Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Hold it Down in There!

Over the holidays, The Daily Beast ran a piece entitled "Christmas with My Son with Autism" (why not "with My Autistic Son"?) that was predictably poignant, perhaps a little syrupy and, it must be said, not all that well-written or edited. Case in point:
Now I thought, "How do I undo this damage?" I know, I thought quietly to myself, "I will teach him."
If you're going to put the rest of your thoughts in quotation marks, better include the "I know" as well. And while we're at it, you don't need to include the "to myself" --you can trust us readers to figure out whom you're doing your thinking to. And why are you thinking in a whisper? Worried he might hear you if you think too loudly?

Monday, December 27, 2010

It's A Wonderful Lifetime in Which to be Born

Our traditional Christmas bacchanal once again left us all awash in gifts of wine and books (except for the kids, of course--they got wine and toys). Among Kim's haul was The Book of Negroes.  Despite what you might surmise from the title, it is not John McCain's personal contact list of African-American friends and colleagues, but rather a novel that dramatizes the journey--from down south to up north and on to repatriation in Africa--of a freed slave during the American War of Independence.

Coincidentally, The Vancouver Sun ran a story on the book in this weekend's edition, which includes this quote from the novel's author, Lawrence Hill:
It was such an untold story: the idea that some African people were drawn into slavery in the Americas, and then came to Canada and went back to Africa in the same lifetime in which they were born.
Unless you're Shirley MacLaine, you only get the one lifetime--and pretty much by definition you have to be born into it. That final prepositional  phrase, in other words, is about as necessary--and almost as absurd--as the tasteless novelty pencil sharpener my sister bestowed on me.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Luckily, Nobody Noticed He Got the "O" Backwards, Too

Last night I was sitting by the fire with my little boy on my knee, watching the hockey game while leafing through a coffee table book called The Book of Hockey Firsts. Let's face ityou can't get any more Canadian than that without actually pouring maple syrup on a Mountie.

Anyway, as Sam dutifully yelled out "GOALIE!" at every picture of a masked or padded player, we thumbed through the pages, until we alighted on this team snapshot from 1922 of the Toronto St. Pats, the forerunners of today's Maple Leafs.

I admit it. I couldn't help being tickled to discover that the ineptitude of Torontonian pucksters is not confined to today's hapless squad, but extends back generations and includes the gormless (or possibly dyslexic) equipment manager who reversed the occasional "N" on the team jerseys.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Let's Make a Deal

I'm playing the annual waiting game with Maclean's. They send me emails and letters beseeching me to re-up for another year, and I continue to ignore their pleas until we finally reach a point where they make me an offer I can't refuse. We're not close yet in our negotiations.

The latest (but still early) missive arrived today--an urgent PAYMENT DUE "invoice" that offered uninterrupted enjoyment of my subscription for a mere $51.83 (which I believe is about double what I paid last year). But wait, they're sweetening the pot:
As a "thank you" we will also send along a BONUS GIFT when we receive your payment plus a $5 Chapters Indigo gift card. (This offer will not be repeated again.)
First of all, the hysterically all-capped BONUS GIFT is actually a cheapo pocket calculator identical to the one I received last year--the one my young daughter uses as a pretend cell phone. I don't need another. I am also more than a little affronted that, in order to receive this "gift," I must submit not only an inflated payment, but also a bookstore gift card. Get your own damn gift cards, Maclean's! And I certainly don't appreciate the final Godfather-ish threat that this is a final offer.

Now, if they had said that they would "send along a BONUS GIFT plus a $5 Chapters Indigo gift card" in exchange for my payment, we might be closer to an agreement. But not much. I'm still holding out for some invisible ink and a pair of x-ray glasses.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Look Back in Anger...or at Least Mild Irritation

The TV section in my Vancouver Sun tells me that if I whistle up CNN I can expect to see "a retrospective look back" at some of Larry King's more compelling interviews. There is a glaring redundancy there (some would also suggest that "Larry King" and "compelling" don't belong in the same sentence, but we'll leave that aside for now), and such redundancies always remind me of this exchange from A Few Good Men:
Q: Did you give Markinson an order?
A: I ordered him to have Santiago transfered immediately.
Q: Why?
A: His life might be in danger.
Q: Grave danger?
A: Is there another kind?
Is there another kind of "look back" that isn't retrospective?

On a similar note, yet another year-end special issue of Maclean's arrived today, this time a super-sized "Year in Pictures" edition, which is fronted by an editor's note reminding us that "December is also a time for reflecting back on the year past." Since one can hardly reflect ahead, that sentence would have more spine if its back were removed.

Friday, December 17, 2010

And Soon They'll be Open 8 Days a Week

My goodness, is it already 25 o'clock? I've got to be up at half past 32!

Hat-tip to Karen @ kapercreative for the pic!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

It is to Weep

John Boehner's Crying: Is He Drinking Too Much? That's the provocative leading question that serves as the title of Matt Lewis's column today on the Politics Daily website. The piece spends several hundred scattershot words probing the lachrymose tendencies of His Orangeness, the soon-to-be Speaker of the House, before arriving at the answer: Maybe. Or maybe not. But probably not.

Before we get to that "definitive" conclusion, however, we get plenty of juicy supposition, speculation, and even self-incriminating testimony such as this:
When President Obama mentioned that he ran into Rep. Boehner at a holiday party last year drinking eggnog, Boehner responded, "I was drinking wine." And when recently asked about attending a "Slurpee summit with the president," Boehner quipped, "How about a glass of merlot?"
Merlot is the name of a wine-producing grape (unfairly maligned in a memorable scene in the memorable film Sideways) and it is usually capitalized. Interestingly, it is also the custom to capitalize "Speaker of the House"--and even just "Speaker"--even though "senator" traditionally is only given the capital treatment when it precedes a name, and "president of the United States" is still the subject of vigorous "to capitalize or not to capitalize" debate.

By the way, as it happens, I have some firsthand experience regarding the relationship between drinking wine and crying. Just this morning, my doctor advised me that my efforts at moderation have paid off, as it appears the activity of my liver enzymes has returned to acceptable levels, and I won't need any further testing for several months--which I took as a green light to lubricate my way through the upcoming holiday season. I was so grateful on hearing the news, I wept.

*  *  *
For more on "the Weeper of the House" and clips of crying men in movies, there is this timely summary from The Atlantic. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

It's Unaccpectable

I went to my favorite lunch place again today and noticed a new sign, squeaked out with a Sharpie and scotch-taped to the side of the cash register:
$100 BILL
Obviously, this is a simple typo. What they mean to say, I'm sure, is, "WE DO NOT EXPECT  $100 BILL." Because, really, in this economy, who's buying a cheap takeout lunch with a C-Note?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Give Me a Brake

I know a guy. Or, more accurately, I know that if I ever need something done on the cheap and nasty--auto repair, paint job, body dismembering--I know that my brother will know a guy. So when the brakes on the privately-owned automobile began making plaintive, teeth-rattling grinding noises, I put in a call to Mark. Surely any brake-and-wheel franchisee would do the job for a decent price, no?

Biggest rip-off in the car repair business, he says, and he puts me in touch with a retired mechanic who sells all makes of brake pads on Craigslist. Within hours, Bill* is at our door with a set of "premium" pads at a fraction of retail cost:

I don't want my brake rotors getting cancer, so of course I insist on brake pads that are free of asbestos. The thing is, I prefer that these pads be described as asbestos-free. Perhaps I'm being a hyper-hyphenator, but I don't think there should be much argument when it comes to compound modifiers (see "high-efficiency" on the same package): a hyphen is what makes a compound one in its adjectiveness. Some will argue that it depends where the compound is deployed ("a well-read scholar" vs. "a scholar who is well read," to borrow an example from Bill Walsh), but many more will argue that any time you're using a compound ending in free (sugar-free, tax-free) the final component is more suffix than word and always requires a hyphen.

But to get back to the pads. What does a fellow like me, who spent the better part of an evening trying to get the hood open on his vehicle to find out how big the engine is (for some reason, Bill needed to know) do with a set of non-cancer-causing brake pads? Luckily, Mark knows a guy who runs a shop in my neighborhood-- a swarthy man of indeterminate ethnicity and loose ethics--who was willing to install said pads for a reasonable forty bucks, provided I crossed his greasy palm with cash and didn't ask for any verifying paperwork. Which made the whole transaction satisfyingly tax-free (with a hyphen) for both of us.

Shady? Yes, I suppose. But if I get busted on it, I'm confident I can get sharp, aggressive legal representation at a good price. Mark knows a guy.

* Not his real name. His real name is John.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

'Tis the Season...

...for magazines to pump out those year-end wrap-up editions that I so love to waste time with over the holidays. I wouldn't want to go into 2011 without indulging in some instant nostalgia about the best books and movies of aught-ten, let alone without reflecting once more on who was hot and who was not.

The first of the bunch, MacLean's "NEWSMAKERS 2010"* special issue was stuffed into my mailbox this week, apparently by a rabid beaver, judging from its mangled condition (please, Mr. Postman, a little care and respect), and inside was a photo-and-caption spread with the uninspired title, Infamous Rogues' Gallery. First up:
He spared nothing in a series of secretly recorded aural assaults aimed at his girlfriend...So far, Hollywood is refusing to forgive. Even his cameo in The Hangover remake--however pathetic a shot at redemption--was axed after a revolt by the film's cast.
First of all, technically it should be "the The Hangover remake". Except it shouldn't, really, because that would sound ridiculous; any sane person (that is to say, just about anyone this side of Mel Gibson) would say "the remake of The Hangover" to avoid that bit of awkwardness. But it would still be wrong, because the movie that is now being filmed (or "lensed" as they say in the trades) is not in fact a remake, but a sequel. Big difference.

*This was one dilly of a pickle: how do you ascribe a possessive to the name of a publication that already possesses a possessive? In other words, if the magazine in question were Newsweek, it would be easy. I could just slap an 's on there--"Newsweek's NEWSMAKERS 2010"--and be done with it. But MacLean's's? I feel unclean even suggesting that. I suppose I could have written around it with "The NEWSMAKERS 2010 special issue of MacLean's," but the solution I decided upon, you'll note, was to ignore the problem, which sometimes (in matters of punctuation, as well as table manners) is the only civilized solution.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Big Deal, Bottom...Glenn Beck Wakes Up as an Ass Every Day

I started reading The Book of William  last night, a charming little book about the creation of--and ongoing marketplace intrigue surrounding--Shakespeare's First Folio. Early on, we find that the Folio's creators had to round up the text of plays from various London printers (who had varying degrees of scrupulous conduct), and in doing so, they discovered that at least three were no longer being printed. The absence of two of those "derelict" plays, King John and Titus Andronicus is perhaps not so surprising, as they remain relatively underwhelming components of the canon today. But...
...the third orphan really is a shocker: A Midsummer's Night Dream. It may be one of Shakespeare's most frequently performed plays now, but it's a mark of the vagaries of theatrical fashion that Puck and Titania couldn't get themselves arrested in the 1620s.
Actually, if you ask me, it's performed too often now. I'll take the angsty poetic whining of Hamlet, the spirited blood-letting of Macbeth, or the deliciously devious plotting of Iago or Richard III over those silly forest fairies any day.

In any case, it seems the apostrophed possessive migrated back one word in that title*. It should read: A Midsummer Night's Dream**.

*While we're on the topic of aprostrophes in Shakespeare titles, here's another trivia tidbit from the book with which to amuse your friends and confound your enemies: The play that goes by the extravagantly-apostrophed title Love's Labour's Lost is thought to have had a companion play, Love's Labour's Wonne, the manuscript of which has been, regrettably and ironically, lost. How sadde.

**There are, of course, a lot of variations on a lot of points in a lot of editions of Elizabethan works, and I did find a reference to a 1598 publication that mentions "a Midsummers night dreame." But that rendering doesn't seem to be at all common (see the original quarto title page, pictured above) and since he's using modern spelling (and an apostrophe), I don't think Collins was intending to go retro. So I'm still going to call it an error.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Making an Impression

I finished reading Sam Harris's latest, The Moral Landscape, the other night, and I can safely say that if you only read one book this year about the canard that science can have nothing to say about matters of morality, this should be it.

I can't say I found a lot of blog-worthy nits to pick in the book--I was too busy trying to wrap my melon around some of the more abstruse material in the end notes--but here's something to chew on: In a passage describing some of the logical fallacies we humans are inclined toward embracing, Harris writes:
Invariance of reasoning, both logical and moral, is a norm to which we all aspire. And when we catch others departing from this norm, whatever the other merits of their thinking, the incoherency of their position suddenly becomes its most impressive characteristic.
Rather an odd use of the word impressive, don't you think? You don't usually think of yourself as being impressed by someone's incoherence. The usage is not wrong, of course--something that is impressive is something that makes a vivid impression, good or bad--but idiomatically speaking, I think we tend to reserve impressive for things that impress us favorably, and that makes the sentence incongruous on first reading.

To belabor the point, I refer to this passage from further on in the book:
It is useful to know that what we think will matter often matters much less than we think. Conversely, things we consider trivial can actually impact our lives greatly. If you have ever been impressed by how often people can rise to the occasion while experiencing great hardship but can fall to pieces over minor inconveniences, you have seen this principle at work.
Again, Harris is not describing behavior that one would be "impressed by" in the conventional sense of the term. But somehow I find the usage less jarring here--perhaps because it is the principle, not the behavior, that is actually impressing us with its profundity.

Finally, from further along on that page:
Rome will find you sitting in cafes, visiting museums and ancient ruins, and drinking an impressive amount of wine.
That's more like it. Speaking as someone who routinely drinks what he likes to think of as "impressive" amounts of wine, I have no doubt that the word is used here in its most apposite way: to denote awe and respect for a challenge well met.

*          *          *

Speaking of impressive...I don't want to brag or anything, but this blog seems to be developing quite the readership. Scarcely a day goes by now that I am not fielding emails like this one, which arrived today from longtime reader, Anonymous:
I fool read a few of the articles on your website trendy, and I extremely like your tastefulness of blogging. I added it to my favorites web period file and resolve be checking stand behind soon. Please repress into public notice my put as highly and fail me be familiar with what you think. Thanks. 
What can I say? I am humbled by the devotion and grateful for the kind words. And in case you think this was not an honest, heartfelt expression of appreciation, I will just point out that my correspondent also thoughtfully took the time to include a link to a great deal on penis-enlargement pills.

I have the best readers.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Apparently, God Wasn't Their Co-Pilot

It's the old story: Pilot gets up to use bathroom. Co-pilot tries to adjust seat. Co-pilot accidentally sends plane into a death plunge. Huffington Post has the story, as cribbed from a real news source:

An Air India Express co-pilot on a May 25th flight from Dubai to Pune, India nearly killed the plane's 113 passengers when he tried to move his seat and sent the plane into a 7,000 foot nose-dive, according to ABC News.
The unidentified pilot was trying to adjust his seat forward and pressed a control column forward which sent the plane into a 26-degree nose dive, according to India's Directorate General of Civil Aviation.
Naturally, the airplane's pilot was in the bathroom and couldn't get into the cockpit because the co-pilot "got in a panic situation." The pilot used a secret code to gain access and pulled the plane out of it's nose dive. Aviation authorities said that the plane would have broken apart if it had continued on that path.
Indian authorities said that the co-pilot, who was 25, had not been trained to handle this type of situation.
You'll note that the author used nose-dive in the first paragraph, and
nose dive in the other two mentions (as it happens, nosedive is also an acceptable variant). But the problem goes beyond a lack of internal consistency: Nose-dive is in fact the verb form, as in: "he sent the plane
nose-diving toward the earth."

Also, "it's nose dive" should be "its nose dive."

Also, I'd like to point out, in the co-pilot's defense, that this is yet another problem caused by tall people. I know because I have done something similar when driving the car after my (relatively) lanky wife has been using it. I try to adjust the seat forward while driving, apply brake, and find my sternum propelled into the steering wheel at just shy of air-bag deployment velocity.

So why am I not wearing a seatbelt to prevent this? Because I have a habit of not buckling up until I reach the end of the block when leaving home.

So why don't I learn from previous experience and adjust the seat when the car is stopped? Look, maybe you should stop asking so many questions and just click your little mouse over there and move along.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

When Ice Resurfacing Machines Attack!

The Vancouver Sun ran a wry report today on what they have identified as a recurring phenomenon: TV broadcasters almost getting Zambonied. It's pegged on this incident from last weekend's Hockey Night in Canada telecast.

Pretty tame stuff, actually, in this age when every day seems to bring a new "epic fail" viral video of a skateboarder perforating a spleen. Anyway, according to the Sun piece, Zambonis have been hunting the TV talking heads for some time, as detailed in this quoted testimony from HNIC host Ron MacLean:
"It seems to happen to Scott Oake on a continuous basis and certainly happened to Steve Armitage memorably, but for me it was in the 1992 Olympics," said MacLean.
Continuous should be reserved for describing things that occur without interruption. The word needed here is continual, which means intermittent or at repeated intervals. For example, if you have a month of continual rain, you live in Vancouver; but if you have a month of continuous rain, you need to start building an ark. And if Scott Oake is really being pursued by menacing Zambonis on a continuous basis, he's running right now.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Going Ape

Some website that calls itself The New York Times has been getting considerable attention for a long but engrossing story about a web entrepreneur who is making waves--and money--by cheating and threatening his customers. In a perverse inversion of the traditional business model, it seems the more people he rips off, and the more they complain, the more new customers he attracts. (It has to do with the way Google's ranking system rewards mentions, even when most of the mentions are unmentionable.) It's quite the startling read.

About midway through the epic piece, we get a sampling of online comments left by some of the merchant-hooligan's aggrieved customers:
“Robbery!” wrote one reviewer. Another wonders if primates are running the place. Another quotes a DecorMyEyes e-mail to a disgruntled customer which included this pungent adieu: “do you think I would think twice about urinating all over your frame and then returning it? Common.”
My quibble here is both picayune and pedantic (and wouldn't that make a good name for a folk-singing duo?) but I'm hard-up for grist for this complaint mill, so here goes: Primate is a biological order that includes (among many other creatures): woolly lemurs, marmosets, chimpanzees*, squirrel monkeys**, gibbons, and, yes, humans--even the ones that run shady internet operations.

*"I hate every ape I see, from Chimpan-A to Chimpan-Z" -- a favorite lyric from the Simpsons episode featuring a Broadway musical adaption of Planet of the Apes.

**Monkeys are not chimps. And yet, my website,, features an image of a chimp. Why? Because I'm a hypocrite when it comes to the taxonomical exactitude of primate species.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

This Sentence Needs a Circumcision

 Reporters are supposed to be ready for anything, but ABC's Jim Sciutto probably never envisioned having to deliver his own baby boy during his birth.
So goes the opening sentence from a HuffPo report today. Having performed this "emergency home birth" stunt myself--twice!--I can say with a measure of authority that it's really not that difficult. Mostly, you just have to yell "You're doing great!" at regular intervals. The rest pretty much takes care of itself.

But Sciutto not only delivered his own baby, he did it while being born himself, which I confess adds a significantly complicating dimension to the process. Unless, of course, that final "his" refers to the baby's birth, not Sciutto's. But really, when else are you going to deliver a baby? To do it before the birth is abortion; to do it after is...well, self-contradictory. So I think we can agree that those last three words are (like most babies, coincidentally) inane and superfluous.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Case of the Invisible Verb

There was another sad case last year in Vancouver of a disturbed person who settled his grievances with his ex-boss by using a shotgun. The killer is on trial now, and the story of the disgruntled* warehouse employee's workplace relationships during his employment is coming to light, as described in this excerpt from a Province report.
Several employees took the stand Monday to testify that Kirkpatrick, who was much older than them, was often testy and impatient.
There is an invisible verb hiding at the end of one clause there--an implied verb, I believe they call it--and once it reveals itself, the error becomes strikingly apparent. You wouldn't say, "Kirkpatrick, who was much older than them were, was often..." Rather, it should be, "who was much older than they," or, if that sounds too Charles Emerson Winchester for you, you can make the implicit verb explicit and say "who was much older than they were..."

Sure, you can make the claim that "older than them" has gained colloquial currency, but remember there are instances where the difference between the objective and the subjective pronoun makes a world of difference in meaning.

For instance, if I say "I hate Ben Affleck more than her" I could be trying to indicate that I have a lower regard for Ben Affleck's "talent" than my wife does. But it could also mean that I hate Ben Affleck more than I hate Kim, when the fact is I don't hate Kim at all--even when she puts my iPod in the washing machine. However, when I say, "I hate Ben Affleck more than she (does)," there is no mistaking who is being hated, and who is doing the hating.

* "I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled."--P.G. Wodehouse.

Friday, November 19, 2010

...And Their Snotty Cousins, the Whoms

We just bought a replacement DVD of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. (Our previous edition met its demise last year and if you have children under ten in the home you are required by federal law to have a working copy on hand.)

On the back of the case is an unnecessary synopsis that includes this line:
The fun begins when the grumpy, grouchy, Yule-hating Grinch plots to ruin the Who's Christmas.
As we all know, of course, the Grinch is an ambitious serial offender who targets not just one Who, but the entire population of Whoville. That means we're dealing with a plural possessive, and it should be "the Whos' Christmas," with the apostrophe on the outside.

That's an easy one. But what about singular possessives that end in "S"? Should it be "Dr. Suess' holiday classic" or "Dr. Suess's holiday classic"? I'll bet not even those genial Whos in their most exalted moments of bonhomie would be able to agree on that.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Latest Blog Post (patent pending)

So there I was this morning, listening to the latest installment of the Slate Culture Gabfest podcast on the iPod (loved their catty take on the Sarah Palin reality show) while watching a muted CNN and jogging in place on my mini trampoline (don't laugh--it's a great low-impact exercise), when I happened to catch the end of a commercial for aerospace giant Lockheed Martin. It was the slogan that made me pause mid-bounce:

You could say this tagline offends because it ends with a preposition. But, as we've covered before, so what?  "A preposition is a fine thing to end a sentence with." So says William Zinsser in On Writing Well. Still, why stir that pot and get the Preposition Pollys all exercised?

You could say it offends because that who should be whom, and indeed you would be on solid grammatical ground for your objection, Calvin Trillin's witty aside from yesterday's post notwithstanding.

But what really irks me is that they had the cojones to trademark what is, ultimately, an achingly banal sentiment. We never forget who we're working for. Really? That's worth an R in a circle? So now I can't not forget who I'm working for without worrying about the Lockheed Martin legal department getting on my ass?

But of course this just another in a long series of lame attempts to trademark lame phrases, some of which are documented in this HuffPo slideshow.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I'll Take Goofy Game Show Titles for $800, Alex

Answer: He wrote a book called Brainiac, which is a recounting of his experiences as the champ of Jeopardy! champs, as well as a gratifyingly engaging exploration of the world of trivia and its geeks.

Question: Who is Ken Jennings?

I was reading said book last night--specifically, a chapter that charts the history of TV game shows--and was struck by the number of, shall we say, questionable titles in the question-and-answer business. You can start with Jeopardy! and that superfluous, hysterical exclamation point. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, on the other hand, is just crying out for a question mark, as many have noted. (Troy Patterson recently speculated in a Slate article that "perhaps the quiz show's producers believe that using one would transform the title into a pointless rhetorical question" or that it is actually a relative clause: "Jamal, who wants to be a millionaire, is the protagonist of Danny Boyle's worst film ..."  In fact, word is, the punctuation is omitted because of a superstition in the production world about using question marks. Apparently there is no superstition about appearing to be sub-literate.) This disregard for the finer points of fine points seems to go way back in game show lore: according to Jennings, one of the first quiz show phenomenons debuted on radio in 1938 with the title, Information Please. Comma, please.

Those are just the punctuation offenders. In the 1950's, Johnny Carson got his break hosting Who Do You Trust?, which, while bravely taunting the gods with its use of the question mark, features an incorrectly employed nominative pronoun. Then again, to be fair, Whom Do You Trust doesn't have the same jaunty ring. (The writer Calvin Trillin once famously opined that "the word whom was invented to make everyone sound like a butler.")

That's still better than sounding like a Soviet proctologist, which is what I think of when I read one of the tales of game show trivia that Jennings describes-- a story that takes place on the hit Argentine program, Today We Have an Examination. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Remember, There's No "Remember" in "Remembrance"

Had our lunch today at the fabled Tomahawk eatery in North Van (fabled for its long waits for a table) and saw this disconnect between signs in the foyer.

"Rememberance" would seem to make sense, but in fact the one on the right gets the spelling correct--as any "vetern" will tell you.

Regardless, our luncheon was the kind of comforting comfort food experience one expects from a visit to the Tomahawk. Lots of greasy belly-stretching entrees and wonderful 1950s-style faux log cabin ambiance. Plus, funky cardboard hats:

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

A Dashing Display of Pucksmanship

Abby has managed to bring home from the school library one of the most checked-out and sought-after items, the picture and rhyme book, Dino-Hockey--a charmingly illustrated story depicting a game between the Meat-Eaters and the Veggiesaurs.

We'd actually gone through a few readings before we were both suddenly bumfuzzled by this page:

At first, Abby was wondering (nay, demanding to know) why the exclamation point wasn't at the end of the sentence. I started to explain how two dashes can set off a parenthetical subordinate clause (and how that clause could have its own exclamation point), when I realized that those dashes were not in fact doing that. That is, if you removed the words between the dashes, the sentence would collapse like a Toronto Maple Leaf defenseman looking down the barrel of a two-on-one.

Still, as a fan of em-dashery, I suggest we keep that first dash and, on Abby's advice, move the exclamation point to the end, giving us: "He knows the game's not over yet--a slap shot headed for the net!"

For the record, Triceratops scored on that late slap shot, giving the Veggiesaurs the win for the Cup.

Monday, November 08, 2010

An Etymology Unmasked

There has been a lot of media hullabaloo about the passenger who boarded an Air Canada flight in Hong Kong as an elderly white man and disembarked in Vancouver as a young Asian guy. Many are shocked that his Mission: Impossible-style silicone mask was able to fool airline staff, but let's face it, most of these grunts are too busy stamping documents, wrestling carry-on into overhead compartments, and telling us to turn off our portable electronic devices to play detective.

The episode inspired the The Vancouver Sun to do one of those silly experiments news outlets like to do, and so a young reporter was dispatched to be made "old" by film special effects wizards and sent out on the streets to see whom he could fool. Practically nobody, as it turned out--an outcome that is foreshadowed early in the first-person report by said intrepid reporter:
If anyone scrutinized me closely the gig would be up, I thought, as you could clearly see my makeup in more detail as well as the fake mustache lining...
Now, the reporter may have had a gig, in the broadest sense of "a booking for a performance," for this bit of street theater. But when someone is caught out in a deception, which is obviously the context here, it's said that "the jig is up." Apparently, the word goes back to the 17th century as the name of a kind of dance, and later it also came to mean a trick or practical joke. Now it's just an insipid cliche, no matter how you spell it.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Objection, Your Honor! Relevance?

As my keen-eyed wife mentioned on first seeing this Province cover story Wednesday morning--and as a subsequent letter-to-the-editor correspondent queried--if this were a lucky husband and wife, would the sub-head have read, "Heterosexual couple down on their luck strike it rich"? (And wait a minute...shouldn't that be "strikes it rich"? No, I suppose not. Not unless we say "down on its luck." There we go with that collective noun/verb agreement conundrum again.)

Anyway, memo to Province editors: if you say "couple" and show us a picture of two men, we can do the "gay" math.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

When a Vowel Isn't a Vowel

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to attend my daughter's Grade 1 class for "reading with a partner" time, where parents are invited to sit in chairs designed for 7-year-old butts (seats that are preposterously narrow and three inches from the floor) and listen to their children read to them.

Abby regaled me with a dramatic reading from the classic Sounds All Around, which included this page:

That first caption reads: "A girl makes sound with an ukulele." Hmm. Later in the day, Abby withdraws from her backpack an order form for school pictures. We have approximately 11,000 digital photos of Abby, but we don't have one of her posed awkwardly in front of a fake rustic fence with a sick expression on her face, so of course we pony up the 27 bucks. This is the order form envelope:

That text in the upper right, intended for families of Walton-esque proportions, reads: "If you have 3 or more children at a MJM school, please pay full price for the first 2 orders and 1/2 price for the 3rd." 

The issue here, which becomes evident as soon as you say the offending sentences out loud, involves confusion about when to use a and when to use an. To quote Bill Walsh in Lapsing into a Comma:
Pronunciation, not spelling, rules. Vowel sounds get the an; consonant sounds get the a. Note, however, that a vowel doesn't necessarily produce a vowel sound. Uniform, for example, is pronounced "YOO-ni-form," and thus it does not merit an an.
The same goes, of course, for "YOO-ke-LAY-lee." And M is pronounced "em," so the an does need to come into play when we say "an MJM school".

Class dismissed. 

Monday, November 01, 2010

Let's Just Disagree to Agree

The latest Vanity Fair features a breathless behind-the-scenes play-by-play of what really went down during the Jay Leno/Conan O'Brien contretemps earlier this year.

The lengthy piece, which is an excerpt from Bill Carter's upcoming book, includes this line:
Back in the days when the Letterman team were haggling with NBC over their exit...CBS and Dave's representatives hammered out a contract stating in explicit detail that Dave would be programmed each night following the late local news...
There's nothing really wrong here (other than my spending the better part of an hour reading 18 pages of Hollywood TV gossip) but I find that "the Letterman team were" construction nettlesome, nonetheless. Granted, the rules around collective noun/verb agreement, as established during the Collective Noun Conventions Act of 1936, stipulate that, even though we say the "the team was" in most instances, it is still acceptable to say "the team were" when referring to the actions of individuals within the group. Doesn't mean I have to like it. First of all, it has all the euphony of a clatter of trash cans lids, if you ask me. And secondly, it is so easy to work around the problem with something like "the people on Letterman's team were..." that I have to think the author is jamming the sentence with a seemingly disharmonious noun/verb agreement just to annoy, which is inexcusable.

Later in the excerpt, Carter describes how Jay Leno "made an effort to explain his point of view by sitting down with the national confessor, Oprah Winfrey."

You would think, wouldn't you, that a confessor is one who confesses. And you'd be right. But the same word can also be used, as it is in this context, to describe one who hears confessions and offers absolution. I don't like that, either. I don't mind words doing double duty--I have no anti-homonym agenda--but I draw the line when it comes to the same word having two almost directly opposite meanings. It's like that word cleave, which can mean either to separate or to stick together. Contradictonyms is what they should be called, and when I become president of English they will be banished and their supporters caned.

Goodness, I seem to have worked myself into a bit of a froth there. I think I'd better take a Xanax and lie down for awhile.

Friday, October 29, 2010

On the Good Ship Management

"Yes, Your Managementship. Right away, Your Manangementship. Please don't fire me, Your Managementship."

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Two and a Half Brain Cells

I see that TV star/colossal prick Charlie Sheen is at it again, tearing up a New York hotel room in a drunken rage. His publicist, in a move that, even for a publicist, is comically inane, has stated that the alleged actor's behavior was due to "a reaction to medication." ("WARNING: Possible side effects include the urge to terrorize hookers, smash furniture, and wrestle the cops in your underpants. See your physician if these symptoms persist.")

Anyway, a line from a Life & Style press release on the incident reads:

Police were later called to Charlie's trashed suite at the Plaza Hotel around 2 a.m., where they found a passed out and half-naked Charlie and his escort screaming from inside the closet.

The problem here is that it is easy to read "a passed out and half-naked Charlie and his escort" as one phrase, making it sound like the two of them were in the closet screaming--he while unconscious. And somehow that manages to make the whole scenario sound even more absurdly sordid.

The solution, of course, is to insert a comma after "Charlie" to provide syntactical separation between him and his hapless escort. And as we all know, when it comes to hookers and Charlie Sheen (or anyone and Charlie Sheen, for that matter) you really can't have too many degrees of separation.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Number You Have Reached is Not in Service

Back to Bryson's At Home. In describing what he calls "one of the grandest houses ever built in England, Castle Howard in Yorkshire," our genial author says of the imposing edifice, and it's eccentric architect, Sir John Vanbrugh:
A Vanbrugh structure is always like no other, but Castle Howard is, as it were, unusually unusual. It had a large number of formal rooms--thirteen on one floor--but few bedrooms: nothing like the amount that would normally be expected.
 As mentioned before, the word to use when dealing with discrete, countable units (such as rooms) is not amount but number--a particularly noteworthy gaffe here because Bryson uses number correctly earlier in the same sentence. Amount and number, in this way, are close cousins to less and fewer, although, as we discussed recently, the rules governing the distinctions between those two are not quite so cleanly defined.

This also happens to be one of the first grammatical niceties I had ingrained in my neurotic mind as a youth. I was about 10 years old, and showing my father a homework assignment--an essay (I can't remember what it was about, but I remember being proud of it) that contained the phrase "the amount of people who..." My old man gave me a brisk on-the-spot tutorial that set me straight on my error. I remember being impressed that he, as a still-fairly-recent German immigrant, had mastered the English language to such a degree. I also remember being pissed that his nit-picky correction was the only thing he had to say about my masterwork. Were I not of such sound character, such an incident could well have set me on a course to become the sort of person who obsessively nitpicks other peoples' writing.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Get A Lode of This

New sordid revelations in the case of Canadian Forces colonel/serial killer Russell Williams have emerged. Aside from the murders he has confessed to, there is now the matter of him stealing--and wearing--lingerie and underwear he stole from a variety of victims. Today's Postmedia news service story includes an arresting photo the prosecution recovered of the buff, hirsute colonel in a stolen bra-and-panties combo. The story concludes:
Also introduced in evidence was a letter Williams wrote to the victim of one underwear theft: "I'm sorry I took these because I'm sentimental, too...Your place was kind of like the motherload," the letter says.
Actually, the word Colonel Pervypants was looking for is borrowed from the mining term for the principal vein, and it's spelled motherlode. He must be so embarrassed at that gaffe getting out.

Monday, October 18, 2010

It All Depends on How You Look at It

In Bill Bryson's new book, At Home, a significant section is devoted to a largely anecdotal history of architecture, including a brief profile of the celebrated 18-century architect, Robert Adam.

After we read about Adam's personal failings and his loathsome treatment of his employees, we come to this curiously ambiguous sentence:
Adam's clients, however, venerated his abilities and for thirty years simply could not give him enough work. 
 From the context, it seems clear that Adam's clients gave him plenty of work, but the phrasing "simply could not give him enough work" lends itself to an utterly different interpretation.
This reminds me of a more intentionally ambiguous statement, usually attributed to the critic Moses Hadas, purportedly in response to an author who had sent him an unsolicited manuscript for his review. "Thank you for sending me your book," Hadas wrote. "I'll waste no time reading it."

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Some More About Less

Another hockey season is underway, and here in Vancouver it means another season of speculation about how many games Canucks' workhorse goalie Roberto Luongo should work.  According to a "Hot Issue" sidebar in today's Province, this is once again a hot issue, with reporter Ben Kuzma noting:
Less games to keep Luongo healthier makes sense, but so does getting the starter off to a better start.
Here we come upon that pet bugaboo of grocery store express line grammarians everywhere: the distinction between fewer and less. That "10 items or less" sign grates on them (us) because, as we all know, fewer is the word to use when it comes to individual units, and less is the way to go when describing abstractions or  quantities that are not discretely countable. If you have fewer grains of sand, in other words, you have less sand.

That's fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. I remember once seeing a sticker on a bike in the West End that read "One Less Car," and being momentarily dumbstruck--not just by the cyclist's peevish self-righteousness, but by the phrasing. It seemed to violate the "fewer-describes-discrete-units" rule and yet it sounded right.

That's because it is. I have June Casagrande and her book Mortal Syntax to thank for clearing up the confusion. She explains that while the formula I have outlined above...
...will work just fine nine out of ten will let you down hard when you must choose between "one less item" and "one fewer item."
She goes on to point out that
Here's your best guideline, as paraphrased from Garner's Modern American Usage: Use "fewer" for plural things. Use "less" for singular things. That way, it's clear that, yes, the express lane sign should read "ten items or fewer," but you also get it right when you take a single item out of your cart and end up with "one less item."
So now I can say with confidence that I would be happy if I read one less article about how Roberto Luongo should play fewer games.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Comma Sutra

We just got back from seeing The Social Network, and for a movie about the creation of a website, it was pretty darn good. I can hardly wait for the blockbuster thriller about Twitter.

Leafing lazily through my complimentary copy of Cineplex, as one does while waiting for the lights to go down, I came across an interview with renowned thespian Christopher Plummer, whose much-heralded performance as Prospero in this year's Stratford Festival production of The Tempest is coming to a multiplex near me for a special limited-engagement screening. (In other words, the theatre is not expecting enough interest to inspire them to commit to an unlimited engagement. It's Shakespeare, after all, not Marvel Comics).

At the end of the Q-and-A, Plummer is asked about his daughter, the actress Amanda Plummer, and he responds, in part:
She has her own kind of talent that has nothing to do with me or anybody else for that matter, she is her own woman.
A few fake-butter-smudged pages later, in the Holiday Preview section, my eyes alight on this passage in a synopsis of the upcoming remake of True Grit, starring Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon:
Yet neither Bridges nor Damon will carry this movie, that job falls to 14-year Hailee Steinfeld, who plays the bible-quoting teen leading the hunt for her father's killer.
Yes, that should, of course, be "14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld." Aside from that, however, these two quoted sentences have something in common: neither of them should be a single sentence--at least not in this form. In each instance, the writer has sent a comma to do a period's job (or a semi-colon's, or a conjunction's) and thus created an ungainly comma splice.

In the first example, for instance, we could say "because she is her own woman," and the conjunction would make it a grammatically complete sentence. But since we're dealing with a direct quote and we can't change the wording, the solution is obvious. "She is her own woman" should be its own sentence.

In the second excerpt, we can start the second clause with as, although a period or semi-colon would be more emphatic. Personally, I think an em-dash would be pretty sexy, too--God, how I love me a confidently discharged em-dash!--but I understand that not everyone shares my fetish, and some even regard the profligate use of em-dashes as a sign of loose morals.

Finally, it should be noted that there are a number of examples of exemplary writers using comma splices to great effect. This is one of those areas of literary connoisseurship where, perhaps unfairly, you're allowed to break the rule if you understand why you're breaking it and can justify your transgression with the result. "I came, I saw, I conquered" is poetry. The examples cited above are just vulgar.

Friday, October 08, 2010

What Not With Which to End a Sentence

I don't get it. The caption on this shirt is obviously a reference to a famous--and possibly apocryphal--quip of Winston Churchill's. It's been seen in many forms ("This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put." "This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put." Etc., etc.) but no matter the variant, the purpose is to make mock of the long-held superstition about not ending a sentence with a preposition--hence the ironically convoluted, terminal-preposition-avoiding syntax. Dangling participles have nothing to do with it.

Here's another prepositional anecdote: The Guinness Book of World Records once named a winner in the category "sentence with the most prepositions at the end." The honors went to this hypothetical sentence, supposedly uttered by a boy who doesn't want to be read a book about Australia again at bedtime:
"What did you bring that book that I don't want to be read to from out of about 'Down Under' up for?"

Finally, an old joke:

"Excuse me, where is the library at?"
"Here at Harvard we don't end a sentence with a preposition."
"Sorry. Where is the library at, asshole?"

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

At Home and At Large

At Home: A Short History of Private LifeBill Bryson has a new book out today, making this as close as I get to observing a religious holiday. I loaded Sam in the off-road stroller and set off on a 60-minute backwoods route to the bookstore to seize a copy as it was being loaded into a window display.

The book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, is another of Bryson's delightfully tangential, anecdote-laced excursions through history. I'm only a couple of chapters in, but already hopelessly in its thrall--which is why Sam spent the afternoon marinating in his own filth while I sipped Shiraz and flipped pages.

Early on, however, on Page 12, where Bryson is relating the story behind the unlikely construction of the "Crystal Palace" in London in 1851 (trust me, it's a fascinating tale) we find this:
The glass levy was abolished in 1845, just shy of its hundredth anniversary, and the abolition of the window tax followed, conveniently and fortuitously, in 1851. Just at the moment when Paxton wanted more glass than anyone ever had before, the price was reduced by more than half.
The problem here is with the word fortuitously, which Bryson seems to be using as a synonym for fortunately. But...
Fortuitous means accidental or by chance...A fortuitous occurrence may or may not be a fortunate one.
That definition comes from A Dictionary of Troublesome Words, an indispensable reference work thoughtfully compiled by--you guessed it--Bill Bryson.  Now, I'll acknowledge that it is possible that Bryson is using fortuitously in the cited passage to mean "by chance," but I'd still maintain that in that context it comes off sounding very much like fortunately.

The lesson here? Never take a child on a 2-hour hike without bringing a sippy cup and change of diaper.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Money Never Sleeps

From today's offerings on

Maybe she left because you kept referring to her as your "finance." Well, that and the pathetic teddy bear fixation.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Is This a Dangler I See Before Me?

This morning's Province brings us a dangler which, while not quite on a par with the classic "President Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address while riding to Pennsylvania on an envelope," is still a good example of the mix-ups that can occur when a supporting clause wanders too far from its subject.

The story is about former Vancouver Canuck fan favorite Brendan Morrison coming back to the team for a tryout. As Jason Botchford reports:
In a battle with about seven players for one or two jobs, head coach Alain Vigneault said Morrison has a leg up on his competition for a couple of reasons.
That should read: "In a battle with about seven players for one or two jobs, Morrison blah blah blah..., according to head coach Alain Vigneault." As it stands, the juxtaposition of that opening clause with the subject "head coach Alain Vigneault" makes it sound as if it's Coach V who is battling for a job (and if he doesn't deliver a Stanley Cup this season that could yet be the case).

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Keeping Composed

I read a pause-provoking article yesterday. Every once in a while, you come across a piece of writing that challenges some long-held assumptions and makes you see your world in exciting new ways. This is not one of those times...but there is some good stuff in the piece. It's sort of a manifesto about how thought and communication can become devalued in an age where we instantly communicate everything that pops into our pumpkins--on Twitter, in Facebook updates, in blog posts. I stumbled upon it on the blog of some guy I've been following on Twitter and I've been telling all my Facebook friends about it.

Here is an excerpt:
What worries me are the consequences of a diet comprised mostly of fake-connectedness, makebelieve insight and unedited first drafts of everything. I think it's making us small. I know that whenever I become aware of it, I realize how small it can make me. So, I've come to despise it.
Personally, I'd jam a hyphen in makebelieve, but beyond that we have the problem of that comprised. Compose and comprise is one of those troublesome twin sets that copyeditors owe their existence to. Briefly, a diet--at least a media one--can be composed of unedited first drafts (I have a fridge full of those myself). And these drafts, along with the insights and other mind-detritus, may comprise a diet. But comprised of, alas, is just wrong.

But hey, that's what edited second drafts are for.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Mad Man and the Misinterpreted Metaphor

In today's must-know celebrity news, we're told that actor Jon Hamm, who plays the fascinating Don Draper on "Mad Men" (for those of you cultural defectives who don't know that), has suffered from debilitating depression. This comes from an interview in the UK magazine The Observer, in which he credits antidepressants with helping to break the spell:
"If you can change your brain chemistry enough to think: 'I want to get up in the morning; I don't want to sleep until four in the afternoon. I want to get up and go and do my shit and go to work and ...' Reset the auto-meter, kick-start the engine!"
I took a moment to puzzle over what an "auto-meter" might be until it occurred to me that Hamm probably said odometer with the emphasis on the first syllable, and the British interviewer, in transcribing his words, wrote what she thought she heard, probably assuming it was some kind of uniquely American gadget. Thus leaving us with a passage that's needling into the red zone on the odd-o-meter.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Gee, and All I Got You Was This Hyphen

If it seems to you that today feels a little different, that's probably because it's National Punctuation Day (at least in the U.S., but if we Northerners can celebrate the sacred tradition of Super Bowl Sunday, we can horn in on this, too.)

And in case you think punctuation is not worthy of being celebrated, I offer this diverting example from the writer John Shore, who imagines this postscript to a love letter:
P.S. I would like to tell you that I love you. I can't stop thinking that you are one of the prettiest women on earth.
And now the same words, punctuated differently:
P.S. I would like to tell you that I love you. I can't. Stop thinking that you are one of the prettiest women on earth.
So if you want to be forbearing with punctuation abusers the rest of the year, ok. But for today, at least, if you catch someone disrespecting a colon, feel free to give them a kick in the asterisk.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

It's Alwrong

Here's this morning's front page of the Huffington Post:

They're not big on subtlety with their headlines or images at HuffPo. And apparently, they're not big on observing standard spelling conventions. It's easy to find examples of alright around us, starting with The Who, and their "The Kids are Alright" song and movie--but Pete Townshend does a lot of things the rest of us are wise to avoid. Bill Bryson, in his Dictionary of Troublesome Words, notes that, while the truncated version shows up on occasion in respected publications, "English is a slow and fickle tongue, and alright continues to be looked on as illiterate and unacceptable, and consequently it ought never to appear in serious writing." The righteous among us, in other words, use all right.

Grammar Girl, a fine bloggist and podcaster who does actual research, finds that's pretty much the consensus--although she also finds a source who gives a good argument for a distinction between alright and all right. I won't reveal it here (I'm busy and tired--don't you hate that combination?), but it's all there in the preceding link.

Friday, September 17, 2010

He Won't be a Virgin for Long in Prison

As if the news weren't bad enough for Shelley Malil, an actor who appeared in the movie The 40-Year-Old Virgin, when a jury of his peers did not buy his story that he had stabbed his ex-girlfriend by accident--more than twenty times.

Too add insult to justice, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran this formatting-free headline:

40-Year-Old Virgin Actor Found Guilty in Stabbing of Ex-Girlfriend

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Goodbye, Newman

I see that broadcaster Edwin Newman, one of the last remaining journalist icons from the "I reported Kennedy's assassination" era, has died. According to the AP report:
Newman died on Aug. 13 of pneumonia in Oxford, England. He had moved there with his wife in 2007 to live closer to their daughter, said his lawyer Rupert Mead. He said the family delayed announcing Newman's death so they could spend some time privately grieving.
Delaying the announcement is a telling old-school touch, a nice gesture of quiet dignity, if you ask me. But I fear that old Edwin, the author of unabashedly curmudgeonly books on language usage such as "Strictly Speaking" and "A Civil Tongue," while perhaps not exactly rolling over in his grave, would at least shift uncomfortably in his repose at the misused restrictive appositive in that passage. It should be "his lawyer, Rupert Mead" because Rupert's name is incidental to the meaning of the sentence and we need a comma to make it parenthetical.

Yeah, I know: who cares? But while we're at it, let's also point out that it might have been a good idea to begin that last sentence in the passage with "Mead said..." The way it stands now it takes us a moment to realize that the "he" from the preceding sentence (Newman) is not the same "he" who is the subject of the succeeding sentence, and that Newman is not, in fact, reporting on his own death. Which, now that I think of it, is probably every iconic newsman's dream assignment.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

We Put the "E" in "Smart"

Yesterday, I took little Sam to school for his first day at the Strong Start program for toddlers--a "play and learn" free-for-all that was maggoty with kids and that had the same disjointed, cacophonous atmosphere, not to mention the same over-the-top theatrical expressions of feeling, as a session of Parliament (never mind a "parliament of owls;" a "parliament of toddlers" seems much more apt). I have to say I almost got a little moist watching my little guy begin his immersion into a social milieu of his contemporaries--even when he introduced himself to a comely little blonde girl by jabbing her in the throat with a fearsomely pointy penguin figurine.

We learned a lot that first day. Sam learned more about counting and sharing, and how to sing along to "Old MacDonald." I learned that it's very hard to get up from a seated position on the floor when I've had a long run the evening before. And we learned that the legacy of former U.S. Vice-President Dan Quayle lives on, as evidenced by this toy bin label:

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Message From My Daughter, Who Soaked the Bathroom Floor When Washing Her Feet

Thanks for the heads-up, Abby. I can forgive the slippery floor, but misspelling three out of four words earns you a passage from Strunk & White for story-time tonight.