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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


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


Autoantonyms Speak with a Forked Tongue

An autoantonym (pronounced auto-ANTA-nim) is a word with two opposite meanings. A familiar example is the Hawaiian word aloha, which means both “hello” and “goodbye.”

Autoantonyms (also known as contranymscontronyms, and Janus words) are not rare. We see, hear, and use them all the time. Too often, miscommunication ensues.

It’s awful when you think you said “purple” but the whole world heard “green.” The great challenge of speaking and writing is to convey your intended meaning and avoid misunderstandings. This is why autoantonyms, with their split personalities, must be recognized and remedied before they do their mischief. Here are a few examples:

Off  It doesn’t necessarily mean “not operating”: First the lights went off, then the alarm went off. What happened after the lights went off? Did the power outage trigger the alarm system or shut it down?

With  This word can mean “side by side” or “in opposition to.” Maxine fought with Charles to gain custody of her daughter. It is unclear whether Charles was helping or hindering Maxine in her efforts to gain custody.

Finished  Accomplished successfully or ruined? Thanks to my investors, this film is finished. Either the investors’ generosity was instrumental in the film’s completion or their interference doomed the project.

Oversight  It is the act of rigorously keeping your eye on something or negligently taking your eye off something.  Your oversight proved to be the difference between success and failure could mean “your diligence was crucial to our success” or “your carelessness caused us to fail.”

Trim  After we trimmed our Christmas tree, it was a perfect fit for the living room. Did the family adorn the tree or prune it?

Left  Who’s left? It can mean “Who has departed?” or “Who is still here?”

Some autoantonyms are phrases, even complete sentences. The expression I could care less has befuddled linguists for decades because it usually means “I could not care less.”

The hipster culture devises autoantonyms to confound society’s mainstream. Throughout most of the twentieth century, jive meant both “jazzy, swinging” and “empty, fraudulent.” For over fifty years, bad and wicked have been hip terms for “great.” More recently, sick has come to mean “ridiculously excellent.” A bomb used to be an embarrassing flop, but all that changed when it’s da bomb! became high praise.

The standard definition of uptight is “inhibited, unable to enjoy life.” But it once meant “as good as it gets.” The singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder scored a big hit with his 1966 album Up-Tight. Would Wonder have chosen an album title that meant “inhibited”?

Slim chance—or, to put it another way, fat chance.

 

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Posted on Thursday, March 31, 2016, at 7:29 am


No Question About It

Let’s see if you can spot what is wrong with this sentence? On closer inspection, most of you will see that the sentence should end in a period rather than a question mark.

Question marks are used only with direct questions. The sentence above certainly contains a direct question: what is wrong with this sentence? However, Let’s see if turns the sentence into an indirect question.

Here is the difference between direct and indirect questions: Do you agree? is a direct question. That same question is embedded in I wonder whether you agree. But now the sentence is a statement. The question is still there, but it is no longer direct.

Sentences that start with Let’s see if, I wonder whether, and the like are statements that ask questions in a roundabout way. Avoid the trap of ending such sentences with question marks.

Some sentences that sound like direct questions are really declarations (What wouldn’t I do for you), requests (Why don’t you take a break), or demands (Would you kids knock it off). Questions like these, which do not require or expect an answer, are called rhetorical questions. Because they are questions in form only, rhetorical questions may be written without question marks.

One-word questions within sentences do not ordinarily take question marks either. There might conceivably be a good reason to write The child asked, why? but that sentence is heavy-handed compared with The child asked why.

When direct questions of more than one word occur in the middle of a sentence, they are generally preceded with a comma, or sometimes a colon, and some writers capitalize the first word: Rantos wondered, How will I escape?

It is not wrong to capitalize a direct question in midsentence. Sometimes it’s a good idea, other times it can be distracting. Many writers would prefer Rantos wondered, how will I escape?—no capital—because the question how will I escape? is clear and concise.

The venerable Chicago Manual of Style offers this handy guideline: “A direct question may take an initial capital letter if it is relatively long or has internal punctuation.” Chicago then provides an example: Legislators had to be asking themselves, Can the fund be used for the current emergency, or must it remain dedicated to its original purpose?

You will notice that the stylebook says “may take,” not “must take.” When it comes to writing questions there is a lot of leeway. Some writers use a colon where others use a comma. Some capitalize where others do not. But an uncalled-for question mark is amateurish in anybody’s book.

 

Pop Quiz

Fix any sentences that need fixing. Our answers are below.

1. I’d like to ask, what makes you so sure?

2. Why don’t you run along home now?

3. The question is not only how? but also why?

4. I wonder if they’re coming over tonight?

5. I’d like to ask what makes you so sure?

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. I’d like to ask, what makes you so sure? CORRECT

2. Why don’t you run along home now.

3. The question is not only how but also why.

4. I wonder if they’re coming over tonight.

5. I’d like to ask what makes you so sure.

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Posted on Tuesday, March 8, 2016, at 3:59 pm


Words in Flux

The words we’ll examine today highlight the rift between language purists and less-fussy people who just want to get their point across. You probably can guess which side we are on.

Podium  This word might not mean what you think it means. A podium is not a stand with a slanted top for notes or books—that would be a lectern. A podium is a raised area that speakers, performers, or orchestra conductors stand on. People do not stand behind a podium—more likely they are standing on a podium, behind a lectern.

Back in 1989 The Random House College Dictionary got it right, defining podium as a platform. But a mere ten years later, dictionaries had caved. The 1999 Webster’s New World says that podium and lectern are synonymous. The 2016 online American Heritage dictionary lists “platform” first, but its second definition of podium is “a stand for holding the notes of a public speaker; a lectern.”

The difference between a podium and a lectern is as clear-cut as the difference between a floor and a table. Shouldn’t a dictionary resist muddling these words’ meanings?

Fortuitous  This is a chronically misunderstood word. Purists will not tolerate fortuitous as a synonym for “lucky” or “fortunate.” It simply means “by chance.” True, you could describe winning the lottery as fortuitous, but getting flattened by a runaway truck is also fortuitous.

So let’s haul out the dictionaries again. This time the ’89 Random House cops out, listing “lucky” as the second definition of fortuitous. That is disappointing, considering that just nine years earlier The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language allowed only “happening by accident or chance” and warned that “fortuitous is often confused with fortunate.”

Epitome  Those who use it correctly know it means “a perfect example.” Those who misuse it think it means “an example of perfection.” The epitome of means “the essence of.” But it does not mean “the best” or “the pinnacle.” Denzel Washington is the epitome of cool means that the actor exemplifies coolness. Washington may well be one of the coolest men alive, but that is not what the sentence is saying.

We are pleased to report that even though epitome has been widely misused for years, we have yet to find a dictionary that lists the incorrect meaning. Maybe it’s because the distinction is so subtle.

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Posted on Wednesday, February 17, 2016, at 9:30 am