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The Haves and the Have Gots

In a recent post we bemoaned the widespread overuse of surreal: “Why keep regurgitating surreal when something atypical happens—is that all you’ve got?” A reader found the sentence objectionable: “Really? ‘is that all you’ve got?’ How about ‘all you have’?”

His email insinuated that “all you’ve got” is unacceptable English. Many grammar mavens down through the years have challenged the legitimacy of have got, claiming that the phrase is no more than an ungainly and protracted way of saying have.

But we see an appreciable difference between is that all you’ve got? and is that all you have? Our sentence was meant to convey exasperation—is that all you have? just doesn’t work there. It sounds too dainty.

All you’ve got is good idiomatic English. “Love life. Engage in it. Give it all you’ve got,” wrote the poet Maya Angelou. Does anyone think that changing the last sentence to Give it all you have would be an improvement?

Our emailer will be heartened to learn that an anonymous eighteenth-century grammarian (quoted by Eric Partridge) agreed with him: “It may, therefore, be advanced as a general Rule,—when Possession is implied, it is vulgar to use HAVE in Construction with GOT.”

But today this “general Rule” seems to have gone the way of promiscuous capitalization and commas before long dashes. We consulted our reference library and came up with the following:

Have got has been used … in literary English for more than four hundred years … It is found in the writings of Scott, Austen, Thackeray, Dickens, Morris, Ruskin, Carlyle, and most of the great nineteenth century English authors.” —Bergen and Cornelia Evans, 1957

“The words have got, as in ‘I have got a really good car,’ have long been put down by schoolmaster sticklers as an error, but most authorities agree that it is not.” —Theodore M. Bernstein, 1977

“The phrase have got—often contracted (as in I’ve got)—has long been criticized as unnecessary for have. In fact, though, the phrasing with got adds emphasis and is perfectly idiomatic.” —Bryan A. Garner, 1998

“It’s idiomatic, standard, and especially common when special emphasis is intended … No modern authority with a reputation to lose cares if you use have got for have or must, and you needn’t waste your own energy worrying about it either.” —Charles Harrington Elster, 2005

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Posted on Tuesday, July 19, 2016, at 11:02 am

Spell Check

An online company’s research department has revealed the top misspelled word in each state, based on search-engine queries.

In Iowa and Kentucky the chief troublemaker is maintenance. Arkansas and Utah apparently can’t spell leprechaun—but why would Arkansas and Utah want to? For irony aficionados: drought-plagued California’s top misspelled word is desert. Florida struggles with tomorrow (in more ways than one). Michigan and Oklahoma wonder how to spell gray. We wonder how to misspell it—both gray and grey are acceptable, and it’s hard to imagine any other option. Mississippi has trouble with sergeant, but in all fairness, many sergeants can’t spell Mississippi either. Oh, and Alaska can’t spell Hawaii.

Here is another of our spelling drills. In keeping with our policy, these are words that you hear all the time. You’ll find the answers directly below.

1. Her ___ is her mother’s best friend.

A) step father
B) steppfather
C) step-father
D) stepfather

2. The executives sent a letter of ___ to their best agent.

A) congrachulations
B) congradulations
C) congratulations
D) congrajulations

3. He was acting in ___ to his conscience.

A) obediance
B) obedience
C) obediense
D) obedianse

4. The changing of the seasons is a natural ___.

A) occurence
B) occurance
C) ocurrance
D) occurrence

5. The man wore a suit and had ___ just come from work.

A) evidently
B) evadentally
C) evadently
D) evidentally

6. Tests in the ___ have so far been encouraging.

A) labratory
B) laboratory
C) labrotory
D) laborotory

7. Shonda read the class an ___ from her new play.

A) excerpt
B) excerp
C) excert
D) exerpt

8. The movie was called a ___ by the critics.

A) debokle
B) dibacle
C) debacle
D) dibakle

9. Blane transformed the firm into a sleek ___ that dominated the market.

A) juggernot
B) jugernaut
C) juggernat
D) juggernaut

10. I think I’ll drive to ___ tomorrow.

A) Massachusets
B) Masachusetts
C) Massachusetts
D) Masachusets



1: D) stepfather

2: C) congratulations

3: B) obedience

4: D) occurrence

5: A) evidently

6: B) laboratory

7: A) excerpt

8: C) debacle

9: D) juggernaut

10: C) Massachusetts

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Posted on Wednesday, July 13, 2016, at 7:36 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

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

Clear as Mud

In the print and broadcast media, new catchwords appear out of nowhere—and suddenly they’re everywhere. Often these are familiar words that have taken on different meanings which no one ever bothers to explain. Today, let’s discuss a couple of these ubiquitous buzzwords.

Optics  This overblown word has become commonplace in news reports. Some random examples:

• “[He] should resign from the commission given the problems associated with the optics of a conflict of interest.”

How important are the optics of this war, and who’s managing them better?”

• “Early in the interview, King demanded: ‘Are you disappointed in the optics of this?’ ”

• “Well, I think, you know, on the optics, optics are politics.”

Used this way, optics is no more than a contrived term for “appearance” or “public perception.” But it sounds oh so scholarly and analytical. At least it did at first.

Pivot  We have the tech world to thank for this one. In the language of that exclusive club, pivot means “to adopt a new strategy when your startup is floundering.”

Nothing is trendier than Silicon Valley, so it is no surprise that we hear a lot of its jargon in the media, where journalists have further modified pivot for their own purposes. Examples:

• “Presumptive candidates pivot to general election.”

• “Parties pivot to capture pre-poll votes.”

• “Trump pivoted to the gun issue.”

• “Did Hillary Clinton’s pivot to Asia work?”

Why not use familiar words like shift or refocus or concentrate on? When journalists opt for re-engineered words like optics and pivot, too often it’s a triumph of affectation over good reporting. We should use words to be clear, not to sound as if we know a secret language.

*                                                         *                                                        *                                                      *

An announcement of a public piano recital included this information: “Sunday, July 17, 2016 from 4:00 PM to 6:00 PM (PDT)

• The rules of punctuation require a comma after 2016. But more to the point, why include the year? Does anyone think this event may be happening in 2017?

• There is no need for :00 after the 4 and the 6. What’s wrong with 4 PM or 6 PM?

• The phrase “from 4:00 PM to 6:00 PM” is ungainly and rambling; make it “4-6 PM.”

• And what could be less necessary than including PDT.* An event taking place on the West Coast would not list a starting time in a different time zone.

So here is our version: Sunday, July 17, 4-6 PM. That says everything the original says, in less than half the space. Why overcomplicate the simple question: When?


*Pacific Daylight Time

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Posted on Wednesday, June 22, 2016, at 10:37 am