A grammarian’s New Year’s resolutions

Resolutions #1Most New Year’s resolutions revolve around eating, drinking, moving one’s body, moving up the career ladder, or finally writing that treatise about The Meaning of Life and becoming rich and famous. How often do we reflect on our linguistic lapses and resolve to do better next year? Not very, I would guess. Which means we’re missing a golden opportunity to make resolutions that actually stick, losing a subject-verb disagreement habit being an arguably easier proposition than losing 30 pounds.

So here I go – my baker’s dozen (a senescent expression meaning 13, hearkening back to the kinder, gentler era when smiling bakers added a free dinner roll to all orders of 12) grammatical resolutions for 2013.

  1. I will avoid clichés like the plague.
  2. I will seek to find words other than prepositions to end sentences with.
  3. I will make a special point to avoid repetition whenever possible, with the possible exception of repetition for pointed effect.
  4. Run-on sentences will top my verbal no-fly list, with some latitude for breaking rules, of course, poetic license being a valid escape clause, all in moderation I say.
  5. I could care less whether a misuse of language has crept into the lexicon – my own criteria for usage is more stringent.
  6. I shall delete all bureaucratic, officious phraseology from my inventory of admissible utilization.
  7. I will no longer use redundancies anymore.
  8. I will keep my manuscripts free of malapropisms, for my predecessors’ sake as well as my own. Resolutions #3
  9. My personal branding will include an avoidance of business buzzwords, which aren’t all that impactful and don’t bring much value-add to our knowledge economy.
  10. I will be punctilious, about punctuation.
  11. Like a gardener pruning a rosebush, I will renounce the gratuitous use of similes.
  12. I will prooofread more carefully.
  13. I will eschew all sloppy uses of English and thereby become one of the best writers around, bar none.

How about you? Any English errors to expunge? Linguistic lapses to lay to rest? Aberrations to abjure from your authorial arsenal? Curious minds want to know.

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EGG on my face

In case my previous posts have given any of you the idea that I float peremptorily above all English errors like some haloed celestial body, this post should lay the notion to rest.

Of all the errors that have passed unfiltered through my editorial sieve, three still haunt me, even though many moons have passed since their commission. TEgg on face #2he first is the most painful, because it lives on for all to read (or more likely not read) in my first book, Tokyo, My Everest. In my initial manuscript I inserted an A between the M and C of McDonald’s, the fast-food chain’s flagship Big Mac having evidently crossed my spelling wires. Much as I’d like to blame my publisher’s copy-editing process for the failure to catch the error, I was part of that process: as per usual custom, I had the opportunity to proofread the galleys. How hard would it have been for me to flip through the phonebook in my kitchen (or walk to the computer in my living room – I already had Internet by this time) to check the spelling? Point being, I guess, that when we think we know something we don’t check. A lesson to keep in mind when I review the galleys of my next, mega-bestselling book (the manuscript of which has yet to see completion).

Going back a few more years, during my ill-fated year as managing editor for a medical publishing company, my supervisor put me in charge of a periodical called Lipidology, about cholesterol and other artery-clogging niceties. One day said supervisor walked into my office (well, cubicle) and asked me how it came to pass that the latest issue bore the title of Lipodology. When I told him I had no idea, he whipped out the proofreading form with my sign-off on it. Yup, my unmistakeable signature. I believe this was the first in a series of events that led to my euphemistic “dismissal without cause” from the company. (As it turned out, several editors in the organization rehired me to do freelance work for them after I left, so I should really thank my erstwhile employer for setting my freelance career in motion.)

Rewinding the clock still further, I had a part-time gig as a secretary for a lawyer whom I later dubbed the Spelling Nazi, so obsessive was he about orthography. Evidently disillusioned by years of dictating copy to incompetent spellers, he would overenunciate all the words he spoke into his Dictaphone (yes, this is going back a few years), as in: “The princip-aaaal eeee-ffect of this verdict was to sep-aaaah-rate intent from action.” Annoyed at being presumed illiterate right at the starting gate, I assured him I had no need for such vocal pyrotechnics – and then proceeded to misspell the word “borough” a few days later. (I spelled it “burrough,” which still makes me want to burrow into a hole.)

So there you have it. When I accuse the kettle of being black, I speak as a well-used pot.

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The tally

Tally #2If you went to the trouble of tallying up the redundancies in my previous post, I’ll add you to my list of kindred spirits. Did anyone come up with forty-four? I’ve explained my thinking for some of the more egregious and less obvious ones.

  • Attentive eye for detail: If an eye for detail is not attentive, it’s not an eye for detail.
  • Usually tend to find: If you tend to find something, you usually find it.
  • Increasingly more: This baffling construction has been cropping up increasingly often.
  • Pretend like: To pretend is to act like, just as to resemble is to look like. And we don’t say “He resembles like a monkey,” do we?
  • Close scrutiny: Same principle as “attentive eye for detail.”
  • The reason…is because: The reason is the because.
  • No longer…anymore: The fact that these words were separated by “teach even the basic essentials” may have concealed the crime.
  • Directly confronting: Done any indirect confronting lately?
  • End result: This one is so common as to seem correct, but it ain’t. A result is an end.
  • Usual custom: Custom means “usual practice.”
  • Zip my lips shut: If you figure out a way to zip your lips open, let me know.
  • Revert back: As opposed to reverting ahead, perhaps?
  • Actual fact: Anyone know of some non-actual facts? I may want to start a collection.
  • Visualize it in my mind’s eye: While you’re at it, let me know if you’ve figured out how to get your elbow or big toe to visualize something.
  • Contrasted against: The word “contrast” has “against” built into it (cf. pretend like), which is why we contrast with or to.
  • Plan ahead: Like “actual fact,” this one has become common enough to blend into the wall décor – which doesn’t make it any less objectionable. You can no more readily plan behind than you can revert ahead.Tally #3
  • Added bonus: A bonus is an added benefit. I suppose one could say “added bonus” to denote a second bonus, as in: “That lucky bastard got an end-of-year bonus from his supervisor and an added bonus from the vice-president,” but we know that’s not what people mean when they use the term.
  • I suspect…may continue: The word “suspect” already implies an uncertain (if probable) outcome. If you think there’s a good chance you’ll get a call from the hot dude you met in your advanced grammar class last week, there are two correct ways to express the sentiment: “I suspect he will call” or “He may call.” OK, there’s a third way: “It’s been two days and he hasn’t called yet, so he’s just not that into me.”
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Department of redundancy and superfluity

Redundancies are rife and rampant. This is hardly an unexpected surprise, given the excesses of today’s modern world. Some redundancies hit you over and above the head like a two-by-four. Others are more subtle, calling for an attentive eye for detail. When reading a magazine article, I usually tend to find at least one or more of these linguistic offenders. The surfeit of excess verbiage is making it increasingly more difficult for me to get through a whole book in its entirety. My only recourse is to pretend like these needless, expendable phrases don’t exist.

Clocking the time

The guiltiest culprits, naturally, are public servants, with their disgorgement of rules and regulations, foreign imports, and final outcomes. I suppose they think this sort of logorrhoea will help them ascend up the institutional ladder. For all I know, they’re required to take mandatory redundancy courses as part of their job description.

Close scrutiny reveals that the level of sloppiness in speech and writing is unprecedented until now. The reason, in my opinion, is because schools no longer teach even the basic essentials anymore. Many a time I’ve considered directly confronting teachers to call them out on a redundancy, but the end result would be an acrimonious relationship, so my usual custom is to zip my lips shut. At this point in time I’ll content myself with expressing my outrage through pen and pixel, but I do have future plans to contact the Person in Charge (There must be someone in charge, right?) to decry this scourge in our midst.

If only we could revert back to our past history, when men were men, women were women, and writing was writing. When contrasted against our glorious past, our current era certainly comes up short. In actual fact this mythical past has never existed, but it’s comforting to visualize it in my mind’s eye.

I suppose the solution to all this is to plan ahead, collaborate together, and summon our collective group will to give redundancy the heave-ho. Not only would government bureaucrats stop pestering us with their triplicate thoughts, but as an added bonus, newspaper articles would take a shorter duration of time to read. Sadly, however, I suspect the propensity toward excess verbosity may continue for some time to come.

Can you spot each and every redundancy in this post? (I’ll discuss the answers in my next installment.)

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Going, going, gone: the vanishing plural

In recent years, the U.S. print and broadcast media have been lamenting that Americans are losing their grasp of the plural. The same can be said for Canadians. The word fewer, for instance, has all but disappeared from common usage.  Even talking heads on CBC radio and television cheerfully expound on how “less people than ever have the stamina to finish a novel.”

Kay Bock, a leading U.S. psycholinguist, has researched the plurals of nouns and uncovered a growing confusion about how to use them. Classical grammar rules dictate that a subject should agree with a verb. In other words, if a subject is singular, the verb follows suit, and vice versa. Apparently this concept eludes the Android generation’s grasp. What people have taken to doing, Bock has found, is match the verb to the noun closest to it, regardless of its function in the sentence. Instead of the correct “the problem of illiterate media pundits has been growing,” they say “the problem of illiterate media pundits have been growing,” because “pundits” is the last word they uttered before having to decide on a verb.

And don’t get me started on Latin and Greek plurals. How many people on the planet still know that media and data are the plural forms of medium and datum? Not many in the Android generation, I’ll bet. Never trust someone under thirty, I’ve always said (well, since I turned thirty, at any rate; before that I lamented having missed Woodstock).

Some of my editors – the ones nearest and dearest to my heart – still insist on respecting the Latin origins of these words. I haven’t asked them how old they are, but I can tell from their world-weary voices that they saw the far side of thirty long before Google self-driving cars appeared on the scene.

As far as I can tell, even fewer people realize that Greek-derived words such as criteria and phenomena are plurals. To my ears, the correct singular forms of these words – criterion and phenomenon –  call up the majesty of ancient Greek and the glory of Hellenic civilization, and I’m mighty sorry to see them go. I imagine there isn’t (aren’t?) an abundance of us dead language purists left. In a hundred years we’ll be dead ourselves, and future generations will be free to jettison all pesky plurals from our sinking English ship. If they aren’t speaking in grunts by then.

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A day in the life of a word-nerd family

Some families focus their dinnertime conversation on sports, others on celebrities, still others on the housework and homework to be done. In our family, we talk about words: what they mean, where they come from –  and most of all, how they’re misused. If other families were privy to our table talk, I imagine they would consider it either comical, pointless, or fascinating, in an anthropological-researchy kind of way.

The other day we were all hanging out in the living room, each doing our own thing. About halfway through a magazine article, I came upon the following sentence: “The roots of their relationship trace back to a Neil Young tribute event that took place during the 2010 Cultural Olympiad in Vancouver.” Something snagged me about the sentence, so I reread it. Aha, I thought, it’s the juxtaposition of “roots” and “trace back.” Is that a redundancy?

I read the sentence out loud to my family. The conversation that ensued went something like this:

Tara (daughter): Yes, it’s redundant, because “roots” is the “back.” It’s like saying the roots go to the roots.

Drew (husband): But roots have two dimensions. You can trace a root from its beginning to its end. So I vote not redundant.

Me: Here’s another way to look at it. You could remove either “roots” or “trace back” and the sentence would still make sense. For example, you could say “the relationship has its roots in a Neil Young tribute” or “the relationship can be traced back to a Neil Young tribute.” You don’t need both terms, which means the construction is redundant.

Drew: I guess that makes sense. OK, I change my vote.

Jackson (son): I agree you don’t need both terms, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s superfluous to use them together.

Me: Sure it does. It’s like saying increasingly more. Either word would suffice, so pairing them is wrong.

Jackson: It’s not quite the same thing. “Roots” and “trace back” aren’t synonyms.

Tara: Come to think of it, it’s not so much a redundancy as a mistake in usage. It should be “the roots lie in,” or something like that.

This is the short version. The actual conversation took about twenty minutes.

When I told my daughter I was thinking of blogging about the incident, she tried to dissuade me. “You won’t be able to pull it off without sounding like you’re boasting,” she said.

I’ll let you be the judge.

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Blog #18: Think English grammar is hard? Try Japanese.

If possessive cases and subordinate clauses give you brain cramps, it’s safe to say you would have a hemorrhage if you had to deal with Japanese grammar.

Twenty-two years ago I moved to Tokyo and dove into the Japanese language. I soon learned that everything was backwards in Japanese. I mean that quite literally. To say “I went to the store to buy some milk” in Japanese, you would say “milk buy to store to went. “I think I caught a cold” becomes “cold caught, think.” Note the absence of pronouns. Japanese words for I, you, he and she do exist, but most speakers don’t bother with them. We’re supposed to figure all that out from context.

Don’t get me wrong. I adored the language. After a few months of immersion I became quite adept at it and was able to carry on decent conversations with my Japanese friends. When one of them told me I sounded Japanese on the phone, I walked on air for days. But even after I became conversationally fluent, the language retained a fundamental opacity for me.

A textbook I read called it an agglutinative language – a wonderful word, though I’d be hard-pressed to explain exactly what it means – in contrast to the more structural languages of the west. In the climate of collective self-doubt that prevailed in Japan after World War II, some Japanese scholars questioned whether their language had the precision to convey scientific thought. They needn’t have worried: the past fifty years of Sony and Yamaha products have settled the question beyond any doubt. Still, there’s a lovely “floatiness” in the way the Japanese express themselves in everyday conversation, typically trailing off their sentences with but… I think… maybe… it could be…  or the proverbial shiyo ga nai, meaning “it can’t be helped.”

Not that the Japanese people I met found English syntax any less enigmatic. “I xenophilic,” one man beamed at me across a table at an English-speaking café, but didn’t have the syntactical chops to order a hamburger. And one of my friends told me she could not grasp the logic behind the question “Why don’t we go to the movies?” To her mind, it sounded like “Is there any good reason we’re not going to the movies?”

That said, my overall sense was that the Japanese language posed more of a barrier to English speakers than English did to the Japanese. When all is said and done, perhaps possessives are easier to master than inferring, from context, that your boyfriend is dumping you, not proposing. Or that “it’s a little bit…” means you’re about to get fired.

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