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Feb-roo-ary vs. Feb-yoo-ary

We all know that February is the only month of variable length, and the only month with fewer than 30 days. But of greater concern here: it’s the only month that most Americans can’t pronounce.

That includes radio and TV commentators, whose job it is to say things right. There are a few meticulous media types who correctly say “Feb-roo-ary.” But for every one of them, there are countless others who say “Feb-yoo-ary.” Then there are those who fecklessly say “Febber-ary”—at least they’re trying, but it only makes “Febber-ary” all the more annoying. Last and least is “Feb-wary,” a feeble cop-out.

 I hauled out my American Heritage dictionary, about the best you can get this side of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary, and I checked to see what the renowned American Heritage Usage Panel had to say about pronouncing February.

 It turns out the answer is: a lot. And I hate to butt heads with this great dictionary’s panel of experts, but I have a big problem with the “Usage Note” I found. It said that “Feb-yoo-ary” is “quite common in educated speech” and “generally considered acceptable.” Whaaat!?

Wait, it gets worse. “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.” By this dizzy reasoning, your six-year-old has been right all along in pronouncing library “lie-berry.”

 “In the case of February,” the panel adds, “the loss of the first r is also owing to the influence of January, which has only one r.” I guess this means we get so accustomed to “yoo-ary” after 31 days of January that our poor little brains and tongues can’t make the adjustment—but the compassionate arbiters on the usage panel want us to know it’s OK, they understand.

Well, to me, this is a dismal misstep by the panel, usually so strict and no-nonsense in its findings. Legitimizing widespread carelessness is where madness lies. Such leniency is an unappetizing leftover from the anything-goes 1960s. That’s when the language was taken down the dead-end trail that has brought America to the brink of illiteracy. That’s when traditional grammar was attacked as elitist, even racist, for supposedly stifling spontaneity and marginalizing the underclasses by imposing on them its tyrannical rules. This was the position taken not only by the rebellious youth of that era, but also by many self-doubting teachers and professors, who chose appeasement over their solemn responsibilities as keepers of the cultural flame.

Anyway, reeling from this seeming betrayal by one of my most trusted allies, I sought and found a second opinion in There Is No Zoo in Zoology and Other Beastly Mispronunciations by Charles Harrington Elster. The enlightened Mr. Elster did not disappoint: Feb-roo-ary “is hard to say, and so most people say [Feb-yoo-ary] because it is easier, not because it is right … [Feb-yoo-ary] may now be standard, but it is still beastly.” Amen, brother.

But Elster wasn’t through. In a direct dig at the American Heritage panel, he said “certain dictionaries have gone to great lengths to tell you that a fancy linguistic process called dissimilation is at work here … the result being that most educated speakers now replace the first R in February with a Y …

“That is a very convenient explanation, which makes a mispronunciation look right because so many people use it, and makes the correct pronunciation look wrong …

“Therefore, I will not dissemble about dissimilation, or feed you some malarkey about how [Feb-yoo-ary] is an alternative pronunciation based on analogy with January.” Ouch—a stinging rebuke from an indignant word nerd!

As for me, I’m not quite that angry with the American Heritage dictionary, which I consider an invaluable resource. I’m just glad I have others like Elster, too.

                                                                                                                               —Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, February 4, 2014, at 4:56 pm


Sic for Sick Sentences

We have noticed a dismal new trend: not capitalizing words that need it. Flouting the rules of capitalization is yet another indignity visited upon our beleaguered language by self-appointed visionaries who seem hellbent on transforming standard English, even though many of them can barely read, write, or speak it.

From a recent magazine article: “ ‘i am just now noticing how long his arms are. maybe happy people have long arms,’ he emailed me.”

The writer of this piece chose not to point out that his correspondent should have capitalized “i” and “maybe.” It highlights an interesting problem: how to alert the reader when a direct quotation is in flawed English.

This is what the bracketed editor’s mark [sic] was invented for. The [sic] mark is found only in direct quotations, always enclosed in brackets. In formal writing, an author or editor inserts [sic] directly after a word or sentence to notify readers that something is off or incorrect but is reproduced exactly as it originally appeared (sic means “thus” in Latin). In the passage at hand, the “i” would be easy to deal with: “i [sic] am just now noticing …”

The “maybe” is more problematic. The use of [sic] has its practical limits. You’d never see “m[sic]aybe happy people have long arms.” And if the author wrote “maybe [sic] happy people have long arms,” the [sic] would be so far from the offending m that a reader might miss the point and think the entire word maybe was somehow unacceptable. Nonetheless, this is the only realistic option where [sic] is concerned.

By not confirming who was responsible for the lowercase i and m, the writer ran the risk that his readers would blame him for the e-mailer’s lapses. Evidently, this was a risk he was willing to take.

 

Pop Quiz

These sentences demonstrate bad habits that one sees frequently nowadays. Can you cure what ails them?

1. The real problem in such cases are the criminals.

2. Chocolate is our childrens’ favorite desert.

3. She’s not here- she left an hour ago.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. The real problem in such cases is the criminals. (It’s not pretty, but it’s correct.)

2. Chocolate is our children’s favorite dessert.

3. She’s not here—she left an hour ago. (Don’t use a hyphen to do a long dash’s work. Note: Some writers space long dashes on both sides, others (as here) use no spaces. Hyphens are never preceded or followed by a space.)

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Posted on Monday, January 27, 2014, at 2:01 pm


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 GrammarBook.com 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


Revised and Expanded Blue Book Coming Next Month

The eleventh edition of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation is set for a February debut. It has been six years since the tenth edition was published. So when the publisher, Jossey-Bass, requested another go-round, the team at GrammarBook.com was elated.

We trust that readers will find the new, extensively revised and expanded version in keeping with the author and founder Jane Straus’s vision of a direct, concise, unfussy grammar book.

The Blue Book, which started life as a booklet for California state employees, has now sold around 200,000 copies. Over the years, we’ve seen the number of subscribers to our weekly blog grow from dozens to scores to hundreds; now, there are almost 40,000 of you worldwide.

As we have grown, we have heard from readers from every walk of life and all corners of the earth. Some of you have been outspoken about things we could be doing better—and we are listening. We can’t forget an e-mail we received from a group of amateur linguists in England who felt we were too quick to label as “rules” what might better be termed conventions. One example of this distinction: although American writers and editors insist upon the placing of commas and periods inside quotation marks without exception, it nonetheless smacks of provincial pomposity to call this a “rule” of English when virtually every other English-speaking country ignores it.

So, with a nod to that shrewd e-mail, the new edition stresses the difference between rules on the one hand and conventions, customs, and tendencies on the other. For instance, there are ironclad rules for apostrophes—nowhere will you see the possessive of women written womens’. But other uses of the apostrophe are open for debate. Some write Learn your ABCs and others prefer your ABC’s. Some write the 1990s and others swear by the 1990’s.

The new Blue Book takes on English in all its often maddening complexity, acknowledging its quirks, gray areas, exceptions, limitations, and contradictions. We realize that people want straight answers, but with English, there sometimes aren’t any, and we would be remiss in saying otherwise.
 

Order the new edition of The Blue Book through Wiley.com and get 30 percent off and FREE shipping. Simply go to bit.ly/1996hkA and use discount code E9X4AYY.

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Posted on Tuesday, January 14, 2014, at 2:23 pm


I Don’t Use Use To but I Used To

The confusion over used to versus use to is largely due to the casual way we talk to each other. Unless the speaker makes a determined effort to say “used [pause] to,” the d at the end of “used” gets swallowed by the stronger t sound. Usually, when someone says something like “I used to read more,” anything from “use to” to “yoosta” is what we hear.

So is use to ever grammatical? Many authorities, including most of those found online, say use to is correct only in one special case: when it is preceded by did, did not, or didn’t, as in, Did you use to live nearby? or He didn’t use to be a writer.

In all other cases—i.e., most of the time—used to is the only option.

You’d think that would settle it. However, one finds dissension among eminent twentieth-century English scholars. In The Careful Writer (1983), Theodore M. Bernstein verifies did use to and didn’t use to, but adds that “employing use in this sense, though common in conversation, lacks grace in writing.” Roy H. Copperud concurs: in A Dictionary of Usage and Style (1967), he writes that with did and didn’t, “the form is use to, though such constructions are clumsy and best avoided.” But Bryan A. Garner, in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (1998), takes issue: “It shouldn’t be written didn’t use to.” And John B. Bremner, in Words on Words (1980), states flatly, “Some otherwise respectable authorities notwithstanding, the use of use to instead of used to is barbaric.”

The best advice is to rewrite. Instead of Did you use to live nearby? one might say Did you ever live nearby? Instead of He didn’t use to be a writer, how about He never used to be a writer. Such easy fixes are painless ways around a prickly mini-controversy.

 

Pop Quiz

Start the New Year right by fixing any of the following sentences that need it.

1. There are four times as many rocks than there were before.

2. A dollar or two are all it costs.

3. This phenomena is all too common.

4. He is one of those people who like opera.

5. It had already began when me and Juan arrived.

6. The decision is theirs’ to make.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. There are four times as many rocks as there were before.

2. A dollar or two is all it costs.

3. This phenomenon is all too common.

4. He is one of those people who like opera. CORRECT

5. It had already begun when Juan and I arrived.

6. The decision is theirs to make.

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Posted on Tuesday, January 7, 2014, at 9:25 pm