Monday, May 31, 2010

The Apple of My Eye

The Daily Beast runs a story today speculating on what the author believes to be the imminent downfall of the  Apple empire. (My favorite passage, pull-quoted in the piece: "Surely Jobs will one day tire of wielding his charismatic authority as CEO of Apple. And there is no woman or man alive who could fill that man's turtleneck.")

Speaking of "that man's turtleneck," there is another possessive construction later in the article that doubles back on itself to ill effect. The penultimate sentence reads:
The iPad has proven a success, but Microsoft is chalking up modest successes of its own, from the slow but steady success of Bing to the promising schemes of chief software architect Ray Ozzie's to establish Microsoft as the king of cloud computing. 
You can talk about "Ray Ozzie's promising schemes", or you can talk about "the promising schemes of Ray Ozzie"; but to speak of "the promising schemes of Ray Ozzie's" is to wear a belt with suspenders, rhetorically speaking. In other words, in the example above, of is doing the possessive heavy lifting, and doesn't need the help of the apostrophed name.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Woman's Gone Wild

Obviously, that should be women. But wait a could be a contraction of "woman is". For all we know, he could be a "one-wild-woman" man. I think we have to give Cletus the benefit of the doubt on this one.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sunscreen Kills!

Get ready to have your world rocked. According to this story on Huffpo today, the FDA has determined that not only are many sunscreens not as effective as advertised, but some have toxic properties that actually increase your chances of getting skin cancer. I don't know whether to be shocked or relieved, since I'm the kind of person who only applies the stuff after his skin has acquired a crispy red texture.

The fifth entry in the slide show of doom, entitled "Misleading SPF," says there is no evidence that higher SPF ratings guarantee increased protection. Furthermore...

...the average person uses only 20%-50% of the amount used to achieve the advertised SPF rating.
Uses only a percentage of the amount used? That should be "20% to 50% of the amount needed..."

In any case, I'm taking this advisory as a green light to ditch the smelly lotions and start rocking the Speedos. Even in the supermarket.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


"White House Jester Beheaded For Making Fun of Soaring National Debt" reads the headline on The Onion's home page today. The lead under the photo begins:
"For crimes of great arrogance and cheek, His Idiocy the White House Jester has been sentenced to a swift demise," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gates.

Robert Gates is the Defense Secretary. The White House Press Secretary is Robert Gibbs.

Monday, May 24, 2010

All The Whos in Whomville

My guilty pleasure these last couple of days has been reading Scott Turow's sequel to Presumed Innocent. The new book, Innocent, bounces back and forth in time, with the chapters alternating among the perspectives of different narrators--a gimmick I would normally find annoying, but it seems to work here.

On Page 20, we get this call-back to the first novel:

Twenty-two years later, the name of the chief judge of the court of appeals, who Tommy had unsuccessfully prosecuted for murdering a female colleague of theirs, still coursed through him like the current after the insertion of a plug.
Thank you, Basil Exposition. But now we have to get into the dreaded who/whom discussion--a grammatical sub-genre in itself, the contemplation of which has been known to cause testicular cancer in rats.

To put it in overly-simplistic terms: We are obliged to use who when we're talking about the subject of a preposition or verb (the person doing the doing) and whom with an object (the person being done to). A neat trick that works in most instances is to substitute he or him. You may have to move the words around a bit, but if he fits, you're dealing with a subject; if him is the obvious choice, you've got an object on your hands and whom is the way to go. In the sentence above, Tommy is doing the doing (prosecuting) which makes him the subject. And we know we wouldn't say "Tommy had unsuccessfully prosecuted he." That means the chief judge is the object and it should be whom.

Granted, it's not always that simple. On Page 64, for instance, I came across this sentence, which caused my brain to spin in its cranial cavity for a moment:
What is wrong with a woman, whom in almost every other regard I know to be gifted and refreshingly sane, that she would be interested in someone nearly twice her age, let alone married?
At first I thought that sounded wrong--that since she is gifted and sane it should be the subjective who. But eventually I came to realize that he knows her to be these things, so the objective case is correct. I think. I read it over a few times, then I poured another drink and pushed forward.

I didn't have to go far, however, before I came to an arresting example of how you sometimes have to disregard these rules entirely--when being wrong is the right thing to do. Further on in the paragraph comes this:
But I will probably never understand the secret part of her she hopes I might fill in. Who she wants to be in the law? Who she wishes her father was?
Using the rules outlined above, shouldn't it be "Whom she wants to be...?" and "Whom she wishes her father was?" Yes and no. Let's give the last word to legendary humorist James Thurber:
The number of people who use "who" and "whom" wrong is appalling. Take the common expression, "Whom are you, anyways?" That is, of course, strictly speaking, correct--and yet how formal, how stilted! The usage to be preferred in ordinary speech and writing is "Who are you, anyways?" "Whom" should be used only when a note of dignity or austerity is desired. For example, if a writer is dealing with a meeting of, say, the British Cabinet, it would be better to have the Premier greet a new arrival, such as an under-secretary, with a "Whom are you, anyways?" rather than a "Who are you, anyways?" --always granted that the Premier is sincerely unaware of the man's identity. To address a person one knows by a "Whom are you?" is a mark either of incredible lapse of memory or inexcusable arrogance.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Thursday, May 20, 2010

What's Your Poison?

A wire service report today informs us that Crystal Head vodka--a spirit distilled in Newfoundland under the auspices of owner Dan Ackroyd--is unwelcome in Ontario liquor stores. The rationale for the ban, as reported in the piece, is that...
...its distinctive, skull-shaped bottle is an image associated with death, poison and could become popular with young, binge drinkers, according to the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.
As much as it is reassuring to have the nanny state of Ontario looking out for the interests of our apprentice alcoholics (most of whom are drinking "hard" lemonade, for chrissakes), I take issue with the comma-flinging in that sentence. First of all, although it is not strictly necessary, losing the second comma and making it "death and poison," with a trailing comma, would make for a more euphonious construction. And those are "young binge drinkers," thank you very much, not "young, binge drinkers."

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Case of the 400-Dollar Hyphen

I don't want to keep picking on the notices Abby brings home from school, but take a look at this:

First of all, the header. There is more than one community school in District #43, so by rights that should be Community Schools'. Or should it? Maybe that's supposed to be an apostrophe-less plural and not a possessive at all. It's hard to tell, because the opening sentence begins with "Our Community School's are pleased to offer...", a clear case of an apostrophe poking its way into a plural, so forgive me for being non-plussed.

But the bigger issue is the misplaced hyphen. A niggling detail, you say? Not at all. These summer day camps are being offered at 80 bucks a pop, so at first glance it seems like quite the deal for six weeks of kid-storage.  Alas, as the ensuing details make clear, these are not SIX-WEEK LONG camps. They are, rather, SIX WEEK-LONG camps, at 80 dollars per.

I could probably be persuaded to spill 80 beans for a summer-long program, but for five days of producing papier mache puppets and finger paintings? I'd rather spend the money doubling down on the Merlot and just muddle through the week. Anyway, the point is, that is one misleading hyphen.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Point Taken

My wife and I got vaccinated this afternoon. There's been a recent outbreak of measles, and the school sent home an advisory recommending shots for those not previously inoculated.

While awaiting our turn at the health center, my eyes alighted on a pamphlet entitled HELPING YOUR CHILD WITH NEEDLE FEAR. I'm eager for advice on this, because the last time Abby had to have a blood test, she shrieked and flailed with alarming wild-eyed intensity and eventually had to be restrained like a jonesing heroin addict. (I guess the analogy doesn't really hold up, since a heroin addict wants a needle, but you know what I mean.)

Interestingly, my "2 Rs" method of dealing with the situation--ridicule and rebuke--is not in fact the recommended approach, at least according to this document. They suggest that I show understanding for my child's feelings and acknowledge her fear. Furthermore...
Express faith in your child's ability to cope: "I know this is hard, still, I think you can handle it."
What we have here is that pet bugaboo of English teachers everywhere--the comma splice. That's when two independent clauses (clauses that could stand alone as sentences) are feebly joined with a comma. The fix? Either insert a coordinating conjunction ("I know this is hard, but still, I think you can handle it.") or make it two sentences, each with its own terminating punctuation ("I know this hard. Still, I think you can handle it.")

Moments after pondering this, I was called in for my shot and--sonofabitch!--that needle stung. Still, I didn't even cry or anything. And the sticker and lollipop was a nice reward.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Reach Out and Annoy Someone

Sam and I went to McDonald's for lunch today (he had a Happy Meal, I had the Ennui Meal) and while Sam was busy upending his beverage on the floor, I leafed idly through the ketchup-stained 24 Hours commuter rag the last patron left behind.

In an advice column to job-seekers called HRinmotion (you can tell they're in motion because they don't have time to put spacing in their name), readers are counseled to refrain from following up an unsolicited resume with an unsolicited call:
Employers receive hundreds of resumes daily or weekly, so to expect them to take a call and know about your resume is virtually impossible.
I think they mean the taking of the call and the knowing about your resume are virtually impossible. To expect that, however, is within the realm of possibility, even if it is misguided. But let's continue...
I understand the job-market is dry and job-seekers can get anxious. But let's be reasonable: You are making a solicitation call. Similar to a telemarketer, most employers do not have the time to take a call or respond to a message in their day-to-day schedule.
That opening clause in the last sentence is not just misplaced, it seems to have wandered in from a neighboring county. Or at least from the preceding sentence. It is you, after all, the feckless and delusional job-seeker, and not the poor beleaguered employer with the day-to-day schedule, who is being compared to a telemarketer.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Idol Thoughts

The Daily Beast website runs a breathlessly speculative piece today about who might replace Simon Cowell on American Idol. I haven't actually read the article--I  had a one-year flirtation with the show that is long over--but I have a nit to pick with the sub-heading blurb:
With the weak American Idol season ending soon, Richard Rushwell places odds on who will be cast to restore the show to post-Cowell glory.
As far as I know, Cowell has been doing his cranky tell-it-like-it-is shtick on the panel since the show's inception. How then can the show be "restored" to an era of glory (a post-Cowell era) it has not heretofore enjoyed?

As Randy Jackson would say, it's a little pitchy, Dawg.

By the way, the year I watched, Melinda Doolittle so deserved to win.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

He Followed Me Home...Can I Keep Him?

The SPCA, in a shameless attempt to cause civil unrest in my home, has sent my daughter, Abby, a 4-color bi-fold brochure on the joys of guinea pig ownership. That's what you get when you let your kid make contributions toward funding the reproductive mutilation of furry critters at Bob Barker's urging. Abby's donations earned her a spot on the organization's propaganda mailing list, hence the guinea pig promotion, which features this historical tidbit:
A few hundred years ago when European explorers traveled to South America, they returned home with guinea pigs. Because of their affectionate nature, they soon became popular pets in both Europe and North America.
When it comes to creating unintentional humor, the ambiguous antecedent is second only to the dangling participle in its capacity to pull the pin on a linguistic grenade. In this case, because the subject of the first sentence is "European explorers," the reader is led to assume that those same explorers constitute the "they" of the succeeding sentence, and, for a moment at least, is treated to the image of an intrepid (but affectionate) seafaring adventurer being kept in a sawdust-strewn habitat for the amusement of children and eccentric adults.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Feeling All Atwitter

The young lady depicted here--she of the minimalist approach to fashion--is my new friend. Nay, not just a friend--a follower, which I suppose makes me a leader in the L. Ron Hubbard sense of the word. Let me explain.

I have recently re-discovered Twitter and the joy of sharing inane insights and mundane minutia in 140-character-or-less bursts (see my newly-added sidebar to the right for up-to-the-second updates). But one of the dangers of becoming an online celebrity is that one begins to attract a fanatical following.

Take happybaboo69332, pictured above. A new message in my inbox tells me that she is now following me. The fact that I don't know happybaboo69322, and that her profile indicates she is a promiscuous and indiscriminate follower and spammer, doesn't put me off. Most of my followers are anonymous spammers. What puts me off is her tweets, the two most recent of which I share verbatim:
Had a great & funny evenig (sic) wtih (sic) the grils (sic), wnonderful (sic)! :))
And in case you're wondering who "the grils" are:
don't wnat (sic) to suond (sic) lkie (sic) a perv...But I love tihs (sic) new victoria sceret (sic) bra I invested in..."mirauclous (sic) psuh (sic) up"...all gilrs (sic) shuold (sic) get it.. (sic)
I'm sorry, happybaboo69322--if that is your real name--but I'm just not interested in tkaing tihs realtionship to teh nxet levle.

Friday, May 07, 2010

A Donner Party Dessert

Oh, what a difference an apostrophe can make. Bryan, a friend from Scottsdale (and a renowned baseball bloggist) sends along this disturbing image from a local farmer's market:

If you don't believe Hallie, just try having a couple of grandmas with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

One Fish, Two Fish, Drunk Fish, Puff Fish

Someone on the staff of the Province was having fun yesterday.

On Page A16 of today's paper is a story about an enthusiastic imbiber of spirits named Richard Laurie who says he got drunk in a bar and accepted an offer from a stranger named Tyler to drive him home in his--Richard's--truck. Truck crashes into parked car, the mysterious Tyler flees, and ICBC (the fascistic Insurance Corporation of British Columbia) refuses to cover the damages, alleging that Richard was driving drunk and that Tyler is a bad work of fiction. A judge, however, rules against the evil empire of ICBC, saying they failed to prove these allegations. 

No grammatical violations to report in the piece, but I was amused by the whimsical rhyming headline:

On the same page, below this story, we have the tale of the counterfeit cigarette smugglers (the cigarettes were counterfeit, that is; the smugglers themselves appear to have been genuine). It seems the crafty criminals secreted the cartons of fraudulent butts in a shipment of kitchen sinks arriving by sea from China, but were nabbed by sharped-eyed Customs officers.

The headline for this story?

I think someone in the headline-writing department has been channeling Dr. Suess.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Presumed Guilty

Several years ago, my brother burned down his apartment. Not intentionally, mind you, but it was clearly a result of his negligence--a blanket draped over a lamp ignited while he slept--and while, thankfully, there was no loss of life (although his cat went missing), the damage was considerable. Squads of urgent firefighters and TV news crews were dispatched to the scene, and a number of tenants in the building were displaced from their homes in the days before Christmas. It says something about Mark that his culpability for this conflagration ranks no higher than fifth on the list of extraordinary episodes in his life--well behind his ill-fated marriage to the call girl and his triumphant evasion of conviction on a parking ticket by showing up in traffic court wearing an ambulance service uniform he found at a Salvation Army thrift store.

I digress. The reason all this comes to mind is that Scott Turow has a new novel out--it's just been released today, in fact. It's called Innocent, and it is a sequel to the mega-seller of the 80's, Presumed Innocent. That's right, the one that was made into the movie with Harrison Ford. The one that was Scott Turow's breakthrough first novel. The one that I had in a pristine first edition copy that I loaned to my brother Mark in the days before he set fire to his home.

I digress again. Thanks to Amazon's "Look Inside!" feature (and what's with the hyperventilating exclamation point?), I was able this evening to take a sneak peak at the opening pages of Innocent, and on the first page I find this:
The stately appellate courtroom is largely empty of spectators, save for...several young deputy PAs, drawn by a difficult case and the fact that their boss, the acting prosecuting attorney, Tommy Molto, will be making a rare appearance up here to argue in behalf of the state.
Objection, your honor! If it please the court, I offer this testimony from noted language guy Bill Bryson:
A useful distinction exists between on behalf of and in behalf of. The first means acting as a representative, as when a lawyer enters a plea on behalf of a client, and often denotes a formal relationship. In behalf of indicates a closer or more sympathetic role and means acting as a friend or defender.
Using these definitions, I think it is pretty clear that a prosecuting attorney is arguing on behalf of the state. And no matter how I might want to equivocate in behalf of my brother, a second-hand thrift store 10th edition inscribed to some ingrate who donated the gift to charity is just not adequate compensation for my loss.

I have no further questions. You may step down.

Monday, May 03, 2010

The Year of the Apostrophe

This school year is still in session for several more weeks, but already we're getting notices to prepare us for Abby's ascension to Grade 2, like this one pimping complete school supply kits for next fall.

[click to enlarge]

First of all, the sub-literate name Edu-Pac  (unworthy of a school-sponsored enterprise, if you ask me) is inconsistently given the quotation mark treatment. Here, but not there, and in one instance with an opening quotation mark and a drafty breeze where the closing one should go. In that same instance, Pac's is garnished with a superfluous apostrophe. Then there is that sub-heading (cradled by needless quotation marks)--with the awkward frustration shopping wording that invites mis-reading. And we won't even get into the cheesy clip-art design.

But let's take a closer look at that third paragraph:
In addition to the basic package, you may select the individual items your student requires or reuse last years.
Since years are not reusable, we can only assume they mean the items from last year, or last year's items. That makes it a possessive and that means now is the time to bring that apostrophe into service.

That may not be a particularly interesting error--or even the worst one on that flyer--but it stood out for me because just this morning I saw a similar slip-up, but in reverse. In recounting the stunning victory by the local hockey heroes in Game 1 of the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Province reporter Jason Botchford enthused:
This isn't the dump-and-chase Canucks of season's past.
So true*. But here, seasons past is just a poetic way of saying past seasons. No apostrophes need apply.

*And as someone who finds the dump-and-chase strategy to be the most vulgar abomination in hockey--a caveman approach that negates the displays of speed and finesse that make the sport great--and who is known to become apoplectic when his team does it on the power play (!)--I can only say, Hallelujah.