Tag Archives: Johnson language blog

A crack in the idiom

My parents schooled me well on matters of language. Often they told me preemptively about common errors, so that I might avoid them later on. I’ve told you about some of these before (e.g., “waiting on” versus “waiting for”).

Coincidentally, as I was remembering another erroneous expression about which my father warned me long ago, I came across a column on the same subject.

Here we’ve covered malapropisms and funny mixed metaphors. We’ve even discussed useless phrases. But there is another category–expressions that are commonly accepted though, when examined more closely, make no sense. That’s what the column I read on Johnson, The Economist’s language blog, was all about.

I love the way Johnson describes it: “a reasonably common starter phrase that can evolve into a variant catchy enough to take root but close enough to the original and wrong in a subtle enough way for most people not to notice.”

There’s no name for such a thing, as best I know, but there are some examples to consider.

The one my father brought to my attention oh, so long ago: “It fell between the cracks.” Think about it. “Between the cracks.” To fall between the cracks, or slip between the cracks, has come to mean that something was lost—by slipping into a tiny space. Say you drop a small object on the floor. If it slips between the cracks, it’s not lost at all. Why?  Because what’s between the cracks? The wood. Even though “between the cracks” is commonly accepted, what we mean to say—and should say—is “through the cracks.”

By the way, the Johnson column begins by observing that, in British English, the words “between” and “among” do not necessarily have two different meanings, as they do in American English. I am going to assume my American readers know the difference. See me after class if you don’t.

The piece also discusses “head over heels,” another common expression that should really be “heels over head.” Visualize it and you’ll see why.

What other faulty idioms—English or American—can you think of, based on Johnson’s description? Is there a chance we can start a movement?

First, we need to come up with a name for it.

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Centesimal celebration

I am tired of talking about me.  When I posted my first blog entry in late March, I expressed discomfort about blogs in general, because people tend to use them as platforms for talking about themselves, and I just didn’t want to do that.

Today, on the occasion of Word Nymph’s 100th blog entry, let’s take a look at some others.

If you are reading this from the Word Nymph site (as opposed to a subscription e-mail), look toward the right of the screen and scroll down just a bit.  You will see a section entitled Blogroll, and a list of half a dozen blogs I visit regularly.

But first, let’s talk about me—and why I’ve chosen these six.

I am interested in broadcast news, as a viewer of course.  Not just the Holly Hunter movie, but live television news.  I watch as much of it as a working person can fit into a day.  In Advancing the Story, veteran journalists Deborah Potter and Deb Halpern Wenger provide an enlightened glimpse into broadcast media—the art and the science, the complexities and the nuances.  Their recent piece on interviewing victims was inspired.

I am a lover of words, a lifelong learner and maker of mistakes.  I try to be tolerant of others’ mistakes but draw a big fat line between an earnest slip and steady patterns of egregious violation.  I have peeves that make me itch like a case of poison ivy.  I commend to you two blogs that illustrate blatant assaults on our language.  Please visit Apostrophe Abuse, study it and tell all your friends—be militant about it—that apostrophes do not make words plural.  Ninety-nine percent of the time, an “s” makes a noun plural, NO APOSTROPHE needed, or wanted.  My family and I are the Welches, not the Welch’s.  We are not having the Nelson’s over for dinner and we won’t be serving clam’s.  The blog will give you a good laugh and, I hope, a good lesson.  Let’s stop the abuse.

I am serious about punctuation.  What I’ve said about the apostrophe, likewise with quotation marks.  If we keep using them unnecessarily, they will become endangered and we won’t have them when we really need them—for quotations.  Please visit The “blog” of “unnecessary” quotation marks and notice how silly it looks to wrap serious punctuation around ordinary words willy-nilly.   If you want to make words stand out, there are plenty of text formats available, including italics (CTL + i), bold (CTL + b) and underline (CTL + u).  And if you must—and only if you must—ALL CAPS.  Please do not use quotation marks for emphasis.

I love English, but realize what we speak in the United States is American (I love that too).  I am also interested in all things international.  The Economist is a magazine that is read and respected by intelligent people throughout the international community.  It maintains a high standard of thought and writing, so when it launched a language blog, Johnson, earlier this summer, naturally, I signed up.  Check it out.

I love humor, possibly above all else.  My motto is “laughter heals” and I need a steady diet of it or I’ll die.  If you too need a chuckle a day, log on to The Sticky Egg.  The Egg posts every day, providing a full week’s worth of minimum daily hilarity, as the clever Carla Curtsinger muses about the entertainment biz and life in New York City.  She’ll also explain the origin of her moniker.  Be sure and check out her Blogroll.

I miss my kid.  He grew up in the blink of an eye, probably because I worked 12 hours a day and traveled regularly for the first 15 years of his life.  To bring back memories of having a child in the house, I get great enjoyment from the colorful tales of Cara Garretson, a  mother of two young kids, a gifted storyteller and a writer who works at home.  Time Out will make you smile.

But enough about me.

See you Monday.

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