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You Can Look It Up

What happens when you come across a word you don’t know? Do you just keep reading? Most people do. They believe they can figure out a word’s meaning by looking at the sentence and using common sense. Maybe they’re right … but what if they’re wrong?

Here is a passage from a profile of a historical figure: “The prince, once a redoubtable opponent, became enervated by constant warfare.”

Choose which of the following sentences is true of the prince:

• The prince was a mighty warrior at first, but constant warfare exhausted him.
• The prince was not much of a soldier at first, but constant warfare made him a mighty warrior.

Those who cannot be bothered to look up redoubtable and enervated risk going through the entire essay with a distorted impression of the prince. Such readers are just wasting time—theirs and the author’s.

Serious readers look up every word they don’t know, even words they’ve seen before but are a bit fuzzy about. It is astonishing how few people demand this of themselves. Looking up a word never enters their minds, even though doing so takes mere seconds nowadays.

According to the language scholar Charles Harrington Elster, the average educated adult American has a vocabulary of between twenty-five thousand and forty thousand words. The Oxford English Dictionary contains more than six hundred thousand words—more words than exist in French and German combined.

So even if you had three times the vocabulary of the average person, you still would only know one out of every six English words that have ever appeared in print.

Last week’s article included a sentence that prompted a surprising reaction. We wrote: “Then there are those Wall Street peculators whose malfeasance still has the country reeling.” Some readers assumed we meant “speculators.” Their emails ranged from civil to scornful. One correspondent simply sent us the offending sentence, with “peculators” blown up to three times the size of the other words. This is the verbal equivalent of rubbing a naughty puppy’s nose in the mess he’s made.

It is beyond us why anyone would write a “gotcha” email before doing basic research. If you type peculate into a search engine you’ll get the definition in a few seconds. It probably took longer for the puppy-shamer to enlarge “peculators” than it would have taken him to look it up.

Speculating is legal; peculating is a crime. “Speculators” was too mild for our purposes. To us, “peculators” was le mot juste.

So exercise due diligence before you hit “send,” or the mistake you expose may be your own.


Pop Quiz

Choose the best word. Answers are below.

1. Taking advantage of that nice woman is ___.

A. contemptible
B. contemptuous
C. A and B are both correct

2. The ___ business of life is to enjoy it.

A. principle
B. principal

3. I am ___ to participate in this activity.

A. reluctant
B. reticent
C. A and B are both correct

4. Boris felt no remorse, no ___ about what he had done.

A. compulsion
B. compunction

5. Billie suffers from the ___ that she can sing.

A. allusion
B. illusion
C. delusion


Pop Quiz Answers

1. A: Taking advantage of that nice woman is contemptible.
2. B: The principal business of life is to enjoy it.
3. A: I am reluctant to participate in this activity.
4. B: Boris felt no remorse, no compunction about what he had done.
5. C: Billie suffers from the delusion that she can sing.

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Posted on Tuesday, September 15, 2015, at 8:59 pm

Anachronisms: Time Out!

Shakespeare typing Hamlet. JFK on a cellphone. Elvis using Twitter. Each is an anachronism, the technical term for a chronological blunder.

Many years ago my family took me to see Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. As young as I was, I gave up on the movie in utter disgust when Cleopatra winked at Caesar. I didn’t care that the filmmakers were having a little fun with their presumably sophisticated audience. To me, it was a deal breaker.

In HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, set in Atlantic City during Prohibition, loving care and great expense went into the costumes and the lavish set design. So I was jolted when, in the first episode—directed by Martin Scorsese no less—a showgirl shrieks, “No way!” My Partridge Dictionary of Slang says that no way first appeared in 1968.

In Mail Order Bride, a western set in 19th century Wyoming, a character says, “She couldn’t take the lifestyle.” The Oxford English Dictionary says life-style was coined in 1929. That surprised me, because I would have sworn that lifestyle didn’t show up until the 1960s.

So beware what you call an anachronism—you might get taken down a peg, as I was by the 1933 film A Man’s Castle, when Spencer Tracy says, “I’m hip to all the panhandling routines.” Really? He was “hip” back in 1933? I’d have lost that bet.

I was also put in my place by the great AMC series Mad Men when a character in the 1960s said “synchronicity,” a word that became trendy with the popular culture in the eighties. But it turns out synchronicity goes back to the fifties.

The creator of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner, was meticulous in his replication of sixties vernacular. Good for him, because a lot of watchdogs were paying close attention. I’ve read that Weiner was grilled about the show’s use of self-worth, regroup, and recon, but like synchronicity, those terms were around back then. “When in doubt,” Weiner said, “I don’t use it.”

Not all the quibbles were false alarms. Even an artist as committed as Weiner is going to slip up, as when he had someone say, “You have to be on the same page as him.” On the same page, I understand, didn’t enter the language until the late seventies.

Other Mad Men lines I had doubts about include “I’m a glass-half-full kind of girl” and “Give it a rest.” These both sound decidedly post-sixties. Why not use expressions more typical of the period, like “I’m a cockeyed optimist” and “Knock it off”? Another episode had “push back.” If your drama is set in 1965, why use a term that’s overused by politicians and pundits in 2015? If a phrase sounds too current, it risks spoiling the illusion.

And even if you could prove to me that winking goes all the way back to ancient Egypt, it still didn’t work in Cleopatra.

Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, August 11, 2015, at 10:15 am

Nice Publication—Until You Read It

A table by the front door of a hip Northern California restaurant is stacked with complimentary copies of a forty-three-page mini-magazine. This handsome brochure, produced by the company that manages the establishment, is printed on thick, textured paper. It’s full of sumptuous full-color photos depicting the glories of food and drink. Somebody spent a lot of time and money on this. But despite a generous budget and a staff of editors, the written content seems to be an afterthought.

The table of contents lists the wrong page for two of the magazine’s seven articles.

In an introduction, the editor-in-chief writes, “We are enamored by every inch of San Francisco,” even though enamored traditionally takes the preposition of or with. He goes on to call San Francisco “one of the most unique cities in the world.” A good copyeditor would remove “most.” All proficient editors know that unique—meaning “one of a kind”—should stand alone.

In a piece about a farmers’ market, we find “locally-sourced seafood” and “recently-opened bar.” An article about a Napa Valley honey farm refers to “strategically-placed bee hives.” Anyone who ever took Proofreading 101 knows that adverbs ending in ly should not be hyphenated. (And beehive has been one word for eight centuries.)

Proofreading 101 also drills students on avoiding danglers, yet this booklet is teeming with them. In an article about a seafood merchant named Joe, we read this: “Based in San Francisco, Joe’s fish can be found on dozens of menus.” (Joe is based there, not the fish.) A few pages later we find, “Open for breakfast and lunch, you can get the best eggs in the city …” (This inept sentence says that “you” are open for breakfast and lunch.)

Other gaffes range from clumsy to clueless. America’s “west coast” is mentioned but not capitalized. A fish’s texture is called “velvety-like,” even though velvety by itself means “like velvet.” Whoever wrote “a couple bites of leftovers” and “a couple calls came in” thinks couple is an adjective. In fact, it’s a noun, requiring of (“couple of bites,” “couple of calls”).

If a company wishes to make a good impression, you’d think fluent grammatical English would be a crucial part of the presentation.

This restaurant’s management group wouldn’t endorse serving baked orange roughy on paper plates with plastic utensils, or Russian osetra caviar on Wonder Bread slathered in Miracle Whip.

So why produce a sleek publication filled with gorgeous images, only to bring the whole thing crashing down with sloppy articles written by feckless amateurs? Maybe this inattention to detail says something dark about the company. Or maybe it’s just further evidence that clear and precise writing is becoming as outmoded and quaint as pay phones and post offices.


Pop Quiz
Fix any sentences that need correcting. Our answers are below.

1. The show’s lead role is played by a nationally-famous movie star.
2. Born and raised in Queens, Mr. Walken’s first education for the stage involved dance lessons.
3. The food of New Orleans is absolutely unique—and sinfully delicious.
4. We were lost until a kindly-looking man helped us find our hotel.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. The show’s lead role is played by a nationally famous movie star.
2. Mr. Walken was born and raised in Queens. His first education for the stage involved dance lessons.
3. The food of New Orleans is unique—and sinfully delicious.
4. We were lost until a kindly-looking man helped us find our hotel. CORRECT (“kindly” is an adjective here, not an adverb)

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Posted on Monday, January 26, 2015, at 5:22 pm

Media Watch

Here is another batch of bloopers from dailies and periodicals.

• “Canada is sending between 50 to 100 military advisers.” Can anyone explain the presence of “between” in that sentence?

• “He showed a much improved grasp of the English language than a year ago.” Someone who writes “much improved than a year ago” should concentrate on his own grasp.

• “It was as bad, if not worse, than expected.” Without the nonessential phrase “if not worse” we are left with “It was as bad than expected.” Here is the grammatical version of the sentence: “It was as bad as, if not worse than, expected.” That may be correct, but it’s no prize package. How about “It was as bad as expected, if not worse.”

• “Roast lamb and venison comprise the meat course.” Writers love to use comprise, but they keep getting it wrong. The word means “to consist of.” Do roast lamb and venison consist of the meat course? No, the meat course comprises roast lamb and venison. (Note: comprised of is always incorrect.)

• “The goal is to showcase the oddly gentle enormity of this 46-foot-high room.” This strange sentence becomes bizarre when one realizes that enormity means “great wickedness.” Better make it “immensity” or “vastness.”

• “South Koreans eat more instant noodles per capita than anyone in the world.” The sentence, taken literally, means that South Koreans and “anyone in the world” are two separate groups. One key word solves the problem: “South Koreans eat more instant noodles per capita than anyone else in the world.”

• Let’s close with two examples of the havoc caused by losing track of your subject …

“The first thing Ryan saw were her knees.” How’s that again? The first thing were? If the subject is singular, the verb must be singular: The first thing he saw was her knees. If the writer doesn’t like how that looks and sounds, how about “The first things Ryan saw were her knees.”

“Reading ‘thought pieces’ on our mobile devices are making us shallow.” Reading are making us shallow? The writer got distracted by “devices” and forgot that the subject, “Reading,” is singular.

That’s all for now. We’d love to retire Media Watch, but we can’t until the happy day that all writers proof their articles and avoid fancy words that they may have forgotten to look up.


Pop Quiz

The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can spot the errors. Our solutions are below.

1. “We’re in unchartered waters here.”
2. “It’s 3 a.m. on a Sunday morning.”
3. “Many Americans despise we in the media.”
4. “The likelihood of outbreaks are very low.”
5. “There was twelve men and one women in the room.”


Pop Quiz Answers

1. “We’re in uncharted waters here.”
2. “It’s 3 o’clock on a Sunday morning.” (Writing “a.m.” would be redundant)
3. “Many Americans despise us in the media.”
4. “The likelihood of outbreaks is very low.”
5. “There were twelve men and one woman in the room.” (Did you spot both mistakes?)

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Posted on Monday, November 24, 2014, at 8:41 pm

Media Watch

Recent cringe-inducers from the print media …

An upscale music venue ran ads for “An Evening With Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jr.” The second line said, “Formally of the 5th Dimension.” It was only after several weeks that someone caught the silly gaffe and sheepishly changed “Formally” to “Formerly.”

From an article about a musician: “He hardly fit the paradigm of an insecure singer/songwriter.” Why not “singer-songwriter,” with a hyphen, instead? In recent years the slash has become all the rage, but many authorities dismiss it as a substandard option—“a mark that doesn’t appear much in first-rate writing,” says Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage. “Use it as a last resort.”

A columnist wrote, “It is I who is the bamboozled one.” At least he didn’t write “It is me.” But written correctly, the sentence would say, “It is I who am the bamboozled one.” In technical terms, the relative pronoun who agrees with its antecedent (“I”) in both number and person. If who is representing I, it must take am, the same verb that I takes.

A curious sentence about a San Francisco neighborhood: “They can kiss goodbye to Alamo Square.” No, they can say goodbye to Alamo Square. Or they can kiss Alamo Square goodbye. They could even give the beloved locale a kiss goodbye. But “can kiss goodbye to”?! Maybe the copyeditor was on vacation.

A world-famous writer of steamy novels fired a broadside at critics of her larger-than-lifestyle: “Reading the latest vitriolic article about the hedge around my house, my reaction was enormous sadness.” The sentence falls apart under close analysis: it says her “reaction” can read articles. A best-selling author who writes danglers? Say it isn’t so. She should have either replaced “Reading” with “When I read” or changed the second part to “I reacted with enormous sadness.”

Even seasoned professionals are liable to make loopy mistakes when they don’t proofread.


Pop Quiz
The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can spot the errors.
1. “If he believes that canard, he’s grieviously mistaken.”
2. “It depends on Hillary Clinton or whomever gets the nomination.”
3. “I want to see if I have this correctly.”


Pop Quiz Answers
1. “If he believes that canard, he’s grievously mistaken.”
2. “It depends on Hillary Clinton or whoever gets the nomination.”
3. “I want to see if I have this correct.”

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Posted on Tuesday, February 11, 2014, at 5:41 pm