Pet peeves and sticky wickets

pet peeveMany of us have grammar or English usage pet peeves. One of mine is just between you and I. Having a pet peeve is fine. If you plan to go around ranting about it though, you might want to make sure it’s wrong.

I once knew a man who was skilled at flying airplanes, but his pet peeve was the construction, “I gave her a present.” He proudly insisted it was incorrect grammar and should always be, “I gave a present to her.” Apparently they don’t teach you about indirect objects in Airline Captain School.

Paul, a former co-worker of mine, disliked the superfluous of, as in “He’s so good of an editor that we should hire him.” He cleverly worked one into every email as a joke.

The superfluous of goof occurs in a noun phrase when you compare something using as, too, how, or so. The word of follows the adjective in the phrase. But of is a preposition, and it has no function in a noun phrase. Although it sounds awkward, most of us aren’t sure why it’s wrong—or worse yet—what to do about it. That’s the sticky wicket part. In most cases, you just leave out the word of. But that creates a sentence that, while correct, sounds uppity or pretentious to some people:

He’s so good an editor that we should hire him.
How do you express the same thought correctly without sounding pompous? Here are some problematic sentences and a few ways to improve them:

She’s as good of a dancer as any of the others.
She’s as good as any of the other dancers.
She dances as well as any of the others.

How great of a quarterback is he?
How great is he as a quarterback?
As quarterbacks go, how great is he?

You have too negative of an attitude.
Your attitude is too negative.
Try to be more positive.

We had so good of a time at the concert!
We had such a good time at the concert!
What a good time we had at the concert!

The superfluous of is one of the easiest sticky wickets to write around. Don’t get stuck in an imaginary corner when the way out is so simple.

This one’s for you, Paul. So funny of a guy!

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Are we getting dumber?

synonym rollsStatistics show that American children are falling behind their counterparts in other countries. Math scores, language skills, knowledge of science and history … our future would seem to be in the hands of the ill-prepared and under-educated. “They” say our youngsters’ minds have been so numbed by video games and junk food that we’re all doomed.


As adults, we’d like to think our generations were smarter. If that’s true, why do we seek help from eight-year-olds to program our iPhones and DVRs? Perhaps children are becoming smart in different ways.

People have always poked fun at village idiots. But Facebook, Twitter, and online comment boxes provide access to millions of them with a single click, swipe, or tap. It’s possible that Autocorrect was responsible for some of these, but Twitter has given us:

  • I can never pay attention when I do my homework I must have 80HD….
  • Every year we learn about the hollow cost in school….
  • Rosetta Stone did not sit on that bus for you to be….
  • Ima give em a minute then I tell em good writtens….

OK, so these comments demonstrate a shocking lack of spelling, grammar, history, and common sense. Maybe it was always out there, but we just couldn’t see it. The Internet is a super-magnifying reflective surface. You think you look pretty good, ready to walk out the door. Then you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror with every enlarged wrinkle, spot, and imperfection, and want to go back to bed.

Maybe our memories are a little airbrushed because we saw what we wanted to see. Schools emphasized math, spelling, and other basic skills. No calculators, spelling checkers, or instant encyclopedias for us! We learned to work square roots by hand and compose paragraphs of more than 140 characters. Then again, we didn’t need instant mental recall of invisible decision trees involving the nested processes and hierarchical operations for hundreds of apps, steps, and key sequences.

Still, it would be nice if every child learned to spell and construct a decent sentence. It might not make them smarter, but it would help with their selfie steam.

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The decimate debate

wolf2Grammar and usage purists like to argue about what is correct and what isn’t. But unlike simple computational math, English embraces shades of gray between black and white. Accepted usage constantly changes, as do the sources cited as final authority.

That’s why we can program a calculator to find a multiply-by-zero error buried in a complicated proof, but we can’t agree on the rules for an infallible grammar checker.

The original meanings of many Latin-based words, for example, have evolved over time. Hundreds of years ago, the word decimate referred to the killing of one-tenth (from the Latin, deca-) of a Roman legion as punishment for disloyalty or cowardice. Now the word is used to mean, in a general sense, kill, destroy, or eliminate a large portion.

A reporter announces that a tornado has decimated a small town, and critics come out of the woodwork to snipe, “Oh really? Exactly one-tenth of the houses were destroyed?” They often suggest devastated as a better word choice. Although both words can be used to describe property damage, devastate can also connote overwhelming shock or grief: “The residents of the small town were devastated by their loss.”

Unless your audience includes Grammar Police types, you’re probably safe with either decimate or devastate in reference to significant destruction. You could even say, “A nasty flu epidemic decimated (or devastated) our team just before the championship game.” But beware of a third word that sounds similar to, but is not interchangeable with, the first two: desecrate (to violate or disrespect a sacred place or thing).

I once read an article that described a storm as desecrating a town. Unless the storm sprayed racist graffiti on a holy shrine, I’m guessing the writer meant decimate.

Just remember the story of The Three Little Pigs. The big, bad wolf did not decimate, devastate, or desecrate any of the pigs’ houses. So if your dwelling falls victim to a violent wind, you might just want to say:

It huffed and it puffed and it blew my house down.

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Talking within your headlights

funny tombstoneThe phrase “Driving within your headlights” means that at night you should slow down and be prepared to stop if you encounter an obstacle within your range of vision. If you  suddenly see a deer in the road, you have time to brake and avoid an accident.

Think of your mind as the headlights and your mouth as the brake. If you’re talking to a large group of people or – heaven forbid – on radio or television, your mind might tell you to use a fancy word guaranteed to make you sound intelligent. But somewhere between that thought and your mouth is a filter that says, in effect, “Wait! Are you sure that’s the right word?”

If neglected, that filter becomes clogged with years of accumulated blunders. If you (metaphorically) drive a military assault vehicle and no one dares to correct you, you’re probably talking through a filter full of flattened deer, raccoons, squirrels, and skunks. People might secretly giggle, but they’re not going to tell you.

Today I heard a reporter for a major television news network say a crowd was shouting epitaphs at a Muslim woman. I’ll assume you know he meant epithets – in this case, racial slurs not messages on tombstones.

Famous epitaphs come to mind: The beat goes on (Sonny Bono) and That’s all, folks! (Mel Blanc), for example. Grave marker messages can be heartfelt or clever, but I can’t think of any that would serve as nasty insults to a perfect stranger.

The bigger the audience, the more you need to pay attention to that filter. If necessary, slow down and dial it back to Cautious. If you’re only half-sure that big word is correct, substitute one you’re 100% sure is correct. You know thousands of words. Surely there’s one in there somewhere that will do the job. Oh – and you can increase the range of your headlights by building your vocabulary.

If you need a reminder, imagine an angry mob trying to heckle a victim with cries of:

Rest in peace!
In memoriam!
You angel in heaven!
Go home to the Lord, beloved sister!

Epitaphs make even worse epithets than epithets make epitaphs.

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Spellchecker won’t help you

spell check3

Some of the funniest mistakes we read online appear to be the result of too much dependence on Spellcheckers. Writers scan their work quickly and, not seeing any red underlines, assume all is well. But the writer, a human, has to be smarter than the Spellchecker, a machine.

The word you type might be spelled correctly, and it might also be the wrong word. Isn’t that when the Grammar checker steps in? Don’t count on it.

In just the past week I’ve read these gems online:

  • He always had such a good since of humor … (sense of humor)
  • She’s dreaming of a ball gown, covered with glittering sequence … (sequins)
  • We can’t use that material because it’s copy written … (copyrighted)
  • The house is located on a shady boulevard with flowers planted in the medium … (median)
  • No other brand offers the breath of options that we do … (breadth)

It’s baffling that so many people who claim to be (or want to be) writers express themselves badly in social media and other web-based outlets. Perhaps it’s because there’s no oversight and anything goes.  <Insert human editor here.>

Articles about celebrities are the most appalling … not because of their content alone, but because of the misuse of common words. And in opinion pieces, the number of third-grade errors is often directly proportional to the vehemence of their prose. Does it really matter? I mean, if people get the gist of what you’re trying to say?

Suggestion: If you want to persuade the world to accept your point of view, make sure your writing doesn’t repel them with silly mistakes. Even if Spellchecker doesn’t flag them.

It’s doubtful that any literate person will be swayed by this Spellchecker-approved argument:

If you’re opinion is that they’re candidate is better then mine, were going to have too disagree. Their isn’t enough space two explain why your so wrong. It’s to bad but there so dumb were just on different sides.

The sentiment might have merit (and nothing was flagged as misspelled), but I would stop reading after the third word.

The lesson? Read, think, remember your third-grade teacher … and if in doubt, look it up.

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Serial, comma, killers

Serial-CommaIf you’re a professional writer, editor, or just a grammar and usage enthusiast, you’re bound to have a strong opinion about the Oxford (or serial) comma. If you’re a normal, happy person, you probably don’t care.

For those who don’t care, the serial comma appears just before the and in a series of more than two items.

Example: The sandwich selections include tuna salad, roast beef, ham, and cheese.

Serial comma fans argue that omitting it changes the meaning. Without the comma, the ham and cheese end up in the same sandwich:

The sandwich selections include tuna salad, roast beef, ham and cheese.

You might be forced to care about the serial comma if you’re governed by a style guide (usually a massive document that spells out the rules for every imaginable writing situation). Large companies often require all employees to adhere to these guidelines, and most employees rigorously ignore them.

Some company style guides state, “We do not use the serial comma!” leaving no doubt that few are lukewarm on this question. If there is an online dating service for punctuation nerds (and there probably is), I’m sure the Oxford comma preference is a deal-breaker.

The argument for leaving it out has always baffled me. Are we saving ink? Column space? No, the objection seems to be that it can imply an appositive relationship between the item it follows and the item before that. Here’s a well known example:

I met with Lincoln, a rhinoceros, and Washington.

No reasonable person would suspect the writer of calling Lincoln a rhinoceros. If the audience is assumed to be unreasonable, perhaps it’s better to rewrite the sentence.

I met with two dead presidents and a zoo animal.

For all the vitriol aroused by this innocent little punctuation mark (and I’ve seen pedants nearly come to blows over it), I’ve often wondered why someone doesn’t broker a peace treaty with the rewrite-the-sentence compromise. If the sentence is so fragile that only a comma stands between sense and nonsense, maybe it’s a bad sentence. The appositive argument addresses something that happens only rarely, but eliminating the comma in all cases results in more harm than good.

Heated disagreements happen when someone insists that we must choose one of these two options instead of using our common sense. If you’re determined not to compromise, be aware that, of the two, always leaving out the serial comma offers the greater potential for misunderstanding. These three examples have been widely used to demonstrate What Happens when you indiscriminately omit all serial commas:

“I’d like to thank my parents, Jesus and Oprah Winfrey.”
“This award is dedicated to my good friends, Young Jeezy and God.”
“We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.”

Take that, serial killers!

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Writing around whomever

detourJohn Greenleaf Whittier said, Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, “It might have been.”

To paraphrase Whittier, “Of all words neither bright nor clever, the most egregious is whomever.”

I don’t wish to participate in a debate over whether it’s the object of a verb or the subject of a dependent clause. I don’t really care, and most people would remain unconvinced if I argued the point anyway. It’s simply an ugly, pretentious-sounding interruption in the flow of thought and rhythm of the sentence. And if you use it, half of your audience will think you’re wrong, no matter what.

Whomever has a way of popping up in the middle of a thought, derailing the reader’s attention for a moment. Wait – is that – no, or is it? I’m not sure. What were we talking about?

It’s a toe-stubber. Like saying, “That’s a whole nother matter.” Nother? Whomever would say that is an imbecile.

We understand whoever (without the m) as the subject of a sentence or clause, but whomever is one of those words (like utilize) that seems to have no reason to exist. There is always a clearer, more graceful way to express your thought than utilizing whomever.

Here are some ways to execute a nifty detour around the problem:

Before: Seating preferences will be given to whomever signs up first.
After: Seating preferences will be given to those who sign up first.

Before: Whomever did this, we are going to find and punish them.
After: We are going to find and punish the people who did this.

Before: We have the right to vote for whomever we choose.
After: We have the right to vote for whatever candidate we choose.

Don’t allow yourself to be backed into a corner, forced to choose between whoever and whomever. Writing and speaking offer unlimited possibilities to be creative. This is not a rock-and-a-hard-place situation, it’s just a puddle on the sidewalk. So walk around it.

If neither A nor B sounds correct, disregard your inner voice (or whomever) and opt for a whole nother possibility. Utilize your imagination. Pick C!

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Not quite parallel

artist mowerYou know that vague, disquieting feeling you get when something is just a little off … but you don’t quite know why? You read or hear a sentence that makes a kind of sense, but it’s just wrong somehow .

A picture hangs atilt on the wall. Someone whistles off-key. You live in a house with no 90-degree corners and the walls are all accidental trapezoids.

1: If those things don’t bother you, stop reading right now. You’re probably happier than the rest of us.

2: If you have a passion for sense-making, you’ll appreciate parallelism.

English usage employs many devices that insist on it. A singular subject takes a singular verb. For instance, you would not say:

I walks my dog twice a day.

If you would say that, see Step 1. Otherwise, read on.  Here’s a radio ad that misses the mark. Only slightly, but a miss is a miss:

We can give you a loan in as quick as ten days.

“As quick as ten days?” Ten days is a measure of time, not speed. A quick cheetah might run 35 miles per hour, but a quick loan would be funded in as few as ten days. Or as little as ten days’ time.

An event announcement states:

A reception will be held between 1 to 5 PM.

A case of mixed pair-word conjunctions. The parallel pairs are between-and and from-to. It’s either:

between 1 and 5
– or –
from 1 to 5

In another pair-word conjunction not only—but also, the verb placement makes all the difference:

She not only paints portraits but also landscapes.

When paints comes after the not only, it implies that the artist plants and maintains yards as a sideline. To describe her skills in two painting styles, say:

She paints not only portraits but also landscapes.

Or you could repeat the subject and verb:

She not only paints portraits but she also paints landscapes.

Still, you must admit, parallel or not, that someone who can render a fine likeness in oils or acrylics … then whip your lawn into shape… deserves our admiration.

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Absolutely … not.

onoff2A handful of English adjectives are considered absolutes. They cannot be compared. No degrees exist within them, and their application is a binary proposition. On or off. Yes or no, nothing in between.

These words behave like a simple light switch. No rheostat, no dimmer – just light or no light.

And yet people want to impose degrees on them that are not possible. The words sound impressive, but (since their correct usage would make the statement untrue) writers qualify them and think they’re getting away with something. These qualified absolutes often show up in advertising. Shocking, I know.

Here are some absolutes, common misuses, and what the writers could have said instead:

only (One. No more. There is no other.)
Not: one of the only
Say: one of the few

unique (One of a kind. Nothing else compares.)
Not: pretty unique
Say: distinctive, original

always (In every case. No exceptions.)
Not: nearly always
Say: usually, often

never (In no case. Not ever.)
Not: almost never
Say: seldom, rarely

dead (All life functions have ceased.)
Not: the victim was nearly dead
Say: gravely injured, near death

opposite (Antithetical. Mutually incompatible.)
Not: Her political ideas are almost completely opposite from mine.
Say: We disagree on most political issues.

In trying to explain sovereignty as an absolute concept, my college Government professor used the old sovereignty-pregnancy example, pointing out that you can’t be “a little bit” of either. The point was to respect the absolute nature of some words that cannot be qualified or compared. Students who failed to grasp this notion grew up to toss around perfect as if it just meant nice.

But be forewarned: If you claim to be practically perfect in every way, you’d better be Mary Poppins.

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Indecent prepositions

vintage teacherSomewhere in the dark recesses of your mind there’s probably an English teacher warning you not to end a sentence with a preposition. Although this and other outdated rules have fallen out of favor with modern communicators, they leave a vague feeling that we’re doing something to be ashamed of. (See what I did there?)

The contortions we go through in order to avoid ending sentences with prepositions are usually worse than just letting it happen. It’s reported that Winston Churchill once answered someone who scolded him for it, “Madam, that is one sort of criticism up with which I will not put.”

If you still cringe at breaking that ancient non-rule, here are some real examples and graceful ways to avoid the problem:

From company email about a conference:
At what time do you want to meet up at?

This writer started out with the awkward at what time construction, only to blow it by ending the sentence with at anyway.

Solution: Remove prepositions. All of them. What time do you want to meet?

From a published novel:
With whom did you go skydiving with?

Another case of forgetting (in the space of seven words) that the purpose of using with at the beginning was to avoid using it at the end.

Solution: You went skydiving? Holy cow! Who went with you? (The Holy cow! part is optional.)

From instructions on how to build web pages:
All child pages link to the page to which they’ve been made subpages of.

This writer could not decide whether the proper preposition was to or of, so he just used both for good measure.

Solution: Each child page links to its parent page.

My favorite story about sentence-ending prepositions goes like this:

A toddler went upstairs while his father selected a bedtime story to read to him. But the father chose a book with monsters in it, and the child didn’t like it. When daddy came into his room to tuck him in, the little boy said, “Oh no—what did you bring the book I didn’t want to be read to out of up for?”

Five in a row. Top that!

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