Category Archives: All Things Wordish

grammar, punctuation, usage, spelling, speech

Into the ears of babes

The question of the day: Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?

Perhaps more important, what did it mean to you at the time? For me, it all boils down to one word.

On November 22, 1963, I was three weeks away from turning four years old. As young as I was, I can still remember it well. It was late afternoon, getting dark, and I was playing on a swing set with a neighbor boy across the street. His older brother came out of the house and yelled, “The president was shot!” My playmate responded with something like “Oh, no; that’s terrible!” We all ran inside to find their mother in front of the television, hysterical.

Without paying much attention to the TV news story, I probably toddled home for dinner as almost-four-year-olds did in early-1960s suburbia.

I hadn’t grasped what had just happened; still, I was upset. There was only one meaning of “shot” in my young consciousness. And it was indeed horrific.

For me, “shot” was what the nurse gave you when you were sick. On every drive to my pediatrician, Dr. Bunce, I’d ask my mother, “Will I have to get a shot?” I’d tremble with fear and anxiety until the appointment was finished and I was sucking on my good-job-being-brave lollipop. Getting a shot was the worst possible thing to come from a doctor visit (next to spending Christmas in the hospital, which is what I did later that year, but that’s a story for another day).

So, on November 22, as far as I was concerned, the anguish I witnessed in the neighbor’s back yard, in their living room and, most likely, in my own house was a result of the President of the United States being injected with a needle. I probably wondered if he got a lollipop.

Yesterday’s Washington Post ran an article on how parents can help their young children understand clips of Abraham Zapruder’s footage they’d see in the news coverage of today’s 50th anniversary. Sadly, gunfire isn’t new to today’s youngsters. I’m just glad I made it almost to age four oblivious to anyone being killed with a gun.

On a brighter note, I’m reminded of a scene in the 1989 movie, When Harry Met Sally in which Harry is out with a much younger woman. Attempting to make conversation, he asked her where she was when Kennedy was shot. The date replied, “Ted Kennedy was shot?” Out of the mouths of bimbos.

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From here-eternity

You’ve probably noticed the Word Nymph has been in hibernation lately. Frankly, this spring hasn’t produced a fertile crop of linguistic irritants. And those peeking their heads above the soil haven’t seemed worthy of shining the sun upon (says she, ending her sentence acceptably with a preposition).

However, there has been one little allergen under my skin for some time; finally, it took a recent project for me to slap some Benedryl on it.

Like pollen in springtime, this one appears everywhere. Flyers, bulletins, invitations, ads, the posts of the most learned of Facebook friends.

“The show will air from 4:00-5:00 p.m.” “The dinner will be held from 6:00-9:00.” “The store will be open from 10-6.” In each of these examples, either something needs to go or something needs to be replaced. Do you see it?

The easiest fix would be to delete from, and say simply that the show will air 4:00-5:00 p.m. Alternatively, we could substitute the dash with to or until. The show will air from 4:00 until 5:00. Or we could say that the store is open between 10:00 and 6:00. But never—ever—should we use from and a dash.

Why is the from-dash so prevalent?

No matter. The subject springs from a conversation with a client last week about the correct way to punctuate ranges of dates and times. If a piece of punctuation is to indicate the time between Monday and Friday, is it a hyphen, an en dash or an em dash?

Typographically speaking, most authorities–the AP Stylebook, The Chicago Manual of Style and countless online sources–accept either a hyphen or an en dash. Preferring to save hyphens for hyphenation, I’d argue for the en dash. And while most authorities specify that there are to be no spaces on either side of en dash (unlike the mighty em dash, which prefers no space around it), there appears to be an exception for dates and times. Monday-Friday, 8:00-10 a.m. Or Tues.-Thurs., 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. And that’s little a, little p, with periods, by the way. The big A and big P are disappearing from modern temporal expression, and my eyes aren’t misting over their departure. (Apparently, Robert Bringhurst, the guru of modern typography, disagrees. Let’s postpone further discussion of that until I receive my copy of The Elements of Typographic Style.)

Nonetheless, I was tickled that my client cared as much about this wonky issue as I did and was especially psyched to back up my hunch with hard data. Most of all, I was proud that my client wasn’t the least bit tempted to pull a from-dash.

Happy Spring, which runs from March 20 to June 21.

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Curb your enthusiasm

I’m steeped in amusement today
By a goof that keeps coming my way.
At least twice I have seen it
So it’s time that we clean it
From the phrases that some of us say.

Consider the little word curb;
It’s used as a noun and a verb.
Appetite or enthusiasm
Or or a bad muscle spasm,
It means to control or disturb.

A curb is a physical restraint;
With that use I have no complaint.
Curbside pickup or check-in,
Correct uses without reckon
But “a steep learning curb” it ain’t!

Note: Learning curb is a good example of an “eggcorn.” Have you more to throw into the basket?

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Regime change

Twice recently, I noticed a system of healthful habits being described as a regime.

The first reference was in a rerun of The Dick Van Dyke Show, in which Sally Rogers referred to her new diet regime. My ear twitched a bit, recognizing a potential misuse of regimen, while I also considered it might have been a colloquialism of its time some half a century ago.

Then yesterday, I read the same use in the Washington Post’s Health & Science section, in which the author of a recent book assured readers that, in order to age healthfully, they needn’t “go all out with a major fitness regime…” Prior to this, the only regimes I’d read about in the Post were systems of governmental power. I made a note to investigate.

My first scratch into the matter had me feeling pretty cocky. Indeed, the definitions I located defined a regime as a form of government (e.g., a fascist regime), a government in power, a prevailing social system or pattern, a period during which a particular administration or system prevails.

My cockiness wilted when I read an alternate definition—“a regulated system, as of diet and exercise; a regimen”—but I had just enough left to fuel one more regimen-related peeve.

Healthy Regiment

Healthy Regiment

I have a friend who likes to refer to her “regiment” of eating fruits and vegetables. My friend is not alone; the internet has no shortage of references to healthy regiments.

No matter how you slice your produce, there’s no room to rationalize that one. A regiment is an army unit. Period.

One of my favorite sources of analysis on such matters, the Visual Thesaurus, has a thoughtful explanation of regime v. regimen, pulling from various medical publications and etymological authorities to compare the two. They explain that regimen and regime are known as “doublets,” two words that have entered the language from the same source by different routes. They further advise, “If you use regime, you can be confident that you have a couple of centuries of accepted usage on your side. But if you want to make sure you don’t set off anyone’s pet-peeve alarms, stick with regimen.”

So technically, Sally Rogers and the Post are correct, though regime in this context appears to still bother many healthcare professionals. And me.

Nevertheless, Visual Thesaurus states, “Anyone who confuses regimen and regiment betrays ignorance of an elementary verbal distinction.”

They said it, not I.

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A zip of the lip

A very wise man—my late father-in-law—was known to say, “He who talks often is seldom heard.”

He also used to ask, “Is all that talking really necessary?”

For someone to whom words are a profession, a hobby, a love, even half a moniker, this Word Nymph has been thinking a lot about silence.

Perhaps it’s the time of year, or the signs appearing before me in recent days. The Sounds of Silence playing on the radio. References to the evils of loquaciousness in my daily horoscope. A favorite hymn in church yesterday, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, stirred me to wordlessness. Message from the universe: Shut yer yap.

In my faith tradition, the upcoming season of Advent is much ado about silence. Many kick off the season with a silent retreat, followed by three weeks of quiet reflection, listening, expectation, focus outside oneself. Regardless of our traditions, this isn’t a bad discipline to follow.

Modern humans have spurred a society that abhors dead air and assaults it with voices. While others speak we are already thinking of what we will say next—and, ever impatient, we interrupt them mid-sentence with our treasured views. As a child whose report cards often reported that “Monica talks too much in class,” I plead talkative as charged.

Modern media have ignited an explosion of expression. Talk radio, talking heads, talk-talk-talk. Tap-tap-tap a 2,500-word Christmas letter and a 750-word status update.

Enough already.

It seems a good time to undertake a new social discipline. While word count is a key metric in my work as an editor, it never occurred to me that I could put it to use elsewhere. What if I followed the Twitter theory and kept my utterances to fewer than 140 characters?

As an experiment, I pledge to do my best for the rest of this year to use my words more judiciously. To the best of my ability I will:

  • Listen first, speak second. After all, there’s a reason we were given two ears and only one mouth.
  • Not feel compelled to fill silence with talking. Silence can create an opening to ideas, energy and more thoughtful words–while excessive talking can suck the energy out of the room and everyone in it.
  • Not overestimate others’ interest in what I have to say. That story, that memory, that dream I find so fascinating? Others, not so much.
  • Not consume more than my share of the airwaves, leaving plenty open for others.
  • Begin fewer sentences with I and My.

Join me, won’t you?

One final comment: Some of the most stirring renditions of Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence are the ones without lyrics.

Word Count: 439 (still too many)

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Array we go

For some time, a tattered scrap of paper amid the stacks on my desk has been reminding me to investigate three words, their relationship to one another and the proper use of articles and prepositions around them.

There’s no time like the present, even though I have a myriad of other things to do. Or was that a panoply? Or a plethora?

If you bristled at “a myriad of,” hoping for a Gotcha, simmer down.

I too believed myriad was an adjective modifying a noun, not a noun requiring an “a” before and an “of” after. That’s what I was taught anyway. Weren’t you? Myriad things to do, not a myriad of

Well I looked it up, and numerous (myriad, perhaps) experts agree with Miriam-Webster that myriad is both an adjective and a noun:

“Recent criticism of the use of myriad as a noun, both in the plural form myriads and in the phrase a myriad of, seems to reflect a mistaken belief that the word was originally and is still properly only an adjective. As the entries here show, however, the noun is in fact the older form, dating to the 16th century. The noun myriad has appeared in the works of such writers as Milton (plural myriads) and Thoreau (a myriad of), and it continues to occur frequently in reputable English. There is no reason to avoid it.” (Personally, I’d be inclined to come out of the 16th century and stick with the adjective.)

So, in my second sentence of this post, did I use myriad correctly? Probably not. Literally and traditionally, myriad means ten thousand. Yes, I do have myriad things to do but not 10,000. It is also said: to mean a great number, innumerable or a large number of unspecified size.

Next question: is a myriad the same as a panoply? Quite often we hear the two used interchangeably. A panoply can mean a great many things, including military attire or a flashy cover. But it is also a splendid or magnificent array, as a panoply of colorful flags. I don’t know what’s on your desk, but the piles on mine are hardly splendid.

By the way, sources say panoply isn’t preceded by an article such as “a” or “the.”

If panoply is an array, then “panoply of” would be followed by a plural, no? I ask the question because the lyrics of “June Hymn,” a beautiful song by The Decemberists, mentions “a panoply of song” – which makes me wonder if song really means songs, in the same way people lately talk about sport, which used to be sports.

Finally – plethora, also commonly misused. A plethora is too many, an overabundance. Just be sure you know what it means — in case someone asks. For a little context, watch the first minute and a quarter of this clip, from one of my favorite bad movies:

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So tarred

Nothing wakes me up like a good mixed metaphor. But you already know that; they’re honored all over this place.

This morning, still sleepy, I filled my morning mug while listening to Today’s Professionals, the mildly lame Today show panel of  so-called “professionals,” consisting of a doctor, a lawyer and a PR exec who expound on issues of the day to the benefit of, well, no one really, in my humble opinion.

The topic of the day was Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), and his recent comments about “legitimate rape” not causing pregnancy.

After Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Nancy Snyderman rebuffed the congressman’s theory, the panel’s legal analyst, Star Jones, cautioned that the congressman’s gaffe could harm GOP candidate Mitt Romney, whose campaign could be “tarred with the same feather.”

Did you notice this?

We don’t see much tarrin’ and featherin’ going on these days; thankfully, the hot and sticky mode of torture went out with the horse and buggy.

However, we do see people and things and causes being tarred with the same brush as others, the image being that using a brush to spread tar on something could dirty another object if the same brush were used.

It is said that the expression “tarred with the same brush” refers to the tarring of sheep as a method of branding, in which owners of a flock of sheep marked their wool in the same place with a brush dipped in tar to distinguish them from other flocks. I’m sure there are other theories.

Nevertheless, I envisioned someone trying to spread tar—on anything—with a feather. If Ms. Jones’ words are true, then the Romney campaign is going to be just fine.

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