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When Branding Undermines Spelling

• Spring is in the air, which means that in America, major-league baseball is on the air. In San Francisco, two members of the hometown Giants’ broadcast team are former major-leaguers Mike Krukow (pronounced CREW-ko) and Duane Kuiper (KY-per). The team’s publicity department refers to these popular announcers as “Kruk” and “Kuip,” which we are meant to pronounce “cruke” and “kipe.” But baseball greenhorns see “Kruk” and “Kuip” and say “cruck” and “quip.”

• In Hollywood, good things have started to happen for a talented young entertainer called King Bach, who got his start by making YouTube videos.

Most readers over thirty will look at the name and pronounce it “King Bock.” But once you learn that the young man’s real name is Andrew Bachelor, you realize that “Bach” is supposed to rhyme with match.

Why the haywire spelling of celebrity nicknames nowadays?

The culprit is “branding,” which a business website defines as “the process involved in creating a unique name and image for a product in the consumers’ mind.” By the way, note the cynicism lurking in that phrase “consumers’ mind”—shouldn’t it be “minds”? Evidently, marketing departments view the public as little more than a pliable homogeneous organism.

Why can’t Krukow and Kuiper be “Kruke” and “Kipe”? And why doesn’t Andrew Bachelor call himself “King Batch”? Apparently, a commandment of branding is that you may lop letters off if it makes the moniker more catchy, but you must not alter the spelling to make the pronunciation more reader-friendly, because that would taint the brand and perplex the pliable homogeneous organism.

Subverting long-established conventions of phonetic spelling with sobriquets like “King Bach” and “Kruk” and “Kuip” may irk some of us, but these corporate misspelling tactics mirror the popular culture’s penchant for glib but irrational abbreviations. Consider the mass acceptance of “mic,” which has been driving word nerds batty for years.

“Mic” is a bogus abbreviation of microphone. (Chances are, your neighborhood pub has a regular “open mic” night on its calendar.) But for decades before the intrusion of “mic,” the word was mike: “Ike is good on a mike” went a line from a popular early-1950s jingle about presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower.

There is also a verb to mike, meaning “to place a microphone near.” But if you buy into “mic,” what would the past tense of “to mic” be? Was the speaker micd? mic’d? miced?

A bicycle is a bike, not a “bic.” So let’s get over this dopey notion that a microphone is a “mic.”

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Posted on Monday, April 4, 2016, at 6:32 pm


Autoantonyms Speak with a Forked Tongue

An autoantonym (pronounced auto-ANTA-nim) is a word with two opposite meanings. A familiar example is the Hawaiian word aloha, which means both “hello” and “goodbye.”

Autoantonyms (also known as contranymscontronyms, and Janus words) are not rare. We see, hear, and use them all the time. Too often, miscommunication ensues.

It’s awful when you think you said “purple” but the whole world heard “green.” The great challenge of speaking and writing is to convey your intended meaning and avoid misunderstandings. This is why autoantonyms, with their split personalities, must be recognized and remedied before they do their mischief. Here are a few examples:

Off  It doesn’t necessarily mean “not operating”: First the lights went off, then the alarm went off. What happened after the lights went off? Did the power outage trigger the alarm system or shut it down?

With  This word can mean “side by side” or “in opposition to.” Maxine fought with Charles to gain custody of her daughter. It is unclear whether Charles was helping or hindering Maxine in her efforts to gain custody.

Finished  Accomplished successfully or ruined? Thanks to my investors, this film is finished. Either the investors’ generosity was instrumental in the film’s completion or their interference doomed the project.

Oversight  It is the act of rigorously keeping your eye on something or negligently taking your eye off something.  Your oversight proved to be the difference between success and failure could mean “your diligence was crucial to our success” or “your carelessness caused us to fail.”

Trim  After we trimmed our Christmas tree, it was a perfect fit for the living room. Did the family adorn the tree or prune it?

Left  Who’s left? It can mean “Who has departed?” or “Who is still here?”

Some autoantonyms are phrases, even complete sentences. The expression I could care less has befuddled linguists for decades because it usually means “I could not care less.”

The hipster culture devises autoantonyms to confound society’s mainstream. Throughout most of the twentieth century, jive meant both “jazzy, swinging” and “empty, fraudulent.” For over fifty years, bad and wicked have been hip terms for “great.” More recently, sick has come to mean “ridiculously excellent.” A bomb used to be an embarrassing flop, but all that changed when it’s da bomb! became high praise.

The standard definition of uptight is “inhibited, unable to enjoy life.” But it once meant “as good as it gets.” The singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder scored a big hit with his 1966 album Up-Tight. Would Wonder have chosen an album title that meant “inhibited”?

Slim chance—or, to put it another way, fat chance.

 

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Posted on Thursday, March 31, 2016, at 7:29 am


Spell Well, and Excel

Take care that you never spell a word wrong. Always before you write a word, consider how it is spelled, and, if you do not remember, turn to a dictionary. It produces great praise to a lady to spell well.
—Thomas Jefferson to his daughter

If there are spelling and grammatical errors, assume that the same level of attention to detail probably went into the gathering and reporting of the “facts” given on the site.
—Randolph Hock, The Extreme Searcher’s Internet Handbook

Don’t write naughty words on walls if you can’t spell.
—from the song “Be Prepared,” by Tom Lehrer

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. They specialize in ___ with a focus on fashion and quality.

A) aparrel
B) apparrel
C) apparel
D) aparell

2. Listen to the ___ of the falling rain.

A) rythum
B) rhythum
C) rhythm
D) ryhthm

3. This ___ is important to help us qualify your needs.

A) questionnaire
B) questionaire
C) questionnair
D) questionair

4. “Smooth ___, Hoover!”

A) manuver
B) manuever
C) maneuvor
D) maneuver

5. The seller retains ownership until the final ___ is paid.

A) instalment
B) installment
C) installmint
D) instahlment

6. Ancient Troy was captured by an elaborate ___.

A) stratagim
B) strategim
C) strategem
D) stratagem

7. Jerry’s ___ behavior embarrassed the ambassador.

A) asinine
B) assinine
C) asanine
D) asinyne

8. I walked a mile in my ___.

A) mocasins
B) moccasins
C) mocassins
D) moccassins

9. Trace your ___ to learn more about your family.

A) geneolagy
B) geneolagey
C) geneology
D) genealogy

10. That shy student from Bogotá, ___, became her husband.

A) Collumbia
B) Colambia
C) Colombia
D) Columbia

ANSWERS

1: C) apparel

2: C) rhythm

3: A) questionnaire

4: D) maneuver

5: B) installment

6: D) stratagem

7: A) asinine

8: B) moccasins

9: D) genealogy

10: C) Colombia

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Posted on Tuesday, March 22, 2016, at 10:38 am


Pronoun Puzzlers

Today let’s look into a seldom-discussed subject that’s quite a mouthful: compound possessives with nouns and pronouns.

Have a look at this sentence: Cesar’s and Maribel’s houses are both lovely. Note the ’s at the end of each name. This tells us that Cesar and Maribel each own their own house.

But when two people share ownership, the ’s goes after the second name only. The sentence Cesar and Maribel’s houses are both lovely refers to houses co-owned by Cesar and Maribel.

However, if one—or both—of the joint owners is written as a pronoun, the possessive form is required for both: his and Maribel’s house, Cesar’s and my house, her and my house, your and their house.

As the above examples demonstrate, compound possessives with pronouns require possessive adjectives (my, your, her, our, their). Avoid possessive pronouns (mine, yours, hers, ourstheirs) in such constructions.

It should be mentioned that compound possessives are often clunky as well as confusing. For instance, a picture of her and Cesar’s house could refer to a photo of “her” in front of the house that Cesar owns or a photo of the house that she and Cesar co-own. Big difference. Such ambiguous sentences should probably just be rewritten.

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Last week we received this interesting note from a correspondent in Cambridge, Massachusetts:

“The M.C. and I” is the title of a New York Times Book Review piece on Joel Grey’s new memoir. When I saw it I thought, Is that grammatically correct? I don’t even know how to think about figuring that out. Most titles aren’t sentences. I doubt The King and I would have gotten by all these years if it weren’t correct.

We’ve found that for every title like “The M.C. and I” and The King and I there are several like You, Me, and the Apocalypse (TV series), Me Talk Pretty One Day (book), Me and the Colonel (movie), “Me and Bobby McGee” (popular song), and on and on.

Here’s our theory: the subject pronoun I in a title like The King and I sends a subliminal message that what you are about to experience is high-minded and edifying. The King and I is a beloved Broadway musical about a prim Englishwoman who served in the court of the king of Siam in the 1860s. Consider the exotic subject matter and the sophisticated target audience and you can understand why The King and Me was not an option.

Now look at those other examples. The titles are meant to disarm us with humor or folksiness. They encourage a bond of easy intimacy between author and audience. There’s something comfortable about Me in a title and something more reserved and aloof about I.

 

Pop Quiz

Choose the best sentences. Our answers are below.

1.
A) Randy returned to he and his wife’s farm in Kansas.
B) Randy returned to his and his wife’s farm in Kansas.
C) Randy returned to him and his wife’s farm in Kansas.
D) Randy returned to himself and his wife’s farm in Kansas.

2.
A) Chris and my screenplay is almost finished.
B) Me and Chris’s screenplay is almost finished.
C) Chris’s and my screenplay is almost finished
D) Myself and Chris’s screenplay is almost finished.

3.
A) They and their children’s house was getting a new porch.
B) Their and their children’s house was getting a new porch.
C) Them and their children’s house was getting a new porch.
D) Them and their children were getting a new porch for their house.
E) They and their children were getting a new porch for their house.

4.
A) Your and her dog is on my lawn.
B) Yours and her dog is on my lawn.
C) Hers and your dog is on my lawn.
D) Rewrite the sentence.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. B
2. C
3. E (B is correct, but awkward)
4. D (A is correct, but awkward)

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Posted on Tuesday, March 15, 2016, at 2:17 pm


No Question About It

Let’s see if you can spot what is wrong with this sentence? On closer inspection, most of you will see that the sentence should end in a period rather than a question mark.

Question marks are used only with direct questions. The sentence above certainly contains a direct question: what is wrong with this sentence? However, Let’s see if turns the sentence into an indirect question.

Here is the difference between direct and indirect questions: Do you agree? is a direct question. That same question is embedded in I wonder whether you agree. But now the sentence is a statement. The question is still there, but it is no longer direct.

Sentences that start with Let’s see if, I wonder whether, and the like are statements that ask questions in a roundabout way. Avoid the trap of ending such sentences with question marks.

Some sentences that sound like direct questions are really declarations (What wouldn’t I do for you), requests (Why don’t you take a break), or demands (Would you kids knock it off). Questions like these, which do not require or expect an answer, are called rhetorical questions. Because they are questions in form only, rhetorical questions may be written without question marks.

One-word questions within sentences do not ordinarily take question marks either. There might conceivably be a good reason to write The child asked, why? but that sentence is heavy-handed compared with The child asked why.

When direct questions of more than one word occur in the middle of a sentence, they are generally preceded with a comma, or sometimes a colon, and some writers capitalize the first word: Rantos wondered, How will I escape?

It is not wrong to capitalize a direct question in midsentence. Sometimes it’s a good idea, other times it can be distracting. Many writers would prefer Rantos wondered, how will I escape?—no capital—because the question how will I escape? is clear and concise.

The venerable Chicago Manual of Style offers this handy guideline: “A direct question may take an initial capital letter if it is relatively long or has internal punctuation.” Chicago then provides an example: Legislators had to be asking themselves, Can the fund be used for the current emergency, or must it remain dedicated to its original purpose?

You will notice that the stylebook says “may take,” not “must take.” When it comes to writing questions there is a lot of leeway. Some writers use a colon where others use a comma. Some capitalize where others do not. But an uncalled-for question mark is amateurish in anybody’s book.

 

Pop Quiz

Fix any sentences that need fixing. Our answers are below.

1. I’d like to ask, what makes you so sure?

2. Why don’t you run along home now?

3. The question is not only how? but also why?

4. I wonder if they’re coming over tonight?

5. I’d like to ask what makes you so sure?

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. I’d like to ask, what makes you so sure? CORRECT

2. Why don’t you run along home now.

3. The question is not only how but also why.

4. I wonder if they’re coming over tonight.

5. I’d like to ask what makes you so sure.

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Posted on Tuesday, March 8, 2016, at 3:59 pm