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The Future of English?

The New York Times has called the author Jess Walter “ridiculously talented.” “His sentences nearly sing,” says the Los Angeles Review of Books. “One of my favorite young American writers,” says fellow novelist Nick Hornby.

We agree with the critics. Walter’s 2012 best-seller Beautiful Ruins is a masterpiece. But today we’ll do a different kind of book review.

Our job at is to preserve and promote standard English. This sometimes puts us at cross-purposes with Walter, who chooses to speak to his readers in an easy, accessible voice—the people’s English, not the scholars’ English. If his writing is where the language is headed, we traditionalists must accept that we are fighting numerous losing battles.

In Walter’s short story We Live in Water one finds this line: “The resort was comprised of three newer buildings.” Word nerds will question why he didn’t use composed instead of comprised. In 1926, in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, H.W. Fowler hissed, “This lamentably common use of comprise as a synonym of compose or constitute is a wanton and indefensible weakening of our vocabulary.” Seventy-six years later, in 2002, Bill Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words was no less emphatic: “Comprised of is a common expression, but it is always wrong.”

So it seems clear that Walter used the phrase because he either did not know or did not care that “the experts” say it’s wrong. By writing “comprised of,” Walter is legitimizing this “common expression” over the adamant objections of a dwindling cadre of fuddy-duddies.

From Walter’s 2003 novel Land of the Blind: “I don’t know who liked this new world less, him or Mr. Leggett.” Walter, who could have used the correct he in this sentence without sounding stilted or affected, opted instead for the colloquial him. Apparently, neither he nor his target audience loses any sleep over such erudite technicalities.

In another short story, The New Frontier, the author writes, “He convinced her to model.” But technically, he persuaded her to model. “Convince may be followed by an of phrase or a that clause, but not by a to infinitive,” counsels Theodore M. Bernstein in The Careful Writer (1983). That rule is upheld to this day by the Associated Press Stylebook: “You may [only] be convinced that something or of something.” Walter isn’t buying. He’s trusting his own ear, as writers will do. The fine distinction between convince and persuade, he is saying, has become a quaint bit of trivia.

He introduces sentences with danglers. He repeatedly writes “different than” rather than “different from.” He says “snuck” even though sneaked is still considered the correct option. At least once, he uses strata—the plural of stratum—as a singular. He writes “close proximity,” long dismissed by sticklers as a windy redundancy.

Walter is too busy spinning his wondrous tales to be distracted by such minutiae—his instincts tell him: Why bother?

Why, indeed? That question gives all language watchdogs nightmares.

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Posted on Wednesday, January 22, 2014, at 10:57 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.”

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.



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