Friday, April 30, 2010

But in Nine Months You'll Have a Baby Brother

I think that should be "I'm hearing my parents having sex." Nevertheless... yeah, I suppose that is disgusting.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Their Error Liveth Forevermore

Our charming little town square in Port Coquitlam is home to our City Hall, the smartly-designed new Leigh Square Arts Centre, a Starbucks (natch), and an idyllic park space featuring this monument to fallen World War II vets:

My first thought is that there is an astonishingly large number of names on this honor roll, given the very modest size of this community at mid-20th century. A loss this big would almost literally have decimated the town's population--a reality of the time that is often lost on us post-war baby boomers.

There is something else about this monument that caught my attention. You'll notice that the names proceed in stately alphabetical order from Baker to Zappia--with the curious exception of W. Kravac, which has inexplicably been inserted at the end of the first column between  Lonsdale and McTavish. You'll also note that there is already a W. Krivac memorialized here.

I have a theory here. I can't prove it of course, but I suspect that the engravers finished the job, only to discover (or had it pointed out to them by an aggrieved relative) that they had chiseled in W.Kravac's name incorrectly. The only solution then, since they couldn't very well erase the error, was simply to add the correct rendering at the bottom of the scroll.

Nowadays, where so much of our lives is recorded digitally, mistakes are easy to override. No white-out, no XXXs--just a few keystrokes and all is forgiven. After all, it's not written in stone. In this case, however...

Monday, April 26, 2010

Of Mice and Wrenches

 It started with a little rustling sound. I was sitting at the dining-room table, with an eye-opening cup of joe and the morning tabloid, when I heard a muffled rattle from the wine cabinet in the corner of the room. A half-hour later, I hear it again and mention it to Kim.

"It's like there's a mouse in there," I say, and describe the noises I've heard.

"No," she says, "it's just a truck going by that rattles the glassware."

Later in the morning, I'm at work in the den, when I hear it again--the rustle, the rattle, and this time the arresting sound of glasses tipping over. I come out to investigate, turn the corner and pinwheel to a sliding stop. There I stand, eye to beady eye with a furry brown mouse. He's crouched among the cabernet glasses, staring me down, his nose twitching menacingly. I do what any red-blooded man would do. I shriek like a little girl, tear back to the den, slam the door, and call Kim to tell her she has to come home right away because there's a mouse in the house.

Now, this might seem to indicate a woeful lack of testosterone on my part. Not so fast. Here's where the story takes a turn that almost makes it relevant to the theme of this blog and at the same time restores a measure of manhood to my self-image. While sequestered in the den awaiting rescue, I flipped nervously through the Encarta World English Dictionary on my book stand and happened to spot this entry:

What is depicted here, as any handyman worth his over-exposed butt crack knows, is an adjustable crescent wrench, or so I have always believed. Indeed, a quick query to the Google gods confirms that a monkey wrench looks like this:

Granted, I have not actually used either instrument--at least not successfully--but I think I deserve at least a couple of manly man points for my display of tool-spotting acumen.

As for the mouse situation, the little rodent made its way into a drawer of my nightstand, as I discovered with sphincter-tightening alarm during the night, and Kim eventually repatriated the vicious little beast to the great outdoors. On Sunday, however, Caesar, our homicidal cat, inexplicably lunged at a cabinet in Abby's room, which led me (or rather, led Abby, who investigated while I cowered outside her door) to discover another twitchy-nosed interloper.

I'm moving to a hotel until this situation is resolved.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Lanaguage of the Tea Party

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sic List, The Next Generation

What can I say? I'm so proud.

Tonight, my little first-grader, Abby, was reading to me from a book she checked out of her school library. A few pages into the epic page-turner "Biscuit Finds a Friend," we come upon this:

Pretty exciting, no? Anyway, after reading this passage, Abby looked up at me.

"That doesn't sound right, does it?"

By gosh, she's right. That doesn't sound right. But I needed some help from my old friend, the Interwebs, to isolate the problem. Using "there is" as a stand-in for "here is," I find this:

In my neighborhood there is an outdoor swimming pool and two parks.

In my neighborhood there are an outdoor swimming pool and two parks.
If the first noun in the list of things is singular, use there is.

And if the first noun is plural, are is then the verb to use, as evidenced by the next page in "Biscuit Finds a Friend":

And that's all there is to say. Quack! Quack!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

This Ain't No Place for the Pedantic Kind

I have to admit that I am pathetically out of the loop when it comes to new music. My iPod is loaded with chatty podcasts, and when I do listen to tunes I tend to fall back on Sgt. Pepper and classic Dire Straits.

That's why, when the musical guest--usually some cacophonous group of dirty hippies--is introduced on a talk show, I power down the sound and pick up a book. Recently, however, (I think it was on Letterman or Craig Ferguson), I found myself enraptured by the raspy, plaintive wails of a soulful singer singing a beautiful sad song. I thumbed up the volume on the remote and sat there in a semi-drunk reverie. Eventually I realized it was the feature track from the movie Crazy Heart (haven't seen it yet, but have heard great things about it and the soundtrack).

Anyway, here's the song:

Lyrics | Ryan Bingham - The Weary Kind lyrics

So why have I cited it on this blog? Well, I could point out the lack of apostrophes throughout the lyrics, or how "you rolled them sevens with nothing lose" should, of course, be "to lose." But really, I just wanted an excuse to listen again to what I think is a beautiful sad song.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Botulism Burgers to Go

Yesterday's balmy spring weather put me in the mind of barbecue*, so I evicted the spiders from the Weber (no relation), gave it a good scrubbing and set about to enjoy the season's first propane-fueled cookout.

After the flame whooshed to life, I pried apart the solid pucks of turkey burgers (yeah, yeah, we bought frozen burgers--sometimes there just isn't time to create from scratch) and found this confounding direction on the package:

Cook 6 to 7 minutes on both sides.

Does that mean I should cook the burgers on both sides for a total of 6 to 7 minutes? Or should it be: "Cook 6 to 7 minutes on each side"? This isn't just an exercise in semantic navel-gazing; in this case, getting it right can spell the difference between enjoying an evenly-cooked al fresco repast and playing host to a plague of malicious pathogens.

As it turns out, I decided to err on the side of intestinal rectitude, so my buddy Sam and I flame-grilled those suckers (on both sides, for about 8 minutes each) until they begged for mercy. And a great time, with much high-fiving and lip smacking, ensued:

*Let's note here that there is some controversy about the word barbecue. Many people insist it can refer only to slow-cooked beef or pork, and that there is a distinction between barbecuing and grilling. I think these are the same people who like to point out that 12:01 a.m. is actually morning and not night.

Then there is the matter of spelling. Bryson says: "Any formal user of English who believes the word is spelled barbeque or, worse still, bar-b-q is not ready for unsupervised employment." I was mortified on reading that, as it came to mind that I had spelled it barbeque in a recent project for a client. I won't say anything if you don't.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Floppy, Come Home

Apparently the wheelbarrow didn't have sentimental value. 

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Homeland Security

I just ordered room service here at the Xona Resort Suites (nine greenbacks for a desiccated chicken sandwich and another nine for a niggardly plastic cup of down-market cabernet), and after hanging up the phone I scanned the "For Your Safety" section at the front of the menu book. It begins thusly:
When in your room, double lock the door by turning the deadbolt and securing the door latch. This will prevent the door from being opened by a regular key and insure your privacy. Please make sure you lock all the doors leading to the patio and insure the security bar is placed on the sliding glass door as well. Then lock yourself in the bathroom with a shotgun and put on Kevlar pajamas and a combat helmet.
All right, so I made up the last bit. Still, the idea of fortifying the room in such a fashion while I'm in it really harshes my Arizona mellow. Roving bands of regular-key-wielding bandits be damned, I'm going to continue to leave the window open and wander out onto the patio in my underpants.

But onto the parsing. Yes, double lock as a verb needs a hyphen. But we've had enough hyphen talk lately. What really bumps me here is the use of insure in this context, rather than ensure. There is a lot of boring debate about how much overlap and interchangeability there can be between the two. Everyone agrees that insure is the word to use when talking about liability issues and insurance protection, but most dictionaries grant a second definition of "to make sure." I like ensure in this instance, though, for the simple reason that I like having different words mean different things. Why should insure, which has plenty to do, what with all those Allstate policies, encroach on ensure's turf? I say we close the sliding glass door between these etymological cousins and ensure the security bar is in place.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

You're Like Me! You're Really, Really Like Me!

I got to spend a few idle moments today cruising the aisles of a Barnes and Noble. (This particular B&N was in the Kierland Commons area of Scottsdale--a shopping enclave patronized in large part by extravagantly-coiffed "kept women" of a certain age with preternatural tans and designer-brand face-lifts. I always feel conspicuously like a hideous troll when I go there.)

Passing by a display table, my eyes alight on this colorful little tome:

As it happens I have played a significant role in making two people--my daughter and my son--who are a lot like me in many ways. And I'm actually somewhat proud to say that in each case my part in the process took (a little) longer than 90 seconds.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Up in the Air

I'm spending the balance of the week in Scottsdale, Arizona (where the landscape is like a Roadrunner cartoon come to life), which means I spent today enduring the "glamor" of modern air travel: having to remove my shoes and belt like a new prisoner about to be deloused, stepping into a full-body scanner that gave me a close-up look at the polyps in my urethra, being subjected to the charms of U.S. border agents, and having to show my boarding pass every few feet to another bored bureaucrat. Finally, after being "processed," I retreat to the safety of the bar in the departure lounge, and take a glance at my ticket:

Sorry for the fuzziness (that's the best still my Flip camcorder can capture). So what's the error here? This ticket stub indicates that the departure time is--get this--2:29 p.m. That's right--not 2:30, not 2:45, but precisely 2:29 p.m.

The aircraft, as it turns out, was actually taxiing* to the runway at about 2:40--a fact I could verify by showing camera footage of the clock on my cell phone, were it not for the fact that activating a cell phone and camera on take-off would get me swiftly tackled by overzealous air marshals and subjected to "enhanced interrogation techniques" involving an unlubricated mop handle.

Anyway...I'm not complaining about the late departure--I was in no particular hurry, and in any case we arrived on time in the desert. I'm just bumfuzzled by the hubris of airlines announcing these oddly-specific departure times, as if we were counting down to a space launch, when in fact any veteran flyer knows that you're lucky if you come within 20 minutes of the declared wheels-up time.

*Just wondering: is there another English word, other than skiing, that features a double i?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Babysitter Gets Suspended Sentence

Last week, Abby brought home from school a flyer pitching after-school classes. The description of one of the courses, for Babysitter's Training, was maggoty with errors, including this concluding advisory:

Bring a nut and candy free lunch

Without the help of some hyphens, this sentence is open to misinterpretation. Should I bring a single nut, along with a lunch that is free of candy? A free lunch consisting of nuts and candy? Neither, actually, because, as a middle-aged dad who is most emphatically not a babysitter, I won't be attending at all.

In any case, the construction to be used here is
"a nut- and candy-free lunch."* That's right--with this baby, you get not just the gratifying clarity of employing hyphens, but also the spine-tingling frisson of satisfaction that comes from firing off a suspended hyphen, which, as we all know, is the most exciting hyphen of all.

Earlier in the description, there is another missing hyphen, when we are advised that participants receive a "personalized wallet size completion card," but I'm inclined to let that one go simply because I was amused by the image of a 12-year-old pig-tailed kid flipping open her Hello Kitty wallet with a dramatic flourish to flash her official Babysitter's Training credentials.

*Note the space after the first hyphen and the absence of a hyphen following and.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Don't be Such an Anxious Beaver

My wife doesn't often present me with unexpected gifts (my latest respiratory virus notwithstanding), so I was delighted when she picked up for me the Modern Library edition of Letters From The Editor, a compilation of communications from the New Yorker's brilliant founding editor, Harold Ross. Sure, she got it at a thrift store for 99 cents, but it's the meager thought that counts. In any case, I find myself dipping into it for awhile most nights to transport myself to Jazz-era New York and a time when a magazine and its editor were regarded with the kind of reverence we now reserve for the likes of Paris Hilton.

Within the milky-smooth pages of the volume (thank you, Modern Library, for your attention to tactile detail), in a letter to longtime New Yorker contributer Alexander Woollcott, a brusque and comically distracted Ross tells Woollcott he's going to try to visit soon, signing off with:
I don't know how to get to Vermont, or to the lake after I get there, but will take this matter up later. I am very anxious to see you.                                                                           Sincerely,                                                                           Ross
I know that anxious, over time, has in many quarters become an acceptable synonym for eager, but the fact remains that many usage mavens--Bryson; Bernstein; Garner; Barbara Wallraff; the American Heritage Dictionary; my high school English teacher, Mrs. Thompson--will point out that the word derives from anxiety and is best used when an element of worry or trepidation, and not merely anticipation, is involved. Considering that the above missive comes from the famously punctilious Harold Ross of the famously punctilious New Yorker, I feel justified in taking the legendary editor to task. Luckily for him, he's been dead for sixty years, and has mercifully escaped the sting of my critical lash.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

A Site for Soar Ayes

The New Republic dispatched renowned linguist John McWhorter to go deep into the mind of Sarah Palin in an attempt to puzzle out her, shall we say, distinctive speech patterns. He emerged covered in sticky rhetorical goo but with a reasonably enlightening analysis. At one point, though, he compares Palin's stream-of-unconsciousness prattle with Joe Biden's equally folksy, but more coherent, syntax by capturing this quote of Biden's from their debate:
Barack Obama laid out four basic criteria for any kind of rescue plan. He said there has to be oversight. We're not going to write a check to anybody unless there's some kind of oversite of the Secretary of the Treasury.
How is it that he gets oversight correct in the first instance, but not in the next sentence? And how does the editor/proofreader not catch that? And why does someone like me come along and snarkily point out what is obviously just a simple (ahem) oversight? We'll never know.

But that's not all. In this morning's Vancouver Sun recap of last night's Canucks game, reporter Iain MacIntyre, commenting on the less-than-stellar performance of the local team's defense, says that:
The Canucks, minus Ehrhoff and Mitchell, were not an encouraging site in their zone.
To be fair, MacIntyre is usually an astonishingly graceful prose stylist for a sports beat reporter, and I think we can attribute this lapse to deadline pressure. In any case, he's a darn sight more literate than Mrs. "I-can-see-Russia-from-my-porch."

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The One and Only

My brother dropped by for a visit the other day with his two-year-old daughter. My two kids were home with me at the time, and Mark and I "enjoyed" an afternoon of monitoring the movements of three boisterous young children, which is kind of like herding fish. Before leaving, Mark presented us with a parting gift: a sleek black electric kettle. Evidently, he had come across an enticing sale at a discount store and had loaded up on them because, hey, everyone loves a kettle.

I've always been a stove-top man myself, but I have to say I have been impressed with the electric kettle's brisk efficiency. I was, however, stopped short by the first commandment in the user manual:

You mean I can't use water anywhere else? Not even to wash the chocolate cookie detritus off the kids' faces before their mom gets home? Of course, that's not what they mean at all. What they mean is that I am advised to "use only water" in the kettle, as opposed to, say, coffee, beer, or liquid nitrogen.

Only is one of those slippery modifiers that needs to stay close to the word it's modifying (and in the right sequence), or else it can end up changing the meaning of the sentence, as neatly evidenced in this little tutorial I found online, which is attributed to the ever-prolific Anonymous.

"She told me that she loved me." Let us count the ways:

Only she told me that she loved me." (No one else has told me that.)
only told me that she loved me." (Provided no evidence of her love.)
"She told
only me that she loved me." (Not the gabby type.)
"She told me
only that she loved me." (She had nothing more to say.)
"She told me that
only she loved me." (Sad, hearing no one else loves me.)
"She told me that she
only loved me." (Doesn't idolize me, but loves me.)
"She told me that she loved me
only." (Ahhh!)

Would that all slippery words came with such a concise flash-card guide. If only.

Monday, April 05, 2010


Too often, I use this blog to take cheap shots at usage errors committed by those for whom mastering Standard English is a struggle. This makes me a pedantic ass. Today, however, I'm going to take a cheap shot at someone whose understanding of, and abilities with, the English language far exceeded what I could ever hope to accomplish in many lifetimes. Plus, he's tragically and prematurely dead. This makes me a captious little weasel.

I was listening to one of those Slate podcasts when the subject of usage issues in general, and David Foster Wallace's piece "Authority and American Usage" in particular, came up. This led me to pull down the collection Consider the Lobster, in which that essay is contained, pour myself a glass of wine, and spend a Sunday afternoon blissfully immersed in the strange and wonderful mind of DFW as he picked apart prescriptive vs. descriptive arguments in the usage wars.

Early on in the piece, in one of those discursive footnotes he was so famous for, he apologizes for using the phrase "historical context" and writes:
One of the personal little lessons I've learned in working on this essay is that being chronically inclined to sneer/wince at other people's usage tends to make me chronically anxious about other people sneering/wincing at my usage.
I perfectly understand the fear of being caught with one's syntactical fly open--and I promise I did not sneer or wince when I came upon this sentence, in which Wallace is analyzing an excerpt from Bryan A. Garner's preface to A Dictionary of Modern American Usage:
Whole monographs could be written just on the masterful rhetoric of this passage.
Normally, this wouldn't be worth mentioning (and probably still isn't), but given Wallace's hyper-vigilance when it comes to word selection, I think I'll just point out what Bill Bryson (who is also quoted in Wallace's piece) has to say in his Dictionary of Troublesome Words:
masterful, masterly. Most authorities continue to insist that we observe a distinction between these two--namely that masterly should apply to that which is adroit and expert and masterful to that which is imperious and domineering.
True, Bryson goes on to note that no leading dictionary insists on the distinction, and that indeed masterly is often an awkward choice of adverb, but he still observes that "masterly should perhaps be your first choice when you mean in the manner of a master..."

That said, David Foster Wallace's essay remains a masterly exegesis on the subject of English usage and is highly recommended for Sunday afternoon perusal with a glass of assertive, but never masterful, Shiraz.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

An Enormity of Enormous Proportions

In today's "Dear Prudence" advice column on Slate, Prudie counsels a young woman who's having difficulty relating to a father who has been incapacitated by a stroke. She reminds the letter-writer to offer support to her mother as well:
Being a caretaker is arduous work, made all the harder by the enormity of your father's losses. 
Here we find one of the more common word mis-usages. Enormity does not refer to amplitude. Rather, it denotes, to quote the American Heritage Dictionary, "a monstrous offense or evil; an outrage." So, to be accurate, we can speak of the enormity of the injustice that occurred when Ben Affleck was awarded an Oscar. But we can only bemoan the enormousness of the pain the movie-going public has been subjected to by his performances.