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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 divisioninstead 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


Media Watch

• From a review of an exhibition: “The society had in their possession a card imprinted with a 1872 photograph.” Two booby prizes in one sentence: society is singular, so make it “had in its possession,” not “their.” As for “a 1872 photograph,” is that the way you would say it? The misguided decision not to use an stems from the belief that an should only precede a vowel, and the 1 in 1872 isn’t even a letter. However, the actual rule is that an always precedes a vowel sound, which is why we say “an honor,” even though the silent h is technically a consonant.

• From a newspaper editorial: “California will join other states who have made alterations to their sentencing codes.” Make it “other states that.” A state is not a person, and who applies only to humans.

• “It was all so cliché.” What’s wrong with “It was all such a cliché”? Cliché is a noun, not an adjective. To sticklers, this sentence sounds as silly as “It was all so paper clip.”

• From a book review: “It’s impossible to predict it in advance.” Oh dear. Either change “predict” to “know” or delete “in advance.”

• “Their reticence to challenge the union is why this ruling is essential.” The writer meant “reluctance to challenge.” The two words are not synonyms; reticence means “habitual silence” or “reserve.”

• From a profile of an athlete: “His single-minded passion is one of the many qualities that has made him a star.” Make it “one of the many qualities that have made him a star.” The subject of the verb is “qualities,” not “one.” Many qualities have made him a star; his single-minded passion is one of them.

• “The inmates are trying to put distance between the men they are now with the crimes that landed them here years ago.” Make it “and the crimes.” Would you say, “The distance between my house with your house is three blocks”? The writer forgot the first half of his sentence before he finished the second half. And then he just couldn’t be bothered to proofread the mess he’d made.

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Posted on Thursday, August 7, 2014, at 8:13 am


More Ear-itating Word Abuse

Although Arnold Schwarzenegger’s star has faded, the erstwhile weight lifter-actor-governor hasn’t quite left the building. Recently, a phonics teacher e-mailed her exasperation with broadcasters who mispronounce the first syllable in “Schwarzenegger,” saying “swartz” instead of “shwartz.” “There IS a difference!” she said. “It’s gotten to the point that it’s like nails on a chalkboard when I hear it.”

As for me, I’ve heard it “swartz,” “shwartz,” “shvartz,” and even “shvozz.” I’ve heard it three, four, and five syllables. The man’s name is a minefield—I wonder if anyone except him says it right. This may be the rare occasion when I have some compassion for announcers. . .

Or maybe not. Shouldn’t you broadcasters make it your business to know how to pronounce a name—I mean, isn’t that your job? What else do we ask you to do besides saying the words right? OK, “Schwarzenegger” is one thing, but how about a common American name of six letters: To most people, former Vice President Dick Cheney is “CHAY-nee.” But in the early days of the George W. Bush administration, Cheney’s wife announced that the proper pronunciation of the family name was “CHEE-nee.” No one paid attention. Now, all these years later, the only broadcaster who’s careful to say “CHEE-nee” is MSNBC’s Chris Matthews.

No one butchers names like sportscasters: Back in the 1960s, the Chicago White Sox baseball team acquired a pitcher named Johnny Buzhardt. Then a strange thing happened: Up till then, his name had always been pronounced “BUZZ-hart,” but when the Sox got him, their great announcer Bob Elson started calling him “Buh-ZARD.” The pitcher’s wife only added to the confusion when in an on-air interview she quipped, “I’m Mrs. Buh-ZARD, wife of Johnny BUZZ-hart.”

Let’s go to some more misbegotten ear-torturers:

Short-lived This is not the lived of “She lived well.” The i is long, as it is in “live entertainment.”

Integral Why do so many people say “in-tra-gul” despite the spelling? It’s “in-ta-grul.”

February See that r after the b? You do? Apparently we’re in the minority. Every year in late winter, I wince to turn on the radio or TV and hear “Feb-yoo-ary” (or “Febber-ary”). Is “Feb-roo-ary” really so hard?

Controversial Four syllables, not five. Say “con-tra-VER-shul,” not “con-tra-ver-see-ul.”

Et cetera (etc.) Pronounced “ick-settera” by high-paid communicators who mysteriously think et is pronounced “ick.”

Dour The correct pronunciation is “doo-er.”

Schism Two things about this word: you rarely hear it, and when you do, it’s wrong: don’t say “skizzum,” say “sizzum.”

Heinous, grievous, mischievous First, please note there’s no i before the o in these words. Why, then, have I heard seasoned professionals say “hee-nee-us”? It’s “hay-nus.” Similarly, “grievous” is a two-syllable word: “GREE-vus.” The most tortured is the third one, which so many mindlessly pronounce “mis-CHEE-vee-us.” Make that “MIS-cha-vus.”

READERS ON THE CASE!
We thank everyone for the spirited response to last week’s readers’ challenge for an alternative to “The man went missing two days ago.” Our favorites: “The man has been missing for two days” and “The man was last seen two days ago.”

Still, we can’t escape the feeling that we’ll be revisiting the gone missing question…

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

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Posted on Sunday, August 4, 2013, at 11:07 pm


Pronouncing the Word “Blessed”

We recently received inquiries from some of our readers regarding the proper way to pronounce blessed. The word blessed can be used and pronounced in two different ways.

Rule 1. When blessed is used as a verb, it is pronounced with one syllable (blest):

Example for the pronunciation blest:

Devon is blessed with amazing athletic ability.

 

 Rule 2. When the word blessed is used as an adjective, adverb (blessedly), or noun (blessedness), blessed is pronounced with two syllables (bles-id).

Examples for the pronunciation bles-id:

Annie’s baptism was a blessed moment, particularly for her devoted grandparents.

Blessed are the poor.

 

Pop Quiz

1. The priest blessed (pronounced blest or bles-id) the candles at the ceremony.

2. The couple was blessed (pronounced blest or bles-id) with a healthy baby girl.

3. I don’t have a blessed (pronounced blest or bles-id) dime to my name.

 

Answers:

1. The priest blessed (pronounced blest) the candles at the ceremony.

2. The couple was blessed (pronounced blest) with a healthy baby girl.

3. I don’t have a blessed (pronounced bles-id) dime to my name.

 

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Posted on Saturday, August 11, 2012, at 2:28 pm


Definite Ideas About Definite and Indefinite Articles

Take a look at this sentence from a restaurant review that was sent in by a reader:

The restaurant operates with an efficiency and authority that defy the chaos in the pleasant but cramped room.

Is it correct to use the indefinite article an in front of an abstract noun (efficiency)? If so, should we also use an in front of authority?

Although abstract nouns don’t always have to take articles, notice how the sentence above feels incomplete  if we leave the article out: The restaurant operates with efficiency and authority that defy the chaos in the pleasant but cramped room.

Revised: The restaurant operates with efficiency and authority, defying the chaos in the pleasant but cramped room.

If you wish to use articles in front of multiple abstract nouns, you need to check if the nouns are acting as a single unit or separately. In the sentence sent in by the reader, efficiency and authority could be seen as acting as a one-unit compound noun. Therefore, the sentence is fine as is.

When compound nouns are considered one unit, you may drop the second article.

Example from The Chicago Manual of Style: The horse and rider appear to be one entity.

Instead of: The horse and the rider appear to be one entity.

Note that one-article compound nouns (the horse and rider) still take plural verb forms (appear).

Example of nouns acting separately: She proceeded with a plan and a desire to make it better.

You can also have a compound noun containing an abstraction (no article) and an object (article required):

Example: Diligence and a needle fix many problems.

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Posted on Thursday, February 5, 2009, at 10:13 am