Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Everyone Who Hates Talking about Antecedents, Raise its Hand

Our local hockey heroes closed out the calendar year in fine form last night, with an impressive win over the high-flying (high-swimming?) Sharks. Even Province hockey columnist and noted grumpster, Tony Gallagher, was impressed--particularly with the play of goalie Ryan Miller:

In short, it was another a masterful performance in a crucial situation which should make everyone here in Vancouver feel better about it’s beloved team’s goaltending. 

I'll put aside for now the matter of using "which" to begin a restrictive clause (feel free to re-visit my tipsy thoughts on that here); the trickier question here arises from that little "it's." A couple of message board commenters jumped on Gallagher for using the contraction for "it is" when clearly the possessive, apostrophe-less, model was called for--hockey fans are notorious sticklers for correct usage, after all.

But I submit that neither one is the correct choice here. It all comes down to arranging the right marriage of pronoun and antecedent, and, in this case, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, it depends on what the definition of "its" is. I'm sure that Gallagher, in his post-game haste, just went with the pronoun that best matched the nearest preceding noun: "Vancouver." But the antecedent in that sentence is not "Vancouver," it is "everyone here in Vancouver." Just try reading it as "make everyone here feel better about its team" and the issue becomes clear. "Everyone" isn't an "it." The pronoun to use in this situation is "their."

Or is it? Some people with pinched faces who wear sweater vests will insist that "everyone" is a singular noun, and because you can't say "everyone are..." you also shouldn't use the plural "their"with it. But I think, this is a rule worth breaking.

In the end, the best way to resolve this whole mess, especially since it's New Year's Eve and we all have drinking to get to, is to recast the phrase thusly: "...make people here in Vancouver feel better about their beloved team's goaltending." There. As is so often the case with even the most vexing issues in life, the best course of action is to find the easiest way to avoid dealing with the problem.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Now Playing: "The Case of the Missing Proofreader"

Here we have an "eye-catching" elegantly designed poster for a high-profile event, its precision (just look at that kerning, design nerds) and otherwise flawless execution thuggishly defaced by a rogue apostrophe.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Solving (Kind Of) The Great Pronoun Problem

Does the language you speak influence the thoughts you think, or is it the other way around? This is the kind of thing professional linguists have been arguing about for years, while the rest of us having been raising families, eating cheese, and watching TV.

In this review of linguist John McWhorter's new book, linguist Graeme Wood tells us about the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis" which, contra its name, is not the title of a Star Trek episode, but rather a once-fashionable idea promulgated by two linguists named Sapir and Whorf--an idea that is now as fashionable in linguistic circles as top hats are among skateboarders. As Wood puts it:
According to Sapir-Whorf, a person’s view of the world is refracted through her language, like a pair of spectacles (not necessarily well-prescribed) superglued to his face.
Here we come up against one of the more irksome deficiencies of the English language. Aside from not having a word to describe Charlie Sheen that does not have the words "douche" or "bag" in it, we lack a gender-neutral pronoun. It can be a tricky obstacle, and, in my hastily-formed opinion, the author in this instance, while trying to manuever around it, did a thudding faceplant.

Let's consider the options for recasting that sentence:

You could go all-inclusive, all the time--"a person's view of the world is refracted through his or her language like a pair of spectacles superglued to his or her face"--but that gets tedious pretty quickly. (And if you are even thinking of going with "his/her," I'm sorry, but you cannot be trusted at a keyboard without supervision.)

You could stubbornly stick with "his" throughout, or with "her"--and risk being thought of as either a doddering old chauvinist or someone making a conspicuously feminist statement.

You can revise the sentence to include only plural forms--"peoples' views of the world are refracted through their language like pairs of spectacles..." No, forget it--that's a non-starter in this situation.

You can try the "can't we all just get along?" approach and toggle between the two in the interests of equal time, which seems to be what Wood was going for here. But that can become distracting too, even when it occurs only sporadically throughout a chapter or paragraph. In this instance, our hypothetical person underwent gender-reassignment surgery before we made it to the end of the sentence, and that is just disorienting, even for the most LGBTQ-friendly among us.

So what's the answer? I'm going to go out on a shaky limb here and say this is one of those situations where the most natural solution is to bend the rules--albiet in a way that is becoming more and more acceptable among grammar snots who recognize that sometimes we just have to find a way around the pronoun conundrum, dammit. That's right, I'm talking about the singular "their."

To wit, "a person's view of the world is refracted through their language like a pair of spectacles superglued to their face." Sure, when it comes to usage rules, it is still the equivalent of walking across the street against the light. But in this case, it's midnight in a small town, and there is no traffic for miles. Just go for it.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Who Here Knows How to Spell "Masturbate"? A Show of Hands...

A disturbing pattern in this week's selections on reveals that onanistic skills and spelling prowess do not go hand in hand, as it were...

Clearly, these correspondents are not masturs of their domain. On a side note, it is interesting to see that the pope is now contributing to a popular social website.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

You Don't Know Jack

Vancouver's Arts Club Theatre is staging a revival of "The Odd Couple" at the Stanley Theatre stage, and Province reviewer Paul Durras was not exactly effusive in his evaluation.

Neither was he accurate in the details. "Wikipedia can tell you Walter Matthau and Art Carney did the movie in 1968..." he writes, by way of background. Wikipedia can try to tell me that, but memory tells me it was Matthua and Jack Lemmon who starred in the film version.

In fact, the Wikipedia entry I read today does say exactly that in the first sentence. Further on in the entry we are told that Art Carney originated the role of Felix Unger on Broadway opposite Matthua. That must have been the sentence the eyes of our time-pressed reviewer alighted upon and he ran with it.

Later in the Province piece, Durras tells us that Matthew "Parry" of Friends fame will be the next actor to don Felix's apron, and that Andrew McNee as Oscar in the Arts Club production "bellows like Jackie Gleeson in The Honeymooners." Honestly--an entertainment writer who misspells the name of an iconic legend of TV comedy? And he got Gleason's name wrong, too!

Coincidentally, that last misstep may have been avoided if Durras had continued reading that Wikipedia page, where it is revealed that at one point the movie version of "The Odd Couple" was set to star Frank Sinatra (!) and, yes, Jackie Gleason (who of course headlined in The Honeymooners along with Art Carney). Then again, Wikipedia may not be the best place to go for spell-checks, as evidenced by the fact that in said entry, Felix's Unger's last name is consistently, and falsely, rendered as "Ungar."

Also, Tony Randall, who played Felix on TV and was a veteran of the Broadway, no--that's enough. I've got to stop this somewhere and get on with my life.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Ins and Outs of Pre-Natal Drunkenness

Today on Slate, Emily Oster makes the case for drinking while pregnant. No, seriously.

I'm not about to get all judgemental about her pre-natal quaffing choices--lord knows if I were a pregnant woman I would find it hard not to take a few pulls at the Shiraz teat--but I will take issue with some of her word choices.

For instance, we have the paragraph that begins:
I reviewed many, many studies, but I focused in on ones that compare women who drank lightly or occasionally during pregnancy to those who abstained. 
I'll forgive the double "many" in the interests of poetic licence, but what does the word "in" accomplish in this sentence? Granted, "focused on" doesn't exactly sing, but it does have the virtue of concision. The "in" should be discarded like a moldy cork.

Further on in the paragraph, we come to this sentence:
With these parameters, we can really hone in on the question of interest: What is the impact of having an occasional drink, assuming that you never overdo it?  
Here we get reacquainted with one of the first inductees into the copyeditor's Hall of Errors. To "hone" is to sharpen. The shopworn term the author was reaching for here is "home in on." Of course, there are a number of people who will claim that "hone in on," by virtue of common mis-usage, is now an acceptable alternative. These people, for the most part, have dents in their foreheads and had mothers who drank while pregnant.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Pleading the Case for "Pleaded"

Performer/loathsome cretin Chris Brown is in the news again. According to a piece on The Daily Beast he suffered a seizure a few days ago, brought on by (according to his publicist) the "stress and non-stop negativity" he has to endure from people who refer to him as a loathsome cretin.

The story goes on to say that:
 Brown has been on felony probation since he plead guilty in 2009 to beating his girlfriend, Rihanna. Since then, he has been in and out of court, most recently having his probation revoked after a May 12 hit-and-run case.

When you are looking for the past tense of "to plead" there are three ways to go, and for my money this is the least attractive option. According to lawyer/word nerd Bryan Garner, author of the estimable A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, 
"The best course is to treat plead as a weak verb, so that the correct past tense, as well as past participle, is pleaded."  
The Columbia Journalism Review seems to agree, while noting that pled has its supporters, too. The author of this article points out that we don't say "he pled for his life" we say "pleaded." But we don't say "readed" or "speeded," counters a crafty "pled"-loving lawyer he quotes.

In the end however, the author delivers the verdict:

There may be room for argument, and “pled” may gaining [sic]. It is certainly not irrational for the ear to prefer it to “pleaded.” But the strong preference here, and clearly the safer course in American journalistic writing early in the 21 st century, remains “pleaded.”

Now, as it turns out "plead" is an alternative past tense option in the language, but it is "alternative" in the way a talentless garage band is. It's just never seen in credible legal circles. Nobody but a loathsome cretin would use it.