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?