Pop Culture Fallacies

Editor’s note:  It was one year ago that we passed along to you the unfortunate news of the death of our popular GrammarBook writer Tom Stern. Tom loved writing about the English language, and he loved writing for and hearing from you, his audience. He was a keen observer and critic of the media. While the article below is only tangentially related to grammar, punctuation, and the use of language, it’s one he left for us to publish at some point in the future. We thought we’d run it today in remembrance of Tom Stern’s wit and way with words.


This is the paradox of the pop culture: it’s street smart and cutting-edge hip, yet as easy to fleece as Little Bo Peep.

In an open society, people are free to believe anything. It’s not like centuries ago, when you could be put to death for doubting the sun revolved around the (flat) earth.

Which “experts” should we trust? A few years back, word got around that we weren’t sufficiently “hydrated” unless we drank eight glasses of water a day. Then the British Medical Journal said never mind, just drink when you’re thirsty.

When running swept the country in the 1970s, the first commandment was, Stretch those muscles and tendons before hitting the trail. Now Sports Illustrated has a different take: “Study after study has found that increased flexibility actually impairs performance.”

I’ve lost track: Is pasta good or bad? Did you know dark chocolate is high in antioxidants and improves cardiovascular health? Silly me, I thought it trashed my teeth. Remember when red wine rotted livers and caused gout? Now it prevents blood clots, lowers the risk of prostate cancer, and protects against Alzheimer’s.

Yet more popular misconceptions:

“Kiss me, you fool!”  We’re all familiar with this audacious, provocative line, and we always picture a woman saying it. But would you believe it’s a misquotation? It comes from A Fool There Was, a popular 1915 silent film starring the sultry, wicked Theda Bara. In a torrid scene with her lover, Bara spoke wordlessly as the intertitle flashed “Kiss me, my fool!”

Sodium Pentothal is a “truth serum”  Sodium Pentothal in small doses lowers inhibitions and makes users talkative, but there’s no certainty they’re telling the truth. So much for those movies in which the bad guys drug some hapless character who spills crucial classified info.

Mussolini made the trains run on time  The trains were no more efficient under him than they were before. This infamous canard was devised to assure skeptics that as fascist dictators go, you could do a lot worse than Benito “Il Duce” Mussolini (1883-1945), who (mis)led Italy from the 1920s and on into World War II.

Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech  In July 1979 the U.S. had an energy crisis, an inflation crisis, and a growing unemployment crisis. Carter addressed the nation with what is remembered as his ill-advised “malaise” speech, supposedly a putdown of America that helped seal his political doom. But at the time, the speech was received quite positively—and Carter never once said “malaise.”

Tom Stern

Posted on Wednesday, October 11, 2017, at 10:59 am

4 Comments on Pop Culture Fallacies

4 responses to “Pop Culture Fallacies”

  1. Alton says:

    Well, these questions have been eating me up all day, and I am here as a last resort. I’d like to know what’s the correct pronoun for the following sentences –

    “Sarcasm is a way of hurting foolish people without them/they knowing it.”

    “It has nothing to do with she/her being religious.”

    According to me, it is ‘they’ for the first one and ‘she’ for the latter. I would be grateful if you could provide me with a detailed insight.

    Thank you.

    • The words knowing and being are gerunds in your sentences. Our post What Is a Gerund and Why Care? says, “Gerunds are formed when verbs have -ing added to them and are used as nouns.” If a noun or pronoun precedes a gerund, it is usually best to use the possessive form of that noun or pronoun. Therefore, we recommend the following:
      Sarcasm is a way of hurting foolish people without them [or their] knowing it.
      It has nothing to do with her being religious.

  2. Marie says:

    Please can you tell me if your website is suitable for UK Standard English?

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