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Media Watch

The following are less-than-exemplary snippets from recent newspapers and magazines …

• “The suspect was linked to at least nine different bank robberies.”

Why not just “nine bank robberies”? It would be interesting to know what compelled the writer to add “different.” However, this sentence is not a total loss; it could be shown to youngsters to illustrate the meaning of superfluous.

• “Each has spent their adult lives demeaning and scapegoating.”

This abject sentence could not exist if the writer or his editor had been paying attention. Each is a singular pronoun, and we know the writer knew that, because he wrote “has” rather than the plural “have.” But after the first two words, he got distracted and started writing plurals (“their,” “lives”). The fix is simple: “All have spent their adult lives demeaning and scapegoating.”

• “The company has never been reticent to send promotional missives.”

Reticent is not a fancy synonym for reluctant, as this sentence’s author seems to believe. Reticent traditionally means “silent” or “uncommunicative.” That doesn’t fit here. Still, reticent to is now inescapable, and some authorities consider it acceptable. We consider it an affectation.

• “Brown grew up in a poor, predominately black neighborhood.”

Sometimes writers mistakenly use predominately as an alternative to predominantly, meaning “chiefly, primarily.” Although predominately is technically a word, it’s not easy to pinpoint what it means.

• “Fake it ’til you make it.”
• “And the party rocked on ’til sunrise.”
• “On politically correct language: don’t knock it ’til you try it.”

We see such sentences constantly, but here’s some sound advice: always use till. Many assume that ’til, a contraction of until, is correct. However, till predates until by several centuries, and you won’t find a reference book anywhere that endorses ’til. The writer John B. Bremner declares brusquely, “Either till or until, but not ’til.”

• “At the same time, as other Americans of faith, the majority also identify strongly with their religion.”
• “The enemy wore Army green, just like she did.”

The proper use of as and like continues to elude many writers. In formal writing, both of the above sentences are incorrect. In the first example, make it “like other Americans of faith.” As would be correct only if a verb were involved, e.g., “as other Americans of faith do.” Like is a preposition meaning “similar to” or “typical of,” and that’s what is needed here.

In the second example, the verb “did” in “just like she did” means like is the wrong choice—just similar to she did is clearly nonsense. Use as instead, and make it “just as she did.”

General rule: Use like when it is followed by a noun but no verb: Do it like me. But replace like with as, as if, as though, or the way preceding subject-verb constructions: Do it the way [not like] I taught you. Do it as if [not like] you meant it.


Pop Quiz

The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can make them better.

  1. “He is trying to appeal to both sides, and neither of them are going to be satisfied.”
  2. “There’ll be some upheaval in the market irregardless of who wins.”
  3. “He is relishing in the American dream.”
  4. “It looked as though they just laid down.”
  5. “Clinton vies for support in newly-competitive red states.” (TV graphic)


Pop Quiz Answers

  1. “He is trying to appeal to both sides, and neither of them is going to be satisfied.”
  2. “There’ll be some upheaval in the market regardless of who wins.”
  3. “He is reveling in the American dream.”
  4. “It looked as though they just lay down.”
  5. “Clinton vies for support in newly competitive red states.” (do not hyphenate adverbs ending in ly)

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Posted on Monday, August 15, 2016, at 5:26 pm

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

Media Watch

Here is another set of recent flubs and fumbles from usually dependable journalists.

• “Yet my relationship with the game was simple and uncomplicated.”

How did this one get by the editors? One of those two adjectives has to go.

• “He is accused of fleeing to London in March while owing more than $1 billion dollars to Indian banks.”

The dollar sign means “dollars,” so “$1 billion dollars” is as redundant as “simple and uncomplicated.”

• “The vessels have the capacity to carry about 2½ times the number of containers than held by ships now using the canal.

Why would anyone put than in that sentence?

• “The outpouring of anger and concern show that California wants vital and vigilant coastal protections.”

The subject is the singular noun “outpouring,” so the verb should be shows.

• “To get in, I waded through a throng of protesters gathered around the entrance … A few protestors got close enough to snap pictures.”

The Associated Press Stylebook and many dictionaries accept only protester. Other dictionaries list protestor as an alternative spelling. But no authority alive recommends spelling the word both ways in the same paragraph.

• “It is an important fact ignored—or maybe unknown—to the candidate.”

The writer wanted to say that the “important fact” was either ignored by the candidate or unknown to the candidate. Here’s how to make it work with the dashes: It is an important fact ignored by—or maybe unknown to—the candidate.

• “The outcome is a major win for public employee unions, who would be weakened if members didn’t pay for representation.”

The word after “unions” should be which, not who. Despite being made up of people, a union is a thing. Writers should limit their use of who to humans.

• “Born in Brooklyn in 1922, stage fright steered Mr. Bauersfeld away from Hollywood.”

The dangler is alive and thriving in the twenty-first century. Did you spot it? To sticklers and other careful readers, this sentence is sheer nonsense: it states with a straight face that stage fright was born in Brooklyn in 1922. We could write  Stage fright steered Mr. Bauersfeld, who was born in Brooklyn in 1922, away from Hollywood. But now the reader wonders what being born in Brooklyn in 1922 has to do with stage fright and avoiding Hollywood. Year and place of birth are irrelevant here. The writer was trying to cram too much into one sentence.

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Posted on Wednesday, May 11, 2016, at 7:46 am

Pronoun Puzzlers

Today let’s look into a seldom-discussed subject that’s quite a mouthful: compound possessives with nouns and pronouns.

Have a look at this sentence: Cesar’s and Maribel’s houses are both lovely. Note the ’s at the end of each name. This tells us that Cesar and Maribel each own their own house.

But when two people share ownership, the ’s goes after the second name only. The sentence Cesar and Maribel’s houses are both lovely refers to houses co-owned by Cesar and Maribel.

However, if one—or both—of the joint owners is written as a pronoun, the possessive form is required for both: his and Maribel’s house, Cesar’s and my house, her and my house, your and their house.

As the above examples demonstrate, compound possessives with pronouns require possessive adjectives (my, your, her, our, their). Avoid possessive pronouns (mine, yours, hers, ourstheirs) in such constructions.

It should be mentioned that compound possessives are often clunky as well as confusing. For instance, a picture of her and Cesar’s house could refer to a photo of “her” in front of the house that Cesar owns or a photo of the house that she and Cesar co-own. Big difference. Such ambiguous sentences should probably just be rewritten.

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Last week we received this interesting note from a correspondent in Cambridge, Massachusetts:

“The M.C. and I” is the title of a New York Times Book Review piece on Joel Grey’s new memoir. When I saw it I thought, Is that grammatically correct? I don’t even know how to think about figuring that out. Most titles aren’t sentences. I doubt The King and I would have gotten by all these years if it weren’t correct.

We’ve found that for every title like “The M.C. and I” and The King and I there are several like You, Me, and the Apocalypse (TV series), Me Talk Pretty One Day (book), Me and the Colonel (movie), “Me and Bobby McGee” (popular song), and on and on.

Here’s our theory: the subject pronoun I in a title like The King and I sends a subliminal message that what you are about to experience is high-minded and edifying. The King and I is a beloved Broadway musical about a prim Englishwoman who served in the court of the king of Siam in the 1860s. Consider the exotic subject matter and the sophisticated target audience and you can understand why The King and Me was not an option.

Now look at those other examples. The titles are meant to disarm us with humor or folksiness. They encourage a bond of easy intimacy between author and audience. There’s something comfortable about Me in a title and something more reserved and aloof about I.


Pop Quiz

Choose the best sentences. Our answers are below.

A) Randy returned to he and his wife’s farm in Kansas.
B) Randy returned to his and his wife’s farm in Kansas.
C) Randy returned to him and his wife’s farm in Kansas.
D) Randy returned to himself and his wife’s farm in Kansas.

A) Chris and my screenplay is almost finished.
B) Me and Chris’s screenplay is almost finished.
C) Chris’s and my screenplay is almost finished
D) Myself and Chris’s screenplay is almost finished.

A) They and their children’s house was getting a new porch.
B) Their and their children’s house was getting a new porch.
C) Them and their children’s house was getting a new porch.
D) Them and their children were getting a new porch for their house.
E) They and their children were getting a new porch for their house.

A) Your and her dog is on my lawn.
B) Yours and her dog is on my lawn.
C) Hers and your dog is on my lawn.
D) Rewrite the sentence.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. B
2. C
3. E (B is correct, but awkward)
4. D (A is correct, but awkward)

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Posted on Tuesday, March 15, 2016, at 2:17 pm


Trying hard is good, but trying too hard is another matter. Hypercorrection is the technical term for mistakes in grammar, punctuation, or pronunciation that result from trying too hard to be correct.

Perhaps the most common hypercorrection involves pronouns. We constantly hear things like Keep this between you and I or The Wilsons invited he and his wife to lunch. In those examples, the correct choices are the object pronouns me instead of I and him instead of he (me is an object of the preposition between; him is a direct object of invited). The authors of such sentences seem to have decided that I and he sound more classy than me and him, so they must be correct.

Here are a few more examples of this vain tactic:

Often  All dictionaries list two pronunciations, OFF-en and OFF-tun, but OFF-tun is classic hypercorrection. The t should be silent, as it is in soften and many other English words (e.g., listen, moisten, Christmas). Ninety years ago Henry Fowler wrote in Modern English Usage that the t in often is pronounced “by two oddly consorted classes—the academic speakers who affect a more precise enunciation than their neighbours’ [and] the uneasy half-literates who like to prove that they can spell.”

“A $8,000 price tag”  You run across items like this in newspapers from time to time. The copy editor chose the article a, rather than an, even though anyone reading aloud would say “an eight-thousand-dollar price tag.” Acting on the principle that an is used only before a vowel, the copy editor concluded that a dollar sign preceding a numeral cannot be considered a vowel—therefore a was the clear choice. In truth, the rule states that an is used before all vowel sounds. The letter h is not a vowel either, but no copy editor would prescribe “a honor.”

“The Jag-wires have scored 90 points in their past two games,” said the sportscaster. He was talking about a professional football team called the Jacksonville Jaguars (American pronunciation: JAG-wahrs). The mistake was hardly an isolated incident; many announcers say “Jag-wires” over the course of the six-month pro-football season. Here is why: The most avid football fans in America are from the South, and many Southern Americans say “wahr,” “far,” and “tar” instead of wire, fire, and tire. Professional broadcasters are required to remove all traces of regional accents from their speech. In their zeal to speak unaccented English, these announcers sometimes overcompensate with “ire” when words contain an “ahr” sound, even though, like jaguar, it belongs there.

And that is how hypercorrection has unleashed upon the world the dreaded jag-wire.

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Posted on Tuesday, March 1, 2016, at 5:39 pm