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Rules, Policies, and Judgment Calls

Readers seemed to enjoy “Are Two r’s One Too Many?” our column about the pronunciation of February. But we also received a few emails like this one: “Why on earth is there an apostrophe in the title??”

We understand the reader’s concern. Starting in grade school, English teachers rail against sentences like “Banana’s make good snack’s.” Students learn early on that only careless or clueless writers use apostrophes to pluralize nouns.

However, there are certain exceptions. When a rule leads to perplexity rather than clarity, writers and editors will make adjustments. For instance, the use of apostrophes strikes us as the simplest and most practical way to pluralize is and was in a sentence like Jones uses too many is’s and was’s. You may feel you have a better solution, but the is’s and was’s solution is not wrong. It is endorsed by many reputable language authorities.

These days, initialisms like TV or RSVP are made plural simply by adding a lowercase s without an apostrophe: TVsRSVPs. But to pluralize abbreviations that end in S, we advise using an apostrophe: They sent out two SOS’s.

Imagine the confusion if you wrote My a’s look like u’s without apostrophes. Readers would see as and us, and feel lost.

This brings us back to our title and the phrase “two r’s.” The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) endorses “Mind your p’s and q’s.” The Practical English Handbook by Floyd C. Watkins, William B. Dillingham, et al., sanctions “four c’s,” but the book also accepts “four cs,” presumably because the difference between c in italics and s in roman typeface is sufficient for attentive readers.

There is no definitive rule for using apostrophes (or not) to form plurals in special cases like these. For many decades The New York Times wrote the 1920’s. Then the paper changed its policy in late 2012, and now writes the 1920s like most of the rest of us. And though CMOS recommends “p’s and q’s,” it prefers yeses and nos to yes’s and no’s. One wonders if CMOS would prefer ises and wases to is’s and was’s—because to us, ises and wases is too obscure to be a practical solution.

So to avoid similar confusion, we went with “Two r’s” and not “Two rs” in our title. We didn’t feel comfortable signing off on something that looked like a typo.

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Posted on Monday, February 9, 2015, at 4:23 pm


Are Two r‘s One Too Many?

Here we are, in the month that’s hard to spell and harder to pronounce. Every year I grit my teeth listening to the bizarre ways people mangle “February.” The culprit is that first r. Most people just ignore it and say “Feb-yoo-ary.”

The 2006 American Heritage dictionary has a “Usage Note” at “February” that made my brain squirm the first time I read it: “the variant pronunciation [Feb-yoo-ary] … is quite common in educated speech and is generally considered acceptable. The loss of the first r in this pronunciation can be accounted for by the phonological process known as dissimilation, by which similar sounds in a word tend to become less similar.”

Oh, I grumbled. Now I’m expected to believe that a blatant mispronunciation is not simply
sloppy—no, don’t you see, it’s a phonological process, dear boy.

This is the kind of thing that gives scholarship a bad name. At least that was my initial reaction. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe “Feb-roo-ary” is the way to go, but there might be more to this dissimilation business than I originally recognized. Take a look at other instances …

Library  Just about every schoolchild who ever lived has said “lie-berry,” and some say it well into their teens. The similarity of this word to February can’t be overlooked.

Roller coaster   I have heard sane adults say they went on the “rolly coaster.”

Kindergarten  Come on, admit it, you or someone you know says “kin-dee-garten.” You’re as likely to hear it from parents as from kin-dee-gartners themselves.

Peripheral  It’s quite common to hear things like, “When I was a young player, I learned to use my periph-ee-al vision.”

All four of the previous examples are words in which the r’s cause the difficulty. But other consonants can create similar problems …

Probably  A lot of, uh, dissimilators pronounce it “prob-lee.”

Et cetera (etc.)  Many smart, educated people botch, er, dissimilate the first t, and say “eck settera” rather than “et.”

I don’t know if the next two examples count as “textbook” dissimilation, but a curious thing happens with certain double-c’s:

Succinct  Everyone says “suh-sinkt.” When was the last time you heard someone correctly pronounce it “suk-sinkt”? Well, why else are there two c’s? You don’t say “secede” when you mean succeed.

Flaccid  Again, most people overlook one of those c’s. The widespread mispronunciation is “flassid”; the correct pronunciation is “flaxid.”

But I’ve been saving the best for last. Can anyone explain the silent c in Connecticut? All I’ve been able to dig up is that the state got its name from quinnitukqut, a Mohican word meaning “beside the long tidal river.” So where does the second c in Connecticut come from? Note that it’s quinnitukqut, not quinnictukqut.

Maybe, when nobody was looking, some prankster, perhaps one of the ringleaders of Dissimilation Theory, sneaked in that middle c, daring anyone to pronounce it.

Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, February 3, 2015, at 3:45 pm


Nice Publication—Until You Read It

A table by the front door of a hip Northern California restaurant is stacked with complimentary copies of a forty-three-page mini-magazine. This handsome brochure, produced by the company that manages the establishment, is printed on thick, textured paper. It’s full of sumptuous full-color photos depicting the glories of food and drink. Somebody spent a lot of time and money on this. But despite a generous budget and a staff of editors, the written content seems to be an afterthought.

The table of contents lists the wrong page for two of the magazine’s seven articles.

In an introduction, the editor-in-chief writes, “We are enamored by every inch of San Francisco,” even though enamored traditionally takes the preposition of or with. He goes on to call San Francisco “one of the most unique cities in the world.” A good copyeditor would remove “most.” All proficient editors know that unique—meaning “one of a kind”—should stand alone.

In a piece about a farmers’ market, we find “locally-sourced seafood” and “recently-opened bar.” An article about a Napa Valley honey farm refers to “strategically-placed bee hives.” Anyone who ever took Proofreading 101 knows that adverbs ending in ly should not be hyphenated. (And beehive has been one word for eight centuries.)

Proofreading 101 also drills students on avoiding danglers, yet this booklet is teeming with them. In an article about a seafood merchant named Joe, we read this: “Based in San Francisco, Joe’s fish can be found on dozens of menus.” (Joe is based there, not the fish.) A few pages later we find, “Open for breakfast and lunch, you can get the best eggs in the city …” (This inept sentence says that “you” are open for breakfast and lunch.)

Other gaffes range from clumsy to clueless. America’s “west coast” is mentioned but not capitalized. A fish’s texture is called “velvety-like,” even though velvety by itself means “like velvet.” Whoever wrote “a couple bites of leftovers” and “a couple calls came in” thinks couple is an adjective. In fact, it’s a noun, requiring of (“couple of bites,” “couple of calls”).

If a company wishes to make a good impression, you’d think fluent grammatical English would be a crucial part of the presentation.

This restaurant’s management group wouldn’t endorse serving baked orange roughy on paper plates with plastic utensils, or Russian osetra caviar on Wonder Bread slathered in Miracle Whip.

So why produce a sleek publication filled with gorgeous images, only to bring the whole thing crashing down with sloppy articles written by feckless amateurs? Maybe this inattention to detail says something dark about the company. Or maybe it’s just further evidence that clear and precise writing is becoming as outmoded and quaint as pay phones and post offices.

 

Pop Quiz
Fix any sentences that need correcting. Our answers are below.

1. The show’s lead role is played by a nationally-famous movie star.
2. Born and raised in Queens, Mr. Walken’s first education for the stage involved dance lessons.
3. The food of New Orleans is absolutely unique—and sinfully delicious.
4. We were lost until a kindly-looking man helped us find our hotel.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. The show’s lead role is played by a nationally famous movie star.
2. Mr. Walken was born and raised in Queens. His first education for the stage involved dance lessons.
3. The food of New Orleans is unique—and sinfully delicious.
4. We were lost until a kindly-looking man helped us find our hotel. CORRECT (“kindly” is an adjective here, not an adverb)

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Posted on Monday, January 26, 2015, at 5:22 pm


Get Thee to a Dictionary

A sentence in last week’s article included the phrase “disrespect or disregard you.” In short order we received mail questioning whether this use of disrespect was appropriate on a website promoting proper grammar. “Are you sure that you are okay with using ‘disrespect’ as a verb?” asked one reader.

Most of the angst over disrespect stems from the word’s popularity with putative thugs. In the words of English scholar Paul Brians in Common Errors in English Usage, “The hip-hop subculture revived the use of ‘disrespect’ as a verb.” Say no more. To many language watchdogs, hip-hop is a worst-case scenario for where English is headed.

An online search seems to confirm this. “My vote? That is not a word,” states one armchair linguist. “No one should use it.” An iffy Internet dictionary calledWiktionary (compiled by anonymous contributors with undocumented credentials) has this to say: “ ‘Disrespect’ is not a verb. ‘Respect’ can be used as a noun or a verb, however ‘disrespect’ should only be used as a noun.”

But note that Brians said “revived.” We consulted our brand-new 2014 Webster’s New World (Fifth Edition) and found disrespect listed as a transitive verb meaning “to have or show lack of respect for.”

Hold it, you say. Webster’s is notoriously permissive. Perhaps its editors’ inclusion of disrespect as a verb merely reflects the company’s longtime policy of publishing a nonjudgmental, up-to-date record of how people communicate.

So we turned to Random House’s 1968 American College Dictionary, and sure enough, there it was: “to regard or treat without respect.” We also found disrespect listed as a verb in the oldest dictionary in our office, a 1941 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary.

Our last stop was the Oxford English Dictionary (which has been called “the ultimate authority on the English language”). Here we discovered that disrespect as a verb first appeared in print around 1614—four centuries ago.

We believe that those who are serious about language matters should have at least two dictionaries within easy reach: a contemporary one—many are available online—but also one that is at least thirty years old. (You can get one if you really want it.) Although having your own Oxford English Dictionary would also be nice, its twenty gargantuan volumes take up a lot of space … and cost a lot of money. However, the Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com) is a terrific alternative.

This episode proves once again that what people feel to be indisputable about proper English all too often says more about them and their biases than about the issue at hand.

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Posted on Wednesday, January 21, 2015, at 3:51 pm


Words in Flux

Today we’ll discuss two words whose meanings in casual conversation may vary significantly from their traditional meanings in formal writing.

Despise Not so long ago, despise was more than just another word for detest. “Syme despised him and slightly disliked him,” wrote George Orwell in his 1949 novel 1984. Orwell knew that, strictly speaking, despise means “to look down on” but not necessarily “to dislike” (although that’s usually part of the deal).

“Let no one despise your youth” reads a line in the Bible (1 Timothy 4:12). Note that “despise your youth” does not mean “hate you for being young.” The passage means, “Don’t let anyone disrespect or disregard you for being young.” Disdain is not the same as downright hostility.

Affinity Some seven hundred years ago, affinity meant “relation by marriage.” By extension, the proper use of affinity involves mutuality. But that sense of mutual attraction is often absent in contemporary uses of affinity. An online search reveals many examples such as these: “She always had an affinity for growing fruit.” “I have an affinity for vintage chairs.” “My friend has an affinity for making things out of cardboard.” In these examples, “growing fruit,” “vintage chairs,” and “making things out of cardboard” are passive elements, not active components in a relationship. Better to say “a talent for growing fruit,” “a fondness for vintage chairs,” “a flair for making things out of cardboard.”

In the examples above, affinity is followed by the preposition for. But in formal English, the phrase affinity for is despised. The editor Theodore M. Bernstein advised writers to “discard for” and instead “use betweenwith, or sometimes to.”

Here are three sentences that use affinity correctly: “There is an affinity between the Irish and the Italians that can be hard to explain.” “Some people have a natural affinity with children.” “Two vaccines containing native proteins with affinity to porcine transferrin were tested.”

There is no affinity unless it is shared by both parties.

 

Pop Quiz

Are these sentences all right? Do any need fixing? Suggested answers are below.
1. She has some affinity for math.
2. This is a politician with an affinity for making headlines.
3. I knew she always despised me, but I didn’t realize she detested me.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. She has some talent for math.
2. This is a politician with a gift for making headlines.
3. I knew she always despised me, but I didn’t realize she detested me. CORRECT

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Posted on Tuesday, January 13, 2015, at 10:28 am