Category Archives: Nit-picking

Orange Is the New Grammar Nerd

Spoiler Entitlement

Is Piper Chapman — the most famous of Litchfield Federal Penitentiary’s inmates — a grammatical descriptivist or prescriptionist? Well, we got to find out recently during the second season of the Netflix runaway hit, Orange Is the New Black. Who would ever have guessed that we would discover something as important as Piper’s stance on grammar and usage?

Halfway through the seventh episode, during a meeting of Piper’s newly formed newsletter committee, a heated discussion about language usage unfolds (weirdly covering some of the same ground that Weird Al did in his Word Crimes video yesterday).

Flaca starts the nit-picking, identifying Lorna’s phrase “I could care less” in her newsletter contribution as being a grammar fail. “If you could care less, that means you still care. You know what I’m saying? Cause, like, it is possible for you to care less.”

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Weird Al gets it


It’s weird but true: “Weird Al” Yankovic actually gets grammar.

To promote his new album, Mandatory Fun, Weird Al is releasing a new video every day for each of the tracks on the CD. Today’s video is the song “Word Crimes” — a take-off of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”. It’s music to the ears of us grammar nerds.

“I hate these word crimes / Like ‘I could care less’ / That means you DO care”

“I don’t want your drama / If you really wanna / Leave out that Oxford comma”

And if you can’t stop committing these word crimes, then Al suggests that “you should hire / some cunning linguist / who can help you distinguish / what’s proper English …”

Anyone who understands the difference between less and fewer and that irony is not coincidence (yes, he manages to slip both those words crimes in) is a man after my own heart.

Knock yourself out, Glossophiles, and sing along with Al …

Hat-tip to Lil …

TGIF: That Gerund Is Funky (July 11)


TGIF. In the world of Glosso news this week: singular soccer grammar; rude Somali nicknames; a “Strunk and White for Spies”; and what makes American literature American?

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9Gag makes a gag about World Cup teams (or lack thereof) — but the comments underneath the soccer meme address a much more serious issue: football grammar. Germany have a team? Since when is a singular country a plural subject? Since when it comes to footie, it seems. (An earlier Glossophilia post also walked us through this strange anomaly found in soccer language, at least on one side of the pond …)

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In the news … (June 20)

tiny grass

TGIF: That Gerund Is Funky. Words and language in the news this week include a schoolboy pointing out BMW’s bad grammar; a prime minister’s spelling error and a president’s incorrect pronunciation; the relationship between texting and bad (or good) spelling; and some real Nazis who are also grammar nazis. Continue reading

A-verbing we will go


Benjamin Franklin called it “awkward and abominable” in a letter to the lexicographer Noah Webster in 1789. He was talking about “verbing”: the hijacking of nouns for use as verbs — a practice that dates back many centuries. Even Shakespeare was doing it back in about 1595 when the Duke of York reacted angrily to his nephew Bolingbroke’s greeting: “Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle!” Continue reading

To publish, or to release, a book?


Both my dad and one of my good friends are having their (respective) first books published in the coming weeks* — and the anticipation is killing me. I’ve got them both on pre-order, and amazon reminds me in red letters that “This title has not yet been released.” Released? Why not published?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb to release — in its transitive form — means (among other things) “publish or make available for publication (a document, piece of information, etc.); make available to the public (a film, recording, etc.).” The Oxford American Dictionary is a little more specific: “4. allow information to be generally available. 5. make a movie or recording available to the public.” It’s curious that neither definition offers the book as an example of this verb’s object. We’re long used to the idea of films or CDs making their public debuts in the form of a release — and indeed, movies can also “go on general release”. Both definitions above also make references to “information” being made available — but this to my mind means something quite different from the act of publishing a book or other material. To publish, according to the OED, is “to prepare and issue (a book, journal, piece of music, or other work) for public sale”.

I work in the world of music publicity, where I regularly issue press or news releases and I talk about CDs (and sometimes DVDs) being released. In the former case we’re “releasing” news and information that has, at least implicitly, been kept under wraps and from public knowledge until the appropriate time. I would argue that this sense of the verb release ties in logically with its other meanings: “to set someone free from imprisonment or confinement; free someone from a duty; allow to move freely.” Note that the OAD definition above “allows” information to be made available. It certainly implies that information that was previously restricted is at last being unleashed or revealed.

Granted, you could stretch that idea and claim that a book is being kept under wraps while it passes through the publication process, but it’s really not the same idea. So what accounts for this fairly recent phenomenon (or at least I think it’s fairly recent: please correct me if I’m wrong) of using publish and release interchangeably?

I have a few thoughts; feel free to disagree with me or to suggest other ideas.

First, is it possible that we’ve become so used to the idea of seeing, reading or hearing something the moment it becomes available — whether it’s a piece of news/gossip, a new episode or series on Netflix, or a downloadable track — that just the act of accessing or obtaining it is almost as important as the thing itself? The word release has an immediacy and even a sense of revelation that publish just can’t compete with, and we’re hungry for whatever is brand new.

Or is it something to do with the standard availability of audio and digital versions of a book, whose publication nowadays is technically more akin to a movie or CD release, given that it’s downloadable and delivered directly to your screen or device of choice?

Another related idea is that book publishers and retailers are trying to market their product as an item of leisure and entertainment — aligning it in the consumer’s mind more with movies and music and less as a category in its own right. Especially now that we’re one-stop shopping at online retailers, we want to load all our new releases into our virtual shopping baskets — whether we end up watching, listening to or reading them once they’re in our clutches.

The word publish might just have become too old-fashioned for the modern young reader-slash-consumer. It conjures up dusty images of paper, ink and printing presses, pesky nit-picking editors, and an interminable wait that guarantees it will be out of date before it even lands on the doormat (even if it is a timeless novel). The modern-day book is hip, fresh, immediate and current: it’s ‘released’ instantaneously and accessed with the touch of a button. Why would anyone consider publishing anything any more?

Damian Fowler’s Falling Through Clouds is published by St. Martin’s Press on April 29; Brian Barder’s What Diplomats Do is released on July 16 by Rowman & Littlefield.

TGIF: That Gerund Is Funky (April 11)


An endangered species?

TGIF: That Gerund Is Funky …

The weird word of the week is incarnadine: see definition below. And in the news this week: a grammatical bank robber; a grammatically incorrect and insolent student; no freedom for the Eskimos; some extinct and endangered names; and some bananarama …

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An English teacher who received a rude, expletive-filled letter from one of his or her disgruntled students took a red pen and returned it with corrections. The closing comment? “Please use your education appropriately. Proofreading takes five minutes and keeps you from looking stupid.” The Telegraph (and lots of other publications) had the story.

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There isn’t an Inuit word for freedom; the closest they come is annakpok which means “not caught”. The BBC included this fact in its freedom season.

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Bananas: did you know that a bunch of bananas is called a hand and that individual bananas are called fingers? I didn’t either … But mental_floss did.

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Do you know anyone called Fanny, Gertrude, Gladys, Margery, Marjorie, Muriel, Cecil, Rowland, Willie, Bertha or Blodwen? Probably not — at least not in the UK — since they are now all “extinct” in that county. None have been recorded in the latest record of births. Clifford, Horace, Harold, Doris, Norman and Leslie are all endangered, so think about them when you’re next naming a baby, if you want to keep those names alive. The Telegraph reports.

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A bank robber in Denver seems to have left his (or her) mark with grammatically immaculate demand notes. Local law enforcement officials have named the suspect (who is still on the lam) the ‘Good Grammar Bandit’.  “It’s well punctuated, there’s proper sentence structure, the spelling is correct,” FBI Denver spokesman Dave Joly told ABC News. “He did a nice job.”

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Weird word of the week: incarnadine: adj – 1. flesh-colored; 2. crimson or blood-red.

“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my  hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.”
— Shakespeare, Macbeth Act II

Thusly, prior to and commence: a posey of pomposity


I think we all know at least one person who speaks as though they’re addressing a courtroom or their own nation  — even when they’re in the line for the bathroom or firing off a hasty text. Three tell-tale signs of linguistic pomposity are the words thus (or, even worse, thusly), commence, and prior to — all of which have perfectly sound and simple synonyms without all the airs and graces. Let’s see what some of today’s — and yesterday’s — linguists have to say about them.

Thus (or thus far): Thus, so the OED says succinctly, is “now chiefly literary or formal”. Thus, unless you’re Shakespeare or Chief Whip, use so. “Some people think ‘thus far’ is too snobby or stuffy, but in terms of meaning, it’s the same as ‘so far’.” So says the YUNiversity of Grammar.

Thusly: A couple of years ago, the New York Times‘s After Deadline blog explained why thusly just isn’t a viable word. ““Thus,” meaning “in this way” or “therefore,” is an adverb. “-Ly” is a suffix that turns an adjective into an adverb. Since “thus” is already an adverb, it has no need for “-ly.” So “thusly” is unnecessary — colloquial at best, illiterate in the view of many readers.”

As Mark Davidson says in his book Right, Wrong and Risky: “Thusly gets almost no respect … You need supreme self-confidence to use this much-maligned variant of the adverb thus. Thusly, which word sleuths suspect was coined in the mid-19th century as a humorous American variant of thus, has been taken seriously by almost nobody in America’s usage establishment. Descriptions of thusly have ranged from “superfluous” (Theodore M. Bernstein’s Careful Writer) to “an abomination” (William and Mary Morris’ Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage).”

Prior to: “You are committing an offense against English if you use the phrase prior to as a substitute for the preposition before, according to the “Language Corner” of the Columbia Journalism Review,” reports Davidson. “What in heaven’s name is wrong with before?” Enough said on that subject …

Commence: As Barrie England commented (I thought rather wittily) on StackExchange about the use of commence instead of begin, “My entirely intuitive thought is that begin is less formal than commence. Dylan Thomas began his play for voices, ‘Under Milk Wood’, with the words ‘To begin at the beginning.’ He didn’t, with good reason, write ‘To commence at the commencement.’”

Commence, which at one time was described by the OED as “precisely equivalent to the native begin“, has been variously described as a “formal”, “fancy” or “stilted” alternative; Merriam-Webster acknowledges that it is often considered “pretentious”, “old-fashioned”, “inappropriate”, “bookish”, or “pedantic”. As Longman pointed out, even back in 1874 George Eliot used the word ironically in Middlemarch: “Things never began with Mr. Borthrop Trumbull; they always commenced, both in private and on his handbills.”

Fowler did concede that certain circumstances prescribe the use of the more formal alternative: “In official announcements commence is appropriate: the play-bill tells us when the performance will commence, though we ask each other when it begins. The grave historical style also justifies commence, & historians’ phrases, such as commence hostilities, keep their form when transferred to other uses, though we begin, & do not commence, a quarrel; similarly we commence operations, but merely begin dinner.”


About these “formal words” generally, Fowler in his Modern English Usage offered his own typically quirky explanation. “There are large numbers of words differing from each other in almost all respects, but having this point in common, that they are not the plain English for what is meant, not the form that the mind uses in its private debates to convey to itself what it is talking about, but translations of these into language that is held more suitable for public exhibition. We tell our thoughts, like our children, to put on their hats & coats before they go out; we want the window shut, but we ask if our fellow passenger would mind its being closed; we think of our soldiers as plucky fellows, but call them in the bulletins valiant troops. These outdoor costumes are often needed; not only may decency be outraged sometimes by over-plain speech; dignity may be compromised if the person who thinks in slang writes also in slang; to the airman it comes natural to think & talk of his bus, but he does well to call it in print by another name.”

“Thus far, with rough and all-unable pen,
Our bending author hath pursu’d the story,
In little room confining mighty men,
Mangling by starts the full course of their glory.”

— William Shakespeare, Henry V

Slated, capped and palaver: what do they mean to you?


If a yoghurt is “slated for Sochi”, does that mean it failed to tickle the tastebuds of Russian athletes, or that it’s on board the supply vessel heading for the Olympic village? Hmmm. It probably depends on whether it was an American or a Brit using that rather strange turn of phrase about that particular foodstuff. (And someone did actually say that in print.) If something was capped in England, it was probably costing too much money, but to Americans it might well have been leading up to something even better. And whereas a palaver on either side of the Atlantic is much ado about nothing, it’s merely a discussion among Yanks but more of a big nuisance to the Brits.

Below are the subtly different definitions of these words determined by who is uttering them, along with some examples recently published in the media. (Except where stated, the definitions are from Oxford Dictionaries — the British-English and American-English versions.) Because the words are used differently — contextually and linguistically — by Americans and Brits, there isn’t usually any confusion or ambiguity when they’re being communicated to trans-Atlantic counterparts; indeed, at this point both meanings are pretty well understood, if not in actual usage, on either side of the pond (at least in the case of slated and capped), even if they might still give pause. To my mind, a performance that has been slated — even if it is for a future date — still sounds like something not to get excited about.


British: “criticize severely”. Tom Service, writing about a Bruckner symphony in The Guardian, wrote that “a contemporary critic slated its ‘nightmarish hangover style’, but Bruckner’s last completed symphony contains music of sheer, breathtaking magnificence.”

American: “schedule; plan”. In an NBC News headline, some Chobani yoghurt “slated for Sochi [was] held up at U.S. customs”.


American: “provide a fitting climax or conclusion to; follow or reply to (a story, remark, or joke) by producing a better or more apposite one”. Discussing Russia’s figure-skating team winning the gold medal in Sochi yesterday, AP sports writer Barry Wilner wrote: “It was victory capped by the freshness of Lipnitskaia.”

British: (Cambridge Dictionaries): “to put a limit on the amount of money that can be charged or spent in connection with a particular activity.” In The Guardian, the UK’s health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, was quoted as saying that “with hindsight, she wished GPs’ earnings had been capped.”


British: “prolonged and tedious fuss or discussion”. (Commonly used in the phrase “what a palaver”.) In the Evening Standard, gallery co-owner Tamara Beckwith, referring to selfies, was quoted as saying: “I’ve tried taking one and it was such a palaver.” Reporting on supermodel Naomi Campbell’s refusal to use her allocated dressing room for the National Television Awards, the Kildare Nationalist quoted a source telling The Sun newspaper: “What a palaver. Apparently Naomi wants something more luxurious so the team have had to scrabble around trying to find something suitable nearby.”

American English: “prolonged and idle discussion; verb – to talk unnecessarily at length.” In a report on the recent debate on creationism between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, the New Republic’s writer said: “My friend said that no, Ham wasn’t lying—he truly believed the palaver he was spewing.”

Strangely, the Brits seem to have broadened the definition of this word, which remains similar to its original meaning on American shores. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, palaver dates from 1733 (implied in palavering), “talk, conference, discussion,” sailors’ slang, from Portuguese palavra “word, speech, talk,” traders’ term for “negotiating with the natives” in West Africa, metathesis of Late Latin parabola “speech, discourse,” from Latin parabola “comparison”. Meaning “idle talk” first recorded 1748. The verb is 1733, from the noun. Related: Palavering.”