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Wails from My Inbox

My fellow word nerds often send me cheerfully exasperated emails. I’d like to share a few of them with you …

• My recent aggravation is the mispronunciation of the word “divisive” by many people I respect. They prefer to say “divissive,” with a short rather than a long i. These otherwise articulate people are grating on my sensitive nerves. 

This pronunciation has become epidemic in the last decade. Numerous office holders and just about all the political pundits of the airwaves seem to have simultaneously anointed “di-viss-ive”—and I wonder why. I have a glut of dictionaries around the house; some are very recent, some go back seventy years. Only my notoriously permissive 1999 Webster’s New World acknowledges this renegade alternative pronunciation. All the others allow but one option: “di-vice-ive.” I guess I can understand how “di-viss-ive” could happen: by extrapolating from division instead of divide. Still, it’s always jolting to see yet another tsunami of ignorance wipe out a long-established usage in a heartbeat.

• What really gets me is the forgotten use of “an.” As in “I went to the zoo and saw a elephant” instead of “an elephant.” Have you noticed? 

I hear and see this all the time now. Just recently my local paper reported on “a entertaining and informative work.” Maybe an innocent typo, but the way things are going, who knows? My guess is we have the sports world to thank for this, with an assist from hip-hop culture.

It’s often employed for emphasis. You’ll hear an athlete-turned-analyst such as the peerless Charles Barkley say something like, “They have a actual point guard.” When you say two short vowels in succession like that, without the in an to smooth things out, you tend to pause after the first a, and that break emphasizes “actual point guard,” and makes it stand out in the sentence. This can be effective, but it’s still an illiteracy. And this annoying little habit is not confined to ex-athletes and DJs. I hear it more and more from a lot of old pros who seem to find it fresh, or “street,” and are doing it deliberately.

• When people writing or speaking cannot think of a graceful way to connect one part of a sentence to another, they insert “in terms of.” I call it the Universal Joint of English. 

The more one thinks about in terms of, the less sense it makes. Still, this is true of a lot of idioms. In terms of is OK when used sparingly. But try listening to a radio or TV broadcaster for ten minutes without hearing at least one in terms of. Too many people overuse it; some say it twice in one sentence. The least they could do is break up the monotony withwhen it comes to or in regard to—sometimes as foror simply about works just fine, too.

Once you start noticing these verbal tics and crutches, they rankle like a roomful of sneezing in-laws. I recall one commentator who started every other sentence with “The, uh”: “What’s your favorite Shakespeare play?” “The, uh … Hamlet.”

I got to where I could predict his next The, uh with ninety percent accuracy. I would just wait, teeth grinding, for that inevitable The, uh and not hear anything else he said.

Tom Stern

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Posted on Thursday, October 2, 2014, at 7:21 am


A House Is Not a Hone

When a spurious phrase gets too prevalent, we language watchdogs start barking. Today we’ll discuss two errant expressions that make us growl and howl.

We start with hone in, an all-too-common faux idiom. Since we first alerted you to this solecism sixteen months ago, it has only gained momentum. Here are some recent online examples: “Psychologists hone in on what not to wear.” “Cities hone in on the promise of big data.” “Researchers hone in on autism-causing genes.”

The correct term is home in. To home in, like zero in, is to focus on, get something firmly in your sights, get to the heart of the matter. The home in home in refers not to a residence, but to a goal or target. The word is also used this way in sentences like We’re home free and He drove his point home. In the game of baseball you achieve your goal by reaching home plate.

In the late twentieth century, hone in gained a foothold. In this era of multitasking, it isn’t hard to see why. The letters m and n look and sound similar when one is distracted. Not only that, hone in almost makes sense. To hone is to sharpen a blade. By extension, it means to improve, refine, or perfect: Constant practice helped him hone his writing skills.

So, some argue, why couldn’t hone in mean “to sharpen (narrow) one’s focus”? That rationale seems like a stretch. Home in has been in circulation for decades;hone in is an inferior imitation.

Our second culprit is a hard road to hoe, which a lot of people say when they mean a hard row to hoe (i.e., a difficult task). Like hone in, the phrase a hard road to hoe almost seems acceptable, but it falls apart upon closer inspection.

The metaphorical row in hard row to hoe is a more or less straight line of growing plants. A farmer uses his hoe to cultivate the soil and keep it weed-free so the plants may thrive. A road handles a lot of foot traffic and takes a beating from bicycles and motorized vehicles. No one but a lunatic would want to hoe a road.

Amazingly, hone in and hard road to hoe have their supporters. But those who defend these aberrations on the basis of “close enough” are doing a disservice not only to the language but to themselves. They should aim higher.

 

Pop Quiz

The sentences below are “almost” acceptable. Can you fix them? Answers are below.

1. Most athletes deport themselves like gentlemen.
2. Verus and his army brought back with them a terrible petulance, which spread through the whole empire.
3. His capacity for hard liquor is incredulous.
4. She’s really tough; she acts as if she’s Judge Judy and executioner.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Most athletes comport themselves like gentlemen.
2. Verus and his army brought back with them a terrible pestilence, which spread through the whole empire.
3. His capacity for hard liquor is incredible.
4. She’s really tough; she acts as if she’s judge, jury, and executioner.

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Posted on Tuesday, September 23, 2014, at 4:20 pm


Essential and Nonessential Elements, Part III

See what you can infer from this sentence: When my three siblings and I entered the dark house, my brother, Marky, got scared. A careful reader would know instantly that the author had one brother and two sisters.

Why? Because of the commas surrounding Marky, which tell us that the brother’s name is nonessential. The commas enable the writer to say my only brother, whose name is Marky in three words.

Suppose the writer had entered the house with three brothers. In that case, my brother got scared would not tell us enough. With more than one brother involved, the sentence would have to say my brother Marky got scared—no commas. The absence of commas makes the brother’s name an essentialelement, and it is essential because without Marky we wouldn’t know which brother the writer meant.

Along the same lines: Mark Twain published his beloved book, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” in 1876. The commas must go; the book’s title is essential. It is undeniable that Twain wrote more than one beloved book. Without commas the sentence would say what it means: that Twain wrote many beloved books, and Tom Sawyer is one of them. If the book’s title were nonessential, then Mark Twain published his beloved book in 1876 would not be such an inadequate sentence.

Here’s a comma gaffe many inexperienced writers make: The film features the world-famous actor, Robert De Niro. Delete the comma fencing off Robert De Niro. It mistakenly tells the reader that the actor’s name is nonessential—but the sentence makes little sense without De Niro’s name in it.

The terms wife and husband always require commas in sentences like this: My wife, Marie, enjoyed meeting your husband, Lucas. This is because we can have only one spouse at a time, so their first names are nonessential, supplementary information.

Note: The following sentence is an exception to the wife-husband rule above: Cuthbert Simms and wife Marie sailed to the Bahamas last weekend. No comma is called for because in that sentence wife is not a noun, but rather an adjective modifying Marie.

The rule for grandmother and grandfather is the opposite of the wife-husband rule. This sentence is correct without commas: My grandmother Bess thinks your grandfather Horace is a twit. Everyone has two biological grandmothers and two biological grandfathers, so the names Bess and Horace are essential information.

Punctuation proficiency is crucial to serious writing. Don’t take the humble little comma for granted.

 

Pop Quiz

Correct the following as needed.

1. Bertram’s wife Deluxa was late to the ball.
2. My only sister Julia left with husband Mike on their annual vacation.
3. Hedley’s cousin Jaden did not meet my grandfather, Otis, until this morning.
4. An actor, named Robert De Niro, showed great potential in his early film, The Wedding Party.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Bertram’s wife, Deluxa, was late to the ball. (commas added; Deluxa is nonessential)
2. My only sister, Julia, left with husband Mike on their annual vacation. (commas added because Julia is nonessential; no comma after husbandbecause it is an adjective modifying Mike)
3. Hedley’s cousin Jaden did not meet my grandfather Otis until this morning. (no commas because Jaden and Otis are essential information)
4. An actor named Robert De Niro showed great potential in his early film The Wedding Party. (no commas because the actor’s name and the title of one of his early films are essential information)

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Posted on Tuesday, September 2, 2014, at 10:41 am


Essential and Nonessential Elements, Part II

Here is the rule again, in case you missed it: Essential elements in a sentence should not be enclosed in commas. Nonessential elements in a sentence should be enclosed by commas.

Last time, we applied the rule to clauses. Today we’ll look at essential and nonessential phrases (a phrase is two or more related words with no subject and verb).

Let’s start with this sentence: The guy seated next to me wouldn’t stop talking. There are no commas because seated next to me is an essential phrase. It identifies which “guy” we mean. Without it we’d have only The guy wouldn’t stop talking, which doesn’t tell us much.

But consider this: Ezra Blung, the guy seated next to me, wouldn’t stop talking. Because we now know the man’s name, the guy seated next to me becomes nonessential. As the commas signify, the phrase contains supplementary information, and the sentence would have the same meaning without it.

Commas are easy for some to overlook, but an omitted or out-of-place comma can change a sentence’s meaning. Here is an example: Complete the job, as directed. The comma after job tells us that the phrase as directed is nonessential. The sentence says that you have been directed to do a job, and implies that how you do it is up to you. But what if we took out the comma: Complete the job as directed. Now as directed is essential, and the sentence is saying something more severe: Do the work, and make sure you do it the way you were told to do it.

Remember that essential and nonessential are technical terms. Some authorities prefer restrictive and nonrestrictive, perhaps to avoid the sort of confusion that may result from analyzing a sentence like this: A comma, which never ends a sentence, signals a pause.

In that example, which never ends a sentence is nonessential, and the crux of the sentence is, A comma signals a pause. That is true, but a period also signals a pause. Perhaps the key difference between commas and periods is that a comma never ends a sentence.

So how could such an essential fact be termed “nonessential” in a sentence that describes a comma? It’s because we are using grammatical terminology: nonessential refers to sentence structure only.

Information essential to human understanding is often found in phrases and clauses that are technically nonessential, as seen in the comma sentence above. But that sentence would be improved by making its less important fact nonessential: A comma, which signals a pause, never ends a sentence.

Memo to fledgling writers: If you find that you’ve disclosed an essential fact in a technically nonessential phrase or clause, you may want to write a new sentence.

 

Pop Quiz

Identify and punctuate (if needed) the italicized groups of words below. Are they clauses or phrases? Are they essential or nonessential? Answers are below.

1. People demanding special treatment make me angry.
2. His brother who is a health nut runs five miles a day.
3. A friend of mine who lives in Boston loves the seafood there.
4. Alan Lomax always fascinated by roots music first recorded the bluesman Lead Belly.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. People demanding special treatment make me angry. (essential phrase, no punctuation)
2. His brother, who is a health nut, runs five miles a day. (nonessential clause, commas added)
3. A friend of mine who lives in Boston loves the seafood there. (essential clause, no punctuation)
4. Alan Lomax, always fascinated by roots music, first recorded the bluesman Lead Belly. (nonessential phrase, commas added)

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Posted on Tuesday, August 26, 2014, at 1:04 pm


Essential, but Is It Important?

Commas are tricky little devils. Anyone who wants to use them correctly will at some point encounter the terms essential and nonessential. The rule is that so-called essential elements should not be enclosed in commas. Conversely, nonessential elements require commas fore and aft.

By “elements” we mean clauses, phrases, and even single words. Today we will focus on the difference between essential and nonessential clauses (a clause always contains a subject and verb).

Consider this sentence: People who stay out in the sun too long get a bad case of sunburn. Note the lack of commas. That’s because the clause who stay out in the sun too long is essential. Without it the sentence is silly: People get a bad case of sunburn.

Look at what happens if we fence off the essential clause with commas: People, who stay out in the sun too long, get a bad case of sunburn. The commas isolate people from the clause that explains which people we are talking about. That’s as misguided as writing The book, I’m reading, is good.

Now look at this sentence: Barton Blain, who once threw a punch at the mayor, ate corn flakes for breakfast. Unlike people in the previous paragraph, Barton Blain is already specifically identified. That makes the clause who once threw a punch at the mayor nonessential, requiring commas.

Do not be distracted by this usage of essential and nonessential. That Blain assaulted an elected official is certainly surprising, even alarming, but it is not essential in the grammatical sense; it is added information, and its removal would not alter the sentence’s basic point: that Blain had corn flakes for breakfast. Maybe the writer was being grimly humorous, or was trying to shock us, or—who knows? Our only concern here is that the writer correctly used commas to set off a nonessential clause.

So anyone who would master comma usage must realize that the terms essential and nonessential have nothing to do with values or ethics and everything to do with making a sentence say what its author intends.

 

Pop Quiz

Are the following sentences punctuated properly? Answers are at the end of the newsletter.

1. The carpenter, who fixed our floor, is the one I’d recommend.
2. I’m talking about Derek Jones who climbed Mount Whitney, not Derek Jones who swam the English Channel.
3. A ten-year-old girl, who doesn’t obey her parents, is headed for trouble.

 

Pop Quiz Answers
1. The carpenter who fixed our floor is the one I’d recommend. (remove commas)
2. I’m talking about Derek Jones who climbed Mount Whitney, not Derek Jones who swam the English Channel. (CORRECT)
3. A ten-year-old girl who doesn’t obey her parents is headed for trouble. (remove commas)

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Posted on Tuesday, August 19, 2014, at 11:14 am