Thursday, December 31, 2009


A loyal reader (who am I kidding?--the loyal reader who happens to be a longtime friend) sends along this gem of a sign that she saw in a local Tim Horton's:

Thanks, Denise. I'm going to take credit for the find and send this off to Apostrophe Catastrophes. And, as usual, Denise and I had the Vulcan mind-meld thing happening, because today I had my own apostrophe catastrophe to catalogue. And as it turns out, this catastrophe occurs in the description of a tragedy.

For years now, I have been going for runs on the waterfront trails at Rocky Point Park in Port Moody, and for years I have been plodding past a plaque affixed to a rock--a plaque I have never stopped to read (an accomplished endurance athlete doesn't break stride to sight-see, after all). But what the heck, I'm on vacation, and feeling more contemplative than competitive, so this time I stopped and read it.

Sad story. But I must point out that, unless we're dealing with some paranormal event where one unfortunate soul left multiple bodies, that apostrophe in "victim's" needs to be nudged over to the right to indicate plural-ness. And now that I think of it, those three badly injured men were also victims, yet presumably their bodies were not wrapped in muslin and set on fire, so maybe "victim's bodies" should have been "dead men's bodies."

But now for a different brand of light-hearted amusement. If you're looking for an eye-catching, quirky overview of apostrophe usage (and who isn't?), I beseech you to look at this. But be forewarned: if you start noodling around with the all the other features on the website (things like "Why I'd rather be punched in the testicles than call Customer Service") I will not be responsible for the lost hours of your life.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Foregone Conclusions

The local Tri-City News weekly paper features a regular editorial showdown where a foaming-at-the-mouth right wing columnist faces off against a woolly-headed liberal rival on a news topic of recent interest. Every time I read it I'm reminded of the Dan Ackroyd/Jane Curtin "Point-Counterpoint" segments ("Jane, you ignorant slut...") from the early "Saturday Night Live" days.

In any case, there was no newsprint battle of the predictable viewpoints last week. The point-counterpoint space in that issue (which I am just catching up on now) bears this introductory editor's note:

Following a tradition started several years ago, columnists Terry O"Neill and Mary Woo Sims are foregoing their usual format for this, their final column before Christmas, to write a combined column on things they agree on.

A debateless debate? Boring. Besides that, however, we have a word choice mix-up here. "Foregoing" means preceding ("the foregoing performance by the lobotomized Ben Affleck gave me gas"). The word needed here is forgoing, which means to do without ("for the sake of my intestinal health, I will be forgoing any future performances by the execrable Ben Affleck"). Choosing the right one is easy when you recall that foregoing refers to things that have gone before.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

All About Eves

The local Megabite Pizza franchise has sent out a flyer promoting their "New Years Eve delivery special." I would make mock about the lameness of ordering in pizza to ring in the new year, but we're going to a family-focused party, where we watch the live Eastern time zone feeds from Times Square and get home to bed by 11 o'clock, so who am I to judge?
I will, however, pass judgment on that missing apostrophe. It is the eve of the New Year--in other words,  New Year's Eve, a possessive. So why don't we say "Christmas's Eve" or, for that matter, "New Year Eve?" I'll pour another rum-laced eggnog and ponder that. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

It Was a Wail of a Show

A Canwest News Service story recaps "Music's top 10 most shocking stage performances of 2009," many of which involve the "shocking" spectacle of a performer battling gravity ("Steven Tyler falls off stage,"  "Leonard Cohen collapses in Spain"). Coming in at Number 3 we have: "Joaquin Phoenix wails on fan at rap show," a tawdry recounting of an alleged assault on an alleged heckler during an alleged show by the alleged singer.
The problem is that to beat on someone is to "whale" on them. Unless they were talking about his singing, in which case it was all the fans who were "wailed" on.

Monday, December 21, 2009


The latest issue of Clean Eating caught my eye with their provocative cover blurb promise of "Easy Fixin' Weeknight Dinners for $1" (Turns out they mean per serving, and the dishes run from pasta with mushrooms to pasta with salt to pasta with peat moss, or something equally adventurous).

The table of contents page also invites us to "meet the chef who won over Gordon Ramsey." Somehow, I don't think the notoriously irascible Chef Ramsay would be won over by the misspelling.

If, by the way, all you know of Gordon Ramsay is what you've seen on that over-the-top reality show, Hell's Kitchen, I suggest giving the original British series of Kitchen Nightmares a chance. Unlike the American version, it doesn't feature melodramatic voice-over and over-hyped conflicts--and Ramsay had not yet become a caricature of himself. In fact, I would say it offers some of the most engrossing case studies of what makes or breaks a small business that you're likely to find anywhere. Then again, I thought Gilligan's Island was a gritty, realistic portrayal of survival and redemption, so take the recommendation for what it's worth.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Oh, Sweet Irony!

In keeping with the (new) Sic List tradition of Lazy Friday, I offer just this image today:

Thursday, December 17, 2009

And Let's Not Forget the Pipe-Smoking...

I guess it was bound to happen. The body image police are coming down on Santa Claus. I see from a summary of a news story on The Daily Beast that someone calling himself a public health expert is blaming Kris Kringle for making kids fat.

"Santa promotes a message that obesity is synonymous with cheerfulness and joviality," the gormless scold, whose rantings were published in a British medical journal, is quoted as saying. The blurb goes on to say:

"Old St. Nick also encourages the spread of swine flu by getting little ones to sit on his lap, and he teaches reckless behavior with his "extreme sports such as roof surfing and chimney jumping."
Well. The fat man may be guilty of bad role-modeling, but I say the author of that passage stands accused of faulty noun-creation for not inserting hyphens into those newly-created sports of "roof-surfing" and "chimney-jumping."

Today was a bad day for Mr. Claus. This article from the Baltimore Sun makes a compelling case that perpetuating the Santa myth in young minds is immoral. As a card-carrying rationalist, I almost felt guilty for perpetrating this thought crime on my daughter. As the father of an obstreperous six-year-old, though, I've decided I'll continue to make shameless use of the "all-seeing Santa" story as a powerful behavior modification tool. I'll trade my intellectual principles for a restful evening any day.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Smooth Move

This morning's Province features a profile of cellist Peggy Lee, who is performing in town tomorrow night. Lee, as it turns out, is a fan of the now-defunct HBO series Deadwood, as are all people of taste and wit, and she compares her style of composition for her latest work to the trademark style of dialogue on the show .

In the piece, she is quoted as saying:

"I just loved the whole thing of the series--the intensity, the writing, the look and feel...And I kind of likened the points where a character would go off on a long rant in the same way that a soloist will make an extended statement like that rather than merely a segway between movements in the song."

A "segway," of course, is an over-hyped two-wheeled personal conveyance, and although it does move you around, it won't carry you between movements in a song. For that you need the more conceptual, but less expensive, "segue."

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Snow Was Due, Too

Ok, I'll admit that puzzling out the difference between "due to" and "because of" tends to give me the shivering fantods* so let's just get it over with now and never speak of it again.

Put "due to" or "because of" together with a supporting cast of words and you have adjectival (in the case of "due to") and adverbial (in the case of "because of") prepositional phrases. That means "due to" should only modify nouns or pronouns and "because of" should modify verbs. Also, "due to" can serve as a subject complement, meaning...oh, the hell with it.

The most succinct explanation I have found comes from

Due to means "caused by." It should be used only if it can be substituted with "caused by."

Incorrect: The game was postponed due to rain.
Correct: The game was postponed because of rain.
Correct: The game's postponement was due to rain.

That sounds good enough to me. So let's test it out on this paragraph from yesterday's story in The Province, about Vancouver's annual snow hysteria:
The C52 community shuttle in White Rock was cancelled due to ice and snow on the roads...The West Vancouver Blue Bus also experienced delays due to an accident on the Lion's Gate Bridge.

Using our new litmus test, we can now tell that the second "due to" is correct--it is an adjective modifying the noun "delays" and it can be substituted with "caused by." That first one, however, needs the adverbial "because of" to modify the verb "was cancelled."  We can verify this because we know that "was cancelled caused by ice and snow" doesn't work.

Incidentally, the snow is gone today. But there are still plenty of traffic delays due to the ineptitude of Vancouver's city planners.

*Fantods: an ill-defined state of irritablility and distress.

Monday, December 14, 2009

These Examples Have Something in Comma

The Vancouver Sun has been doing a series of articles on the sad story of the "Highway of Tears" in B.C., where several young women have vanished. Today's front page bears this photo as a lead-in to today's installment:

The caption below it says that this billboard "warns girls not to hitchhike on the Highway of Tears..." But without a comma after "girls," the sign actually reads as a statement that "girls don't hitchhike"-- a statement easily disproved by the fate of these unfortunate young women.

I came across a similar case of comma confusion awhile back while reading an entry in Slate's TV Club breakdown of a Mad Men episode. One of the writers was describing an exchange of dialogue where the character of Conrad Hilton supposedly says to our hero, Don Draper, "What do you want from me, love?" I hadn't seen the episode yet when I read that, but to me it seemed out of character for the no-nonsense Hilton to address Don as "love." Of course, when I watched the show later I was able to confirm that what he had really said was, "What do you want from me? Love?"

It just goes to show how that unassuming little twig of punctuation can, whether by addition or omission, create unintended twists of meaning.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Mob Mentality

No particular solecism to pick on today (it's Friday and I'm busy and word-weary), but I will recommend this Huffington Post slide show of "The Funniest Protest Signs of 2009, which includes gems like this:

Thursday, December 10, 2009

That 70's Superfluous Preposition

I heard Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die" on the radio today and was instantly transported to my shaggy-haired, lava-lamped youth. But, as always, I was perplexed by one particular line, and I decided to crank up the interwebs to see what people have been saying about the extra "in." Was I hearing it right?

Someone calling himself YogiChrishnaCarma, a commenter on the You Should Have Asked Me blog, writes:

Grammatically "in" makes no sense. Try both of these sentences and see which one works for you.

"In" this ever changing world in which we live in makes you give in and cry.

"If" this ever changing world in which we live in makes you give in and cry...

"If" wins for me. Have a good listen...

But of course that first "in" is not the issue.  Even if we go with "if" there (and really, isn't there a definitive accounting of the actual lyrics by now?) we are still left with the "in which we live in" phrasing, which, by any rational reckoning, has one "in" too many.

I think Andy at nails it:

Not only is the second 'in' redundant, the whole phrase 'in which we live' is unnecessary. Obviously, we live in this world. 'If this ever changing world...makes you give in and cry...' would be the grammatically economic way of expressing his thought.
 Surely we have to give some grammatical leeway to songwriters, who, after all, have to deal with considerations of euphony and meter. I mean, we even let Steve Miller make up words. But in this case, Sir Paul is guilty of an assault on the human ear--an assault almost as egregious as "Silly Love Songs."

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Slipping Mickey a Mickey

Recently, researchers at Temple University set out to debunk the myth that coffee will you sober up. (I didn't think anyone actually believed this in the first place, but then again, I'm not a researcher with grant money burning a hole in my lab coat.)

Now, they could have started by consulting the literature on the properties and effects of alcohol and caffeine (or they could have consulted Charlie Sheen), but instead they did what scientists love to do: they got a bunch of mice and got them drunk and/or jittery.

According to the story in USA Today, which quotes a BBC report, which quotes from the study that was published in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience:

...mice given varying doses of alcohol and caffeine had to navigate a maze so as to avoid unpleasant stimuli, such as bright lights and loud noises.
The mice that got only alcohol seemed relaxed, but failed miserably, while those given only caffeine appeared more alert and fared better, although seemed to be uptight.
But mice that consumed both alcohol and caffeine -- up to a human equivalent of eight cups of coffee -- appeared to be relatively alert and relaxed, but were still incompetent at avoiding nasty stimuli, the BBC says.

Presumably, the latter group of mice also started calling their ex-girlfriends at two in the morning. But my question here is, should it not be "the mice who..."? Although many reputable sources contend that that and who can be used interchangeably, most careful writers and speakers use "who" to refer to people and "that" to refer to things. So what about animals? Well, I think a lot of people would concur with Grammar Girl, who wrote: "I would never refer to my dog as anything less than who, but my fish could probably be a that."

In other words, there is no firm rule here. But I think if you're going to use mice as stand-ins for humans, the least you can do is give them the dignity of a who. Especially if you're buying them drinks.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Adventures of the Unself

The L.A. Times has released its list of the best books of 2009. I know most culture snobs find these kinds of lists pointless and capriciously arbitrary, but personally I love going through the "best of" round-ups at this time of year. I like the idea of critics giving an annual valedictory thumbs-up to their favorites, and I always seem to find something I overlooked over the course of the year.

Anyway, included in the aforementioned list is this entry:

"Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays" by Zadie Smith
The British writer reflects on Greta Garbo, literary trends, Oscar parties and more in a lively, unself-conscious, rigorous, erudite collection.

It's the "unself-conscious" that strikes me as odd. Somehow, it just doesn't seem right--as if we're talking about being conscious in an "unself" way. But what's the solution then? We know that "self-conscious" is traditionally hyphenated, so maybe add another and make it "un-self-conscious?" No, that looks silly. The answer, I found, after making the rounds of a few of the more prominent dictionaries, is to cast off the hyhpens entirely and go with "unselfconscious," which I suppose is, on balance, the most elegant solution to this knotty conundrum.

By the way, for what it's worth, my nominee for best book of essays this year would have to go to Michael Chabon's "Manhood for Amateurs." It's witty, poignant, and full of extended passages of deliciously graceful prose. My unself consciously recommends it.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Give Peas a Chance...and They'll Brighten Your Stew

For Sunday dinner last night I put together a scrumptious (if I do say so myself) slow cooker yam stew with curry, snow peas, and ginger. Even my wife, who is as hypercritical as a Russian ice-skating judge, pronounced it superb.

The recipe, which I scissored out of the morning paper, includes the following words of counsel:

The peas are added at the last minute, which help maintain their vibrant green color.
This is one of those infractions that becomes more obvious when you say the sentence out loud. It's not the peas that are helping to maintain their color, it's the action of adding at the last minute, so we don't need the plural verb. It should be "helps." I would also point out that almost any time you put a color next to the word "color," one or the other can probably go. Since we all expect peas to be green, we can simply say "their vibrant color" in this context.

And what vibrant color, indeed! As proof, I offer this un-doctored photo of last night's repast:

Note that for optimum vibrancy, one must also blanche the peas before introducing them to the mixture.

Friday, December 04, 2009

To Be Splitting, or Not to Be Splitting

An ad in the Vancouver Sun today advises us to be mindful of how much trashy stuff we buy, bestow, and discard at this time of year. (And as someone whose sister once presented him with a novelty pencil sharpener that required sticking a No.2 into a figurine's rectum, all I can say is, I hear ya.) The ad starts like this:

How much of what you give will end up as garbage?
In December alone, residents of Metro Vancouver will generate over 300,000 tonnes of garbage. The best way to reduce our garbage this holiday season is not to create it in the first place.
Technically, I suppose, there is no error there. In fact, many purists will say that it is precisely correct to write "not to create it" because it preserves the infinitive "to create." As it happens, I was reading about split infinitives yesterday (believe it or not, it was one of the more enjoyable parts of my day) in an article about the re-issue of Fowler's Modern English Usage, which included this excerpt from Fowler's:

The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know & condemn; (4) those who know & approve; & (5) those who know and distinguish.
It goes on to quote Fowler as saying, "Writing should be clear and smooth, and if maintaining the contiguity between to and its verb occasions an unclear or jarring sentence, the infinitive in question should be split." Also, the article includes this footnote:

William Safire, another prudent prescriptivist, also belonged to Fowler’s fifth group. In his New York Times language column Safire disagreed with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s uncompromising hostility to the split infinitive (“Sotomayoralities,” June 15, 2009): Though typically reluctant to divide an infinitive, “occasionally I choose to ‘break the rule’ when it helps the reader to better understand my point. (To understand better my point? No; that sounds awkward. To understand my point better? Not bad, but not as strong as having the better ahead of the understand.)”
All of which is to say that I think the sentence in the ad about Christmas garbage would have been more naturally expressed if the writer had gone ahead, split the infinitive, and written: "The best way to reduce our garbage is to not create it in the first place.

It reminds me of another well-split infinitive I saw recently, in a piece about bicycle safety that was headlined: "How to not get hit by cars." Not getting hit is the operative concern here, so if you stuck with the no-splitting rule and wrote, "how not to get hit by cars," it could be construed as suggesting that there is a right way to get hit by cars. So there you have a case of a split infinitive actually saving lives.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Second Prize was Five Bucks and a Kick in the Groin

Last week in Vancouver, we heard about a gangster who, shortly after winning a prestigious poker tournament, was arrested for his part in a gruesome multiple murder. So when I read this headline in the Vancouver Sun, I couldn't help thinking the man in question got his toes blasted off by a gun-toting hooligan, then hobbled into a casino and hit triple cherries on the progressive slots. Either that, or it's a story about one of those extreme Japanese game shows, where people suffer practically any kind of indignation or injury for a chance at a lucrative payout. As it turns out, it's simply a story about a court ruling in favor of the unfortunate chiropodially-revised victim. Maybe "awarded" would have served better than "wins" in this instance.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Call Me When You Invent Never-Wash Underwear

My mailbox has been maggoty with promotional flyers lately, a sign that we are well into shopping orgy season. Normally, I give these junk mail come-ons a cursory thumb-through, half-heartedly hoping to spot an enticingly lascivious brassiere ad, but today I was brought up short by this front page offer from Mark's Work Wearhouse, that bastion of working man's fashion:

Surely the words "never iron" are meant to work together as a single modifier for "dress shirts," which means they're crying out for a hyphen to join them in holy adjective-ness. Otherwise, "all men's never iron dress shirts" can be read as a foreign speaker's chauvinistic declaration, along the lines of, "All women's never know how parallel park."

Personally, I regard all my shirts as "never-iron." The trick is to throw the shirt in the dryer for a few minutes just before dressing for your business meeting, then smoothing it out with a damp hand as you head out the door with bagel in mouth and coffee in hand. If you're interested, I also have tips on how to hem pants in minutes with staples and duct tape.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Dick Cheney Award for Freestyle Hunting

Here's another of those tragic "hunter mistakes other hunter for a deer" stories you hear about too often. The Canwest story out of Alberta includes these lines:

"He fired one shot," Sylvan Lake RCMP Sgt. Duncan Babchuk said Monday. "He saw movement and fired a second shot. This time he heard a very strange noise and he realized something was wrong, and he ran to the scene and found his hunting partner with a gunshot to the abdomen."

Babchuk said the shooter called 911 and conducted first aid on his partner until the paramedics arrived. He died at the scene.
Wait a minute. Who died at the scene? I know it's easy to figure out from the context, but I came flying around the corner toward that last sentence at a pretty good clip, and the pronoun/antecedent confusion really jammed a stick in my spokes. The shooter was the subject of the main clause in the preceding sentence, so I assumed for a moment that he was the "He" leading off as the subject of the final sentence. (A case could even be made that "He" refers to Sgt. Babchuk, who perhaps died at the scene when delivering this statement.) A minor mix-up, but a telling example of how an ambiguous antecedent can throw a reader off course, if only momentarily.

By the way, at the risk of sounding grotesquely insensitive, I have to say that this story reminds me of a joke. The world's funniest joke, in fact, according to an actual university professor who conducted a study to identify and crown said joke, while his colleagues were off smashing atoms and finding cures for fatal diseases.

The joke, according to the Wikipedia entry about the study, goes like this:

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls emergency services. He gasps, "My friend is dead! What can I do?" The operator says, "Calm down. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead." There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says, "OK, now what?"

Monday, November 30, 2009

A Fiery, But Boring, Debate

A tour through Andrew Sullivan's blog, The Daily Dish, turns up a link to this Evergreen Review article, "The Electronic Book Burning"--an over-the-top cri de coeur by Alan Kaufman on the decline of books and bookstores that features paragraphs such as this (as excerpted on Sullivan's blog):

The book is fast becoming the despised Jew of our culture. Der Jude is now Der Book. Hi-tech propogandists tell us that the book is a tree-murdering, space-devouring, inferior form of technology; that society would simply be better-off altogether if we euthanized it even as we begin to carry around, like good little Aryans, whole libraries in our pockets, downloaded on the Uber-Kindle.

My goodness. I'm as passionate a book-fondler as the next guy--hell, I'd rather spend a lazy afternoon in a thoughtfully-curated bookstore than an evening of debauchery in a cathouse--but I think I would stop short of comparing enthusiasts of electronically-delivered literature to murderous Nazis. (Although if the book is truly becoming "the despised Jew of our culture" I am currently harboring a few hundred Anne Franks on my shelves, which makes me feel rather heroic.)

But that's not the excerpt under examination today (although "propagandists" is misspelled back there--and really, you don't need a proofreader to catch that: the squiggly red line in Word does all the work.) No, the usage in question comes in this passage:

According to reports coming in from other parts of the country, the awful scene is reoccuring everywhere: venerable, much beloved bookstores closing and that portion of the populace who cherish books—an ever-shrinking minority—left baffled and bereft; a silent corporate Krystallnacht decimating the world of literacy.

Believe it or not, a lot of very passionate (but very boring) people have spent endless man-hours engaged in a very passionate (but achingly dull) argument over the word "reoccur" and its variants. In fact, those among them whose bowties are cinched particularly tightly refuse to recognize its very existence, insisting the word to be used here can only be "recurring." Then there are the moderates who argue that "reoccur" is indeed a "real" word, but that it should be used to indicate a one-time repetition ("I hope my cancer doesn't re-occur") while "recur" denotes an ongoing repeating phenomena ("Ben Affleck is a recurring cancer in American cinema"). Finally, there are those who don't give a whistling woodchuck one way or the other and declare that either is fine. In any case, I think all of these factions (and every dictionary I consulted) agree that if you are going to use "reoccurring" it ought to have a double "r."

And speaking of The Daily Dish--and of the allure of books--it was on that blog that I came across this beautifully compelling ad that says more than a thousand earnest words about the raptures of reading:

Saturday, November 28, 2009

CSI: Woodlands

Before you take a walk in some Swedish woods, read this cautionary tale--an AP news story that I quote almost in full:

Police: Murderous moose a suspect in Swedish death

STOCKHOLM — Swedish police say they've cleared a man who was arrested for allegedly murdering his wife after deciding the culprit was most likely a moose.

Police spokesman Ulf Karlsson says "the improbable has become probable" in the puzzling death last year of 63-year old Agneta Westlund. She was found dead after an evening stroll in the forest.

According to news reports, the victim's husband Ingemar Westlund, was jailed for 10 days. The case against him was dropped in January.

The tabloid Expressen says hairs and saliva from a moose – aka a European elk – were found on the victim's clothes. Police would not immediately confirm that.
The problem here is that the phrase "the victim's husband Ingemar Westlund" is a non-restrictive appositive and, as such, "Ingemar Westlund" should be set off with commas. In other words, the name modifies "victim's husband"  but it is not crucial to the meaning of the sentence, so it needs to be expressed parenthetically. Compare that with "the victim's brother Svend." In that instance, we are distinguishing this brother from her other brothers, Mats and Borje, so it is a restrictive appositive and you can keep the commas in your pocket.

But let's get back to that moose. Notice the headline refers to a "murderous" moose, while at the same time admitting that said moose is a "suspect." If I were the moose's attorney or publicist (and believe me, I've had worse jobs), I would, in the absence of a conviction, object to this characterization of my client. Surely that should read "allegedly murderous moose."

Friday, November 27, 2009

Smelly Pig, Smelly Pig--What Are They Feeding You?

"FLATULENT PIG SPARKS GAS LEAK SCARE." That was the arresting headline for a wire service story today about a farmer in Australia who summoned emergency services when he smelled something awry. The subheading reads:
A suspected gas leak at an Australian farm, which led to 15 firemen in two fire engines to rush to the scene, turned out to be the work of a flatulent pig.
There seems to be a bit of prepositional befuddlement there--a superfluity of "to"s. I would suggest axing the second "to" and making "rush" into "rushing."

Not a particularly interesting violation, I grant you, but I just couldn't pass up an opportunity to reference a story about a spectacularly farty pig. The nut graphs of the piece, if you're interested--and who wouldn't be?--go like this:

Fire captain Peter Harkins said: "When we got there, as we drove up the driveway, there was this huge sow, about a 120-odd kilo (265-pound) sow, and it was very obvious where the gas was coming from. 

“We could not only smell it, but we heard it and it was quite funny." 

He added: "She got very excited when two trucks and 15 firies turned up and she squealed and farted and squealed and farted.

"I haven't heard too many pigs fart but I would describe it as very full-on."

Indeed. And trust the Aussies, by the way, to give their firefighters the cutsie nickname, "firies."

Thursday, November 26, 2009

What if We Promise to Use Only French Hyphens?

This may come as a surprise to those living in truly free democracies, but in some places in Canada it is actually illegal to display signs in English. I know the jackbooted language gestapo have been on the prowl in Quebec for decades, looking for a shopkeeper displaying an "open" sign whom they can threaten with fines, imprisonment, and the withholding of croissants. But I was dismayed to learn from this article that similar crimes against linguistic liberty are in danger of occurring in New Brunswick as well. The author makes an impassioned plea for freedom of multilingual speech, in a piece that includes this line:

...what's at stake here, with this proposed language legislation, is the right of each and every person in the community to choose for him or herself what goes on the sign outside their business.

A wonderful sentiment, but what a missed opportunity. How often, after all, does one get to pull a suspended hyphen out of one's bag of punctuation tricks? A suspended hyphen holds your place while you wait to fill in the suffix on the end of a complementary term. Like so: "him- or herself."  Pretty cool, isn't it? So rarely needed, but when deftly applied...well, let's just say I felt damn sexy just writing that.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Rap Sheet as Long as Your Arm, a Contract as Long as a National Hockey League Goalie

In this morning’s Province, local sports columnist Tony Gallagher delivers an entertaining, spittle-drenched assessment of what he deems to be the Vancouver Canucks’ timid, overly-cautious style of play lately. In it, he says:

The stands are full, so the customers don't seem to mind, and the coach has a contract longer than Rick DiPietro, so he's not going anywhere...

Gallagher is exaggerating for effect here, comparing the length of Coach V’s contract with the epic, record-breaking, notoriously ridiculous 15-year deal signed by New York Islander goalie Rick DiPietro in 2006. The problem is, he’s not really. The way it’s written, he’s comparing the length of the coach’s contract, not to the length of Rick DiPietro’s contract, but to the length of Rick DiPietro (who stands a puck-width taller than six feet). Not quite the hyperbole he was going for, I think.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

And Farthermore...

Last night, while watching and reading The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (I've mentioned before my fetish for watching movies with the subtitles activated), I came across this contentious usage:

It has always been my understanding that all moral and attractive people observe the distinction that says "farther" refers to literal distance ("Brad Pitt is standing no farther than ten feet from Ben Affleck") while "further" is reserved for conceptual or metaphorical uses and matters of degree ("Watching a Ben Affleck movie is the furthest thing from my idea of a good time.")

It turns out, though, that the venerable Oxford English Dictionary, while acknowledging this distinction, says that there are many instances "in which the choice between the two forms is arbitrary." And even the famously persnickety H.W. Fowler (of Fowler's Modern English Usage) was uncharacteristically wishy-washy on the subject, maintaining that it was just a matter of individual preference, and that eventually "further" would carry the day for all instances. Harumph!

I like the idea of different words performing different functions, so I'm going to continue to acknowledge a difference, and to question the character of those who don't.

Monday, November 23, 2009

And I Think to Myself: What a Redunant World

On page 183 of the paperback edition of Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama, we find this:

It was the absence of such coherence that made a place like Altgeld so desperate, I thought to myself...

Who else can you think to? (Or to be priggish about it, "To whom else can you think?") Now, I don't know who this Obama fellow is (the record shows he released only one other book, in 2006, and hasn't published anything since), but until he learns to tighten his verbal style, I'm afraid he's not going to amount to much in this world.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Riddle Me This, Professor Dawkins

Far be it from me to critique the semantic choices of an eminent scientist and graceful writer like Richard Dawkins. Well, maybe not too far, because here goes. On page 241 of his recent bestseller, The Greatest Show on Earth, Dawkins writes:

As so often when we are faced with the riddle of how complex and improbable things can arise in evolution, it is a fallacy to assume that the final perfection that we see today is the way it always was.

He's talking here about enzyme molecules, not animals, but nevertheless it has been my understanding (from reading the work of Richard Dawkins, among others) that it is a fallacy to assume that anything that evolves ever reaches a point of "final perfection"--with the possible exception of Ben Affleck's crapitude.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

In a Lather

From the back of my new bottle of shampoo:
Can't wait for conditioning, huh? Well, busy bee, have your clean and conditioner, too. Just squeeze me in. I'm full of lush moisturizers and leave your hair looking clean.
 First of all, I'm not sure I like being spoken to in so cheeky a tone, even when it's coming from a shampoo with extracts of orchid and coconut milk. But aside from that, I believe that last sentence is suffering from a faulty parallelism. What I think she should say (yes, I'm assuming my shampoo is a woman) is: "I'm full of lush moisturizers and I leave your hair looking clean."

Incidentally, even though I went into the experience with high hopes ("lush moisturizers," after all), the shampoo in question left my hair looking as it always does: flat and stringy, with the seductive texture of old hay.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Pondering the Big Questions

We took the kids to visit Santa today (it’s never too early in the season to put your children in the lap of a costumed hobo) and, stepping into the local mall, we see this sign:
As I lathered my grimy paws with a complimentary blast of Purell, I mused about that slogan. “What are you shopping for?” I understand that the intention of the message is to get me thinking of all the marvelous tchotchkes, gewgaws and accoutrements to be found in this suburban retailing paradise. But when you think about it, the question could also be taken rhetorically, as a wistful expression of existential angst, as in: “What are you shopping for, when you could be doing something meaningful with your life?”     
Not since “What can brown do for you?” have I been more perplexed by a choice of tagline.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

What's the Deal with the Comma?

This has to be quick because the kids are actually quietly engaged, and Kim and I are about to sit down to watch the DVD of the second season of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Today's infraction comes from the cover copy on the DVD of the second season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. To wit:

Just because you've made it, doesn't mean you've got it made. Curb Your Enthusiasm, it's the HBO comedy series starring Larry David as...Larry David!
Yesterday I was bemoaning what I felt was the injustice of an em dash employed where a comma would suffice. Here, in place of the comma in the second sentence, I vote for the em dash. Or a colon. Or an ellipsis. Or two sentences. Or recasting the sentence to read "Curb Your Enthusiasm is the HBO Comedy series... " I'm not sure you could call this an actual comma splice (there aren't two independent clauses involved), but the comma is certainly miscast in this role.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Neither Rain, Nor Sleet, Nor Misused Hyphen...

This paragraph is from an piece about the possibility of the US Postal Service eliminating Saturday mail delivery:
The biggest problem I could see would be for those who pay their bills via USPS. An extra day for payments in-transit could translate to more late fees. Of course, this problem should take care of itself before too long -- once people realize that Saturday service has ended, and they need to mail their checks a day earlier. It's consumers' responsibility to understand how to get their bills in on-time, even if the mail service changes its policies. Besides, with each day that passes more and more Americans are choosing online or phone-based payment options, rather than rely on the mail.
 Now, I've been accused of littering my prose with an excess of em dashes--most of that criticism coming from gormless cretins who fail to see the muscular vigor with which the dash propels a reader forward--but even I confess that a humble comma would have served better here. The dash really isn't setting anything off that needs to be set off in so emphatic a fashion. At least that's what I would argue. Less arguable, however, is the use of on-time. You can talk about "on-time" delivery in a hyphenated, adjectival way but bills that come in on time do so without a hyphen. It's kind of like the everyday/every day mix-up that we see so often.

Now to the greater question. Mail delivery on Saturdays? Really? As a Canadian who hasn't see a postal carrier darken my doorway on the weekend since the heyday of wood-paneled station wagons and aerosol cheese spreads, I was astonished to find out that this was happening. The are many things we Northerners can learn from the Yanks (making booze available for sale in every corner market and gas station would be a start, if you ask me) but spending $3.5 billion a year on weekend mail distibution just seems quaintly extravagant in these austere times.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Curious Case of the Ineffective Caption

Today, I was wasting time doing research on and found an interesting video presentation from an innovative designer. As it happens, this innovative designer had an almost impenetrable French accent, but that didn't bother me. That's because I had enabled the subtitle feature, something I do with any TED video that offers the option, and indeed with any DVD movie I watch. (For some reason, I find being able to read along just adds another dimension to the viewing experience. And when you have two obstreperous kids who start whining or wailing during a screening, you can safely ignore their plaintive cries and continue to follow the dialogue.)

Enabling the subtitle feature also gives you the opportunity to snag slip-ups such as this:

I apologize for the ghostly superimposed image of my camera [when are you going to let us upload screenshots, Blogger?]. But surely you see the gaffe in the caption. Affect is most often a verb, as in: "This white noise is going to affect the bejeebers out of you." The word needed here is, of course, the noun, effect. True, in some cases, effect can also be a verb, and affect can be a noun, but we need not concern ourselves with that now. Why not? Because it's complicated and I'm tired. But also because we have much more pressing issues to attend to.

Today, after all, is the day the New Oxford American Dictionary revealed their Word of the Year for 2009. And that word is...unfriend. As in: "I unfriended Sarah Palin on Facebook because I was tired of the way she kept confusing affect and effect." For the rest of the year's nominees, see this article.

By the way, if you're a word nerd and a TED lover (and if you are, will you marry me?) check out Erin McKean's delightful presentation.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Remembrance of Cupcakes Past

This postcard comes from yesterday's update of the deliciously voyeuristic It’s great, I think, that people have a place like this to reveal their innermost thoughts so snarky people like me can pass instant judgment on them. “Drama queen.” “Jerk.” “Pathetic narcissist.” I mutter my snap assessments under my breath as I scroll through the week’s offerings.

 Every once in a while, though, I come across one like this that I find genuinely affecting, and I have no choice but to holster the snark gun. Sure, it’s kind of pathetic that he or she couldn’t recognize his or her name at the age of five. Still, the secret is nostalgic and sweet in the best senses of those words.

So what’s the infraction? “Twenty nine” should be hyphenated. A misdemeanor offense, and I’m feeling charitable so I’m going to recommend a suspended sentence.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Local Team Time-Travels to 80s, Wins Big

I hadn't even had my first cup of coffee before finding today's infraction. There I was, foggy-headed and bleary-eyed, as I opened the door and stooped to pick up the morning paper, which bore this headline blurb on its front page:

As it happens, I watched the latter half of that thumping last night, and a fine performance it was. So I know for a fact the thumpees were the Colorado Avalanche. The hapless Colorado Rockies haven't disgraced an NHL ice surface since 1982, after which they became the hapful New Jersey Devils. Maybe the headline writer was thinking of the Colorado Rockies baseball team--which would be silly, since baseball is barely a sport. In any case, it's not often the local pucksters administer so comprehensive a bitch-slapping to an opponent. It's a shame the paper of record for Vancouver sports fans had to mis-identify the victims. Two minutes for editorial misconduct.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

How to Get an Eskimo to Undress...and Other Lessons of the Day

 [click picture to enlarge]

This is the sign outside our local library today (that's my daughter, Abby, as Vanna White). Now, I'm as forgiving as the next guy when it comes to hastily-produced homemade signs, but really—is it too much to expect library workers, of all people, to know that "book" and "sale" are separate words, especially when they can see it correctly rendered on the sandwich-board sign they're augmenting?

Incidentally, I picked up a couple of interesting titles at the aforementioned "booksale": a classic work on typography and layout, and a curious little phrasebook called "Conversational Eskimo." Curious because, in addition to the standard banal phrasebook entries ("How are you?" "Glad to meet you" "I am much obliged to you") we find entries like these on page 83:
Please remove your dress!   (annoraerlaurit!)
And your bra                       (amamamiutarlo)
Please undress!                    (annorairlaurit!)

My first thought was that if this is an example of "conversational" Eskimo, they have more lively conversations than I heretofore imagined. (Note, by the way, the exclamatory commands in the first and final examples—evidently, she wasn’t removing that bra fast enough.) As it turns out, these entries are in a section headed "Examination" and are presumably for the edification of medical professionals. Still, it's nice to know that if I meet a comely Inuit woman of dubious morals, I'll have a few choice pick-up lines chambered.

Friday, November 13, 2009


From a review of the upcoming eschatological* blockbuster "2012", in today's Vancouver Sun:
The plot is made up of several stories of human drama as the world races closer to destruction. This is because of solar activity that creates neutrinos...

On first reading, I was bumfuzzled and nonplussed (never a pleasant combination of sensations). The plot is made up of several stories because of solar activity? Sure, after the eye doubles back, it becomes clear enough that "this" refers to the world and its race to destruction. Hardly the most egregious example of the confusion that can result from an unclear antecedent, but the best one I've found today.

*"Eschatology: The branch of theology that is concerned with the end of the world or of humankind." Cool word, don't you think?

Surveying for Moon Water

From today's Washington Post:
Jubilant NASA scientists announced Friday that they had found the tell-tale signs of significant quantities of water, in the form of ice and vapor, lurking in a shadowed crater at the moon's south poll.
I'm guessing that there was no show of hands involved, and that in fact the lurking was being done at the lunar south pole.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Case of the Swiss Nudists and the Lexicographical Pickle

From a Maclean’s piece about a government crackdown on an epidemic of nude hiking in Switzerland’s mountain footpaths:

“Hikers who flaunt the rules (among other things) will be fined up to 200 Swiss francs for baring their bottoms.”

This is where I come down on the side of traditionalism. Not on the subject of nude hiking by the Swiss (I have no strong feelings one way or the other about that), but on the distinction between flaunt and flout. I know that some promiscuous lexicographers and writers are starting to conflate the two—as indicated by the winking “among other things” aside in the passage above. But I maintain that those hikers, whatever they may be flaunting (displaying ostentatiously), are flouting (disregarding with contempt) the rules. Once again I quote the eminent Bill Bryson, who reminds us that “there is every reason for keeping these meanings distinct.” Personally, if I were to encounter a nude Swiss hiker, I would want to know if he was contemptuously flouting or just unabashedly flaunting. Wouldn’t you?