Friday, January 29, 2010

The Road to Excellence

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Fairly One of a Kind Situation, Kind Of

According to The Now, our tri-cities community paper, some local residents have been arrested after taking delivery of a tombstone from Iran--a tombstone stuffed with almost 125 pounds of opium.

"It's a pretty unique type of secretion method," a police spokesman is quoted as saying.

I know it's unfair to hold spoken statements to the same standards as written communication...but tough noogies, Dudley Do-Right. I'm still going to point out that "unique" is an absolute that means "one of a kind." There can be no degrees of uniqueness. You can't be "very" or "pretty" unique (nor can your secretion method), any more than you can be "sort of" pregnant or "slightly" dead. But in this case, you can be so busted.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Which Wine is That?

It's not often you can find a drinkable wine for under ten dollars (at least not in Canada, with our confiscatory booze taxes). Allow me to recommend the Gray Fox Shiraz, which retails for $6.99 (which would make it...what, about a buck and a half  U.S.?). If, like me and most other successful people, you're poor and drink a lot of wine, that represents pretty good bang for your grape-buying buck. Remember, though, I said "drinkable," not "outstanding," and keep in mind that it has to be the Shiraz--the other wines I've tried in the Gray Fox line-up taste like yak urine.

Anyway, I'm enjoying my first (ok, third) glass right now and I notice that the marketing babble on the back label of the bottle includes this line:

Our Shiraz is a full bodied wine which displays ripe raspberry with hints of black pepper and not a trace of yak urine.

Ok, I made that last bit up. But we are still left with the un-hyphenated "full bodied" and, more disturbingly, a misused "which." And it is truly disturbing because it means I have to harsh my wine mellow by getting into a discussion of defining versus non-defining clauses.

A defining (or restrictive) clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence and cannot be removed without causing confusion. Defining clauses use "that" and are not set off with commas: "The wine that I drink is cheap and tastes surprisingly unlike yak urine." Here, the clause "that I drink" is defining the wine in question. Similarly, the example on the Gray Fox bottle needs a "that."

With non-defining clauses we use "which" and set the phrase off with commas: "The wine, which is bottled on a yak farm, is cheap and tastes surprisingly unlike yak urine." In this example, the clause "which is bottled on a yak farm" is incidental and could be removed without altering the meaning of the sentence--in other words, it does not define (or restrict) the essence of what is being conveyed.

Wasn't that fun? Oh yes, I suppose it's worth noting that many otherwise sane (albeit usually British) people are much more lax about this distinction. Even the scrupulously-edited New Yorker, for instance, for reasons that have never been adequately explained, will often allow a "which" to sit in on a defining clause. So if you want to be loosy-goosy with your "thats" and "whichs" you do have reputable sources to call as character witnesses. But you risk being mocked by those of us who appreciate the ripe raspberry nuances of a well-placed "that" and the hints of black pepper in an artfully executed "which."

Monday, January 25, 2010

Obama on the Rebound

From page 199 of Game Change, the recounting of the 2008 U.S. presidential election that is dripping with juicy gossip, comes this line:
It was hard to see how a wildly polarized electorate would rebound to Obama's benefit.
I'm fairly certain that the word the authors had in mind here was the seldom-used redound ("to have an effect or consequence"). Rebound means...well, we all know what it means.

Incidentally, I saw a headline today that read, "Obama's First Year Most Polarizing of Any President, Gallup says." Well, let's hope he can rebound in Year Two.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Failing a Lab Test

This morning I went for my semi-annual blood-tapping, so my doctor can tell me that my bad cholesterol is too high and my liver enzymes are enzyming in an improper fashion, so lay off the cheese and red wine. We go through this ritual regularly, but what the hell, this is Canada, and the tests and doctor visits are free, so I play along.

Before the plasma-pullers could get their needle in me, I was stopped short by this sign [click to enlarge] in reception--a jumble of words and colors and odd spacings that could create confusion, or even, dare I say, panic. (If people are getting fevers or coughs on entering immediately, this lab needs to be shut down by a Haz-Mat team in crinkly white spacesuits).

My suggested wording, for what it's worth, would be: "If you have a fever or cough, notify a lab assistant immediately on entering." But I'm just a cheese-eating wino who is too wimpy to watch the needle go in, so what do I know?

A bonus for keen-eyed viewers: "fragrance free" in the other sign should be hyphenated.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Physician, Heel Thyself

The garrulous and avuncular (not to mention ubiquitous) Dr. Art Hister, Vancouver's medic-in-the-media, has a feature story in the latest edition of People First, the freebie mag distributed by Peoples Drug Mart. The good doctor begins his piece with this roller-coaster of a sentence:

My wife would say that I got really interested in the increasingly important medical issue of preventing falls in the elderly because, as she won't let me forget, "you're no spring chicken, my dear, more like a bruised old capon," (to be fair she's dead on, but I wish she weren't so brutally honest), but the truth is that I've been quite interested in the issue for a long time now, ever since, in fact, my wife and I took one of our annual hiking holidays, which as is too often the case, turned out to be anything but a "holiday" or what my wife calls "fun".
 Now, I have no problem with long sentences when they're artfully constructed and under control (Norman Mailer and David Foster Wallace, to name just two dead men, used to cast enthrallingly epic sentences) but that opener is not just a run-on, it's a runaway freight train. Here's fifty cents, doc--go buy yourself a period.

And speaking of periods, when the sentence finally does roll to a halt, after those Borscht Belt-style "take my wife" digressions, the final punctuation falls outside the quotation marks. Personally, that seems logical to me (and to the British, God love 'em) but the American (and Canadian) convention is to tuck the punctuation inside.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Some of my Best Friends are Light-Skinned Negroes

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is in the stink for being quoted as saying Barack Obama is a light-skinned black who doesn't (usually) use a "Negro" dialect. Obama accepted Reid's apology, saying the leader had used "inartful" language in praising him. True enough, but Reid also used inartful language in his statement apologizing for his inartful language, saying:
"I sincerely apologize for offending any and all Americans, especially African-Americans for my improper comments."
Offending "any and all"? No comma after the parenthetical "especially African-Americans"? Apologizing for offending them for his comments? You'd think the Senate Majority Leader would have someone on staff who can put together a sentence saying "I'm sorry" without waterboarding the English language.

Incidentally, Reid's quote that launched the brouhaha comes from the new book, Game Change, a behind-the-scenes tell-all about the '08 election that I spent a couple of hours driving through a downpour to get my greedy mitts on. Settling in with it last night, I came across this line on Page 20:
Clinton's decision to forego the 2004 race would prove fateful.
 At first I was disappointed. Obviously, the authors had not read my recent blog entry on forego/forgo confusion. Then I remembered that the book had gone to press long before I posted that, so I suppose I'll have to give them a pass.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

An Everyday Experience

 I think I could start a daily blog just collecting instances of every day versus everyday confusion. Once again, for the record, everyday is the adjective meaning "commonplace," every day is your standard adjective-and-noun platonic coupling. So, an everyday occurrence can happen once in while, or it can happen every day.  Considering there is a 50/50 chance of getting it right, why does it seem that you're more likely to find the wrong usage? Or is it just that this grievance has become a personal fetish of mine, so I'm seeing examples everywhere?

A couple of cases in point from yesterday. I was buying a loaf of crusty sourdough at the local Cobs Bread (what--no apostrophe?) and offered the young man behind the counter--a surly youth with bad skin and an adam's apple the size of an eight-ball--a twenty-dollar bill for my three-buck loaf. He looked at it as if I had slapped a dead raccoon on the counter top.

"Got anything smaller?" he said finally.

"No, sorry. Just went to the ATM. That's all I've got."

He issued a weary theatrical sigh and let his bony shoulders sag even further, before opening a till that was chock-a-block with billls and coins of small denominations and completing the transaction.

I digress. Our focus is here is not the attitude of kids today (but c'mon, metalhead, you're serving customers in a bakery, not selling dime bags in the parking lot), it is the promotional flyer on display next to the abundantly-stocked cash register--the one with the tagline, bread for everyday. Everyday what?, I want to ask. Maybe next time, I'll get surly bakery youth to explain.

Later that afternoon, young Abby arrives home from her first grade class bearing a message from the teacher about the words Abby is to study this week to prepare for a test on Friday. (It seems to me when I was in first grade I was pretty much just trading hockey cards and eating paste, but there you go.) The message concludes:
It is my hope that your child will be able to transfer what they learn through this spelling program into their every day writing.
Grrr. It is my hope that my kids grow up in a world that recognizes a distinction between everyday writing and bread for every day.

And that they don't become surly bakery youths.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Pique into the Late Night Dramas

Jay Leno was in town over the weekend doing his stand-up schtick, while TV-land was abuzz with rumors of his return to the 11:35 slot on NBC. The local Province newsrag sent reporter Katie Mercer to the show, and her dispatch tells us that, while Leno made no explicit mention of the kerfuffle during his act,

Interest seemed to peek on the rare occasion the words Late Night slipped out of Leno's lips.
Usually, one's interest, or curiosity, is said to be piqued (provoked or aroused), although a case can be made here that the audience's interest peaked (as in, reached its apex) at that moment. One thing their interest did not do, however, is peek, something traditionally done by humans and their eyeballs.

And what's with the italicized, capitalized reference to "Late Night,"  which shows up again in the final paragraph:
The dismal reality is that O'Brien hasn't been able to fill the comedian's [Leno's] shoes, who easily transitioned into the Late Night spot himself after Johnny Carson..."
The show Leno transitioned into after Carson left was, of course, The Tonight Show--the same show Conan O'Brien may now be leaving in a fit of pique. And as anyone who follows these things (or has read or watched  The Late Shift) knows, Leno's transition back then was anything but easy.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Is This What They Mean by Frankenfood?

Another Foto Friday quickie:

There is a Muenster cheese, an American product, not to be confused with the French Munster cheese, not to be confused with the TV show, The Munsters, which is not to be confused with monsters, which may have led to the confusion here. And yes, parmesan is misspelled, too.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Now You're Just Being Wheird

Stephen Metcalf (who, based on what I've heard of him on the Slate Gabfest podcasts, is either a brilliantly incisive critic or an insufferable poseur--I can't decide) has an article on Slate--a 50th anniversary re-review of A Separate Peace. In it, he recounts his own experiences as a young man attending Exeter:

"I remember too the giant birdlike rectitudinous old men, Latin teachers who audibly aspirated the H in while and whom..."
Everyone aspirates the H in "whom"--it's the W that is silent.

But of course no discussion of audibly-aspirated H's would be complete without this:

And while we're at it, I just had to see this again:

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Walk of Shame

Walking back from lunch yesterday through the quaint streets of downtown PoCo, I came across a series of signs within a few feet of each other that warrant picayune picking on. First up, the Dairy Queen on the corner:

We've covered the whole confounding "due to" thing before, and this usage clearly doesn't meet the criteria we all agreed on at that time. "Closed for renovations" would have worked just fine. Aside from that, though, I am curious about those "boxes of novelties."

Farther down the block is this establishment:

Apostrophes are obviously not among the accessories available here. That should be "Ladies' Fashion." There are some people, by the way--people of questionable breeding with sloped foreheads, for the most part--who argue that this usage is acceptable on the grounds that "ladies" is serving as a plural adjective rather than a possessive. To them I say: when's the last time you saw a sign touting "Men Fashion?"

But wait a minute. Not two doors down, at my daughter's favorite store (she likes to watch the doggies in the window) we find this:

I see what's happening now. Evidently the 2500-block of Shaughnessy Street has been struck by an apostrophe drought (and what's with the "$$$"?), a diagnosis confirmed by the presence of the Peoples Drug Mart across the street.

Monday, January 04, 2010

There's a Lot at Steak Here

Last night I was reading a selection from Ruth Reichl's book, "Garlic and Sapphires," about her experiences as the New York Times restaurant critic who dined in disguise to find out how the top restaurants treated a diner who was not the New York Times restaurant critic.

In the passage in question, she is talking about her humiliation at being called out in "the greenies"--the Times's in-house daily critique--for writing the sentence: "If you are a native New Yorker, steak is in your blood."

"The word police pounced," she writes.

"There, circled in the greenies, was the offending sentence. Next to it...was this comment: 'What if you are Chinese? Latino? Beware of generalizations.'"

I confess I don't see the problem. Ascribing certain traits to native New Yorkers seems fine to me, and doing so doesn't discount the possibility that others may share those traits. And isn't it understood that native New Yorkers can come from all cultural backgrounds? Sounds like someone is hyper-sensitive about inclusiveness.

But the topic of examination today actually comes in Reichl's next paragraph:

"Mortified, I went slinking through the newsroom, wishing I had never written those words. Why hadn't I simply said what I meant? Which was: 'Growing up in New York City, steak was an important part of my childhood.' It was the truth and no one could possibly have objected."

I object! Not to the validity of her steak-eating claims, but to the structure of that sentence. Here we encounter the dreaded dangling participle, which has made a fool out of many a well-meaning writer. The participial clause, "growing up in New York City," has become detached from its intended subject (Ruth Reichl) and has adhered itself to the steak, making it sound like it was the meat that grew up in New York.

The "native New Yorker" line may have raised the ire of the composer of the "greenies," but I submit it was the better choice, on both stylistic and grammatical grounds, than her imagined do-over.