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Anachronisms: Time Out!

Shakespeare typing Hamlet. JFK on a cellphone. Elvis using Twitter. Each is an anachronism, the technical term for a chronological blunder.

Many years ago my family took me to see Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. As young as I was, I gave up on the movie in utter disgust when Cleopatra winked at Caesar. I didn’t care that the filmmakers were having a little fun with their presumably sophisticated audience. To me, it was a deal breaker.

In HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, set in Atlantic City during Prohibition, loving care and great expense went into the costumes and the lavish set design. So I was jolted when, in the first episode—directed by Martin Scorsese no less—a showgirl shrieks, “No way!” My Partridge Dictionary of Slang says that no way first appeared in 1968.

In Mail Order Bride, a western set in 19th century Wyoming, a character says, “She couldn’t take the lifestyle.” The Oxford English Dictionary says life-style was coined in 1929. That surprised me, because I would have sworn that lifestyle didn’t show up until the 1960s.

So beware what you call an anachronism—you might get taken down a peg, as I was by the 1933 film A Man’s Castle, when Spencer Tracy says, “I’m hip to all the panhandling routines.” Really? He was “hip” back in 1933? I’d have lost that bet.

I was also put in my place by the great AMC series Mad Men when a character in the 1960s said “synchronicity,” a word that became trendy with the popular culture in the eighties. But it turns out synchronicity goes back to the fifties.

The creator of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner, was meticulous in his replication of sixties vernacular. Good for him, because a lot of watchdogs were paying close attention. I’ve read that Weiner was grilled about the show’s use of self-worth, regroup, and recon, but like synchronicity, those terms were around back then. “When in doubt,” Weiner said, “I don’t use it.”

Not all the quibbles were false alarms. Even an artist as committed as Weiner is going to slip up, as when he had someone say, “You have to be on the same page as him.” On the same page, I understand, didn’t enter the language until the late seventies.

Other Mad Men lines I had doubts about include “I’m a glass-half-full kind of girl” and “push back.” These both sound decidedly post-sixties. Instead of “glass-half-full kind of girl,” why not use an expression more typical of the period, like “I’m a cockeyed optimist”? Same with “push back.” Why use a term that’s overused by politicians and pundits in 2015 when any number of hardy perennials (“oppose,” “resist,” “defy”) are readily available? If a phrase sounds too current, it risks spoiling the illusion.

And even if you could prove to me that winking goes all the way back to ancient Egypt, it still didn’t work in Cleopatra.

Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, August 11, 2015, at 10:15 am

Media Watch

Here is another assemblage of less than shining achievements in journalism.

• From a review of a movie about a ninety-three-year-old designer: “She makes no attempt to deny the pains and rigors of life in her ninth decade.” Let’s see now, a three-year-old is in her first decade; a thirteen-year-old is in her second decade; a twenty-three-year-old is in her third decade. Do the math: a ninety-three-year-old is in her tenth decade.

• “It’s a real kudo for Yahoo.” There is no such thing as “a kudo.” Kudos is a Greek word meaning “praise” or “glory.” Despite the s on the end, kudos is singular, not plural.

• “Green yelled, ‘I told ya’ll it was over!!!’ ” The punctuation is a mess even before the sentence ends with that intemperate outburst of exclamation points. Apparently the writer’s MO is to just fling apostrophes around and pray they make a smooth landing. Well, the one in “ya’ll” sure didn’t. Why would anyone want to harm a nice word like all by disfiguring it with a wayward apostrophe? The correct contraction of you all is y’all. The apostrophe replaces the ou in you—just as it stands in for the wi in you will when we write you’ll or the ha in you have when we write you’ve. What missing letter or letters does the apostrophe in ya’ll replace?

• Three sentences from three articles that share one problem: “But improvements could take awhile.” “Every once in awhile, then, you feel like you’re watching an old mystery.” “Hanging around with fantastic writers rubs off on you after awhile.”

All three writers should have used the two-word noun phrase a while. It is worthwhile preserving the difference between awhile and a while. As one word, awhile is an adverb meaning “for a while.” Obviously the writer of the first sentence didn’t mean “improvements could take for a while,” which makes no sense. He should have gone with the noun phrase “a while,” making the noun “while” the object of “could take.”

The writers of the second and third sentences have mistakenly made awhile the object of the prepositions in and after. But only nouns and pronouns may be objects of prepositions, never adverbs. Claire Kehrwald Cook sums it all up in her book Line by Line: “Use the article [a] and noun [while], not the adverb [awhile], after a preposition … Use awhile only where you can substitute the synonymous phrase for a time.”

• “It is a memorial to the thousands of soldiers who fought and died in the June 18, 1815 battle of Waterloo.” Add a comma after “1815.” Most people still use a comma to separate the day of the month from the year, but many forget to put another comma after the year.

• “Our design critic’s favorite example of ‘defensive architecture’ are the wooden benches on Mission.” The writer forgot what every schoolchild learns the first week of English class: The verb must agree with the subject. The subject is “example.” The critic’s favorite example is the wooden benches. Case closed.


Pop Quiz

The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can spot the errors. Our answers are at the bottom of the newsletter.

1. “Iran is as great a threat that Israel has ever faced.”
2. “It’s a extremely politicized department.”
3. “Every one of our allies in the region are up in arms.”
4. “It’s a good opportunity for whomever becomes the nominee.”
5. “This could spurn other people to do the same thing.”


Pop Quiz Answers

1. “Iran is as great a threat as Israel has ever faced.”
2. “It’s an extremely politicized department.”
3. “Every one of our allies in the region is up in arms.”
4. “It’s a good opportunity for whoever becomes the nominee.”
5. “This could spur other people to do the same thing.”

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Posted on Monday, August 3, 2015, at 7:19 pm

Grammar, Vocabulary Go Hand in Hand

A solid vocabulary gives you a hammer rather than a rock when you need to drive a nail.

Today we introduce the first in a periodic series of vocabulary tests. We want to keep the focus on words that would be worthy of inclusion in any serious person’s vocabulary. We feel tests like these are most valuable when they stick to practical words that are effective in relaying the message without exalting the brilliance of the messenger.

So let’s get started. Answers are directly below.

1. charisma

A) beauty
B) prosperity
C) confidence
D) magnetism

2. esoteric

A) obscure
B) pompous
C) unnecessary
D) smart

3. incredulous

A) wonderful
B) unbelieving
C) unbelievable
D) significant

4. blithe

A) carefree
B) excitable
C) shining
D) simple

5. nonplussed

A) untroubled
B) fearless
C) thrilled
D) perplexed

6. anomaly

A) likeness
B) irregularity
C) barrier
D) substitution

7. erudite

A) pushy
B) self-assured
C) well-read
D) affected

8. capricious

A) roomy
B) enticing
C) unpredictable
D) disapproving

9. ebullient

A) obedient
B) deceptive
C) aggressive
D) high-spirited

10. intractable

A) undetectable
B) unacceptable
C) unmanageable
D) unbelievable


1: D) magnetism. Nina has the talent and charisma required for the role.

2: A) obscure. Because of its esoteric storyline, the film failed at the box office.

3: B) unbelieving. She was incredulous when she heard my lame excuse.

4: A) carefree. Chombley marveled at the waif’s blithe, graceful manner.

5: D) perplexed. Ralph was nonplussed by the stranger’s thick accent.

6: B) irregularity. There is no greater anomaly in nature than a fish that can’t swim.

7: C) well-read. After years of rigorous study, LaMar has become erudite in the field of prehistoric African art.

8: C) unpredictable. Dana’s capricious demands and disgraceful conduct outraged the staff.

9: D) high-spirited. The pianist’s ebullient interpretation of the sonata enthralled the audience.

10: C) unmanageable. At first the pain was controllable—then it became intractable.

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Posted on Monday, July 27, 2015, at 7:50 pm

Numbers: Words or Numerals?

The topic of when to write numbers out and when to use numerals concerns and confounds a lot of people.

America’s two most influential style and usage guides have different approaches: The Associated Press Stylebook recommends spelling out the numbers zero through nine and using numerals thereafter—until one million is reached. Here are four examples of how to write numbers above 999,999 in AP style: 1 million; 20 million; 20,040,086; 2.7 trillion.

The Chicago Manual of Style recommends spelling out the numbers zero through one hundred and using figures thereafter—except for whole numbers used in combination with hundred, thousand, hundred thousand, million, billion, and beyond (e.g., two hundred; twenty-eight thousand; three hundred thousand; one million). In Chicago style, as opposed to AP style, we would write four hundred, eight thousand, and twenty million with no numerals—but like AP, Chicago style would require numerals for 401; 8,012; and 20,040,086.

There are only a handful of rules for writing numbers that virtually everyone agrees on. Two major ones: Numbers beginning sentences must be written out (Eight thousand twelve people attended the concert). Years (8 B.C., 2015) are expressed in numerals. But spelling out numbers vs. using numerals mostly comes down to policies and preferences that vary from publisher to publisher.

The topic causes further confusion because exceptions to just about every rule or practice crop up constantly. For instance, She walked 3 miles; Add 4 teaspoons of salt; Timmy is 5 years old; and The car is 6 feet wide are all correct in AP style, despite contradicting AP’s own rule of spelling out numbers between zero and nine.

Chicago endorses the following sentence “for the sake of consistency”: A mixture of buildings—one of 103 stories, five of more than 50, and a dozen of only 3 or 4—has been suggested for the area. Chicago explains why it does not spell out 50, 3, and 4: “If according to rule you must use numerals for one of the numbers [103] in a given category, use them for all in that category.” But why, then, are one, five, and a dozen written out? Because “items in one category may be given as numerals and items in another spelled out.”

AP’s approach to numbers is far less nuanced than Chicago’s. This may be because the Associated Press Stylebook is targeted to newspapers and magazines, which toil in a world of deadlines. There simply isn’t time to get sidetracked by numerical niceties when your article is due in three hours.

Here is a sentence from a profile that appeared in a big-city newspaper: “He has delivered a tutorial about the First, Second, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Ninth and 10th amendments to the Constitution.” Note the glorious inconsistency of “10th,” which would make Chicago Manual of Style disciples apoplectic.

But AP style stipulates “10th,” not “Tenth,” and that’s that. It may look odd, but is the sentence not clear and unambiguous? When it comes to the arcane, convoluted subject of writing numbers, there’s something refreshing about AP’s streamlined approach.

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Posted on Tuesday, July 21, 2015, at 4:29 pm

Don’t Put It in Writing

Today we’ll discuss a word and a phrase, either of which would sound fine in a casual exchange but could attract unwanted attention if used in formal writing.

Ahold  Although few people would notice anything amiss in a sentence like I wish I could get ahold of a good grammar book, many editors would change get ahold of to either get hold of or get a hold of.

Dictionaries differ on ahold. Back in 1966, Random House’s Dictionary of the English Language listed ahold, but called it “informal”—and the American College Dictionary (1968), also from Random House, refused to list the word at all. (Maybe Random House wanted to discourage college kids from using it.)

Nor can ahold be found in the American Heritage dictionary’s 1980 edition. However, American Heritage’s 2004 and 2011 editions include the word without comment.

Our most recent dictionary, Webster’s New World (2014), lists ahold but, like Random House half a century ago, labels the word “informal.”

Most of the language websites we checked did not recommend ahold. Here are some examples: “Ahold does not exist as a word in standard English.” “Ahold poses no problem in informal speech and writing, but it might be considered out of place in more formal contexts.”In standard English you just ‘get hold’ of something or somebody.”

We found only one website that endorsed this word with any enthusiasm: “Don’t hold back on your use of ahold … a word recognized by Merriam-Webster, Garner’s Modern American Usage and most other writing authorities.”

We confirmed that the Merriam-Webster online dictionary does recognize ahold, but the statement about “most other writing authorities” conflicted with our own findings. And as for Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage, all it says about ahold is that “it verges on being standard”—hardly a resounding endorsement.

In close proximity  Proximity does not mean “distance”; it means “nearness,” so close proximity means “close nearness.” Besides its redundancy, in close proximity takes three times as many words and three times as many syllables as are needed to express an elementary concept: nearby.

You see in close proximity all the time, and it always manages to sound ungainly and comically self-important. Here’s a small sampling of what we found on the Internet: “The hotel is in close proximity [close] to the corporate, financial and fashionable heart of the city.” “Investigators believe the aircraft went down after coming in close proximity [too close] to another plane.” “The car’s controls are in close proximity [within easy reach].”

Traditional usage guides advise against close proximity. Typical of these is Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage: “Say close to or near, according to the context.” John B. Bremner’s Words on Words finds the phrase too obviously silly to get worked up about. Bremner’s droll entry under close proximity: “The best kind.”

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Posted on Monday, July 13, 2015, at 3:42 pm