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?"