That’s because “let he” is almost grammatically impossible. (No one would claim that Marie Antoinette said, “Let they eat cake.”)

• “Fear, borne of national security hysteria, can threaten Americans’ rights.” Either replace “borne” with “born” or, depending on how you interpret the sentence, replace “of” with “by.”

To be born is to be given birth to, as babies are born. Or it can mean “to be created”: ideas are born the moment we think of them.

To be borne is to be carried, transmitted, or tolerated: a mosquito-borne diseasecharges borne equally by the payer and the receiver. When you see borne of, the writer almost certainly meant born of. You are far more likely to see born of or borne by than borne of in a correct sentence.

Our staff prefers born of in the instance cited. Fear is born of—springs from or is created by—hysteria.

• “The criteria for a permit is whether the business is compatible with the impacted neighborhood.”

“The criteria is” is ungrammatical; there is no such thing as one criteria. Criteria is the plural of criteriona standard used for judging, deciding, or acting. So make it “One of the criteria for a permit is …”

But we aren’t done yet. Do not say “impacted neighborhood” when you mean “affected neighborhood.” As a verb, impact is constantly misused, and affect is almost always the remedy. To impact means “to pack tightly together,” as in an impacted tooth. That is not what the sentence is saying about this particular neighborhood.

• “She did not specify his exit date or what lead to his decision.” Make it “what led to his decision.”

Budding writers are increasingly using lead instead of led as the past tense of the verb to lead. There are three reasons for this confusion. First, lead reminds us of read, and everyone knows that the past tense of the verb to read is read. Second, the word lead, when it refers to a metal, is pronounced led, just like the past tense of the verb to lead. And third, they don’t drill spelling in schools the way they used to.

 

Pop Quiz

The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can spot the errors. Answers are at the bottom of the newsletter.

1. “One thing they didn’t find were bullet casings.”
2. “Were either of you kids exposed to the virus?”
3. “His family is at their wits’ end.”
4. “Last year, less than a hundred thousand Americans visited Cuba.”
5. “They want to talk to everyone with whom he may have came into contact.”

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. “One thing they didn’t find was bullet casings.”
2. “Was either of you kids exposed to the virus?”
3. “His family is at its wits’ end.” OR “His family are at their wits’ end.”
4. “Last year, fewer than a hundred thousand Americans visited Cuba.”
5. “They want to talk to everyone with whom he may have come into contact.”


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Posted on Tuesday, February 17, 2015, at 3:23 pm


Nice Publication—Until You Read It

A table by the front door of a hip Northern California restaurant is stacked with complimentary copies of a forty-three-page mini-magazine. This handsome brochure, produced by the company that manages the establishment, is printed on thick, textured paper. It’s full of sumptuous full-color photos depicting the glories of food and drink. Somebody spent a lot of time and money on this. But despite a generous budget and a staff of editors, the written content seems to be an afterthought.

The table of contents lists the wrong page for two of the magazine’s seven articles.

In an introduction, the editor-in-chief writes, “We are enamored by every inch of San Francisco,” even though enamored traditionally takes the preposition of or with. He goes on to call San Francisco “one of the most unique cities in the world.” A good copyeditor would remove “most.” All proficient editors know that unique—meaning “one of a kind”—should stand alone.

In a piece about a farmers’ market, we find “locally-sourced seafood” and “recently-opened bar.” An article about a Napa Valley honey farm refers to “strategically-placed bee hives.” Anyone who ever took Proofreading 101 knows that adverbs ending in ly should not be hyphenated. (And beehive has been one word for eight centuries.)

Proofreading 101 also drills students on avoiding danglers, yet this booklet is teeming with them. In an article about a seafood merchant named Joe, we read this: “Based in San Francisco, Joe’s fish can be found on dozens of menus.” (Joe is based there, not the fish.) A few pages later we find, “Open for breakfast and lunch, you can get the best eggs in the city …” (This inept sentence says that “you” are open for breakfast and lunch.)

Other gaffes range from clumsy to clueless. America’s “west coast” is mentioned but not capitalized. A fish’s texture is called “velvety-like,” even though velvety by itself means “like velvet.” Whoever wrote “a couple bites of leftovers” and “a couple calls came in” thinks couple is an adjective. In fact, it’s a noun, requiring of (“couple of bites,” “couple of calls”).

If a company wishes to make a good impression, you’d think fluent grammatical English would be a crucial part of the presentation.

This restaurant’s management group wouldn’t endorse serving baked orange roughy on paper plates with plastic utensils, or Russian osetra caviar on Wonder Bread slathered in Miracle Whip.

So why produce a sleek publication filled with gorgeous images, only to bring the whole thing crashing down with sloppy articles written by feckless amateurs? Maybe this inattention to detail says something dark about the company. Or maybe it’s just further evidence that clear and precise writing is becoming as outmoded and quaint as pay phones and post offices.

 

Pop Quiz
Fix any sentences that need correcting. Our answers are below.

1. The show’s lead role is played by a nationally-famous movie star.
2. Born and raised in Queens, Mr. Walken’s first education for the stage involved dance lessons.
3. The food of New Orleans is absolutely unique—and sinfully delicious.
4. We were lost until a kindly-looking man helped us find our hotel.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. The show’s lead role is played by a nationally famous movie star.
2. Mr. Walken was born and raised in Queens. His first education for the stage involved dance lessons.
3. The food of New Orleans is unique—and sinfully delicious.
4. We were lost until a kindly-looking man helped us find our hotel. CORRECT (“kindly” is an adjective here, not an adverb)

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Posted on Monday, January 26, 2015, at 5:22 pm


Get Thee to a Dictionary

A sentence in last week’s article included the phrase “disrespect or disregard you.” In short order we received mail questioning whether this use of disrespect was appropriate on a website promoting proper grammar. “Are you sure that you are okay with using ‘disrespect’ as a verb?” asked one reader.

Most of the angst over disrespect stems from the word’s popularity with putative thugs. In the words of English scholar Paul Brians in Common Errors in English Usage, “The hip-hop subculture revived the use of ‘disrespect’ as a verb.” Say no more. To many language watchdogs, hip-hop is a worst-case scenario for where English is headed.

An online search seems to confirm this. “My vote? That is not a word,” states one armchair linguist. “No one should use it.” An iffy Internet dictionary calledWiktionary (compiled by anonymous contributors with undocumented credentials) has this to say: “ ‘Disrespect’ is not a verb. ‘Respect’ can be used as a noun or a verb, however ‘disrespect’ should only be used as a noun.”

But note that Brians said “revived.” We consulted our brand-new 2014 Webster’s New World (Fifth Edition) and found disrespect listed as a transitive verb meaning “to have or show lack of respect for.”

Hold it, you say. Webster’s is notoriously permissive. Perhaps its editors’ inclusion of disrespect as a verb merely reflects the company’s longtime policy of publishing a nonjudgmental, up-to-date record of how people communicate.

So we turned to Random House’s 1968 American College Dictionary, and sure enough, there it was: “to regard or treat without respect.” We also found disrespect listed as a verb in the oldest dictionary in our office, a 1941 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary.

Our last stop was the Oxford English Dictionary (which has been called “the ultimate authority on the English language”). Here we discovered that disrespect as a verb first appeared in print around 1614—four centuries ago.

We believe that those who are serious about language matters should have at least two dictionaries within easy reach: a contemporary one—many are available online—but also one that is at least thirty years old. (You can get one if you really want it.) Although having your own Oxford English Dictionary would also be nice, its twenty gargantuan volumes take up a lot of space … and cost a lot of money. However, the Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com) is a terrific alternative.

This episode proves once again that what people feel to be indisputable about proper English all too often says more about them and their biases than about the issue at hand.

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Posted on Wednesday, January 21, 2015, at 3:51 pm


Words in Flux

Today we’ll discuss two words whose meanings in casual conversation may vary significantly from their traditional meanings in formal writing.

Despise Not so long ago, despise was more than just another word for detest. “Syme despised him and slightly disliked him,” wrote George Orwell in his 1949 novel 1984. Orwell knew that, strictly speaking, despise means “to look down on” but not necessarily “to dislike” (although that’s usually part of the deal).

“Let no one despise your youth” reads a line in the Bible (1 Timothy 4:12). Note that “despise your youth” does not mean “hate you for being young.” The passage means, “Don’t let anyone disrespect or disregard you for being young.” Disdain is not the same as downright hostility.

Affinity Some seven hundred years ago, affinity meant “relation by marriage.” By extension, the proper use of affinity involves mutuality. But that sense of mutual attraction is often absent in contemporary uses of affinity. An online search reveals many examples such as these: “She always had an affinity for growing fruit.” “I have an affinity for vintage chairs.” “My friend has an affinity for making things out of cardboard.” In these examples, “growing fruit,” “vintage chairs,” and “making things out of cardboard” are passive elements, not active components in a relationship. Better to say “a talent for growing fruit,” “a fondness for vintage chairs,” “a flair for making things out of cardboard.”

In the examples above, affinity is followed by the preposition for. But in formal English, the phrase affinity for is despised. The editor Theodore M. Bernstein advised writers to “discard for” and instead “use betweenwith, or sometimes to.”

Here are three sentences that use affinity correctly: “There is an affinity between the Irish and the Italians that can be hard to explain.” “Some people have a natural affinity with children.” “Two vaccines containing native proteins with affinity to porcine transferrin were tested.”

There is no affinity unless it is shared by both parties.

 

Pop Quiz

Are these sentences all right? Do any need fixing? Suggested answers are below.
1. She has some affinity for math.
2. This is a politician with an affinity for making headlines.
3. I knew she always despised me, but I didn’t realize she detested me.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. She has some talent for math.
2. This is a politician with a gift for making headlines.
3. I knew she always despised me, but I didn’t realize she detested me. CORRECT

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Posted on Tuesday, January 13, 2015, at 10:28 am


Resolutions for Word Nerds

Below you’ll find ten New Year’s resolutions for self-appointed guardians of the English language. We are a group that needs its own code of ethics to protect us from ourselves and shield others from our self-righteousness. So let’s get right to …

The Stickler’s Ten Commandments

1) No using big words to intimidate. You can’t beat a polysyllabic onslaught for sounding authoritative. But laying big words on someone who may not be as educated as you are is just shabby.

2) No correcting someone’s English in an argument. It’s the wrong time to do it. When someone makes a valid point, picking on that person’s language is a cop-out, and a contemptible way of gaining the upper hand.

3) Do it in private. If a person you care about says “irregardless,” it can be a thoughtful gesture to gently advise that there is no such word—but don’t do this when others are within earshot.

4) No condescending preambles. If you have some wisdom to impart, don’t start with “Didn’t you know,” or “I can’t believe you just said,” or “How can someone from your background …” Such statements sound uncomfortably close to “I’m smart and you’re not.”

5) Casual conversation gets a lot of leeway. Public figures are rightly under scrutiny when they’re speaking or writing on the record. Even private citizens may be held accountable, not just for what they say but for how they say it, in a meeting or serious discussion. However, the language police ought to back way off in settings where people are just relaxing and making small talk. At such times, perfect grammar is probably the last thing anyone should worry about. No one ever mistook a Super Bowl party for a summit conference.

6)  And no correcting playful correspondence, either. If you get an email that says, “I didn’t mean nuttin’ by it,” your correspondent is kidding around. What is friendship without informality and levity? And what kind of a sourpuss would point out that “nothing”was misspelled and that double negatives are bad grammar?

7) Know what you’re talking about. Before you correct someone, how do you know you’re right? There are many myths about “proper” English floating around. Here are three discredited rules that a lot of people think are true: Never end a sentence with a preposition. (Yes you can.) It’s wrong to split an infinitive. (No it’s not.) The relative pronoun that cannot refer to a human, so always say “the person who called,” never “the person that called.” (Utter nonsense.) If you believe even one of these superstitions, you see the problem.

8) Look it up. Good writers choose their words with utmost care. So you can’t go wrong with a dictionary nearby. Many people believe they needn’t look up a strange word. They are deluding themselves. Suppose a critic you respect refers to a book’s “meretricious manifestation of sophism.” The word meretricious sounds a lot like meritorious; and sophism brings to mind sophisticated. Having seen the review, you are eager to purchase and read this admirable, stylish work—not realizing that the critic has denounced the book as lurid and devious rubbish.

9) No excuses when you slip. Two can play this game, professor. We all make mistakes. If someone busts you, don’t try to wiggle out of it.

10) No correcting strangers. Keep it to yourself; it’s the Wild West out there.

Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, January 6, 2015, at 4:01 pm