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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Giddy governors glimpsing groundhogs

groundhogIt’s that time of year, and it’s happening again. Just as it does every year, almost as if no one remembers that it’s happened – just this way – many times before. No, it’s not the movie Groundhog Day, it’s the actual Groundhog Day. When important-looking officials in top hats gather in Punksatawney, Pennsylvania, to witness the appearance (or not) of the worst attempt at alliteration ever … Punxsatawney Phil.

Apparently someone who did not learn about poetic devices from Miss Georgia Moore figured two words starting with the same letter qualified as alliterative. Edgar Allan Poe is somewhere cursing the whole thing. Problem is, when followed by the letter H, the letter P sounds like an F. The idea is to create a clever sound repetition that captures the reader’s attention and creates a mood. For all their efforts, the folks in Punxsatawney might as well have called their groundhog Larry.

Alliteration can be fun and it’s useful in naming things. For example, a dog show (Canine Capers) or a school book fair (Reading Rodeo). But when overdone, it can sound self-conscious and belabored. Anyone old enough to remember Richard Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro Agnew, and his “nattering nabobs of negativism?”

Bad alliteration can also sound a little too precious. I remember a nursery school chain with a fleet of big yellow buses labeled Kiddie Kastle, Kiddie Kollege, and Kiddie Kampus. Not only is it cheating to change the spelling, but what kind of school deliberately teaches children to misspell castle, college, and campus … or anything, for that matter?

Just remember that alliteration is more about sound than spelling. But if you’re naming an event, please don’t call it a Psychic Pseminar or a Writers’ Wrendezvous.

You know, the groundhog folks could have solved the whole thing by moving the festivities to Philadelphia …

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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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Sing, sink, and shrink

shrunkkidsThese three English verbs have something in common. Besides all starting with “s,” I mean. For the past tense of sing, you occasionally hear people say, ”She sung all four verses of the Star Spangled Banner.” It doesn’t happen often, and the speaker isn’t usually a poster child for good grammar anyway.

But it’s alarming to hear Rhodes-scholar news commentators and respected TV journalists simply ignore the past tense forms of sink and shrink. I’m talking about statements such as these:

  • Today’s Senate vote all but sunk the party’s hopes for passage of the bill. (Should be sank.)
  • The ocean liner sunk off the coast of Italy, with many casualties. (Should be sank.)
  • His lead in the polls shrunk several points after the debate. (Should be shrank.)

I wonder if these reporters grew up watching Honey, I Shrunk the Kids? (Spoiler alert—should also be shrank.)

Each of these verbs has a present tense form, a past tense form, and a past participle. It might surprise some people to know that they are:

Present: sing
Past: sang
Past participle: sung

Present: sink
Past: sank
Past participle: sunk

Present: shrink
Past: shrank
Past participle: shrunk

In other words:

  • We sing songs around the campfire.
    Last summer we sang every song we knew.
    We’ve sung them all before.
  • Rescuers could do nothing but watch the ship sink.
    It sank out of sight, leaving few survivors.
    Two cruise ships have sunk in the same area.
  • Honey, did you shrink the kids?
    Yes, I shrank them. Sorry ‘bout that.
    You’ve obviously shrunk your brain too. This is grounds for divorce.

In 1989, someone at Disney made a conscious choice to use shrunk in the movie title instead of shrank, even though it was wrong. It just shows how impressionable children are. Years later, despite Oxford and Ivy League educations, these highly touted journalists still think shrunk is the past tense of shrink.

I wonder if they also believe in mermaids …?

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