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The Haves and the Have Gots

In a recent post we bemoaned the widespread overuse of surreal: “Why keep regurgitating surreal when something atypical happens—is that all you’ve got?” A reader found the sentence objectionable: “Really? ‘is that all you’ve got?’ How about ‘all you have’?”

His email insinuated that “all you’ve got” is unacceptable English. Many grammar mavens down through the years have challenged the legitimacy of have got, claiming that the phrase is no more than an ungainly and protracted way of saying have.

But we see an appreciable difference between is that all you’ve got? and is that all you have? Our sentence was meant to convey exasperation—is that all you have? just doesn’t work there. It sounds too dainty.

All you’ve got is good idiomatic English. “Love life. Engage in it. Give it all you’ve got,” wrote the poet Maya Angelou. Does anyone think that changing the last sentence to Give it all you have would be an improvement?

Our emailer will be heartened to learn that an anonymous eighteenth-century grammarian (quoted by Eric Partridge) agreed with him: “It may, therefore, be advanced as a general Rule,—when Possession is implied, it is vulgar to use HAVE in Construction with GOT.”

But today this “general Rule” seems to have gone the way of promiscuous capitalization and commas before long dashes. We consulted our reference library and came up with the following:

Have got has been used … in literary English for more than four hundred years … It is found in the writings of Scott, Austen, Thackeray, Dickens, Morris, Ruskin, Carlyle, and most of the great nineteenth century English authors.” —Bergen and Cornelia Evans, 1957

“The words have got, as in ‘I have got a really good car,’ have long been put down by schoolmaster sticklers as an error, but most authorities agree that it is not.” —Theodore M. Bernstein, 1977

“The phrase have got—often contracted (as in I’ve got)—has long been criticized as unnecessary for have. In fact, though, the phrasing with got adds emphasis and is perfectly idiomatic.” —Bryan A. Garner, 1998

“It’s idiomatic, standard, and especially common when special emphasis is intended … No modern authority with a reputation to lose cares if you use have got for have or must, and you needn’t waste your own energy worrying about it either.” —Charles Harrington Elster, 2005

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Posted on Tuesday, July 19, 2016, at 11:02 am

Small Dishes

• Here is the type of sentence that makes grammar sticklers crazy: one of the students forgot to bring their lunch. You probably know this old tune: laissez-faire scholars and editors say the sentence is just fine, whereas nitpickers demand a rewrite because one is singular and their is plural. Things took a turn in January, when the American Dialect Society, siding with the freethinkers, proclaimed the singular they the Word of the Year for 2015, hoping to put to rest a rancorous, energy-draining dispute that has raged for decades.

We now expect to see a revival of themself, as in one of the students helped themself to my lunch. Many proponents of the singular they reject themself, although it has been around for centuries. But when they is singular, themself rather than themselves seems the logical choice. Surely anyone who champions the singular they should also embrace themself, recognizing that monumental decisions have unintended consequences.

May the best man win is an old catchphrase that boxing referees used to say to two fighters about to contend for the championship. It has also been applied to politics—the author Gore Vidal wrote a memorable 1960 Broadway play titled The Best Man, a sophisticated study of two political rivals vying for the presidency. The saying seems to violate a basic grammatical principle: A superlative adjective (best) should only be used to compare three or more entities. When comparing A to B, we say A is better than B; we do not say A is the best of the two. Therefore, shouldn’t the referee say, “May the better man win”? And shouldn’t the play be retitled The Better Man?

Context is all. To qualify for a shot at the boxing championship, both combatants have had to take on and beat top contenders in their weight class. So when the referee says “best man,” he is including and saluting all the valiant fighters who came up short. Similarly, in U.S. politics the race comes down to the nominees from the two major parties, but only after a ferocious, protracted process of elimination. Anyone who witnessed the 2016 presidential brawl, with its never-ending parade of challengers, will vouch for the legitimacy—grammatically speaking—of Vidal’s title.

Amazing and awesome are the two reigning go-to adjectives for those afflicted with acute vocabulary anemia. Now a third word has joined this select company: surreal. It is used to describe everything from a transformative experience to a chocolate cookie. Some random online examples: “It is, in many ways, a surreal conflict.” “Realtor: Irvington housing market is surreal.” “ ‘It’s a surreal moment I’ll never forget,’ Carlson said of putting on the Cardinals uniform.”

Why keep regurgitating surreal when something atypical happens—is that all you’ve got? If you dig deep, you might come up with astounding, memorable, outlandish, peculiar, startling, unearthly … really, the possibilities are endless.

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Posted on Tuesday, July 5, 2016, at 1:07 pm

Clear as Mud

In the print and broadcast media, new catchwords appear out of nowhere—and suddenly they’re everywhere. Often these are familiar words that have taken on different meanings which no one ever bothers to explain. Today, let’s discuss a couple of these ubiquitous buzzwords.

Optics  This overblown word has become commonplace in news reports. Some random examples:

• “[He] should resign from the commission given the problems associated with the optics of a conflict of interest.”

How important are the optics of this war, and who’s managing them better?”

• “Early in the interview, King demanded: ‘Are you disappointed in the optics of this?’ ”

• “Well, I think, you know, on the optics, optics are politics.”

Used this way, optics is no more than a contrived term for “appearance” or “public perception.” But it sounds oh so scholarly and analytical. At least it did at first.

Pivot  We have the tech world to thank for this one. In the language of that exclusive club, pivot means “to adopt a new strategy when your startup is floundering.”

Nothing is trendier than Silicon Valley, so it is no surprise that we hear a lot of its jargon in the media, where journalists have further modified pivot for their own purposes. Examples:

• “Presumptive candidates pivot to general election.”

• “Parties pivot to capture pre-poll votes.”

• “Trump pivoted to the gun issue.”

• “Did Hillary Clinton’s pivot to Asia work?”

Why not use familiar words like shift or refocus or concentrate on? When journalists opt for re-engineered words like optics and pivot, too often it’s a triumph of affectation over good reporting. We should use words to be clear, not to sound as if we know a secret language.

*                                                         *                                                        *                                                      *

An announcement of a public piano recital included this information: “Sunday, July 17, 2016 from 4:00 PM to 6:00 PM (PDT)

• The rules of punctuation require a comma after 2016. But more to the point, why include the year? Does anyone think this event may be happening in 2017?

• There is no need for :00 after the 4 and the 6. What’s wrong with 4 PM or 6 PM?

• The phrase “from 4:00 PM to 6:00 PM” is ungainly and rambling; make it “4-6 PM.”

• And what could be less necessary than including PDT.* An event taking place on the West Coast would not list a starting time in a different time zone.

So here is our version: Sunday, July 17, 4-6 PM. That says everything the original says, in less than half the space. Why overcomplicate the simple question: When?


*Pacific Daylight Time

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Posted on Wednesday, June 22, 2016, at 10:37 am

Copy Editors Are People Too

There can’t be many books about the life and adventures of a professional word doctor, but one that came out in 2015 is definitely worth a look.

It’s Between You and Me, by Mary Norris, a longtime New Yorker copy editor who calls herself a “comma queen.” Norris admits that the book’s very title is a grammar lesson: “My fondest hope is that just from looking at the title you will learn to say fearlessly ‘between you and me’ (not ‘I’).”

Copy editors are those driven souls who spend their days fixing authors’ manuscripts. They cherish a perfectly sharpened No. 1 pencil as if it were a flawless diamond. And they look askance at technology, which breeds terrible language habits. Norris once texted a friend “Gute Nacht” (good night in German), and her autocorrect changed it to “Cute Nachos.”

Norris touches lightly on her pre-New Yorker days. In her teens she checked swimmers’ feet at a public pool and later delivered dairy goods on a milk truck. She first started reading The New Yorker in graduate school at the University of Vermont. She got an entry-level job at the magazine in 1978 and worked her way up to copy editor, working with a roster of illustrious writers that included Philip Roth, James Salter, and George Saunders.

Much of this tidy two-hundred-page book is an informal but informative discourse on grammar and punctuation. The author’s voice is warm and cordial, and also self-assured and feisty. Reading Between You and Me is like sitting at Norris’s table while she speaks about her life and her passion for language.

There are ten chapters, whose titles reflect the book’s breezy tone. Chapter One is called “Spelling Is for Weirdos.” A later chapter is titled “A Dash, a Semicolon, and a Colon Walk into a Bar.”

Early in the book Norris profiles Noah Webster, whose greatest achievement was 1828’s An American Dictionary of the English Language. This hugely successful work established the legitimacy and singularity of the American language.

Webster was an odd man who sometimes just made stuff up and claimed it was true. But he was a scholar of great influence who counted George Washington and Benjamin Franklin among his friends (Franklin felt that the letters c, w, y, and j should be removed from our alphabet).

We have Webster to thank for the American spelling of jail instead of gaol and mold instead of mould. America’s u-less spellings of words like color and flavor (as opposed to the British preference for colour and flavour) are Webster’s doing. He also got the k removed from the end of such words as music and traffic, and got re changed to er at the end of theater and center. But he was unsuccessful in his attempt to get ache changed to ake or soup to soop.

Norris is no prude. She sometimes uses language that would make your Aunt Matilda blush. (“Profanity ought to be fun.”) Still, she is a traditionalist. Even though some publications are now endorsing the “singular they” in sentences such as  someone forgot their keys, instead of his or her keys, Norris won’t hear of it: “ ‘their’ when you mean ‘his or her’ is just wrong.” This past January must have been a bleak month for Norris. That was when the American Dialect Society proclaimed the singular they the Word of the Year for 2015.

This “comma queen” takes her commas seriously: she once asked a writer to justify his use of the comma in “a thin, burgundy dress.” But then Norris is deadly serious about all punctuation—that’s her job. Most amateur writers misuse or ignore hyphens, but they are crucial in the war against ambiguity—can you see the difference between a high-school principal and a high school principal? (“If the school principal is high she should be escorted off the premises.”)

Apostrophes are also endangered. “Are we losing the apostrophe?” Norris asks. “Is it just too much trouble?” The mark’s mistreatment has led to the formation of England’s Apostrophe Protection Society.

Dashes—as opposed to hyphens—can replace quotation marks, periods, colons, and semicolons. Ah yes, semicolons: “Used well, the semicolon makes a powerful impression; misused, it betrays your ignorance.”

Copy editors have devoted their lives to the principle that if people would be conscientious about English, more would be right with the world. Those to whom good grammar and good writing are stimulating topics should spend a little time with Mary Norris. She’s classy company.

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Posted on Wednesday, June 8, 2016, at 9:38 am

Might You Mean May?

What is the difference between may and might? There may have been a clear difference long ago, and there still might be a difference in some sticklers’ minds, but today the two verbs are, with few exceptions, interchangeable.

Grammarians tell us that might is the past tense of may, but that fact, while interesting, does not offer much guidance, considering how frequently we use both may and might to talk about the present (I may/might be ready to leave now) and the future (I may/might call you tomorrow).

Many scholarly discussions of may vs. might state that may is used when something is more likely to happen, and might is used when something is less likely to happen. So when you say I may be ready to leave, there is a good chance you are departing, but when you say I might be ready to leave, you’d probably prefer to stick around awhile.

It is remarkable how many authorities, even today, buy into this. In the 2016 revised edition of Garner’s Modern English Usage, Bryan A. Garner writes, “May expresses likelihood … while might expresses a stronger sense of doubt.”

We find this assertion baffling, and we are not alone. The online American Heritage dictionary says in a usage note: “It is sometimes said that might suggests a lower probability than may … In practice, however, few people make this distinction.” This echoes what the language scholar John B. Bremner wrote forty years ago: “Some lexicographers see a nuance between may and might in the context of probability … If such distinction exists in common language, the distinction is even thinner than nuance.”

Here are some exceptions to the interchangeability of may and might:

• Sometimes might means “should”: You’d think he might be more careful means he should be more careful. No one who speaks fluent English would substitute may for might in that sentence.

• Most of us choose may over might in wishful or hopeful statements, such as May they live happily ever after.

• When a hypothetical sentence is set in the past, might is usually a better option: If she had worked harder, she might have kept her job. But when such sentences are in the present tense, either may or might can be used: If she works harder, she may/might be able to keep her job.

• And you will note that the first word in the title of this article could not possibly be “May.”

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Posted on Tuesday, May 31, 2016, at 4:43 pm