Category Archives: Nit-picking

In the news (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.”

In the news (Feb 7)


That Gerund Is Funky …

Language and usage in the news this week: an unfortunate subtitle fail by the BBC, an unusual style guide, a Superbowl ad that needed an edit, and further discussion about just how important French really is. Plus, this week’s weird word of the week …

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Oops! In a subtitling blunder, the BBC rang in the Chinese New Year by welcoming its viewers to the “year of the whores”, as The Independent gleefully reported.

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Continuing an ongoing argument about the importance of French and whether it’s a language in decline, Zach Simon in the Huffington Post writes a rebuttal to John McWhorter’s piece in The New Republic entitled, “Let’s Stop Pretending That French is an Important Language.” As Simon points out: “As the 9th most-spoken language in the world, it’s not as though French is going to go the way of Cherokee anytime soon.”

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One of my favorite articles of the year so far is this critique – an amusingly positive one — by The Guardian of Buzzfeed’s style guide, which the internet giant decided to share with the world this week. More on style guides are to come in an upcoming Glossophilia post.

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“Less bottles”? Really? Shouldn’t she have said “fewer bottles”? As Slate reported, Scarlett Johansson’s SodaStream ad could have done with a good edit.

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This week’s weird word of the week:

Callipygian: adjective: having beautifully proportioned or finely developed buttocks. From the Online Etymology Dictionary: “1800, Latinized from Greek kallipygos, name of a statue of Aphrodite at Syracuse, from kalli-, combining form of kallos “beauty” + pyge “rump, buttocks.” Sir Thomas Browne (1646) refers to “Callipygæ and women largely composed behinde.”

Firstly, first ever, and first and foremost: a superfluousness of firsts

adam&eveAdam and Eve: the first ever man and woman

First up: first ever. It’s one of my biggest pet peeves. I just can’t help it: when I see the words “first ever” used as an adjective, my skin crawls and my red pens stand on end.

First means first, second means second… (you get the idea). There’s no such thing as “slightly first”; it’s an absolute adjective like unique, complete, empty or dead that can’t be modified, diluted, or used comparatively. If something or someone is or came first, it can’t be made more so by adding ever; he can’t be “more first” than her (in the same way that she can’t be “more dead” than him — although that concept is now sadly up for argument, given recent heartrending stories in the news). So why the constant use of “first ever” — which seems especially to litter the language of PR and marketing? When I see that phrase preceding a premiere, debut, record-breaking achievement or any such definitive claim to fame, I just want to cry foul — although I can never help but wonder why it’s never hyphenated, as it presumably would or should be if it were “proper” … (There’s more below on ever used as an intensifier — although I still argue that you can’t intensify first.)

Secondly: firstly. As Bill Bryson says in his Dictionary of Troublesome Words, “the question of whether one may write firstly or not when beginning a list of points constitutes one of the more inane but most hotly disputed issues in the history of English usage. De Quincey called firstly “a ridiculous and most pedantic neologism'”. Strunk and White advise: “Unless you are prepared to begin with firstly and defend it (which will be difficult), do not prettify numbers with -ly.” Thirdly and lastly, Fowler sums up the argument: “The preference for first over firstly in formal enumerations is one of the harmless pedantries in which those who like oddities because they are odd are free to indulge, provided that they abstain from censuring those who do not share the liking.”

Now here’s another tautologous problem with first, in its role as an adverb. When it’s used with words like announce, conceive, create, or reveal — as in “there was an outcry when the statue was first revealed” — first can be superfluous. Surely something can’t be revealed or created twice, so how can it be first revealed? See below for a similar argument about the possible superfluousness of ever.

Lastly but not leastly: first and foremost. As Bill Bryson says succinctly: “Choose one.”

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“When will he ever finish that book?” One could argue that ever is superfluous in that context: take it away, and the meaning of the question — whether it’s rhetorical or not — is still clear. “Why did we ever start this discussion?” Fowler in his Modern English Usage was characteristically dismissive, describing it as “often used in uneducated or ultra-colloquial talk as an emphasizer of who, what, when, & other interrogative words, corresponding to such phrases in educated talk as who in the world, what on earth, where (can he) possibly (be?).” But there are those who argue that ever can be used effectively as an intensifier of interrogative words (although not for absolute adjectives or superlatives like first or largest, as in my first and foremost pet peeve above). Bill Bryson defends this usage eloquently, arguing first that it “has been well established for the better part of a century and can thus be defended on grounds of idiom.” He adds a second and “perhaps more important consideration, … that ever often adds a useful air of embracing generality. If I say, ‘Have you been to Paris?’ there is some ambiguity as to what span of time we are considering. If, however, I say, ‘Have you ever been to Paris?” you cannot doubt that I mean at any time in your life. In short, there may be a case for using ever carefully, even sparingly. To ban it outright is fussy and unidiomatic and can easily lead to unnecessary confusion.”


In the news (Jan 24)

TGIF: That Gerund Is Funky. Words and language in the news this week.
Plus the start of a new weekly series: WWW: Weird Word of the Week


On National Reading Day in the U.S. (Jan 23), Jon Stewart describes what a book is on the Daily Show. (Thanks to Grammarly on Facebook.)

Continue reading

The ubiquity of like


Don’t you just, like, love it when your witty Facebook post gets lots of likes? Like, doesn’t it make you feel like a social media king, and like everyone likes you? And did you happen to cringe reading that last clause: “make you feel like everyone likes you?”?

A few years ago in Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens examined, like, the unstoppable onslaught of like. “Many parents and teachers have become irritated to the point of distraction at the way the weed-style growth of “like” has spread through the idiom of the young. And it’s true that in some cases the term has become simultaneously a crutch and a tic, driving out the rest of the vocabulary as candy expels vegetables.” With its modern ubiquity, it now acts as not just a sentence filler but also as a colloquial quotative (“he was like ‘no way!'”), a discourse particle, an emphatic, a hedge, and a speech disfluency.

But let’s not, like, spoil the proverbial child by giving it too much ink here, considering how much love — or like — like already gets on the tongues and keyboards of millennials. I’m not going to, like, dwell on the use of like as any of the above, nor on its new role as a quantifiable measure of one’s online popularity. I’d rather look at its use as a subordinating conjunction — ie. before a verbal clause when “as if” or “as though” are considered either preferable or mandatory, depending on how much of a purist you are.

But before we go there, I did find it fascinating to learn from the Online Etymology Dictionary that the word like has been used as a “postponed filler (“going really fast, like”)” from 1778: it’s like really old — 18th-century old. As a presumed emphatic (“going, like, really fast”) it dates from 1950, introduced originally in counterculture slang and bop talk. And as a colloquial adverb it has a long and illustrious history (“He was like to lose his life in the one [battle] and his liberty in the other [capture], but there was none of his money at stake in either,” from Charles MacFarlane and Thomas Napier Thomson’s Comprehensive History of England published in 1792). So like‘s ubiquity is not as modern a phenomenon as many might think …

Now back to grammar and the modern day. It used to be that like had just two official roles in linguistic life (not counting the fillers and emphatics as described above): 1) as a verb (“I like this dessert”) and 2) as a preposition for comparisons (“that car is like a house”). But increasingly — and somewhat controversially — it has come to be used as a subordinating conjunction, preceding a verbal clause when “as” (“as if”, “as though”, “as it should”) has been historically prescribed. “I feel as though I’m going to be sick” will more likely be phrased nowadays as “I feel like I’m going to be sick”.

Wikipedia describes how this distinction first made its way into many people’s consciousness back in 1954, “when a famous ad campaign for Winston cigarettes introduced the slogan ‘Winston tastes good — like a cigarette should.’ The slogan was criticized for its usage by prescriptivists, the ‘as’ construction being considered more proper. Winston countered with another ad, featuring a woman with greying hair in a bun who insists that it ought to be ‘Winston tastes good as a cigarette should’ and is shouted down by happy cigarette smokers asking ‘What do you want — good grammar or good taste?'”

To 21st-century ears, like as a conjunction is no longer considered “bad grammar” as it obviously seemed to many in the Mad Men era — although to some purists (including myself), it still grates. For a word that has such positive connotations, it’s one that seems to commit some of the most egregious of linguistic crimes in its various guises. You could like argue that it’s become like the bad boy of the English language. And if you like like this post, please would you like like it on Facebook?

TGIF: That Gerund Is Funky (Dec 13)


Words and language in the news this week: a sign language interpreter meltdown; Yankee driving lingo; two tweets that could have used an edit; and Cormac McCarthy on punctuation …

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When the sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in Johannesburg started to “sign rubbish”, complaints started to flood in from deaf viewers around the world. According to the BBC, “Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen, the country’s first deaf female MP, tweeted: ‘ANC-linked interpreter on the stage with dep president of ANC is signing rubbish. He cannot sign. Please get him off.'” Thamsanqa Jantjie, the rogue interpreter, explained that he had a schizophrenic episode and started to hear voices in his head.

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BBC America’s Mind the Gap blog published a very useful British hitchhiker’s guide to understanding America’s driving lingo. From jaywalking to tailgating, you can get your Yankee drive-speak on.

*   *   *’s Lexicon Valley blog argued a case for the Oxford comma by publishing a Sky News tweet reporting on the Mandela memorial. “Top stories: World leaders at Mandela tribute, Obama-Castro handshake and same-sex marriage date set…” was the tweet. “A handshake and a proposal” was Slate’s interpretation of it.


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Cormac McCarthy takes a minimalist approach to punctuation. “James Joyce is a good model for punctuation. He keeps it to an absolute minimum. There’s no reason to blot the page up with weird little marks. I mean, if you write properly you shouldn’t have to punctuate.” Open Culture examines McCarthy’s three punctuation rules and how they all go back to Joyce.

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When the University of Michigan found out that it was ranked number 12 in a world ranking, it sent out this tweet:


Ooops! Not so hot in the spelling rankings, it seems …

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Parental advisory: inexplicit content


Content warnings and advisories aren’t always as explicit as they should be, given the explicit material they’re designed to protect our kids against. Often couched in ambiguous terms, they can leave much to the imagination or to broad interpretation — with sometimes dubious or downright silly results.

The ESRB (Entertainment Software Ratings Board) says that its ratings “provide concise and objective information about the content in video games and apps so consumers, especially parents, can make informed choices.” For games in its “Everyone 10+” category, it warns that the content “may contain … mild language and/or minimal suggestive themes.” Isn’t “mild language” what a toddler speaks when she’s just getting beyond the babbling stage? And as for “minimal suggestive themes”, are we talking about American works of art from the ’60s and early ’70s, or sparse interior decors?

A common warning for parents is that “mild peril” is contained in children’s movies. Is there really such a thing as “mild peril”? Peril, according to most dictionaries, means “serious and immediate danger”. Can serious and immediate danger be mild?

The Classification Board in Australia (where, incidentally, the censorship of video games and internet sites is said to be the strictest in the western world) classifies all material shown in movies, TV and videos. Its “M” rated material is “recommended for people with a mature perspective but is not deemed too strong for younger viewers. Language is moderate in impact.” How do I know if I or my child — or my spouse or parent, for that matter — have a mature enough perspective to view said M movie? And if its language is only moderate in impact, should we be looking for another movie with a better screenplay?

Here’s another good one: “adult situations”. To quote Calvin and Hobbes (the cartoon characters created by Bill Watterson): Calvin: The TV listings say this movie has “adult situations.” What are adult situations? Hobbes: Probably things like going to work, paying bills and taxes, taking responsibilities… Calvin: Wow, they don’t kid around when they say “for mature audiences.”

According to the MPAA classification system, one of the criteria for the R rating is “pervasive language”. The new movie Nebraska is rated R “for some language”. Don’t most movie screenplays nowadays have “pervasive language” or “some language”? I thought they all did, at least since talkies were invented. Screenwriters beware: you might just write and rate yourself out of a job.

“Contains behaviour which could be imitated” is one of the BBC’s online content advisories. Well, first of all it’s mildly perilous grammatically: it should more properly read “contains behaviour that could be imitated” (better conjunction). But that’s for another discussion. Can’t a lot of behavior that you see online be imitated — whether or not you even want to try and be like Jack Donaghy in 30 Rock or Luke Skywalker in Star Wars? This advisory sounds more like an offering to stand-up comedians than a warning to parents of young and impressionable children.

Parental advisories for Batman Begins (and many other movies) warn of “revealing clothing” and “dysfunctional relationships”. Whoa. But do kids really need to follow the adventures of the caped crusader in order to catch a glimpse of either of those mildly perilous phenomena? I’d say they’re more like blanket content advisories for 21st-century life.

Here’s one of Wikipedia’s several stern disclaimers. It isn’t inexplicit or vague in any way, but it does seem just a little over the top, if not perhaps tongue-in-cheek:


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Moving on from the (presumably) unintentionally inexplicit warnings, here are some spoof advisories that were designed for our entertainment. Warning: explicit content follows. (And I’m not being ironic; it really does.)

The musical show Avenue Q has warnings such as “PARENTAL ADVISORY: 60% adult situations and 40% foam rubber”, and “Not appropriate for children due to language and adult content such as full puppet nudity”.

Another show, Jersey Boys, offers this disclaimer: “This musical contains smoke, loud gunshots, strobe lights, and authentic, offensive Jersey vocabulary”.

Monty Python’s The Album of the Soundtrack of the Trailer of the Film of Monty Python and the Holy Grail contains this warning: “There is little or no offensive material [on this record] apart from four cunts, one clitoris, and a foreskin. And, as they only occur in this opening introduction, you’re past them now.”

One of the tag-lines for the 2008 movie An American Carol reads: “WARNING! This movie may be offensive to children, young people, old people, in-the-middle people, some people on the right, all people on the left, terrorists, pacifists, war-mongers, fish mongers, Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, agnostics (though you’d have to prove it to them), the ACLU, liberals, conservatives, neo-cons, ex-cons, future cons, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarian, people of color, people of no color, English speakers, English-as-a-second language speakers, non-speakers, men, women, more women, & Ivy League professors. Native Americans should be okay.”