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Confessions of a Guerrilla Grammarian

I was on a mission. It was dicey. It was bold. It had cloak-and-dagger undertones, although the weather was too balmy for a cloak, and rather than a sharp weapon I was wielding a Sharpie Permanent Marker.

Let me set the scene. I live in a charming little tourist trap in Northern California. A couple of years ago the town built a state-of-the-art downtown public restroom. This smallish structure is sleek and sturdy: red brick with gray granite base molding and thick translucent glass-brick detailing.

It opened to great fanfare, but right from the start, something was amiss. And I came to realize that if I didn’t fix it, who would?

I will leave it to my fellow nitpickers to determine whether what I did was the act of a righteous crusader or a nuisance with too much time on his hands.

The two entrances to the facility each feature a white-tile sign. One says “MENS RESTROOM” and the other says “WOMENS RESTROOM.”

For months I walked by those illiterate signs, trying not to look. And as I’d pass, it seemed the signs would taunt me: “Hey, grammar boy,” they’d sneer. “Apostrophes? We don’t need no stinkin’ apostrophes!”

Finally I snapped. One sparkling summer evening I grabbed my Sharpie and fairly galloped downtown. I made my way through a swarm of out-of-towners and painstakingly affixed the requisite punctuation mark to each sign.

I felt I was striking a blow for all long-suffering sticklers who have to stand by helplessly as innocent apostrophes are routinely abused and neglected. Believe me, the sight of MEN’S and WOMEN’S has never been so sweet.

My deed went unnoticed by the early-evening crowd, most of them woozy from exorbitant gourmet burgers and extortionate Hawaiian ice cream. But had I been arrested for defacing public property, I’d have said: “Officer, this is not vandalism. The vandals are the ones who put up those brain-dead signs. What sort of terrible example is this town setting for young people, or visitors from other countries who are trying to learn English?”

I hope you don’t see me as one of those so-called taggers—no-talent grandstanders who go around sabotaging public property with their garish, illegible, or vulgar graffiti. On the contrary, what I did was more like removing a road hazard. That is just good citizenship.

Try telling it to the town’s maintenance department. Every time I walk by the building now, I notice my apostrophes getting fainter—someone is rubbing them out. In what bizarre universe does that constitute civic improvement?

I have a feeling that those signs haven’t seen the last of me and my Sharpie.

Tom Stern

 

Pop Quiz

The following were taken from actual public signs. Can you fix what ails them? The answers are below.

1. “No dog’s allowed except guide dog’s”

2. “Employee’s must wash there hands before returning to work”

3. “Amazing value everyday”

4. “Violators will be towed and find $50”

5. “Use as part of a prudent diet together with regular excercise”

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. “No dogs allowed except guide dogs

2. “Employees must wash their hands before returning to work”

3. “Amazing value every day

4. “Violators will be towed and fined $50”

5. “Use as part of a prudent diet together with regular exercise

 

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Posted on Wednesday, June 29, 2016, at 10:01 am


The Rise and Fall of Vogue Words

In the last two weeks, on various radio and television programs, I have heard the word granular used no less than five times, in sentences like “The commission was hoping for a granular analysis of the problem.”

The word got my attention, but I didn’t know what it was supposed to mean. All I knew was that the pundits who said “granular” were not talking about actual granules or particles or grainy surfaces.

I looked up granular on the regularly updated online American Heritage dictionary, and found this: “Having a high level of detail, as in a set of data: a more granular report that shows daily rather than weekly sales figures.”

Are we witnessing the birth of a new fad word? We’ll see if granular catches on—it’s off to a pretty good start.

Language watchers have taken notice. One of them groused on the internet: “What is wrong with using words we already have available, like specific versus general and detailed versus summary? There is no good reason to posit another meaning of ‘granular’ simply in order to sound more attuned to the latest fad in management … This impoverishes the language.”

In 1926, the linguist Henry Fowler coined vogue word to describe a word that emerges “from obscurity” to become inexplicably popular. “It is often, but not necessarily, one that by no means explains itself to the average man, who has to find out its meaning as best he can.” Fowler added, “Ready acceptance of vogue words seems to some people the sign of an alert mind; to others it stands for the herd instinct and lack of individuality.”

Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage has a substantial list of vogue words and phrases that includes downsize, empower, proactivesynergy, user-friendly, at the end of the day, and worst-case scenario. These have all made the transition from fresh and edgy to stale and tedious. Today’s catchiest vogue words and phrases will be tomorrow’s clichés. The rest of them just wear out and vanish after a period of manic overuse by the public.

Many vogue words are lifted from science, technology, and academia. People use these imposing expressions with little or no understanding of their meanings. Why say it raises the question when saying it begs the question sounds smarter? But to beg the question means something else entirely: it is a scholarly term for reaching unwarranted conclusions.

And why say limits or boundaries when you can wow ’em with parameters, which made a splashy debut as a vogue word a few decades ago. Soon after the word took off, the language scholar Theodore Bernstein wrote, “Parameter is a mathematical term … that many people are using—correction: misusing—to sound technical and impressive.”

Finally, let’s not overlook the commercial potential of trendy language. If big corporations co-opt vogue words to move products, that’s just savvy marketing. A fast-food chain now offers an Artisan Grilled Chicken Sandwich. At first glance it looks like any other assembly-line sandwich, but I know it’s artisan—that means good, right?—because it says so in big capital letters right there on the cardboard packaging.

—Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, April 19, 2016, at 7:54 pm


When Branding Undermines Spelling

• Spring is in the air, which means that in America, major-league baseball is on the air. In San Francisco, two members of the hometown Giants’ broadcast team are former major-leaguers Mike Krukow (pronounced CREW-ko) and Duane Kuiper (KY-per). The team’s publicity department refers to these popular announcers as “Kruk” and “Kuip,” which we are meant to pronounce “cruke” and “kipe.” But baseball greenhorns see “Kruk” and “Kuip” and say “cruck” and “quip.”

• In Hollywood, good things have started to happen for a talented young entertainer called King Bach, who got his start by making YouTube videos.

Most readers over thirty will look at the name and pronounce it “King Bock.” But once you learn that the young man’s real name is Andrew Bachelor, you realize that “Bach” is supposed to rhyme with match.

Why the haywire spelling of celebrity nicknames nowadays?

The culprit is “branding,” which a business website defines as “the process involved in creating a unique name and image for a product in the consumers’ mind.” By the way, note the cynicism lurking in that phrase “consumers’ mind”—shouldn’t it be “minds”? Evidently, marketing departments view the public as little more than a pliable homogeneous organism.

Why can’t Krukow and Kuiper be “Kruke” and “Kipe”? And why doesn’t Andrew Bachelor call himself “King Batch”? Apparently, a commandment of branding is that you may lop letters off if it makes the moniker more catchy, but you must not alter the spelling to make the pronunciation more reader-friendly, because that would taint the brand and perplex the pliable homogeneous organism.

Subverting long-established conventions of phonetic spelling with sobriquets like “King Bach” and “Kruk” and “Kuip” may irk some of us, but these corporate misspelling tactics mirror the popular culture’s penchant for glib but irrational abbreviations. Consider the mass acceptance of “mic,” which has been driving word nerds batty for years.

“Mic” is a bogus abbreviation of microphone. (Chances are, your neighborhood pub has a regular “open mic” night on its calendar.) But for decades before the intrusion of “mic,” the word was mike: “Ike is good on a mike” went a line from a popular early-1950s jingle about presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower.

There is also a verb to mike, meaning “to place a microphone near.” But if you buy into “mic,” what would the past tense of “to mic” be? Was the speaker micd? mic’d? miced?

A bicycle is a bike, not a “bic.” So let’s get over this dopey notion that a microphone is a “mic.”

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Posted on Monday, April 4, 2016, at 6:32 pm


Resolutions for Word Nerds

Below you’ll find our New Year’s resolutions for self-appointed guardians of the English language. We language cops need our own code of ethics to protect us from ourselves and shield others from our self-righteousness.

The Stickler’s Ten Commandments for 2016

1) Thou shalt proofread. Proofreading your work is a dying art—but why is that? Do we really think that everything we write is effortlessly perfect on the first try?

2) No correcting someone’s informal correspondence. If you get an email that says, “We just want whats our’s,” stifle that impulse to respond with a dissertation on apostrophes. Maybe your correspondent is just kidding around—or didn’t proofread.

3) … And casual conversation gets a lot of leeway too. Language purists ought to ease off when people are just relaxing and making small talk. No one ever mistook a Super Bowl bash for a summit conference.

4) No using fancy words when simpler ones will do. A barrage of big words is impressive the way a mesomorph bench pressing six hundred pounds is impressive.

5) Always look it up. Twenty-first century technology makes it quick and painless to look up words like mesomorph. But for whatever reason, most people just won’t do it.

6) No correcting strangers. Grownups are so touchy nowadays.

7) Do correct your kids’ grammar. It’s not belittling if you do it right; they may even thank you someday. The English they hear all the time—from their peers, the media, even some teachers—sets a horrid example. Good English deserves equal time.

8)But keep it private. Never give grammar lectures within earshot of innocent bystanders or service animals.

9) No excuses when you slip. We all make mistakes. If you’re nailed red-handed, don’t try to wiggle out of it.

10) Know what you’re talking about. Here is something your English teacher never told you: the rules change. So before you cry foul, how do you know you’re right? There are many myths about “proper” English floating around.

A century ago, contact as a verb was banned in polite society, and anyone who said, “I will contact you soon” was dismissed as a philistine. In the 1970s, hopefully was considered a ghastly vulgarity, and anyone who said, “Hopefully, the disco won’t be too crowded tonight” could be ostracized from the cool crowd. Today, no one has a problem with contact or
hopefully … but you may find yourself ostracized for saying “disco.”

• Do you have your own “commandments” to add to the list? Please send them in. We would enjoy receiving and sharing them.

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Posted on Tuesday, January 5, 2016, at 11:09 am


They Never Said That

The popular culture has always had an uncanny ability to misuse, misinterpret, misrepresent, and misquote. Its adherents believe that Columbus discovered America and George Washington had wooden teeth and dog saliva cleanses flesh wounds.

The other day I heard a goofy radio guy say, “Till death do we part.” He thought “do us part” was ungrammatical. (He was wrong: it’s not we who are doing the parting. The line means “until death parts us.”)

Here are some other familiar sayings that have run into a little turbulence along the way …

“Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink. The words “and not a” can’t be found in the famous couplet from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798). Here is how Coleridge wrote it: “Water, water, everywhere, / Nor any drop to drink.”

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. There are several memorable lines from Alexander Pope’s 1711 poem “An Essay on Criticism.” This is almost one of them. But Pope wrote that “a little learning” is a dangerous thing. Knowledge and learning are hardly synonyms.

“Gild the lily” is supposedly from Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John. The correct quotation is, “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily.”

• “Come up and see me some time” was actress Mae West’s signature line, but the bodacious blonde didn’t say it. In She Done Him Wrong (1933), Ms. West says to Cary Grant, “Why don’t you come up some time and see me.”

“Play it again, Sam. That line might put a lump in your throat if you’ve ever seen the 1942 movie Casablanca. But it’s nowhere to be found in that great film. What Ingrid Bergman says is, “Play it once, Sam. For old times’ sake.”

“Elementary, my dear Watson.” Everyone knows this patronizing utterance by Sherlock Holmes to his overmatched colleague Dr. Watson, but the line appears nowhere in any of the books and tales by Holmes’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I’m told it comes from the 1929 film The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Watson says, “Amazing, Holmes.” Holmes replies, “Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary.”

“Beam me up, Scotty” was never said by William Shatner’s Captain Kirk in the original Star Trek TV series.

“Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast.” This is a misquotation from William Congreve’s play The Morning Bride. Congreve (1670-1729) wrote “savage breast,” not “beast.” I’m guessing the error can be attributed in part to good old American prudery, as demonstrated by this passage from a recent newspaper column: “He actually wrote ‘the savage breast.’ But this being a family newspaper, we went with the popular misquote.” Very good, sir. And tonight’s special is mesquite-grilled chicken chest.

Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, November 24, 2015, at 2:09 pm