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Irregular Verbs: Handle with Care

During a recent broadcast of America’s professional-basketball playoffs, a popular commentator said, “I wish he had did it” instead of had done it. A few days later, a longtime Washington insider with his own TV show said “if he had ran” instead of had run.

When those who should know better misuse irregular verbs, it is jarring and distracting. We use these verbs all the time. We might as well get them right. See how you do on the quiz that follows. The answers are directly below the test.

Irregular Verb Pop Quiz

1. She was gazing at a picture that her son had recently ___.

A) drawed
B) drew
C) drawn

2. You have finally ___ me a reason to trust them.

A) gave
B) given
C) give
D) gived

3. Have you ___ that thank-you note to your aunt yet?

A) write
B) wrote
C) written
D) writ

4. Just hearing that old song ___ back a lot of memories.

A) brang
B) brought
C) A and B are both correct

5. She still has not ___ him for the mistake he made.

A) forgiven
B) forgave
C) forgive
D) forgived

6. Lannie had his favorite shoes ___ in the back of the closet.

A) hid
B) hidden
C) A and B are both correct

7. A problem had suddenly ___ with our dinner reservations.

A) araised
B) arose
C) arised
D) arisen

8. The sweet smell of orchids ___ in the air.

A) clung
B) clinged
C) clang

9. My jacket ___ her perfectly.

A) fit
B) fitted
C) A and B are both correct

10. We had not even ___ two miles before we came to a fork in the road.

A) rode
B) ridden
C) ride
D) riden

ANSWERS

1: C) drawn

2: B) given

3: C) written

4: B) brought

5: A) forgiven

6: B) hidden

7: D) arisen

8: A) clung

9: C) A and B are both correct

10: B) ridden

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Posted on Tuesday, May 17, 2016, at 4:20 pm


Media Watch

Here is another set of recent flubs and fumbles from usually dependable journalists.

• “Yet my relationship with the game was simple and uncomplicated.”

How did this one get by the editors? One of those two adjectives has to go.

• “He is accused of fleeing to London in March while owing more than $1 billion dollars to Indian banks.”

The dollar sign means “dollars,” so “$1 billion dollars” is as redundant as “simple and uncomplicated.”

• “The vessels have the capacity to carry about 2½ times the number of containers than held by ships now using the canal.

Why would anyone put than in that sentence?

• “The outpouring of anger and concern show that California wants vital and vigilant coastal protections.”

The subject is the singular noun “outpouring,” so the verb should be shows.

• “To get in, I waded through a throng of protesters gathered around the entrance … A few protestors got close enough to snap pictures.”

The Associated Press Stylebook and many dictionaries accept only protester. Other dictionaries list protestor as an alternative spelling. But no authority alive recommends spelling the word both ways in the same paragraph.

• “It is an important fact ignored—or maybe unknown—to the candidate.”

The writer wanted to say that the “important fact” was either ignored by the candidate or unknown to the candidate. Here’s how to make it work with the dashes: It is an important fact ignored by—or maybe unknown to—the candidate.

• “The outcome is a major win for public employee unions, who would be weakened if members didn’t pay for representation.”

The word after “unions” should be which, not who. Despite being made up of people, a union is a thing. Writers should limit their use of who to humans.

• “Born in Brooklyn in 1922, stage fright steered Mr. Bauersfeld away from Hollywood.”

The dangler is alive and thriving in the twenty-first century. Did you spot it? To sticklers and other careful readers, this sentence is sheer nonsense: it states with a straight face that stage fright was born in Brooklyn in 1922. We could write  Stage fright steered Mr. Bauersfeld, who was born in Brooklyn in 1922, away from Hollywood. But now the reader wonders what being born in Brooklyn in 1922 has to do with stage fright and avoiding Hollywood. Year and place of birth are irrelevant here. The writer was trying to cram too much into one sentence.

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Posted on Wednesday, May 11, 2016, at 7:46 am


The Only Truth

A few readers took issue with the title of last week’s article, “Pronunciation Only Matters When You Speak.” They said “Only” should go after “Matters,” not before. To which we reply: ugh. “Pronunciation Matters Only When You Speak” is too stilted, too mannered. Our title places only where you usually find it: before the verb.

There is no likelihood of misinterpreting “Pronunciation Only Matters When You Speak.” So the only possible objection to it is that it is against the rules. But what rules? Yes, some authorities insist on placing only next to the word or phrase it modifies (“When You Speak”). But other scholars deem this practice unnecessary if the meaning is clear.

There is no question that placing only before the verb can sometimes create confusion. The copy editor Claire Kehrwald Cook explains: “If you write We are only ordering metal desks because they are more durable than wooden ones, readers may think you’re ordering only one type of furniture when you mean you’re ordering it for only one reason. So take care with your onlys.” But Cook also says, “When only falls into its idiomatic place without causing ambiguity, let it stand.”

Writers have been placing only before the verb at least since Shakespeare (“Though to itself it only live and die”). “She Only Loves Me When I’m There” was a hit song in 2014, eighty years after “I Only Have Eyes for You” topped the charts in 1934. They Only Kill Their Masters is the title of a controversial movie from 1972. “It only hurts when I laugh” is the punch line to a classic old joke. If you ended that joke with “It hurts only when I laugh,” people would be amused all right, but not in the way you might hope.

Let’s see what the experts have said down through the years:

“Often, to be sure, clarity and idiom are better served by bringing only to a more forward position … Certainly it is always better to avoid an air of fussiness.” —Bill Bryson, 2003

“It is torturing the sentence and the listener to make a point of saying He died only yesterday.” —Wilson Follett, 1966

“Its natural position is before the verb … This word order is standard literary English.” —Bergen and Cornelia Evans, 1957

“For He only died a week ago no better defence is perhaps possible than that it is the order that most people have always used & still use, & that, the risk of misunderstanding being chimerical, it is not worth while to depart from the natural.” —H.W. Fowler, 1926

We hope those quotations promote clearer understanding of a questionable “rule” that, if followed blindly, only encourages ham-fisted pedantry.

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Posted on Wednesday, May 4, 2016, at 7:50 am


Pronunciation Only Matters When You Speak

A cautionary tale for those who are cavalier about pronunciation: In 2003, the then president of the United States made his first presidential visit to Nevada and repeatedly pronounced it “nuh-VAHD-a.” Residents of the state got testy—it’s nuh-VAD-a, and they felt that the commander in chief should know it. The next time he spoke there, he made sure to say “nuh-VAD-a,” adding archly, “You didn’t think I’d get it right, did you?”

Here are some other pronunciations to ponder:

Vase  The Brits say “vahz,” but we don’t. It rhymes with face or phase in American speech.

Decadent   Given the state of things, this is a word you hear a lot, but not its traditional pronunciation: dik-CAY-dint (first two syllables pronounced like decay), rather than DECK-a-dint. We have to admit that this one is all but a lost cause, although if you think about it, it makes sense to stress the decay in decadent.

Cadre  We recommend CAD-ree. Yes, we know cadre is now commonly pronounced KAH-dray, but it wasn’t always so. In the 1960s the preferred pronunciation was KAH-der, with CAD-ree as an alternative. KAH-dray was not an option.

Culinary  You can’t go wrong with KYOO-lin-ary, although these days you are more likely to hear CULL-in-ary, or even COO-lin-ary. In 1956, Webster’s New World listed only KYOO-lin-ary. In 1966, The Random House Dictionary of the English Language preferred KYOO-lin-ary but made CULL-in-ary a second option. Regrettably, the online American Heritage dictionary now leads with CULL-in-ary, but it lists KYOO-lin-ary second.

Acumen  This word for “keen insight” is usually pronounced “ACK-ya-min,” but many sticklers object. The 1956 Webster’s allowed only uh-KYEW-min (rhymes with luck human), but ten years later, Random House listed ACK-ya-min as a second choice. The Oxford online dictionary accepts ACK-ya-min but still prefers uh-KYEW-min. So do we.

Schizophrenia  We prefer skit-sa-FREE-nia, and so do we (joke). Nowadays there is general agreement on the first two syllables: skit-sa. But are the next two syllables pronounced “FREE-nia” or “FREN-ia”? The 2014 Webster’s New World and the online American Heritage accept both. But going back a few decades, the 1968 Random House American College Dictionary accepts only FREE-nia. And get this: it prefers skiz-a-FREE-nia, the “skiz” rhyming with whiz. It lists skit-sa-FREE-nia second. No FREN-ia in sight.

Halley’s Comet  Make it HAL-lee’s. The two l’s make Halley an exact rhyme with valley. The last name of the astronomer Edmund Halley (1656-1742) is often mispronounced HAY-lee. That would be understandable if it were “Haley’s Comet,” a frequent misspelling. Some say HAH-lee’s or HAW-lee’s, both of which are more acceptable than HAY-lee’s.

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Posted on Tuesday, April 26, 2016, at 4:46 pm


The Rise and Fall of Vogue Words

In the last two weeks, on various radio and television programs, I have heard the word granular used no less than five times, in sentences like “The commission was hoping for a granular analysis of the problem.”

The word got my attention, but I didn’t know what it was supposed to mean. All I knew was that the pundits who said “granular” were not talking about actual granules or particles or grainy surfaces.

I looked up granular on the regularly updated online American Heritage dictionary, and found this: “Having a high level of detail, as in a set of data: a more granular report that shows daily rather than weekly sales figures.”

Are we witnessing the birth of a new fad word? We’ll see if granular catches on—it’s off to a pretty good start.

Language watchers have taken notice. One of them groused on the internet: “What is wrong with using words we already have available, like specific versus general and detailed versus summary? There is no good reason to posit another meaning of ‘granular’ simply in order to sound more attuned to the latest fad in management … This impoverishes the language.”

In 1926, the linguist Henry Fowler coined vogue word to describe a word that emerges “from obscurity” to become inexplicably popular. “It is often, but not necessarily, one that by no means explains itself to the average man, who has to find out its meaning as best he can.” Fowler added, “Ready acceptance of vogue words seems to some people the sign of an alert mind; to others it stands for the herd instinct and lack of individuality.”

Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage has a substantial list of vogue words and phrases that includes downsize, empower, proactivesynergy, user-friendly, at the end of the day, and worst-case scenario. These have all made the transition from fresh and edgy to stale and tedious. Today’s catchiest vogue words and phrases will be tomorrow’s clichés. The rest of them just wear out and vanish after a period of manic overuse by the public.

Many vogue words are lifted from science, technology, and academia. People use these imposing expressions with little or no understanding of their meanings. Why say it raises the question when saying it begs the question sounds smarter? But to beg the question means something else entirely: it is a scholarly term for reaching unwarranted conclusions.

And why say limits or boundaries when you can wow ’em with parameters, which made a splashy debut as a vogue word a few decades ago. Soon after the word took off, the language scholar Theodore Bernstein wrote, “Parameter is a mathematical term … that many people are using—correction: misusing—to sound technical and impressive.”

Finally, let’s not overlook the commercial potential of trendy language. If big corporations co-opt vogue words to move products, that’s just savvy marketing. A fast-food chain now offers an Artisan Grilled Chicken Sandwich. At first glance it looks like any other assembly-line sandwich, but I know it’s artisan—that means good, right?—because it says so in big capital letters right there on the cardboard packaging.

—Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, April 19, 2016, at 7:54 pm