Monday, December 24, 2012

The War on (the Correct Spelling of) Christmas

In the spirit of selflessness, the proprietors of this local eatery remind us that there is no "I" in "Chrstmas."

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Laying Down the Law

Lance Armstrong, in an attempt to "flip the bird" to his detractors, has tweeted this photo of himself lounging  at home with his yellow jersey collection.

The insouciant caption reads:
"Back in Austin and just laying around..."
Hang on there, pedal-pusher. When used in the present tense, as it is here, lay requires an object--that is, laying is what you do to something (or to be vulgar, someone). If it's just you and your yellow jerseys, what you are doing is "lying around." 

Then again, we all know that lying is something Lance Armstrong would never do.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Strange Bedfellows

Like just about any politics junkie (currently going through post-election DTs) I find David Gergen to be alluring and curiously seductive. The tight but creamy voice, that fascinating comb-over, those sexy non-partisan analyses...well, don't get me started.

Still, I have to admit I was shocked to find that Gergen was in fact the "woman" CIA chief David Petraeus forfeited his career for. At least that's what comes across in the opening paragraph of this Salon piece:

David Gergen — a friend of Gen. David Petraeus as well as the woman he reportedly had an extra-marital affair with — said on “Face The Nation” this morning that great men have affairs — and that those relationships can be very important to them in difficult times.

First of all, I have had a well-documented romance with m-dashes myself--I think they are great for setting off a parenthetical thought with vigor and panache--but three in one sentence? That's a punctuational high-wire act I wouldn't attempt without a safety net.

But the real problem here is that description of Gergen as being a friend of Petraeus "as well as the woman he reportedly had an extra-marital affair with." Friends with benefits, indeed!

If we slip another of before "the woman" we get a simple unexceptional story of a man with friends. By eliding that crucial of, however, we invite mental images of David Gergen in drag "servicing" a (hitherto) respected retired serviceman. And that's a whole different story.

Monday, November 05, 2012

November Surprise

It seems that awhile ago, in an effort to cast my online ballot in a survey of favored podcasts, I allowed a sketchy outfit named Stitcher to pollute my Facebook wall with banal "updates" such as this election-eve crap-poll:

Did you catch it? No, not the missing question mark, although that is annoying. I'm talking about Mitt Romney's apparent last minute gambit of ditching running mate Paul Ryan (he of the washboard abs and flexible memory) and replacing him with Ron Paul (he of the geriatric crankiness and inflexible positions). Worth a shot, I suppose. 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Much Too Many

In case you needed to read yet another article on the state of play in the U.S. Election, Slate posted a piece today that should help bring a few nervous Obamaphiles down from the ledge. As the author notes early on:
The latest Associated Press analysis of the race points out that Mitt Romney has much fewer paths to reach the 270 electoral votes needed to win the election.
I hit a couple of speed bumps in that sentence. First of all, why bother with the AP breakdown--or any other poll analysis, for that matter--as long as uber-savant Nate Silver is on the case? It's like showing off your Zune at an Apple store.

And then there is the matter of that phrase, "much fewer paths." Doesn't sound right, does it? But then, "many fewer paths" isn't exactly sublime poetry either. So which is it?

Several minutes of exhaustive Googling reveals a schism in the word nerd community, and that never feels good.

For instance, over on, a senior user who goes by the handle inchoateknowledge states, with definitive assurance, that "fewer is an adjective and is modified by much as an adverb of degree. Many is a determiner, that is a noun modifier, and can not modify an adjective." Which sounds pretty conclusive and contains lots of intimidating grammar jargon to boot.

But a couple of clicks away, the Word Watch column at the Hartford Courant has this to say:

 ...[T]he phrase "many fewer," despite its seeming contradiction, is perfectly correct. That's because the adjective "many" is used with countable items (discrete or separate entities), such as people, pebbles and polliwogs. So when you're referring to a significant reduction in the number of countable items, "many fewer people" (or pebbles or polliwogs) is the correct choice. 
Unfortunately, because of the weird sound of "many fewer," some people fall into the error of using "much fewer" with countable items, as in, "Much fewer people came to the game." 
But "much" should be used only with mass, uncountable items, such as grain, rain and pain. So when you're referring to a substantial drop in the size of uncountable items, "much less grain" (or rain or pain) is the correct choice.
Ah, so the "many/much" question is tied to the "fewer/less" pickle that continues to flummox creators of signs at supermarket express checkout lanes and bunch the panties of grammar fetishists. And in this case, "paths" are definitely discrete, separate, and countable.

Personally, I come down on the side of "many fewer" on the grounds that if the outlook for Mitt Romney's presidential aspirations were rosier, you wouldn't say he has "much paths to reach 270 electoral votes," you would say "many paths." I don't see why the introduction of the word "fewer" in between should change that.

And it turns out that Slate agrees. As of now, I see they have edited the piece to change much to many in the sentence in question. Of course, if the author had just written "far fewerin the first place, we would have been spared all this kerfuffle and could have spent this time enjoying a nice sandwich.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

"That's One Small Indefinite Article for a Man..."

Neil Armstrong has died.

I am old enough to (vaguely) remember the Apollo 11 moon landing. Watching as a spaceman-pajama-clad boy in our Mad-Men-era living room I saw the grainy black and white images on TV. (My parsimonious father wouldn't invest in a color set, or cable, until well into the 70s, so everything on TV was grainy black and white for me). I went over to a window and looked up at the moon, straining to see the flag the conquering space heroes had planted there. I was sure I spotted it.

Here's what else I remember about Neil Armstrong: He never exercised. He believed that every person is issued a finite number of heartbeats at birth and he was damned if he was going to waste any on jumping jacks. Seeing as he lived 82 years before dying from complications when doctors started poking around his ticker...maybe he was onto something.

The Vancouver Sun has commemorated Armstrong's passing with a story recounting his 1977 visit to Vancouver to open the restaurant atop the Harbour Centre tower.

The story includes this sentence:
His infamous words: “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind” will no doubt endure through the ages.
You'll notice the a in parentheses. That's because the quotation is usually (and accurately) rendered without it. It always bothered me, growing up, that this, one of the most famous of utterances, didn't really make sense.  "Man" and "mankind," in this context, mean the same thing. It wasn't until fairly recently that I learned about the dropped a--which was either the result of a gap in the transmission, or a slip of the tongue owing perhaps to Armstrong's giddiness on planting his boots on the fricking moon. When I discovered the way the line was supposed to be heard, it suddenly made perfect, elegant sense.

The same cannot be said for the Sun's reporter's description of these as "his infamous words." Infamous, according to the American Heritage Dictionary means:
1. Having an exceedingly bad reputation; notorious: an infamous outlaw.2. Causing or deserving severe public condemnation; heinous
 No. He may or may not have dropped an a on the moon, but Armstrong's words were, and remain, famous.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Writing by Ear

It's one of the simplest rules in English: use a before a word beginning with a consonant; use an when the following word starts with a vowel. Easy-peasy, right?

Not so fast, Ben Kuzma, sportswriter for The Province, who wrote the following in a piece about the re-signing of Canucks forward Mason Raymond:
Next summer he'll be an UFA and it's up to him to determine what leverage he'll have.
 The trick here is that the correct deployment of the indefinite article depends on the sound, rather than the spelling, of the word it's "articling." UFA, in this context, stands for "unrestricted free agent," and if Kuzma had gone with the full monty description, an would have been the correct choice. But "UFA" is an initialism and its initial sound is pronounced "yoo" so "a UFA" is the way to go. Similarly, we would say that Raymond is "an NHL player," because even though "N" is a consonant, it is pronounced "en."

All of which sounds ridiculously complicated but is in fact intuitively easy in most cases if you sound out the phrase in question. Just try saying "an UN resolution" or "a IRS investigation" without spraining your larynx or sounding like Sarah Palin. Impossible.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Law of Attraction

Mormons aren't supposed to gamble; Mitt got $10million from casino magnet Sheldon Adelson. Why doesn't some reporter ask Mitt about that?
That was a tweet from TV provocateur Bill Maher about a week or so ago.

Sheldon Adelson owns casinos. You could even say he is attracted to casinos, which is why he owns so many of them. But he does not attract casinos to himself in the way "chick magnet" Matthew McConaughey attracts women, for instance. That is because Sheldon Adelson is not a "casino magnet" but rather a "casino magnate."

The primary pronunciation of magnate in most guides calls for a long a in the second syllable, but enough people of dubious breeding are pronouncing it exactly like magnet that that has become an established alternative utterance. This has obviously led to some confusion between the words, as evidenced by the faulty tweet of said TV provocateur. 

I'll never be able to trust the Internet again.

Addendum: For an excerpt of the funniest writing you will ever read on magnets, see this.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Now There's an Episode of The Bachelorette I Would Watch

Mike Huckabee: "Madonna more likely to pick me than Mitt Romney"
What's this? The Huckster and the Mitt Man are fighting for the romantic favors of an aging pop tart? And Huckabee thinks he has the inside edge? That's the impression you could get from that HuffPo headline from earlier today.

Sadly, the real story is nowhere near as awkwardly surreal. Huckabee was asked about the chances of his being selected as Mitten's running mate and he responded, "I think there is a greater likelihood that I'll be asked by Madonna to go on tour as her bass player." A weird reference for him to make, perhaps, but not as disturbingly weird as the headline seems to promise.

This the kind of ambiguity that can arise when the word than mixes with people, and it can often be cleared up with the addition of a tiny verb. If that headline had an is at the end, there would have been much less opportunity for the reader to conjure an image of two middle-aged political blowhards doing a "the girl is mine" routine.

Or take, for instance, the sentence: "I love wine more than my wife." That could be taken to mean that I love wine more than my wife does. Or it could mean that I love wine more than I love my wife. In my case, the first interpretation is an unremarkable declaration of fact. The latter is just speculation on my wife's part.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

How Do You Say "False Arrest" in Swedish?

Last night we had dinner at Ikea (yeah, like you've never done it) and after a splendid repast of fish and discount cafeteria Cabernet, my micro-bladdered wife, Kim, had to (predictably) adjourn to the facilities.

While I was waiting outside this door...

...two things bubbled to the surface of my Cabernet-muted consciousness:

1. That should be "WOMEN'S". You need the apostrophe to indicate the possessive. Womens is what you say if you're a polygamist hillbilly ("I gots me two womens!")

2. There is no surer way of getting the hairy eyeball than by loitering outside the women's washroom with a camera trained on the door and discount Cabernet on your breath.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Eight Times the Vice President Did Something That Mattered
So reads the headline of a Slate piece from a few days ago. I take issue with that article. Not the piece itself (although we'll get to that in a moment), but the definite article in the title. It's not a clear case of violating an on-the-books rule, but bear with me while I make my case.

The article sets out to enumerate--in light of Joe Biden's "getting out in front" of the gay marriage issue--the eight times in history that a sitting vice president has done something more noteworthy than cutting a ribbon at the opening of a shopping mall. So shouldn't that be "The Eight Times a Vice President Did Something That Mattered"? After all, we're talking about a number of different Vice Presidents, not one particular man with hair plugs and bleached teeth.

There is room for dissent here. In fact, coincidentally enough, Slate ran a piece just yesterday, tied to the sordid John Edwards trial, called "The Meaning of The", which attempts to explain why lawyers argue over the meaning of basic words. The author explains:
In regular speech, the definite article (the) can sometimes refer to something unique—for instance, “I have a cat. The cat is sleeping.” Other times, it can refer to something that’s not unique: If I say, “My cat is lying on the arm of my chair,” I’m not implying that the chair has only one arm. Whether the refers to something unique depends on the context in which it’s used and can be open to interpretation. 
Fair enough. If you say that, in American legislative politics, the Vice President's most significant duty is to break ties in the Senate, we understand that you are referring to the position rather than an individual person. But when you give us a contemporary article professing to outline the eight times the Vice President did something that mattered, especially when the buzz has been about what this Vice President did last week, it's fair to assume you might be talking about the current incumbent.

Which brings us to the what the current Vice President did last week and how it is characterized in this article:
On May 6, 2012, Joe Biden offered up his full support for gay marriage on NBC’s Meet the Press. “I am absolutely comfortable” with “men marrying men” and “women marrying women,” the vice president declared.
...The White House says Obama’s “evolving” position was heading to the same place—very soon. Maybe so. But Biden’s gaffe made Obama get there sooner.
Now, I'm as entertained as the next guy by Joe Biden's stream-of-consciousness non sequiturs. But in this case, I think it says more about the nature of politics than it does about his verbal dexterity that when he is asked a straightforward question and gives a straightforward, honest answer we call it a "gaffe."

Saturday, April 07, 2012

A Letter of Variable Interest

Wow, check this out: the President of RBC Global Asset Management is writing to me!

As much as I hate to get all red-pencil pedantic with my new pen pal , I think there are few hiccups here.

The opening sentence begins:
As a valued client, we are pleased to offer you...
So who's the valued client here? Once again, our syntactical orientation is discombobulated by a fiendish dangler. (What's a dangler and why does it hurt to get smacked with one? I refer you here, here, and here.)

On to the next sentence:
Many clients prefer to view their reports online, however, we will continue to mail printed copies to those clients who request them.
The marriage of those two sentences is even more awkward and grotesque than the Julia Roberts-Lyle Lovett coupling. Here's a nickel, Mr. President. Go buy yourself a period.

Next sentence:
If you wish to receive a printed copy of the reports, for the funds you currently invest in, please complete the detachable postage-paid reply card...
I don't know where that superfluous first comma wandered in from, but I'll bet I'm paying for it with some kind of service charge or another.

But perhaps the most conspicuous--and most mirth-giving--error occurs right up front with the salutation:
Dear Investor
I mean, really. My "investments" consist of a flaccid retirement account that is propped up by monthly contributions from my empty wine bottle redemptions. Which makes me an "investor" the same way my three-year-old's Easy-Bake Oven makes him a chef.

Monday, April 02, 2012

The Name's Noah Webster--I'm Here for My Reading

Oh, dear. It appears, judging from this garish sandwich board sign occupying sidewalk space on our local main thoroughfare, that one of those elaborately-scarved, morally-bankrupt soothsayer fraudsters has unpacked her scented candles and patchouli oils and set up shop in our neighborhood.

When Angela writes "set back" she is, of course, trying to conjure up the noun "setback." But hey, she's a sideshow con artist, not a writer. Similarly, it would be uncharitable to point out the simple typo in "you life," which is why I'm pointing it out. (I've just never felt very charitable toward elaborately-scarved fraudsters.)

But really, Angela--"Ruin Stones"? If you can't get that right, you are going to give your profession a bad name and "rune" it for all the other, more orthographically diligent, small-time hustlers and pernicious beady-eyed swindlers.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

If They're Yearning to Break Free, Why Are They Huddling?

Emma Tietel, MacLean's token young person columnist (look kids, aren't newsmagazines cool?) wrote a piece recently decrying the neutering (as it were) of gay-straight alliance clubs by Catholic school boards in Ontario.

You can just see it in lights: the club's mission statements, and the Catholic boards' iconoclastic revision to Emma Lazarus's legendary sonnet: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to break free...oh yeah, also your gay, bisexual, transgendered...anyone with acne."

Not sure I get that. But anyway, speaking of iconoclastic revisions, when the French sent over Lady Liberty, the poem on the card that was attached to the gift bag spoke of "huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

Monday, March 05, 2012

Hold the Homophone*

Cherry shouldn't be silenced
So goes the headline to Province sports columnist Ed Willes's articulate defense of the outrageously inarticulate (and undeniably entertaining) hockey bloviater Don Cherry. The subheading explains:
New media puts CBC under pressure to sensor commentator
Now if they were talking about applying sensors to Cherry's cranium that would deliver a bracing A/C jolt every time he was detected pronouncing Quebec as Cue-bec, I could see the point. But of course the story is about the latest effort to stifle Cherry's more outlandish opinions--in other words, to censor him.

Meanwhile, do you remember the MPMan? Of course not; nobody does. A piece in The Atlantic today explains how the device, the first portable MP3 player, was destined for failure. This sentence sets the stage by describing the success of the MPMan's progenitor:
For a decade after its launch, Sony's Walkman retained a 50% market share in the U.S. (46% in Japan) in a space teaming with competitors, even as it enjoyed a price premium of approximately $20 over rival offers.
The phrase "teaming with competitors" is practically a contradiction in terms, since one usually competes against one's competitors. It's nonsensical, but that's because the word the author meant to use here is teeming, as in "overflowing, maggoty, out-the-wazoo with superabundance."  Another example of sound-alike cousins being mistaken for each other.

*From Wikipedia: "In linguistics, a homonym is, in the strict sense, one of a group of words that share the same spelling and the same pronunciation but have different meanings. Thus homonyms are simultaneously homographs (words that share the same spelling, irrespective of their pronunciation) and homophones (words that share the same pronunciation, irrespective of their spelling)."
Not that it matters--as far as Rick Santorum is concerned none of them should be allowed to marry.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

With This Hyphen, I Thee Wed

The inexorable march toward marriage equality picked up its pace yesterday with this news, as headlined at HuffPo:
Washington Gay Marriage Bill Signed Into Law By Governor Chris Gregoire
After recounting the details of this legislative triumph, the report advises us that
Separately, an anti-gay marriage initiative was filed at the beginning of the session, but the language is still being worked out so no signatures have been collected yet. An initiative alone would not pause the law.
This reminds me of the "orange juice salesman" conundrum from Bill Walsh's Lapsing Into a Comma. The phrase could be construed as describing a juice salesman who is orange, so he suggests employing a hyphen, like so: "orange-juice salesman." Even though "orange juice" is not normally hyphenated, this helps alleviate the confusion and unintended comedy.

That's why I think "anti-gay-marriage initiative" may be the way to go here. As it stands, "anti-gay marriage initiative" could be taken to mean a marriage initiative that is anti-gay. Hmm. On second thought, perhaps it is accurate the way it is.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Copy-Editing the Neighborhood

I can't blame these local merchants for not wanting their allotment of customer parking to be hijacked by those smelly construction goons who are erecting the first monolithic apartment tower in our cozy little 'burb...

...and we can even chalk up the missing apostrophe in "owners" and the unorthodox spelling, "expence", to the heat of the moment. But "Lyons Park"? The reader of this sign need only swivel his or her noggin 90 degrees to the left to see this:

Swiveling my perplexed noggin 90 degrees in the other direction, I see the Thai restaurant that Kim and I Grouponed our way into a few weeks ago. Alas, that evening was over before it began when our dinner guest, Professor Stephen Hawking, saw this sign at the maitre d's podium...

...gave a synthesized grunt of dismay, and swung a deftly executed, motorized U-ee. We were, as you can imagine, mortified.

Continuing into the north side of PoCo (which you really shouldn't do--we star-bellied Sneetches tend to stick to the south side), we find this sign in the window of what was formerly a Rogers Video location:

Here's a handy tip about spotting danglers; if you stop reading shortly after the first comma, the game is up. In other words, if you just read "As a valued customer, we..." you instantly see the problem. This Rogers outlet is not a valued customer. Hell, they're obviously not even a valued retailer, given the forlorn state of these premises and the fact that video stores in general are becoming about as relevant as blacksmiths in today's commercial landscape.

Let's ponder that over an over-priced coffee, shall we? There's a Starbucks just a couple of blocks away from home we can go to (although I suppose by now the name "Starbucks" implicitly includes the phrase "a couple of blocks away"). It's still light out, not even crepuscular*, and yet we can still enter through this door, despite what the sign says:

Why? Because the sign doesn't make any sense, does it? Why lock the doors of the alternate back entrance during daylight hours, only to open them under cover of darkness, when undesirables from the north side could be lurking? Clearly, they have their dawn and dusk transposed.  But the sign has been there since video stores were popular and nobody seems to have noticed. I just consider it part of our small town charm.

*Crepuscular : "of or relating to twilight." Despite my wife's objections (she thinks it's an ugly word) I think this is a great word to wedge into everyday conversation. "I don't feel like watching The Twilight Zone tonight, dear. I find it too crepuscular."

Monday, January 30, 2012

Boys Will Be Boys

Douglas Todd has a lengthy piece in the Vancouver Sun arguing that sentimentality is not as great as we think it is. (?)

After leading with a banal list of things people can be sentimental about ("Mom and apple pie. Cats and dogs.") and reminding us that some Nazis were capable of getting moist and maudlin at the drop of a swastika-adorned hat, he gives us another example from pop culture:

The acclaimed HBO series, The Sopranos, frequently captures the sentimentality of Mafia members. It portrays Tony Soprano and his cruel cronies weeping about their mothers, sniffling at old movies, idealizing their children, lamenting the loss of tradition and being fiercely protective of their wives (on whom they systematically cheat with their "goombahs," ie. mistresses).

That "i.e" is missing a period and, as Grammar Girl has helpfully determined, five out of six style guides recommend a comma following its deployment. But never mind that for now. More importantly, "goombah," as any mob-follower worth his pomade knows, refers to male friends--paisans--and, more loosely, to mobsters in general. The feminine version, used to describe the "kept women" they keep, is "goomah."

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Too Late

Peter Hitchens (Hitchens the Lesser) has taken to his blog to respond to well-wishers, and once again demonstrates that he is not the graceful prose stylist his sibling was:
First may I once again thank the many people who visited this site to express condolences on the death of my late brother, Christopher.
But of course, late, in this context, means dead; it seems oddly redundant to speak of a dead person dying. As Christopher Hitchens never tired of pointing out, you get only one life. And that includes only one death.