Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Shall I Compare Thee To A Compound Word?

If there is a better way of spending a summer evening in Vancouver than being in the front row for a lavish Bard on the Beach production and getting drenched in atmosphere and exuberant thespian spittle, I haven't found it.

I've received an e-news update from the festival touting the opening of Falstaff:
Bard's exciting new adaption, which distils the essential Falstaff story from Shakespeare's Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 begins July 1 at Bard on the Beach in the Studio Stage tent, and promises to be a run away hit.
The scolding red underscore from the Blogger spell-checker notwithstanding, distils is a recognized variant of distills. But "run away hit" needs to be "runaway hit," with the one-word adjectival construction. (It's much like the ubiquitous every day vs. everyday confusion.)

Meanwhile today's Province announces the opening of a new production of Twelfth Night at the Jericho Arts Centre at Jericho beach, down the road from Bard on the Beach's Vanier Park site. The headline proclaims: "Bard further down the beach." But as all right-thinking people adjudge, farther is the superior choice here.


Monday, June 28, 2010

To Mock A Capote Bird

In a semi-interesting story from the Daily Mail in Britain about Harper Lee, the famous--and famously reclusive-- author of To Kill a Mockingbird, her path to publication is attributed in part to her childhood friend, the famous--and famously not reclusive--Truman Capote:
The young Capote had already begun to work on stories. "I convinced [Harper] she ought to write too," he said later. "She didn't really want to but I held her to it."
 The issue here is with the word convinced. To quote Bill Bryson on the difference between convince and persuade:
Although often used interchangeably, the words are not quite the same. Briefly, you convince someone that he should believe but persuade him to act...Another distinction is that persuade may be followed by an infinitive but convince may not.
So, in other words, you can convince people that Ben Affleck's acting is execrable, and they may be convinced of his execrableness, but you persuade them to avoid watching his "acting" in future films.

At least that is the pedantic grammar snob line. The American Heritage Dictionary, however, while noting that this is the "traditional rule," is more forgiving:
In a 1981 survey, 61% of the Usage Panel rejected the use of convince with an infinitive. But the tide of sentiment against the construction appears to be turning. In a 1996 survey, 74% accepted it in the sentence I tried to convince him to chip in a few dollars, but he refused. 
That's how it starts, you know. First you start using persuade and convince interchangeably; then, before long, you're impacting with reckless abandon, and eventually you lose all sense of restraint and become a self-indulgent, louche, besotted shell of your former self, living out your final years in a fog of gin fumes. Happens all the time. Just look at Truman Capote.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Feeling Is Mutual

Last night (or to be more accurate, this morning at about 3:00--it was one of those nights), I found myself non-plussed by this footnote in Hitch-22:
It is characteristic of Martin [Amis] to have pointed out that Dickens's title Our Mutual Friend contains, or is, a solecism. One can have common friends but not mutual ones.
Really? I made a mental note to check on that. That mental note is long lost amid the detritus knocking about in my skull, but thankfully I also made an actual note, a barely decipherable scrawl on a bedside scratchpad, which has prompted me to look up the word mutual in the American Heritage Dictionary, one of my favorite sources for advice on usage questions.
Usage note: Mutual is used to describe a reciprocal relationship between two or more things...But many people also use mutual to mean "shared in common"...This usage is perhaps most familiar in the expression, our mutual friend, which was widespread even before Charles Dickens used it as the title of a novel. While some critics have objected to this usage, because it does not include the notion of reciprocity, it appear in the writing of some of our greatest authors...and it continues to be used by well-respected writers today.
Just let it be known that those writers are not respected by Martin Amis.

Bonus Fascinating Video o' the Day: "The Writer Who Could Not Read." (No, it's not Sarah Palin.) 

Monday, June 21, 2010

Shylock Doesn't Live Here Anymore

Neither a borrower nor a lender be. That's the provocative idea behind the provocatively titled "Criminalize Credit" piece in The Atlantic. Governments can only spend what they take in. Citizens cannot make a purchase--any purchase--that puts them in the red. And banks can't lend money for money. That, according to this article, is the road to everlasting economic salvation. This may seem like a radical idea (and it probably is), but the author maintains that
...prohibiting the collection of interest for loaning money is an idea that has been around for a long time. In fact, it is a central tenant of modern Islamic banking, based on the belief that since money has no value in itself, it should not be allowed to give rise to more money.
I'm not sure I'd want to borrow too many ideas from Islamic law--they tend to want to criminalize a lot of things, including margaritas and femininity, to name just a couple of imperishable essentials of life. But besides that, we have the matter of the word tenant in this context. A tenant is someone who lives in a dwelling--usually a rented dwelling, which they occupy because they can't borrow money to buy a home. A tenet, meanwhile, is a belief or dogma, such as the doctrine that lending money at interest is wicked--and that's the word to be used here.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Exercist

To break with recent tradition on these pages, today's entry is not about Christopher Hitchens. It's about Salman Rushdie, who is quoted in an AP story as saying:
"I think it (the fatwa) was very important to Christopher [Hitchens] in his thinking and in his politics...And so he became very exorcised and therefore very available to me during that time."
 To exorcise is to expel, drive out, cleanse--often with the help of a religious shaman, or a priest played by Max von Sydow. One definition of exercise, however, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is "to stir to anger or alarm; upset" and I think that's obviously the meaning--and the word--Rushdie had in mind here.

Bonus Unintended Meaning Quibble: A headline on the Huffington Post today, about a fight for a soon-to-be-available front row seat at White House press conferences, reads: Bloomberg: We Deserve Helen Thomas's Seat, Not Fox News. 

Nobody deserves Fox News.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

If You Can Keep Your Head When All About You Are Losing Theirs And Blaming It On Fruit Flies...

In a story called "Wi-Fi Wants To Be Free" on Slate today, tech writer Farhad Manjoo hails Starbucks' decision to begin offering free internet access in all of their company-owned locations. He starts off by lamenting the current situation, writing:

...Starbucks has always been a nice place to get some work done...And if you just need a quick pit stop to charge your phone, transfer photos to your laptop, or play a little Minesweeper, the Starbucks mermaid is always just around the corner, whether you're in Boston, Bangor or Beijing. Convenience has no borders. 
Unless, of course, if you want to use the Internet.
It's that if in the last sentence that stands out like a cinnamon stick in an iced frappuccino. What we have here is a startling case of a misplaced conditional prepositional ablative in E-minor. Okay, so I have no idea what to call it, and I'm too busy electrocuting wine-mooching fruit flies with my bug zapper wand to find out. Nevertheless, I'm sure we can all agree that the sentence would read better if the if were removed.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

I Read the Lyrical Error Today Oh Boy

For the second consecutive day I'm going to get all Patty Punctilious on Christopher Hitchens and his new book, Hitch-22. Chapter Two begins with a couple of quotations, including this one:

I heard the news today, Oh Boy. 
The English army had just won the war.
--The Beatles: Sergeant Pepper: "A Day in the Life"

As it happens, that has been one of my favorite songs since I first heard it when I was six years old, during a visit to Berlin, Germany. And I happen to know (and have it confirmed by the CD liner notes and lyrics in front of me) that it goes, "I read the news today oh boy." And in fact it is after the line, "I saw a film today oh boy"  that we get the lyric, "The English Army had just won the war."

But don't ask me to explain I Am the Walrus.

The Hitch is Back

Urbane and erudite are two words often used to describe Christopher Hitchens (drunk and boorish are two others you see a lot from the anti-Hitchens camp). I admit I am a sucker for his buttery accent and glib intellectual arrogance.

But what to make of this passage from his newly released memoir, Hitch-22?
She [Hitchens's mother] never liked any of my girlfriends, ever, but her criticisms were sometimes quite pointed ("Honestly darling, she's madly sweet and everything but she does look a bit like a pit-pony.") yet she never made me think that she was one of those mothers who can't surrender their sons to another female.
When it comes to syntactical eloquence, I don't presume to be on the same level as Professor Hitchens (although I flatter myself to believe I could hold my own with him, glass for glass, in an alehouse of his choosing). But I confess I am bumfuzzled by this construction.

First of all--and most obviously--isn't it the rule that a statement in parentheses has internal punctuation only if it's a stand-alone sentence? Besides that, however, the successive clauses beginning with but and yet just don't make the right music. If I may, Dr. Hitchens...
She never liked any of my girlfriends, ever. Her criticisms were sometimes quite pointed ("honestly darling, she's madly sweet and everything but she does look a bit like a pit-pony"), yet she never made me think...
Better, no? I'm going to assume that Hitchens, who I understand likes to work deep into the wee hours, was well in his cups when composing that passage, and no editor felt up to the task of challenging him on it. But I'm well into the Shiraz now myself, and I belch out a hearty, "J'accuse!"

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

"All They Can Eat" Special

I'm in love with my favorite lunch place, the Mongolian Grill. I love being able to assemble my own meal (remember folks, spinach goes in the bowl first, then chicken, broccoli and onions, then you weigh the whole thing down under a blanket of heavy egg noodles). I love concocting sauce combinations (a spoonful of garlic and ginger, 3 spoons each of black bean and peanut sauce) like a mad chemist in a lab. I love watching the guy dump my bowl onto the big round sizzling grill and deftly stickhandle the contents along the surface with two pool-cue-style chopsticks.

I also love the sign that is posted above the buffet-style assembly station:
For your health, everyone will be given a plate for your meal after it is cooked.
I suppose it would be good for my health--in a severe calorie restriction sort of way--if I were obliged to share my repast with everyone in the joint, but I'm just not feeling that generous when I'm hungry. Luckily for me, though, this is merely, once again, a case of singular/plural pronoun confusion, and I have not yet had to go table to table doling out my rice and veggies for supplicating patrons with watering mouths and thrust-out empty plates.

Monday, June 07, 2010

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find Out What It Means to Me

Last night I began reading The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English, and came across this:

Think of all the acronyms that speak volumes to insiders and say nothing to everyone else.
TTC for instance. If you're a sports fan, you probably associate those initials with The Tennis Channel. Unless you're a sports fan living in Toronto, in which case you'd first call to mind the Toronto Transit Commission....In the American South, the letters also involve transportation: Trans-Texas Corridor. But in Paris, TTC is a hip-hop band; in Singapore...
Well, you get the idea. The thing is, though, that in every enlightened community of word-snob minds, TTC is not an example of an acronym--it's an initialism. Wikipedia maintains that there is no universal agreement on what constitutes an acronym, at the same time acknowledging that "most dictionaries define acronym to mean  'a word' in its original sense, while some include a secondary indication of usage, attributing to acronym the same meaning as that of initialism."

There is a reason secondary meanings are secondary.

All the cool kids know that acronyms are a series of initial letters that combine to form a word, and are spoken as such: NATO, NASA, OPEC,  NASCAR, etc. Initialisms, meanwhile, are spoken as, well, initials: FBI, IRS, BTO, OMFG, etc. Given these guidelines, TTC does not earn admittance to the acronym camp.

Bonus quibble: Interestingly, there is no current consensus on what to label such high-tech hybrid constructions as jpeg or CD-ROM. Initialnyms, perhaps?

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Irony Man

According to a "Cheat Sheet" summary on The Daily Beast, loathesome hack actor Charlie Sheen is probably headed to jail. However,
Owing to a high-paid lawyer and good behavior, that 30-day sentence is likely to be reduced to, ironically, two and a half weeks. Before heading to court, Sheen will be finishing up his court-mandated 36 hours of anger-management courses.
The reference to the reduced length of the sentence is a lame play on the lame title of the lame show Sheen stars in, Two and a Half Men. But I have to protest that while it may be coincidental that the execrable Sheen will serve two and a half weeks, it is not, in fact, ironic. Irony requires an element of oppositeness--it needs to be "poignantly contrary to what was expected or intended," to quote the American Heritage Dictionary. Now, if Sheen attacks his anger-management coach in a fit of rage, that would be ironic, as well as predictable.

Also on The Daily Beast today is a slide show feature on "hockey hunks" who date comely starlets (I tell you, the Beast breaks all the big stories). Want to know more about how Hilary Duff and Edmonton Oilers center Mike Comrie met on a plane ride to an Idaho resort? It was...
...a chance encounter that Comrie says was "maybe a bit of a fluke. [Hilary] calls it ironic."  
Hilary is wrong, puck-slapper. The chance meeting may have been improbable, but unless she was on that flight to get away from hockey players, it was hardly ironic.

Then, of course, we always have Alanis Morrisette's hit, Ironic, in which she croons about a series of misfortunes, coincidences, and bummers ("a black fly in your Chardonnay", etc.) and asks after each stanza, "isn't it ironic?" To which the only accurate riposte is, "No, it isn't." Cool song, anyway.

Bonus quibble: Awhile back I had a client confide to me that he had used the word ironical in conversation with a friend and was shamelessly ridiculed, because the word is ironic. I assured him that ironical is an acceptable variant with a respectable pedigree, and he promptly called his friend to settle the score. The fact that he then took me out for a round of drinks was neither coincidental nor ironic, but it was certainly agreeable.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

They Is The One

Have you ever noticed that people who die tragically young, or as innocent victims of criminal malfeasance, are invariably described in news reports as being the kind of person who could "light up a room with their smile" or "always had a kind word for everyone" or some such thing? And that the accompanying photo always depicts the victim "in happier times"? Me, too. That's why, in the interests of self-preservation, I'm dedicating myself to being a selfish, frowning, misanthropic asshole. Hey, it's worked for Andy Rooney.

Hang on a tick--did I just say "light up a room with their smile" when talking about an individual person? Strictly speaking, it should be "his or her smile" but that's an awkward phrasing that can lead to whole paragraphs of "he or she/ his or her" prolixity. Yet, seeing as how the English language has not been kind enough to provide a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun, many language authorities have come around to accepting they/their as a serviceable substitute--and I, for one, am willing to pull the stick out of my arse far enough to accommodate that.

But getting back to our unfortunate innocent victims, what are we to make of this excerpt from the weekend's Province, summarizing the words of the daughter of a woman who died when her car was rammed by a drunk driver?
She described her mom as being a selfless volunteer, a champion of the underdog and someone who always had a smile on their face.
Well, that's just wrong. In this case, we know the person being described was a woman, and the smile rightfully belongs on her face.

Perhaps the confusion arises from the word someone, which seems generic and gender-neutral. It's kind of like that other grammatical trickster, "one of those people who...", which is another singular/plural mind-bender. For example, we would say the victim was "one of those people who always have a smile on their face." (That's assuming we accept their in this context, and for Pete's sake I thought we already agreed on that.) So why not "one of those people who has..."? After all, one is singular so shouldn't it take a singular verb? No. Why not? Because people is plural and that is the word that governs the verb choice here. What we are saying, in effect, is that "of the people who always have a smile on their face, she is one."

My word, that was exhausting. I'm going to have to lie down now for awhile.


Bonus insensitive quibble: A headline from the San Francisco Chronicle reads, ONE DEAD, SEVERAL CRITICAL AFTER RAVE PARTY. What were they being critical of?