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, wordmonkeywriter.com, 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.