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Words Can Be Bullies

Words that start with the letter h don’t always act like it.

Consider “herb,” when it means “an aromatic plant used for seasoning in cooking.” Americans dump the h, whereas many Brits pronounce it. So we say “an ’erb,” but an Englishman says “a herb.”

A different sort of h-confusion happens when self-important speakers and writers say “an historic occasion” or “an heroic soldier.” Ever notice that “an” only precedes a few highfalutin h-words like “historic(al),” “hypothetical,” “hallucinogenic”? And they tend to have three or more syllables: “An heroic soldier” is also “a hero.”

About 20 years ago, Time magazine ran a front-cover headline beginning, “A Historic…” and misguided word nerds raised a furor, insisting Time should have said “An Historic”—but the magazine never budged, stating flatly that “an historic” is wrong.

In everyday conversation, would you describe a wailing brat as “an hysterical child”? I sincerely doubt it. But what makes “hysterical” so different from “historical”?

A Google check yields tips from various websites, which only reinforce common sense: “You should use ‘an’ before a word beginning with an ‘H’ only if the ‘H’ is not pronounced” (from the website wsu.edu/~brians/errors/anhistoric.html).

Or this: “you use an before vowel sounds…Following this rule, we would say ‘a historic,’ not ‘an historic’ ” (betterwritingskills.com).

Or this one, which ought to seal the deal: “I’d love to hear a reasonable argument, based on logic and not convention, in support of ‘an historic’…given the prevalence of such similar constructions as ‘a hotel downtown’ and ‘a high bar’ and ‘a hitman killed my dog’ ” (ask.metafilter.com).

Pomposity often leads to tortured language. I remember lawyer-turned-sportscaster Howard Cosell, rest his troubled soul, and the way he regularly subjected professional athletes to his cruel and unusual polysyllabic punishment. In general, jocks are spoiled, semi-educated boors, and they know it, so the tug-of-war between them and Cosell was great theater.

At its most sublime, it involved boxing champion Muhammad Ali. He and Howard made a great team, and there was genuine love and trust there. Whatever his faults, Cosell, perhaps at the risk of his own career, had taken up for the draft-evading Ali when the champ was something of a national pariah. (YouTube.com has many wonderful sequences of these two through the years.)

Although there was a good Cosell, all too often we got Bad Howard, neurotically insecure, the one who knew he was kept at arm’s length by these great physical geniuses—and resented it. He knew they mocked him, not caring that Cosell had more knowledge of more subjects than all of them put together. So he would sometimes do perverse things, like the time he bullied a poor rookie football player from some Deep South ghetto. Bad Howard said something like: “So, my young friend, in your estimation, did the immensity of the task assigned you, juxtaposed with the metaphysical certainty of your callow demeanor, effectuate a lessened or heightened capacity on your part?”

I’m not kidding. That’s pretty close to what Howard said. As the kid listened, his eyes widened with terror and confusion, as if he were being swarmed by a raging horde of ruthless linebackers. I don’t recall his answer.

Tom Stern

 

Pop Quiz
As we discussed last time, the great writer Elmore Leonard, who died August 20, deplored adverbs. Experienced writers like Leonard prefer strong nouns and verbs. In this quiz, try rewriting each sentence with greater precision and economy. There are no correct answers, but our suggestions may be found in the Answers section.

1. Avoiding wordiness is basically a simple principle of good writing.
2. He went into the room quickly.
3. She was incredibly thrilled by the experience.
4. He said things about us that were viciously harmful and insulting.
5. The committee strongly expressed disapproval of them.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Avoiding wordiness is a fundamental of good writing.
2. He hurried into the room.
3. The experience elated her.
4. He vilified us.
5. The committee censured them.

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Posted on Tuesday, September 3, 2013, at 6:53 pm


I’ll Be Hanged! Or, Have I Just Gone Missing?

Several readers responded to Tom Stern’s article The media made me do it which asked for alternatives to gone missing. Interestingly, the overwhelming choice was to simply replace the phrase with missing.

This is fine in many, perhaps most, cases, e.g., The man was missing instead of The man went missing. But it’s no help at all in sentences such as The man went missing two days ago. For such sentences, we have few options other than disappeared or vanished, which, as Stern pointed out, sounds as if the man in question were more the victim of a magic trick than a potential tragedy.

So dig deeper, readers! If you can come up with an inspired alternative to The man went missing two days ago, many will thank you for having done our beloved language a great service.

HANG IT ALL

Speakers and writers who value precision know that the past tense of hang, when it means “to put to death using a rope,” is hanged, rather than hung. This applies to both the active and passive voice: They hanged the prisoner and The prisoner was hanged.

For inanimate objects, use hung. Under unusual conditions, people also hung or are hung, e.g., He hung from the tree with one hand or He found himself hung upside down.

POP QUIZ
Select the correct word for each sentence.

1. We hung/hanged the stockings by the chimney with care.
2. The angry mob hung/hanged the outlaw Gomer Dooley.
3. The disgraced prime minister was hung/hanged from a lamppost in the town square.
4. An effigy of the prime minister was hung/hanged from a lamppost in the town square.
5. The man hung/hanged from the rafters with a rope around his waist.

POP QUIZ ANSWERS

1. We hung the stockings by the chimney with care.
2. The angry mob hanged the outlaw Gomer Dooley.
3. The disgraced prime minister was hanged from a lamppost in the town square.
4. An effigy of the prime minister was hung from a lamppost in the town square.
5. The man hung from the rafters with a rope around his waist.

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Posted on Monday, July 29, 2013, at 9:29 pm


The Media Made Me Do It

I heard from a correspondent who hates the phrase gone missing. His e-mail called it an “ear-abrading” and “vulgar” usage. “Sends me right round the bend, mate!” he said.

I did a little digging and found that he’s far from alone. “Gone missing,” according to a word nerd at the Boston Globe, is “the least loved locution of the decade.”

According to the Globe piece, this “chiefly British” phrase has been around since the 19th century, so it’s not some trendy new grotesquerie. It’s also not ungrammatical—if you can go insane, you can surely go missing. So what makes people hate it so much?

Especially considering the lack of a good alternative: I’ve always felt that “vanished” and “disappeared” sound like the missing person was the victim of a magic trick. And “turned up missing”? Please spare me. Anybody with something better than gone missing, please write.

Maybe it’s that we have a complicated relationship with European savoir-faire in general…and the Brits in particular. Young American males, for instance, deal with a perceived sophistication gap, believing with some justification that English accents and guys named Colin get all the babes.

Ever since that little 18th century uprising of ours, many Americans traditionally have viewed Mother England with an uneasy mix of nostalgia and rebellion, so Brit-isms like “gone missing” can be irksome. Don’t you get irrationally annoyed when your artsy friend says, “Let’s wander about” instead of “around”? Or how about those people who write their phone numbers with periods instead of hyphens: 555.2940 instead of 555-2940…why do I hate that? Even someone putting that heinous horizontal bar through a 7 makes me crazy: “Look at me; I’ve been overseas, and now even my 7’s are refined.”

How many otherwise sensible Americans are mesmerized by Britain’s royal family? And from Cary Grant to Hugh Grant, there’s never been a shortage of British actors in Hollywood. In the early days of talkies, except for gangsters, cowboys, and blue-collar parts, leading men and women had distinct English accents, even though some of them came from Hell’s Kitchen.

Now that my correspondent has exposed my unthinking use of “gone missing,” it’s made me a kinder, gentler word nerd. Remember how the old, intolerant word nerd always blamed pretentiousness when people said “more importantly,” “close proximity,” or “comprised of”? I was being too hard. In fact, we are bombarded with these expressions daily by high-profile media hotshots till our resistance breaks down. With repetition by smug authority figures (who couldn’t pass English 101), some of the worst barbarities gain respectability.

Since we’re on this subject, let’s look at some words that broadcasters mangle.

Envelope, envoy, enclave Though you’d never know it from what you hear over the airwaves, the preferred pronunciation of these words’ first syllable is “enn” rather than the faux-French “ahn.”

Alleged It must come as a shock to many announcers, but alleged is a two-syllable word. It’s pronounced uh-LEJD, not uh-LEDGE-id.

Camaraderie is a five-syllable word, but you usually hear only four in the media. That letter a before the r should be a clue to say comma-ROD-ery, not com-RAD-ery.

Bestiality Everyone’s wrong about this one, because it’s not BEAST-iality. Look at the spelling and then tell me: how do you pronounce b-e-s-t?

Homage This word has spun out of control in the last several years, but for most of my adult life it was correctly pronounced HOMM-ij. Then came AHM-ij, and it went downhill from there. Now we have everyone sounding oh-so-elegant with the pseudo-sophisticated oh-MAHZH, for which there’s really no excuse.

This grammar tip was contributed by veteran copy editor and word nerd Tom Stern.

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Posted on Thursday, July 4, 2013, at 10:04 am


Word Nerds: Verbal Custodians Trapped in a Time Warp

A big drawback to a column like this is being perceived as having insufferable attitude: “So, Mr. Expert, I guess you think you’re so superior.”

It’s not like that. Word nerds do custodial work. A lot of brilliant people can’t write. Ernest Hemingway was a terrible speller. Word nerds don’t think they’re “better”—do janitors think they’re better than the office workers they clean up after?

I often wonder why I bother about details that concern so few normal people. Oh, I know what Arthur Conan Doyle said: “[T]he little things are infinitely the most important,” but on the other hand, I once saw Dick Cavett take a swipe at noted Harvard law professor-author Alan Dershowitz by correcting his grammar. Dershowitz made a sour (but unperturbed) face and shot back that unlike Cavett, he was too busy making a difference in the world to worry about language trivia.

So it’s not about word nerds’ delusions of superiority. We feel like anachronisms, displaced in a world of shifting values and priorities. We live in an idealized past. We each have our own preferred era, be it the time of Shakespeare or Swift or Dickens or Twain or Shaw, when people read a lot more and savored the mot juste.

Oh, and everyone you knew could write, spell, and punctuate, and felt enriched by a good vocabulary.

Anyway, onward to this week’s entries of infamy…

Irregardless I’ve heard a lot of bright people say this nonsense word, which results from confusing and combining regardless and irrespective. If people would just think about it, what’s that dopey ir- doing tacked on? In technical terms, ir- is an “initial negative particle.” So if “irregardless” means anything, it means “not regardless” when its hapless speaker is trying to say the exact opposite.

Center around The whole play centers around the consequences of ill-gotten gains. This common, misbegotten expression results from the unhappy union of two similar terms: center on and revolve around. Because the phrases are roughly synonymous, if you use them both enough, they merge in the mind. What’s annoying about “center around” is that it’s imprecise, and disheartens readers who take writing seriously. The center is the point in the middle. How, exactly, would something center around? You get dizzy trying to picture it.

Hone in This is another mongrel, like the two that preceded it. It’s the brain-dead combo of hone and home in. We simply can’t allow confusion to be the basis of acceptable changes in the language. In recent years, “hone in” has achieved an undeserved legitimacy for the worst of reasons: the similarity, in sound and appearance, of n and m. Honing is a technique used for sharpening cutting tools and the like. To home in, like zero in, is to get something firmly in your sights: get to the crux of a problem.

Reticent This trendy word properly means “uncommunicative,” “reserved,” “silent.” But sophisticates who like to fancy up their mundane blather are now using it when they mean “reluctant.” I was reticent to spend so much on a football game. When I hear something like that, I wish the speaker would just reticent the heck up.

Allude Allude to means mention indirectly. In one of its most unspeakable moves, Webster’s lists refer as a synonym. Horrors! When you refer to something, it’s a direct transaction: I refer to Section II, paragraph one, Your Honor. When you allude to something or someone, you don’t come out and say it; you’re being subtle, sly or sneaky: “Someone I know better wise up.”

Off (of) “Hey! You! Get off of my cloud,” sang the Rolling Stones, unnecessarily. The of is extraneous, and off of is what’s known as a pleonasm. That means: starting now, avoid it.

Couple (of) Hey, gimme a couple bucks, wouldja? When I was a kid, this is how neighborhood tough guys talked, while cracking their chewing gum. Don’t drop the of; one more little syllable won’t kill you.

This grammar tip was contributed by veteran copy editor and word nerd Tom Stern.

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Posted on Friday, May 17, 2013, at 9:59 am


Nuggets from Ol’ Diz

Let’s welcome baseball season with this item by veteran copy editor and word nerd Tom Stern.

Baseball’s back. I realize a lot of people don’t care. To them, sports fans are knuckle draggers who probably also read comic books while chewing gum with their mouths open.

But baseball isn’t called “the grand old game” for nothing; it’s been a staple of American popular culture since the 19th century. Renowned authors from Ring Lardner to Bernard Malamud to John Updike have sung its praises.

But now let’s talk about Jay Hanna “Dizzy” Dean—because not many people do anymore. The Hall of Fame pitcher from the Deep South would have been 104 years old this past January. “Ol’ Diz” was a tall, rangy right-hander who was discovered on a Texas sandlot. During the Great Depression, an era of fearsome sluggers and high-scoring games, Dean dominated with an unhittable fastball and unshakable self-confidence. Of his cockiness he once said, “It ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up.”

From 1933 to ’36, Dean put together four spectacular seasons. He won 30 games in 1934, a feat that has been accomplished only once since. Diz was beaned in the ’34 World Series by an infielder’s throw while sliding into second base. A newspaper headline the next day said, “X-ray of Dean’s Head Shows Nothing.”

He went on to become a popular radio and TV sportscaster who visited mayhem upon the language to the delight—sometimes outrage—of his listeners.

The St. Louis Board of Education tried to yank Diz off the air. His response: “Let the teachers teach English and I will teach baseball. There is a lot of people in the United States who say ‘isn’t,’ and they ain’t eating.”

Dean’s calculated simplemindedness led to on-air pronouncements such as: “He nonchalantly walks back to the dugout in disgust” and “Don’t fail to miss tomorrow’s game.” Both sentences are variations on his clueless-rube routine: In the first one, he uses “nonchalantly” in place of “slowly” (the logical choice). Since both can mean “unhurriedly,” he figures they must be interchangeable. In the second, he makes us all dizzy trying to navigate three negatives (“don’t,” “fail,” “miss”)—whereupon we realize he just told us to miss tomorrow’s game!

One of Diz’s most infamous butcheries was, “He slud into third.” Dean vehemently defended “slud” over “slid,” insisting the latter “just ain’t natural…‘Slud’ is something more than ‘slid.’ It means sliding with great effort.”

In his prime, Diz once said, “I know who’s the best pitcher I ever see and it’s old Satchel Paige, that big, lanky colored boy.” And this: “If Satchel and I were pitching on the same team, we would clinch the pennant by July fourth and go fishing until World Series time.” Dean made these statements a decade before African-Americans integrated major-league baseball in 1947. Reading those two quotes, I was heartened by the generosity of spirit peeking out from behind Dean’s shroud of buffoonery.

Maybe Ol’ Diz knew the score in more ways than one. Later in life he said, “I ain’t what I used to be, but who the hell is?” Could that there Shakespeare fella have said it any better?

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Posted on Tuesday, April 9, 2013, at 4:24 pm