Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A New Twist on New Year's Resolutions

It's New Year's Resolution time! Most of us, at some point, have made New Year's resolutions, and the majority of those who have done so have, at least once, failed to meet a resolution.

I'm no different. Every time I've resolved to lose weight in the coming year, for example, I've failed. Practically the only times I've been able to keep my New Year's resolutions is when I have resolved only to not break my New Year's resolution.

The problem is that most resolutions are too general, with no clear ending point or concrete indicators of success: lose some weight, watch less TV, not murder the in-laws in their sleep. While those are all nice things to strive for, there isn't really a plan there. There's no accountability, no consequences. They're easy to forget about two days, two weeks, or two months into the year.

So I'm not going to do that anymore.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Today's Word: gadoid

A gadoid codpiece?
In a regular week, I see a lot of words. Over my three-and-a-half centuries, I've seen millions. But still, every once in a while, I find I new word that amazes me simply by its existence.

Like the word I found today: gadoid. Pronounced either GAY-doyd or GA-doyd, it sounds like something a big dumb bully might call a gaunt bespectacled child prodigy on the playground. Although I wouldn't exactly want someone calling me a gadoid, it wouldn't be the worst thing someone's called me.

Gadoid is part of a list that includes porcine, leonine, ursine, lupine, ovine, and especially piscine, though without that characteristic -ine ending. It means "resembling or related to a member of the family Gadidae," aka the cod.

There's a word that means "resembling a cod."
 
Words are the best toys.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

'Twas a Sight Before Christmas

A Three-Word Wednesday post. Today's words are belief, festive, and rumple.

'Twas a Sight Before Christmas

or, She Came Upon a Midnight Clear

I bought a festive DVD,
A marked-down Christmas flick
Whose cover was a rumpled mess,
Its face a faded pic.

I took it home and put it on
And stared into the screen.
The story that the movie told
I ne'er before had seen:

Monday, December 19, 2011

Today's Word: teetotaler

In a graveyard at St. Peter's in Preston, Lancashire, England, is a tombstone that bears this inscription:
Beneath this stone are deposited the remains of Richard Turner, author of the word Teetotal as applied to abstinence from all intoxicating liquors, who departed this life on the 27th day of October, 1846, aged 56 years.
Some people wrongly believe that a person who advocates complete abstinence from all intoxicating beverages is a tea-totaler, offering the mistaken explanations that tea-totalers drink nothing stronger than tea or that people are encouraged to drink tea instead of alcohol.

But the word is actually teetotaler.

The word teetotal apparently existed before it was used specifically for alcoholic humbuggery. The first three letters are a reduplication of the first letter of total — T-total, or total-total — meaning absolutely everything. It's an intentional redundancy along the lines of "last and final," "each and every," and "absolutely positively."

English: Bottle of Sambuca Franciacorta liquor
Have yourself a groggy little Christmas
Image via Wikipedia
The unfortunately named Dick Turner used the word in a speech to a temperance society in Preston, arguing "[n]o half-way measures here. Nothing but the tee-tee total will do."* The founder of the group, Joseph Livesey, liked the word, and immediately proposed that it become the name of their society. The others agreed, and the men of the temperance society of Preston came to be known as teetotalers.

It's believed Turner gave this speech in September of 1833, months before the ordeal of Christmas was on his mind. Had he given the speech on, say, December 19 — in the midst of Christmas shopping and planning for extended visits with in-laws — he might not have been so gung-ho about total abstinence.

* From http://www.online-literature.com/amelia-barr/winter-evening-tales/8/.
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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Today's word: scuttlebutt

"Scuttlebutt Sam" Says. Don't Let Th...
Image via Wikipedia
Scuttlebutt, simply put, is gossip. It's the embarrassing moments that people talk about when you're not in the room. It's the raison d'être of the quidnunc, what coworkers gab about over the office water cooler.

It's a fun, weird little word, a compound of scuttle + butt. Scuttle is from Middle English skottell and refers to a hole with a cover. Originally, it referred to a small opening in a wall or roof or on the deck or side of a ship. The verb to scuttle, which refers to destroying and abandoning your own ship, comes from the idea of putting holes in the bottom of the ship to sink it.

The butt part of scuttlebutt refers neither to what rams do with their heads nor to what you find at the opposite end of a ram. It comes from the Latin buttis, a large cask. (The diminutive, butticula, led to the word bottle, and is not, as you might think, a blood-sucking, immortal, Transylvanian anus.)

So a scuttlebutt is a large cask with hole in it that has a cover. Specifically, the scuttlebutt holds the drinking water on an oceangoing vessel, and it's where sailors would go to talk.

That's right, the scuttlebutt is the ship's water cooler.

I just think that's wild.
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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Caption Me! A Little Monster for Christmas

Our department had a nice little luncheon today, after which we did a white elephant gift exchange. I walked away with a nice Chia Donkey that will soon stand where my Sea Monkeys used to live (they all died).

I pitched in the hand-drawn picture shown below.
Too late came the idea (from @BKWordNerd) to have him dragging a decorated Christmas tree behind him. My title then would have been "James Cameron's How the Grinch Stole Christmas." Maybe next year.

But this one still needs a title or a caption. So please, stretch your imagination and put some text with this image in the comments!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Gary Blum, Age 6

or, Putting Kids' Shit on the Refrigerator


"I made this for you." Gary held out a thick piece of warped paper smeared with color. It had a pungent odor to it.

"Well thank you sweetie," Diane said. "It's beautiful." She examined her son's artwork. A swash of finger-painted brown across the top, swirls of light green punctuated with splotches of yellow, orange, and red across the middle, and a bright yellow patch spreading out from the bottom corner.

"Oh . . . " she said. "It's . . ."

"It's upside down, silly," Gary said. She rotated the picture in her hands and held it lower so they could both see it.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Double Titles

or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Commitment Issues

Pay attention; there will be a quiz.

I enjoy coming up with names for things — stories, poems, warts, whatever — using puns, alliteration, homophones, and other sorts of wordplay. Maybe I enjoy it a little too much, because I often find myself giving my stories and poems two titles. This annoys some people who think it's done out of pretentiousness or narcissism. I hope I'm not doing it out of some subconscious narcissism; I just think it's fun.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Today's Word: quidnunc

You know those people who hang out at the watercooler (either literally or figuratively) who are always anxious to find out who's doing what with whom, who's doing whom with what, and which office they got caught doing it in, and then pass that information along to any ear that comes by? Almost every office has one, but what do you call them?

Friday, December 2, 2011

No Surprises

Today I offer a rather dark bit of flash fiction. If you're already depressed, don't read it. If you do read it, I leave it to you to decide how the story really ends.



Jeremy exhales slowly, trying not to cry.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Today's Word: nightmare

The Moon is the most common object viewed in t...
Image via Wikipedia
Last night I had a horrible dream.

I dreamed that I was lying in a cool, open field of dewy grass, staring up at the stars in the night sky. Light began seeping in around the edges of the horizon — not just in the east, like a sunrise, but all the way around. The light at the edges grew inward, creating a hazy, undulating edge with star-filled night on the inside and blue sky on the outside. Brighter and brighter the sky grew as the night shrank toward the zenith, until only a small patch of dark sky remained.

The wavering edge separating day from night hardened, and I could see that the last remnants of night had taken the shape of a magnificent dark horse, and it was galloping toward me, the steam from its breath casting off nebulae and galaxies into infinite space.

And then I woke up.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Complaints Department

It's three-word Wednesday time! This week's words are impetus, solace, and vindication.

The Complaints Department
Her impetus for communication
Was to get some retail vindication,
But she found no solace
When she tried to call us
'Cause we were all out on vacation.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Today's word: loophole

All politicians claim to hate loopholes. Tax loopholes, regulatory loopholes, legal loopholes. But you know who really hates loopholes?

Medieval infantry.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Bucket List

The Bucket ListThe Bucket List (Image via RottenTomatoes.com)I was surprised to learn recently that the phrase bucket list doesn’t have a history before the 2007 movie starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson. Experience has taught me to be wary of the Recency Illusion, so I was sure that the phrase had existed for some time — especially considering how often and easily it is used today — but that it had just existed outside my local vocabulary.

But I started poking around, and it looked like bucket list didn’t exist at all in the previous century. I posed the question to Twitter, and @KoryStamper, associate editor at Merriam-Webster, verified that their etymologists point to the movie as the first appearance of the phrase.

A bucket list, of course, is a list of things one would like to do before one “kicks the bucket,” or dies. The phrase kick the bucket has a more nebulous history. The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, 4th Edition, points out two distinct possible etymologies:

The first comes from suicides. To hang oneself, one might flip a bucket over, climb the bucket, secure the noose, and then kick the bucket out from under oneself. Kicking the bucket becomes the suicide’s last act.

This story makes perfect sense and ties up the etymology in a nice, neat little package, which probably means it isn't true.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Three-Word Wednesday, Plus a Bonus Limerick!

This week's words are carnage, jerk, and puncture. If you want to read more three-word Wednesday submissions, click here.

He drifts into the night to do his work.
In the darkest alleyways he'll lurk.
He punctures people's necks,
Lives on carnage, pain, and sex.
A vampire? No, just some neurotic jerk.

About the bonus limerick

On Tuesday, I was poking around trying to answer the question, "Who discovered oxygen?" In my searches I came across the wonderful word dephlogisticated. And what do I always do when I find a neat new word? I tweet it.

Almost immediately, @kemullholland challenged me to use the word in the sentence. I like a challenge, especially a word challenge, but just a sentence wasn't challenging enough. I told her I'd do her one better and use it in a limerick.

And here is that (historically accurate) limerick:

"The stuff that burns," the chemists used to say,
"Is inessential stuff that burns away."
Then Priestley laid it bare:
"Dephlogisticated air!"
"It's oxygen!" said Doc Lavoisier.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Where I've Been and What I've Been Doing, Because You Asked

The last week has been rather hectic and busy so that I've had a difficult time trying to find more than a couple minutes to write about something. I have a number of posts started, but none finished.

So instead, I'll just update you on some of the wordly things that have happened in recent days.
  • On September 12, I entered a limerick contest over on Stan Carey's blog, Sentence First. The challenge was to write a limerick about language, and the prizes were awesome enough to bring in a lot of creative entries. My (non-winning) entry was this:
If you say you’re a big verbivore,
But you don’t know your you’re from your your,
And you’re not sure just when
To use than or use then,
Then I think you should be reading more.
  • On September 22 (it couldn't possibly have been that long ago!) my "A to Z of Editorial Peeves" was favorably mentioned on Ragan.com. That was accompanied by a wonderful spike in the number of visits to this blog. Unfortunately, you can no longer read their entire article unless you're a member of Ragan Select.
  • On October 20, my brief e-mail interview was featured on the Copyediting.com blog.
  • On October 28, I entered a six-word horror story contest at Darkside Publishing. The winner (not me) was chosen at random, which is obvious considering how inarguably awesome my entry was:
"Thought you were dead."
"We are."

I do so enjoy writing nanofiction.


Speaking of contests, I've been thinking about having a bit of a contest myself. But what prizes might a poor guy like me offer to you, my readers?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Word of the Day: sackbut

No, sackbut isn't a Shakespearean insult for a steatopygous individual; it's the precursor to the modern trombone used during the medieval and Renaissance eras.

Trombones in Syntagma Musicum (1614-20), by Mi...Image via WikipediaThe word comes from the Middle French saqueboute, which itself comes from Old French saquier, "to pull," and bouter, "to push." After all, that's how you play it — by pushing and pulling.

The etymology of the "pull-push" bears a resemblance to that of the "soft-loud" — the piano, which is more accurately called the pianoforte, derived from the Italian words for "soft" and "loud": piano and forte, respectively. The immediate precursor to the pianoforte was, strangely enough, the fortepiano, the instrument that Haydn and Mozart wrote for. Earlier keyboard instruments, like the harpsichord, were plucked, and so did not have a wide range of dynamics. The fortepiano introduced mechanisms that, for the first time, allowed keyboardists to control the volume of the notes by how hard they pressed the keys. So the fact that the instrument could play loudly and softly, forte e piano, was the selling point.

And the rest is music history.

But back to the sackbut. As horrible as sackbut might sound, if those musicians of old had decided to put the "push" before the "pull," it might have been called the even worse-sounding butsack.

I almost wish they had.
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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Anxiety and NaNoWriMo 2011

Anxiety, which can encompass an entire spectrum from apprehension and uneasiness to complete self-doubt about one's own ability to cope with a perceived threat, comes from the Latin anxietas, which basically means the same thing. Someone who has anxiety is said to be anxious,

Ambrose Bierce. Portrait by J.H.E. Partington.Ambrose Bierce
Image via Wikipedia
But you can also be anxious if you're just very eager. This is one of those "disputed" usages. Many grammarians will swear up and down that anxious cannot and should not be used to mean eager, but a closer look at where this proscription comes from reveals some surprising facts.

According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (pp.101-104), the proscription against using anxious to mean eager started in America at the beginning of the twentieth century. This "rule" first appeared in print in "The Black List" in Write It Right, from that curmudgeonliest of grammar curmudgeons, Ambrose Bierce, though his explanation is unexpected:
Anxious for Eager. "I was anxious to go." Anxious should not be followed by an infinitive. Anxiety is contemplative; eagerness, alert for action.
No other source bears out the idea that anxious shouldn't be followed by an infinitive, and before Bierce, using anxious to mean eager wasn't uncommon, especially in Great Britain.
  • From Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, published in 1814: "We are not rich enough or grand enough for them; and she is the more anxious to get Miss Darcy for her brother, from the notion that when there has been one intermarriage, she may have less trouble in achieving a second . . . "
  • From Lord Byron's "Don Juan," the first cantos of which were published in 1819: "His manner was perhaps the more seductive, / Because he n'er seemed anxious to seduce . . . "
  • From Anthony Trollope's The Macdermots of Ballycloran, published in 1847: "[Mr. Webb] was, moreover, a kind-hearted landlord — ever anxious to ameliorate the condition of the poor — and by no means greedy after money, though he was neither very opulent nor very economical."
Perhaps more common than anxious as eager is a sort of middle ground indicating excitement and worry, but without the dread or uneasiness:
  • From Sense and Sensibility (1811): "He had just compunction enough for having done nothing for his sisters himself, to be exceedingly anxious that everybody else should do a great deal . . . "
  • From A Tale of Two Cities (1859): "Defarge gave into his anxious hand, an open scrap of paper. It bore the words in the Doctor's writing. . ."
  • From Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett (1908): "'Oh, but you must tell me, doctor,' Constance insisted, anxious that he should live up to his reputation for Sophia's benefit."
True, using anxious in the sense of anxiety is by far the most common, but anyone who says that anxious can't ever mean "eager" has two centuries of literature from careful writers to contend with.

The history of and controversy about anxiety and anxious isn't really all that interesting -- at least, it didn't seem that way when I started writing this. I bring it up for another, personal reason, though. The word nerd portion of this post is finished. After the break is a more personal look at what anxiety is to me.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Coming Clean about My Addiction

I think I might have a problem. An addiction. Maybe even a sickness.

Last weekend, I took my two sons to lovely Camp Collum in Frankfort, Indiana. It's a beautiful place to camp, with lots of woods and paths, playgrounds, fire rings, a building for large gatherings, available showers, and even, in the middle of a large, open, wild-grown field, a smallish observatory. It really is a great place.

This Post Is Not about Praetoritio

I never thought I would say this — ever: I learned a new word as a result of the debate by the Republican presidential candidates.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Friday, October 7, 2011

Tough Times in Gotham

"You understand. Right, Alfred?"

"Of course, Master Bruce."

"It's the economy. I just can't afford to keep you on anymore."

"Of course, Master Bruce." Alfred lifted the immaculate silver dome from the tray he had placed in front of Bruce Wayne, releasing the savory steam of his famous venison stew, which cast a brief haze upon his thick glasses. "I am only grateful for the time I have had with you, and for the opportunity to prepare for you, one last time, your favorite meal."

"Thank you, Alfred." Bruce stirred the stew with a large silver spoon, leaning forward to blow across his hot meal. "Like I said before, with upkeep of the mansion . . . and what's under the mansion . . . and the financial situation at Wayne Enterprises, there just isn't enough money left for everything. I just wish there was more I could do. You practically raised me, after all."

"That I did, sir," said Alfred, standing behind and to the right of Bruce's Louis XIV chair, white-gloved hands clasped in front of his genitals. "It was my sole purpose in life. But, as you said, your expenses are neither as small nor as predictable as that of other billionaires."

Alan Napier as Alfred in the Batman TV series.Image via Wikipedia
I may be no Michael Caine,
but you're no George Clooney.
(Val Kilmer, maybe.)
"But you'll bounce back, Alfred. Right? You're smart and resourceful."

"Yes, sir. There are quite a number of opportunities for a seventy-two-year-old proper English butler in the job market these days."

Bruce nodded, took a loud but tentative sip of stew, and then shoveled a spoonful of venison and scallions into his mouth. "Thith ith delithuth, Alfred."

"One should not speak with one's mouth full, Master Wayne."

Bruce downed three more spoonfuls, the moist slurps and slops of mastication echoing in the cavernous dining room, before coming up for air. "Did you put something different in the stew?" he asked.

"The stew is as it should be, Master Bruce."

"Huh." He sucked up another spoonful. "That's weird. It tastes . . . different . . . somehow." He took another thoughtful spoonful. "Regardless, it's delicious."

"Thank you, sir."

"I trust," said Bruce after another few mouthfuls, "that certain . . . information . . . about my usual evening activities will be kept, uh—"

"Of course, sir. You secrets shan't leave this room, sir."

"I knew I could count on you, Alfred." Another spoonful sloshed into his mouth, more than half the stew gone. "We wouldn't want my work — my real work — to come undone now, would we?"

"Of course not, Master Wayne. But while we're on that subject, there is something I've always wondered about. Might I be so bold as to inquire, considering this might be my last chance to do so?"

"Ask away, Alfred," said Bruce. "Whatever you want to know. It's the least I could do."

"Quite right, sir. What I wanted to know, Master Wayne, is whether, during all your experiences with the underworld, you ever learned . . . what cyanide tastes like."

"That's a strange question, Alfred." Bruce thought about it, then shook his head. "No. I can't say I've ever tasted cyanide."

"I beg to differ, sir," said Alfred, bowing slightly. "As a matter of fact, you have tasted cyanide, you selfish, ungrateful, out-of-touch little trust-fund baby!"



So, readers, tell me the truth: Was the ending too obvious? Did you get there before I did?
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Monday, October 3, 2011

The Grandfather Clause

For many people, the word grandfather conjures images of family Christmases, bouncing on knees, butterscotch candies, and games of (in my case) euchre, gin rummy, or cribbage. In short, happy images of good times.

The idea of being grandfathered in is usually a good thing, too. If you're grandfathered in, it means that a new rule or regulation does not apply to you; you continue under the previous rules. In the legal documents, the guidelines for grandfathering in existing customers are usually contained in a "grandfather clause." Hence the word grandfathering.

These days a grandfather clause usually means good news, but the original grandfather clause was a blatantly unfair, political, and racist bit of legislature.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Short Story: Technical Difficulties

The following epistolary short story was inspired first by this speculative fiction writing prompt from Eric J. Krause, and then by the stories of Philip K. Dick, and then maybe just a little bit by The Matrix.

Technical Difficulties

[Pinned to office chair]
Dear Mr. Mannfred Anders,

As you have likely noticed, we are suffering some technical difficulties due to a software update. We are working diligently to repair the problem and will have things up and running as soon as possible.

We ask that you remain calm and stay at your desk until the problem is resolved. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Sincerely,
The Management



[Taped to steering wheel]
Dear Mannfred Anders,

Although we applaud your persistence and the ingenuity it took for you to make your way from the fourth floor down into your car in spite of the current technical difficulties, we ask that you please remain here in your vehicle until our technical issues have been worked out. Services will be repaired soon and the Program will be restarted from a previously saved configuration.

Your vehicle will, of course, not start.


Thank you for your cooperation.

Sincerely,
The Management



[Nailed to a public bench]
Dear Mannfred Anders,

I am unfortunately required to report your disregard of our two previous warnings to the Karma Department. Furthermore, your continued interactions with the various elements of the Program are causing runtime errors and creating further difficulties for our technicians.

Also please note that your continued actions may also put your own welfare in danger. Although the Program may seem to be frozen, it is apt to run at normal speed for short periods as buffered data is executed.

Please, for the integrity of the Program and for your own safety, remain at this bench until our technical issues are resolved.

Sincerely,
The Management



[Taped to a cash register]
hey IDIOT! cut it out, dude! do you have any idea how much extra work you made for me when you broke through that window?!

of course you don't. you're "the seed" -- the only entity in there has free will AND the only who has no idea what's going on. FML

i suppose i should be thanking you since you're the only reason i have a job. but seriously, dude, you aren't making that job any easier! just please SIT THE HELL DOWN AND WAIT!
H



[Laying on the floor of the Taco Bell manager's office]
Dear Mr. Anders,

Please disregard the previous message. It was transmitted without the knowledge or consent of upper management. After our current situation is resolved, Homer will face disciplinary action for his unprofessional behavior.

That said, Homer's comments are not entirely without merit. Our species programmers are perplexed by your choice to forcibly break into a Taco Bell (in fact, analyzing and accounting for this choice may push back our release date by a full week). We caution you that continued interaction — and especially such violent interaction — with the elements of the Program will only prolong and complicate the already difficult technical issues we are working through.

Once again, we ask that you please remain where you are. Our technical difficulties will soon be resolved, and we can continue with beta-testing.

To help you pass the time, we have replicated a copy of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" for your enjoyment. (We know how much you think you love poetry.) You will find it in the dining area in the first unoccupied both on your left.

Sincerely,
The Management



[Caught in a bush]
Mr. Anders,
We apologize for the error. Our current difficulties have apparently affected our font files in unexpected ways, causing that copy of "Leaves of Grass" to be rendered entirely in Wingdings.

Please return to the Taco Bell immediately. Laying on the checkout counter, you will find the twelve previous issues and six forthcoming issues of Penthouse Magazine, the full script for a seventh Star Wars movie, a ninth Harry Potter novel, and our original conceptual sketches for Lady Gaga. Although all text is unfortunately rendered in Comic Sans, we trust that you will find at least some of these items sufficiently entertaining to occupy your time while we fix the Program.

Please return to the Taco Bell now and enjoy these wonderful gifts.

Please,
The Mgmt



[Taped to the back of an ER nurse]
Mannfred,

Though we wish you had returned to the Taco Bell as asked, your running to the hospital at least makes more sense to our species programmers.

You should be hearing the nearby courtesy phone ringing now. Please answer it to speak to Gautama at our help desk.

Thank you,
The Management



[Glued to a bicycle rack]
Dear Mr. Mannfred Anders,

We regret the physical pain that your recent accident has caused you. We warned you earlier that various elements within the Program might behave erratically as we work through our technical difficulties. Had you answered the telephone, Gautama could have explained in more detail the danger of walking through traffic that seemed to be frozen.

Your mishap, however, has proven useful for our current situation. While you were unconscious, one of our programmers relocated a nearby bicycle rack around you, thus entangling you, securing your position, and allowing repairs to continue more smoothly and without interruption.

Although our ability to repair your body is of necessity quite limited, we were able to repair both your fractured left femur and broken septum. Your body's own biological repair mechanisms will complete the healing process, meaning that you will be rather sore for the next few days.

I have been told that the source of the systems error has been located and will soon be repaired — perhaps before you even finish reading this note. When repairs are complete, we will reboot the Program and reload the most recent backup — which occurred at approximately 2:00 a.m. Monday morning your time — and beta testing of your species will continue.

The good news is that you will have the opportunity to relive the past two days and perhaps make wiser choices. (On a personal note, I do hope you find the courage to ask out Miss Danoff this time around; she's programmed to be demure, but she will eventually say yes.)

What you will likely view as "the bad news," however, is that — apart from some soreness and a vague sense of déjà vu — you will not remember any of what has happened today.

Sincerely,
The Management

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Three Word Wednesday: Movie Remakes

Today's words are cherish, guarantee, and nausea. Here, I come at the limerick form from an odd angle:

Those cherished and campy B movies
(The reason we love to see movies)
When remade — GUARANTEE! —
Will cause nausea — you'll see! —
As high-budget, low-grade D movies.

Grammar Obsessive Disorder from Ragan.com

This video is too great not to share. In it, Rob Reinalda, Executive Editor at Ragan.com, talks about dealing with the worst form of Grammar Obsessive Disorder: G.O.D. Complex.


The More You Know!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Grammar Nazis of the 21st Century: A Proposal

A Grammar Nazi, in case you didn't know, is someone who constantly corrects (sometimes erroneously) other people's grammar and usage. In the blogosphere, the Grammar Nazi is a special breed of troll who pounces on the merest errors, typos, oversights, and brain farts and calls them out, often in the harshest way, in the comments.

And rather often, the "errors" that these Grammar Nazis point out aren't even mistakes, like in this post, when someone objected to my use of "none sound right" instead of "none sounds right." (In this case, I actually knew the guy who posted it, so I didn't skewer him publicly. He'll make a better friend than an enemy.)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Loose Lips, Pink Ships


One of my coworkers (we'll call her M) occasionally wears a green hoodie with the words LOVE PINK emblazoned in large black letters on the back. It always strikes me as an ironic sweater — it says LOVE PINK, but it's green and black, no pink at all.

The first time I saw it, I was perplexed. I wasn't familiar with the LOVE PINK motto, so I asked about it. It turns out that M used to work at Victoria's Secret, a company that has apparently successfully commandeered an entire color for financial gain, and that LOVE PINK was one of its marketing campaigns.

Being the unfashionable bachelor that I am, though, Victoria's Secret wasn't the first pink connection that crossed my mind.

Monday, September 19, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: Zee Index

Oh, dear. It seems I've gotten to the final letter of the alphabet without any proper peeves to list. I guess that means I'm done.

I hope you found something in this series enjoyable, and more importantly, I hope you either learned something new or found something to think about.
I certainly learned something. For instance, I learned that if I'm going to do a multi-part series, I ought to establish some basic conventions before I start. I recognize that I sometimes used an H2 heading and sometimes an H3 heading for the items in my list, and the capitalization is all over the place. (Full disclosure: I fixed some of the inconsistencies while I was preparing the index.) I also learned that it's a good idea to work a few posts ahead — and try to stay ahead — instead of waiting until Sunday or even Monday night to write something you want to post on Monday.

Feel free to learn from my mistakes.

Zee Index

Monday, September 12, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: Y

Yes, the penultimate* entry in my alphabetical list of editorial peeves is here!

Years of age

"Years of age" is unnecessarily lengthy. What's wrong with saying "he is twenty-five years old"? Or, if you're writing in a less formal style, "he's twenty-five"?

Police spokesmen are the worst. How often have you heard a policeman on TV who is looking for "a Caucasian male who is twenty-five years of age" instead of "a twenty-five-year-old white man"?

Friday, September 9, 2011

Helpless, a Short Story

As I was locking my apartment door in the morning, Janine came out of her apartment.

"Morning," I said.

"Hi, Andy," she squeaked.

A walked past her down the short hallway we shared and held the door open for her. As she passed, I reflexively blurted out, "What happened?!"

She told me she had tripped in the kitchen, accidentally, and hit her face against the countertop.

But I knew that wasn't the truth. I knew it was Glenn, her live-in boyfriend. I had heard the truth last night, through the wall — the yelling, the breaking glass, the yelp of pain that gave way to muted sobbing. It had happened so quickly that I hadn't even had time to put on my headphones and try to ignore it, like I did on so many other nights, telling myself that it wasn't my problem, and that there was nothing I could do about it.

I clung to those excuses as I held the door, accepting Janine's explanation and telling her that she should try to be more careful. It was too easy.

At least I thought it would be easy, but Janine invaded my thoughts throughout the day. At odd times, I would find myself staring blankly at the computer screen, the image of Janine's swollen, tender face at the front of my mind, her red-purple cheekbone, fading to brown at the edges, swollen enough that her left eye didn't open as widely as the right . . . and I would try to suppress the image and get back to work.

By the afternoon, incessant thoughts of Janine turned into fantasies about Glenn, fantasies in which I attacked him with masterful precision, breaking kneecaps, severing fingers, gouging eyes, fantasies that ended with Glenn running off forever, or lapsing into a coma, or dying, and Janine being forever grateful for my manly intervention.

But these were just fantasies, I knew. Even while I daydreamed of being the hero, I knew that I didn't have the skill, the strength, or the gumption to stand up to Glenn.

All day, I felt tortured by my inability to help Janine, a sentiment made orders of magnitude worse by the guilt of knowing that my emotional torture was nothing compared with the emotional and physical tortures that Janine underwent daily. Because of Glenn, Janine's best days hurt more than my worst.

The drive home left me irritated. Every light was red. Every stereo was too loud. Every other driver was a selfish nuisance who should just get out of my way.

And when I turned the last corner, and my apartment building came into view, the gray cloud that had hung over me all day darkened. In front of the building, Glenn's big black Escalade was parked sideways across three parking spots. The passenger side, closest to the building, sat at an odd upward angle.

I pulled into a nearby parking spot. A pair of legs stuck out from under the jacked-up vehicle. Muscular legs. The legs of a man who spends most of his day at the gym.

Glenn's legs.

The front passenger-side wheel had been removed, and crammed between the jack holding up the SUV and the front disc brakes, Glenn's lower half, from the waist down, lay face-up, his feet resting on the edge of the sidewalk.

I closed the car door and headed for the apartment.

"Hey, Andy, Is that you?"

I stopped, turned. He was helpless, I thought. The day's hero fantasies came rushing back. In three quick steps I could plant my heel in his crotch or jam my foot into his ribs. But I was out of shape, flabby, and graying. Glenn, by contrast, was a study in human musculature -- bulky, rippling, solid -- who hadn't yet hit thirty.

And if he could beat up a beautiful, delicate, helpless woman like Janine, what greater horrors would I be in store for?

"Yeah, it's me," I said flatly.

"How's it going?" he asked.

"Okay," I said.

"I'm just replacing a brake line here," he said, as if I gave a damn what he was doing under that behemoth. He grunted with the effort of using some tool that I probably couldn't identify. The SUV rocked back and forth.

"Do you ever do any of your own work on that little Honda of yours?" he asked, grunting and shaking the car again.

"I don't know crap about cars." It was the truth.

"Figures," he said. "I just can't seem to get this..." He grunted again, and the vehicle rocked again. "...coupling loose." Another grunt; the SUV shuddered.

"Well," I said. "I'll, uh, leave you to it, then."

Glenn grunted again. It was quickly followed by a clank and another grunt of a different sort, airier and more forced. On the asphalt next to the Escalade, the jack lay on its side. The weight of the front of the vehicle now rested on Glenn's broad chest. He kicked his legs into the air, but he didn't scream, the weight of the vehicle somehow keeping him from drawing a much-needed breath.

I rushed forward instinctively and reached for the jack. But I stopped.

I stood up straight and looked around. No one else was in sight. No one had seen the SUV drop. No one knew that Glenn was trapped under there except me and...

The gray-haired woman I knew only as Phyllis stood at the second-floor window in the apartment above Glenn and Janine's. Her mouth was a dark little O, her eyes wide watching Glenn's legs flail feebly, looking for purchase in the empty air.

Then she looked at me. Her eyes narrowed to slits; her mouth became a thin line. For a heartbeat, we just stood there, staring at one another.

Then, after giving an almost imperceptible nod, she let the window blinds fall between us.

I crotched down and looked under the SUV. Glenn stared back at me, bulging eyes in a red face, mouth moving in silent pleas. "Helpless," I whispered.

And then I went inside.



The ambulance arrived half an hour later, and the squad car soon after that. When the ambulance left, its lights were dark and its sirens silent.

The policeman who knocked on my door told me the horrible news and asked me a few questions. Yes, I had seen Glenn working under his car when I got home from work. No, I hadn't heard anything unusual. Yes, it was unfortunate that I hadn't heard the jack fall over, or this horrible accident might not have ended so badly.



I didn't see Janine the next morning, but when I came home from work, an odd new sound drifted through the wall from her apartment. I stood silent and still and listened. It took me a good four minutes to figure out what the noise was.

Janine was snoring.

Monday, September 5, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: X

Am I the only one who gets exasperated when an alphabetical list finally extends to the 24th letter, only to find that the examples listed there begin with ex- instead of x?

X Games logoImage via WikipediaSeriously, who are they kidding? We know that extensible markup language (XML), extra large (XL), and extreme backyard wrestling (XBW) all start with an e, not an x. Why make so inexact an exception in an otherwise excellent execution? Is it really so excruciating to admit that one's x-principal opportunities are exceedingly small? (In my Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, for example, the X listings don't exceed two pages before being exhausted, and that includes a picture of a xylophone and word history of X ray.)

Excluding X from an alphabetical list doesn't expose your inexperience or make you less of an expert. So you don't need to include extraneous ex- examples when none exist. Just expunge that letter from your list entirely.

If you'd like to make an excuse for the exclusion of the xes, feel free to explicitly explain that there are just no x examples to include.

But you really don't need to. Your readers will understand.
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Monday, August 29, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: W

Wending our way toward the end of my list of editorial peeves, we wander into the wasteland of the double-u, where we will witness the wonky, the witty, and (perhaps) the wise. Wenjoy.

-ward vs. -wards

Do you work towards a goal or toward it? Do you forge onwards and upwards or onward and upward? Once your goal is reached, do you celebrate afterwards or afterward?

I've read numerous times that the -ward/-wards choice is a cultural one, that British English favors -wards and American English favors -ward. But notice that word favors. We're not talking rules here: the fact remains that it is a choice, and a personal one.

William RikerImage via Wikipedia
Little-known fact: Starfleet standard-issue trombones
include a gold-pressed-latinum-plated mouthpiece.
And personally, I prefer (with perhaps a bit more insistence than necessary) the -ward version. Why? For a few reasons. I think the -wards version sounds sloppier, calling to mind thick-tongued lispers speaking way too much and saying way too little. I also prefer (if you haven't noticed) writing that is succinct, compact, efficient; those useless Ses only add more sibilant bulk to sentences.

Then there is the matter of consistency. Americans and Brits alike use a host of -ward words that they wouldn't even consider adding an S to, like straightforward, leeward, forward-thinking, and untoward. Is there something special about these words that they aren't subjected to S-izing?

And then there's my nerdly upbringing. Captain Riker, after all, jazzed it up with his Starfleet Swingers in Ten Forward, not Ten Forwards. (It hurts me just to type that!)

The choice is, of course, yours.

But seriously, drop the extra Ses.

Whence

Budding bards take note: Whence isn't just another word for when. It means "from what place" and doesn't need an extra preposition to work

So when a writer at FoxSports.com writes,
Fittingly, to comprehend where Campbell might be headed with both football and his life, one has to understand from whence he came. [emphasis added]
the writer is being redundant. One needn't "understand from whence he came"; one need only "understand whence he came."

And while we're on the subject of Shakespeare-esque words that you don't ever have to actually use, remember that wherefore — as in "wherefore art thou Romeo" — means "why," not "where."

Who vs. that

As Alex Baze (aka @bazecraze) once tweeted, "No, you don't hate people that correct your grammar. You hate people WHO do that."

And he's right. Not about the hating part, but about the part where you should use who instead of that when you're referring to a person. The world is dehumanizing enough; don't take the humanity out of your relative pronouns, too.

Now, whether you use who or that to refer to animals — and specifically pets — is another matter entirely. You could make a good argument for a statement like this: My dear Poopsy Flapdoodle, who we trained to use the toilet, is nothing like that horrible, patchy-haired mongrel that relieved itself on the hood of your car.

Who vs. whom

Since I'm writing about grammar and usage here, I'm obligated to include who vs. whom, right? Honestly, though, this isn't really a peeve for me. Some people will tell you that figuring out which word to use is easy, quoting that old trick of substituting he or him, seeing which one is right, and then changing he to who or him to whom. And that works when you're dealing with fairly simple sentences.
Barred Owl Baltimore MarylandImage via Wikipedia
An owl says what?

You gave him herpes? You gave whom herpes?
I didn't know he was an anemic vampire. I didn't know who was an anemic vampire.

But sentences aren't always that simple, and figuring out when to use whom can get downright difficult.

So if, while you're writing, you stop mid-sentence to consider which word you should use, give yourself some bonus points just for giving it some thought. Although the results might look the same, making a bonafide error after some consideration is loads better than simple laziness.

Give yourself a break. No matter how vigilant you are, you'll get it wrong sometimes. I know I have, and I will again. If you just notice that there's something there that you need to consider, though, you're already ahead of the game.

-wise

I am a big fan of neologisms. If you'd rather pufficate than smoke a cigarette, be my guest. If you want to refer to those annoying swarms of gnats as bugnadoes, more power to you. And if you're trying to work off your flablets instead of your love handles, good luck!

But if you're just adding -wise to the end of a word, you aren't showing a lot of creativity. Word-wise and artistry-wise, it's just plain lazy. Utilization-wise, I used to think that it was mostly a sportscaster thing, but I keep hearing it in other situations, both business-wise and social-wise.

Annoying-wise, it's right up there with literally for me. Stop it already!
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Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Bookish Evening

Just a quick personal post to share two wordly-nerdly things that occurred tonight.

I was meeting friends for dinner at Stir Crazy tonight. I arrived about 20 minutes early and stopped in at the Border's, which, like all Border's, is going out of business.

I really have no business going to a ginormous bookstore where everything is half off. It's almost worse than going to a buffet — it takes a lot of concentration and will power not to load up with so much that I regret it later.

I managed to get out of there with only two books (and no Monty Python videos, even though they had a copy of "The Meaning of Life" available), and I'm inordinately excited about the larger one:

Books about word and phrase origins are great for long trips. So I guess now I need to plan a long trip.

So anyway, after the trip to the bookstore, I had dinner at Stir Fry, which was nice, but the place is kind of loud. I didn't enjoy having to raise my voice to have a conversation.

When the checks came, they were accompanied by the requisite fortune cookies. I cracked open the one given to me, and this is what I found:


If I believed in fate, this would mean a lot more to me than it does. Still, it's kind of creepy. Good creepy, if there is such a thing.

Does anyone make fortune-sized frames?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: V

Today, for the V section of my editorial peeves, I want to talk a bit about verb tenses and the problems I see with them.

Jumping from one tense to another in a single sentence or from one sentence to another is horrid, but not very common, and a writer will probably notice and fix the problem if she just reads again what she writes.

More common, at least in my copy editing work, is switching tenses between paragraphs. I think this is especially true of research papers, which aren't written as linearly as, say, a short story or a blog post, and which are focused more on the information than on the writing. This is especially a problem when a paper has multiple authors.

Most verb tense problems can be avoided if you do two simple things:
  1. Think about verb tense before you write. (If you're writing fiction, verb tense is as important as point of view.)
  2. Read what you wrote before you call it "final."

Of course, doing the latter can help you avoid all sorts of writing problems.

The most common problem I see with verb tenses, though, isn't unexpected shifts between past, present, and future, it's overuse of the progressive form.

In case you've forgotten your ninth-grade English lessons, the progressive form of a verb is created by pairing the conjugated form of to be with the participle (-ing) form of a verb: I was sleeping a minute ago. Now I am screaming at my neighbor's dog. They will be calling the police soon.

Progressive forms have their place and serve a specific purpose. The problem is that people use them too often, making sentences unnecessarily bulky and generally weakening otherwise strong verbs. They're easy to miss when you're writing, too, because they are perfectly grammatical.

But grammatical writing isn't the same as good writing.

Consider these pairs of sentences, the first using the present progressive form and the second using simple present tense:
  • When he's drinking, he gets violent.
  • When he drinks, he gets violent.
  • Giorgio is dead; Michael is running the show now.
  • Giorgio is dead; Michael runs the show now.
  • Rick is running off at the mouth and deepening our depression.
  • Rick runs off at the mouth and deepens our depression.
Yes, there are subtle changes of meaning from one to the next, but it might just be the subtle change you need to heat up your prose.


Here's a verb tense exercise you can try at home to improve your own writing:

Start with something you've already written, just a paragraph or two. Go through and highlight all the forms of to be that you can find. Highlight every is, am, are, was, were, and will be (might as well mark the perfect progressives and grab every has been, and will have been, too). And don't miss the contractions, either.

Now just see how many of them you can get rid of. Replace your "will be going" with "will go," your "was hoping" with "hoped," and your "is flagellating" with "flagellates."

You won't be able to get rid of all of them — and you shouldn't. Not every instance of to be indicates the progressive form. And sometimes the progressive form is exactly what you need. But what I hope you find after this little exercise is more succinct and efficient prose that uses stronger verbs.

And I hope that it's just plain better.

Just remember: There's nothing wrong with the simple past, present, and future tense. Using the simple tense doesn't make you simple any more than the progressive form makes you a progressive or the perfect form makes you perfect. Pay attention to your verbs.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Top Six Failed For Dummies Books

The For Dummies book series (see disclosure at the end) has been around now for two decades. In that time, they've published gazillions of books that have helped people do everything from creating a home network to playing the clarinet to building a chicken coop (seriously!).

But not every swing can be a home run. For Dummies has seen its share of flops. Here are the six biggest publishing failures of the well-known For Dummies series:

 

The CIA For Dummies

After painstakingly researching the history and current goings-on of the United States' leading covert agency, the author of this book sent his completed manuscript to an agent in Langley for a technical edit and some fact-checking. The manuscript that was returned was heavily redacted and was accompanied by a photograph of the author asleep in his bedroom the night before.

It was never published.

 

Learn to Read For Dummies

Somehow, the publishers had a difficult time connecting with their intended audience for this book.

 

Pyromania For Dummies

The first print run of 10,000 copies of this book was completely lost in a warehouse fire in Ames, Iowa. The publishers ordered a second printing of 5,000 copies, but just before the presses began running, the printer's business was razed in a mysterious explosion.

The causes of the explosion — as well as the possibility of ordering another print run of Pyromania For Dummies — are still under investigation.

 

Time Travel For Dummies

After an initial legal battle with H.G. Wells is ironed out, Time Travel For Dummies will have received both popular and critical success when it was published in 2035. Famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking is quoted as will having said, "It's so good, I'm going to read it again last week!"

Unfortunately, recent research has proven that time travel is impossible, so this book will no longer have been published in our timeline.
NASA StarChild image of Stephen Hawking.Image via Wikipedia
"It's so good, I'm going to read it again last week!"
Stephen Hawking, sometime in the future, 1996

 

Dial-Up Modems For Dummies

The first draft of this book has been uploading to the publisher's servers since 2002.

 

Procrastination For Dummies

Originally launched in 2001, the publication date for this book has been pushed back fourteen times. The book was recently handed off to its fifth editor.
[NOTE TO SELF: FINISH THIS DESCRIPTION AFTER DINNER, THEN BUILD A MOCK "PROCRASTINATION FOR DUMMIES" COVER TO PUT HERE. MAKE IT HILARIOUS.]



Disclosure and disclaimer: For Dummies is a trademark of Wiley Publishing, who is not responsible for this blog. However, I am affiliated with Wiley Publishing. I work for Wiley, and specifically for Dummies.com.
   The titles above were never actually published (though I wouldn't be surprised to see The CIA For Dummies actually hit the shelves sometime in the future). The faux titles above are intended as parody only. I am solely responsible for the content of this blog.
   Please don't sue me.


If you like the CIA For Dummies "novelty edition" book cover above, you can make your own by using the official For Dummies cover generator.
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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Writing Cycle


Ideas become words.

Words become sentences.

Sentences become paragraphs.

Paragraphs become chapters.

Chapters become books.

Books are read.

Reading sparks new ideas. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: U

For those of you just joining us, where have you been? I'm all the way up to the Us in this alphabetical list of my editorial peeves that began back in March.

At any rate, we're getting down to the lesser-used letters of the alphabet now, so the lists are getting noticeably shorter. (You're just dying to see what I'm going to have on the X list, aren't you?!) There are only three items (sort of) in this week's list.

Unique

(I'm going to get pounded by a lot of editors for this one.)

Grammar trolls like to pounce on people who use the phrase more unique. Yes, it is true, strictly speaking, that uniqueness is an absolute; something either is unique, or it isn't.

The problem with adhering to such a strict definition of unique is that the word becomes meaningless. Everything is unique in some way. No two things are completely identical; each thing has some characteristic that is unique to it, even if it's only its placement in space.* And because no two things can share every single characteristic, everything is, from a certain metaphysical point of view, unique.

Which makes the idea of unique being an absolute a little pointless.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Four Things I Learned from Blog Indiana 2011

The weekend's almost over, and I'm still coming down from the high I've been on since Thursday. Blog Indiana was amazing. (Of course, you already know this because you read my blog religiously, right?) In the last two days, I've offered you an overview and highlights of what I've done and what I've learned. With this post, though, I just want to give my final thoughts and look toward the future of Logophilius.

So here are four things I learned from Blog Indiana 2011 (aka BIN2011):

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Blogging about Blogging: BIN 2011 Meta-Post #2

Home from the second day of Blog Indiana 2011 (aka BIN2011). (Read about the first day here.) Common cliché would have me write "the second gruelling day," but the most gruelling thing about Friday was rolling myself out of bed in the morning. Except for everything that happened before my second cup of coffee — which I don't technically remember anyway — I enjoyed every minute of this conference.

Like yesterday, a tremendous amount of information was presented, more than anyone would want to read in a blog post. And so, like yesterday, I'll do my best to hit some of the more interesting and useful highlights.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Blogging about Blogging: BIN 2011 Meta-Post #1

I (thankfully) had the opportunity to attend the Blog Indiana 2011 conference in Fisher, Indiana, today. A day full of interesting people and great speakers talking not only about blogging but about social media as a whole. So much that I learned and so much that I want to share!

But I walked away today with seven-and-a-half pages of notes. Considering one discussion today about the merits of a 200-word blog post over a 2,000-word blog post, it is right and fitting that I do not attempt to condense all that great information into a blog post. So I'll just try to boil down some of my key takeaways for you.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: T

If you're looking for some editorial gripes and the occasional bad pun, this blog post will suit you to a T.

Than vs. Then

This first, though, isn't a matter of taste or opinion. There is no room for discussion about whether a sentence should use than or then because there is no overlap between the two. They don't have any similar alternative meanings like, say, affect and effect.

I pretend that the vast majority of than/then switcheroos I find are just typos — someone understands the difference but is just typing too quickly and paying too little attention to notice the mistake. I pretend that, but I also know that there are plenty of people out there who just don't know the difference.

So here it is, quick and dirty:

Monday, August 1, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: S (cont.)

Last week, I wrote about the semicolon and how it really is a useful bit of punctuation and not a torture device invented by sadistic English teachers. The semicolon deserved its own blog post, but there are a few more editorial peeves on my "S-list," if you know what I mean.

Sacrilege!

A caption here would only get me in trouble, don't you think?
It's counter-intuitive, yes, but religious is not part of the word sacrilegious, even though it refers to irreverence toward the sacred and religious. If it helps, consider this:
"The Pope's scrotum is a 'sac religious'." That statement might be sacrilegious.
If you can just remember not to put the Pope's scrote into your writing, you'll never misspell sacrilegious again!

Split infinitives

Split infinitives? Not a peeve. If your text looks and sounds better with a split infinitive, split away! There's absolutely nothing wrong with it.

No, what gets me is people who still insist that split infinitives are ungrammatical. Fortunately, they're a small and dwindling group.

Stationary vs. stationery

The difference between the adjective stationary and the noun stationery is something people just need to learn. It might help (and that's a definite might) to think of them like this: Being stationARy means that you stay where you ARe; stationERy is a type of papER.

It's a bad mnemonic, I know. Other suggestions welcomed. You should learn the difference regardless.

Subject-verb agreement

One of the copy editor's special skills is the ability to look at a sentence and take it apart to find its essence. We can strip away the adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, and appositives, isolate the dependent and independent clauses, and look into the foundation of the sentence: the subject and predicate. If these don't agree, the sentence won't stand.

I gave a whole blog post over to the semicolon; to cover the rules, exceptions, and idiosyncrasies of subject-verb agreement, you'd need an entire book. And that's a book I don't want to write.

But I do want to help people become better and more comfortable writers, so I can offer a little advice here. The best thing you can do to keep your subjects and verbs in alignment is just this: Re-read what you write before you click Send or Post or whatever. Simply re-reading what you wrote (doing it aloud can really help, too) will reveal all sorts of little things that you didn't notice when you were first typing.

Do this for papers and blog posts. Do it for e-mails. Even do it for tweets.

I'm going to go do it right now, before I click Publish Post.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Three Word Wednesday: Love in an Elevator

This week's Three-Word Wednesday words are banter, fumble, and glance. It turned into my Friday Flash, which I posted on Thursday. What a week!

Has this ever happened to you? It happens to me three or four times a week:

Love in an Elevator

or, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Office Park


The doors slide open and she stands there, watching me expectantly: the most beautiful woman in the office, if not the world. I step onto the elevator and my heart quickens as my nose fills with her fragrance. A part of me knows that she's wearing some expensive perfume, but I only want to believe that this is her natural scent.

I reach for the elevator buttons and see that the first-floor button is already lit. Of course — she has already pressed the button that brings her down from heaven to mingle with us mere mortals below. I push it again anyway, trying to look confident.

"Hi," I say. As beautiful as she is, she is no match for my witty banter. She will be in my arms soon.

"Hi," she sings as the doors slide closed on our own boxy Garden of Eden.

Bing!

I glance at her hazy reflection in the brushed steel of the doors and deduce from the various foggy splotches of color that she is clutching a book to her perfect chest. My shoulders tighten with jealousy of that book.

I ask, "What'cha reading?" Let the seduction begin.

Bing!

I turn my head and look into her sapphire eyes, but it is too much to bear. I lower my gaze to her long, slender fingers wrapped around the spiral binding of a blue notebook. The ring finger of her left hand, I notice, is enticingly bare.

"Oh, this?" she sings. "It's just for taking notes in the meeting I'm headed to."

Bing!

"Oh," I respond, coolly nonchalant.

The elevator shudders and then stops. The lights flicker out for a moment and then glow dimly, casting malevolent shadows into the corners of the elevator. She abandons all pretense, drops the notebook to the floor, and runs into my arms. She's trembling in fright, but I sense from the slowing heaves of her chest that my embrace calms her.

She looks into my eyes and her fear transforms into something more intense and passionate. We kiss for a long time, deeply and warmly. For two hours, we are isolated in this broken-down elevator, exploring each others' minds and bodies, forming an emotional bond that I had previously believed existed only in books and movies.

Fourteen months later, at our wedding reception, I stand and tell our assembled friends and family the story of how our relationship began in a broken-down elevator, and how—

Bing!

The doors slide open and she strides onto the first floor. "Have a good day," she sings to me, heading toward the conference rooms on the right.

I exit the elevator and stop, watching her walk away. (How I love watching her walk away.) My mind fumbles for the right words to say, the words that bring her back to me, that let her know how wonderful we would be together, how the great writers and poets of our time will write the story of our love, and how that story will be told in awe for generations.

"You, too," I say. I turn left and head toward the parking lot and a late lunch, wishing I worked in a taller office building.

Monday, July 25, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: Semicolons

I have a number of editorial peeves that fall on the S list. I'll go after some of them later in the week, but today, I'm just going to tackle the semicolon, the chimera of punctuation. It annoys me that some people are afraid to use semicolons. They're really not that difficult to understand, and they are really quite useful.

Semicolons

I've been a huge fan of Kurt Vonnegut my entire reading life, but he has given one bit of writing advice that I just can't swallow. "Do not use semicolons," he tells us. "They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college."

I think one of the reasons so many people have a problem with semicolons is that they're misnamed (the semicolons, not the people). In modern usage, the semicolon doesn't have anything at all in common with the colon except how it looks: It's a colon with a tail. People might understand the purpose and use of the semicolon if it were called, maybe, the semiperiod or semistop, or the metacomma or supercomma.

Why would these names make more sense? Because if you already know how a period and a comma work, these names can give you some glimpse into how this semicolon thing works.

The semicolon has only two uses: as a "second-level" comma, and as a "soft" period.

The Supercomma

If you've ever taken an algebra class, you should be fairly familiar with the idea of grouping in equations using parentheses, brackets, and sometimes braces. For example, keeping in mind the order of operations,

5 + 6 × 7 – 8 ÷ 2 = 43
but
5 + [6 × (7 – 8) ÷ 2] = –15

The parentheses and brackets allow you to nest individual mathematical statements, so that the final equation says what you want it to say. In the same way, English uses commas to group things together, so we can turn

Jack and Janet and Chrissy and Maddie and Dave and Moe and Larry and Curly
into the more manageable
Jack, Janet, Chrissy, Maddie, Dave, Moe, Larry, and Curly

But this still doesn't say what we want it to say. Nested within this list of eight names are three groupings that we can't separate using only commas. We need something more — in much the same way that the algebra equation used brackets instead of more parentheses.

Enter the semicolon or, in this case, the supercomma. It allows us to separate items in a list when those individual items themselves use commas, so that the following sentence can be easily understood, even to someone who has never seen Three's Company, Moonlighting, or The Three Stooges:

Three TV comedy groups who have no place on the silver screen — much less in 3D — are Jack, Janet, and Chrissy; Maddie and Dave; and Moe, Larry, and Curly.

That's the first and likely most common use of the semicolon, and a lot of people understand that. The second usage, though, is a bit trickier. At least, it is until you understand it.

The Semistop

A semicolon could also be thought of as a semistop (as opposed to full stop) when it's used for its other purpose: To separate two independent clauses* without using a conjunction. Why would you even want to do this? To show or imply a connection between the two clauses. To turn two statements into a single idea, showing cause and effect or some other relationship. To create subtext. Consider this:
Everyone treated the President like an old yet honored friend; only the President's friends could ensure that their children found work outside the mines.

See how the second half of the sentence colors the first half, creating motive and subtext, yielding a single sentence that tells you more than just what is stated in the two halves? You could use a period here instead, but that full stop would weaken the link between the two clauses. In the other direction, joining the two clauses with because would be too blatant and inelegant. The semistop — that is, semicolon — splits the difference perfectly.

And Then

I don't often see the semicolon misused. More prevalent is the use of a comma where a semicolon is called for — especially when then is involved. Take note: Independent clauses in a compound sentence are joined by a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, for, nor, so, yet). Then is not a coordinating conjunction; it's most often an adverb. Therefore, when you put then between two independent clauses, it should be preceded by a semicolon, not a comma. Or you can write it in other ways.

Take the case of Albus Severus Potter climbing onto the Hogwarts Express to start his first year of wizarding school. First, he waves goodbye to his parents and his little sister Lily. After that, he climbs onto the train. You could write this in a number of ways:

Correct: Albus waved goodbye to his family; then he boarded the train. (two independent clauses joined by a semicolon)
Correct: Albus waved goodbye to his family, and then he boarded the train. (two independent clauses separated by a comma and a coordinating conjunction)
Correct: Albus waved goodbye to his family and then boarded the train. (simple sentence with a compound predicate — that is, two verbs)
Correct: Albus waved goodbye to his family and boarded the train. (simple sentence with a compound predicate minus the adverb — if you really want to put a comma in there, read this to find out why you don't need it)
Incorrect: Albus waved goodbye to his family, then he boarded the train.

And that's it. The semicolon isn't a big mystery. It isn't some ancient rune or mystical symbol. It isn't an invention of sadistic grammarians. And it isn't anything you need to be afraid of.

*You remember independent clauses, right? A clause that has a complete subject and complete verb and that can stand on its own?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Friday Flash: The Darkness That Grows Within

The Darkness That Grows Within

or, Even Hypochondriacs Get Sick

or, It Isn't Just Depression


"You're just depressed."

"I am a little depressed, but it isn't just that."

"It makes sense," Don continued, ineffectually trying to slice through an apple with a plastic knife. "You spent a relaxing week backpacking through Vancouver, and now you're back at work. On a Monday. And it's raining. How was Vancouver, by the way?"

Arnold sighed. "Gorgeous."

"See?!" Don exclaimed. "As soon as you started thinking about your vacation, you smiled. Your face lit up. You weren't so depressed anymore. That's all it is: You're just sad to be back at work."

"It has been hard to get back into the swing of things. I can't get motivated to do anything at my desk," said Arnold, staring into his cup of warm soup as he stirred the spoon around and around. "But it isn't just that."

Don had given up trying to slice his apple and was spreading peanut butter directly on the apple's bright red — and now mangled — skin.

"I wasn't speaking metaphorically before," Arnold continued. "I really feel like there's something . . . black . . . inside me." He spread his fingers out on his chest. "And it's growing."

"Black," said Don through a mouth full of peanut butter and apple.

"I don't know how else to describe it. It's just . . . black. And growing."

"And it started before work this morning, right?"

"No. I first felt it Friday morning, the day after we got back. It only felt like a little, I don't know, annoyance then. Like the feeling that you've caught a cold but haven't really started feeling sick yet." He returned to staring into and stirring his soup, which seemed now the most unappetizing thing in the world. "By Saturday afternoon, I thought maybe I really did catch a cold, but I still wasn't showing any real symptoms."

"So you think you caught something on your last day of vacation, eh? Just in time for you to call in sick and put off coming back to work?" Don took another crunching bite of apple.

"I'm here aren't I?! I didn't call in sick!" Arnold let go of the spoon and pushed the bowl away. "Besides, I still don't have any symptoms. I'm not coughing or sneezing. No fever. I'm not bleeding out my ass or anything."

"Are you sure? Have you checked?" Don asked, grinning sarcastically.

Arnold rolled his eyes and gave Don the finger. "I just feel . . . I don't know . . . like there's something . . ."

"I know, 'something black inside of you that's growing'." Don rolled his eyes. "You're just depressed."

Through gritted teeth, Arnold growled, "It isn't just depr—"

With a sound like a sledgehammer smashing a watermelon, Arnold's chest exploded. Bone, blood, and flesh covered the table, mixed with the soup, and splattered the jar of peanut butter, Don's surprised face, the walls, and the floor of the nearly empty employee cafeteria. Arnold's body arched backward over his chair, his torn shirt absorbing the warm fluids that oozed from his open, mangled, empty chest.

On the table, a creature the size of a coffee mug shook itself clean, sending fresh drops of blood, bits of bone, and globs of Arnold's lungs around the room and causing its inscrutably black hair to bristle. One impossibly large yellow eye opened and stared up at Don, who, frozen in shock and surprise, still held his blood-and-peanut-butter-covered apple to his open mouth.

The creature's lips parted, revealing two rows of tiny, sharp teeth. "It isn't just depression," the thing said in a high, gravelly voice.

Don finally found the voice to scream, but the black thing that had grown inside Arnold didn't allow him to scream for long.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Communication Breakdown — Automobile Edition

No, I'm not going to rant about how horribly designed the tire pressure light on the dashboard is. (It really is, though. When it came on in my car, I had to go online to find out what it meant.)

But I do want to share with you two little communication-related nuggets of joy that I saw from my car.

First, on the way home from work today: In the rearview mirror, I saw the woman in the car behind me make air quotes with her free hand while she was talking on her cell phone.

Think about that: Air quotes, while she's talking on the phone. And by "free hand," I mean the hand that wasn't holding the phone — the one controlling the steering wheel.

People sometimes get lost in their own world when they're on their cell phones.

Second: If you have a sense of humor anything like mine, these signs, outside Fazoli's, might be the funniest signs in Indiana: