or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Antiquities, Part 3

Sunday's talk of "ye" brought a related matter to mind. How many times have you seen "Ye Olde Tobacco Shoppe" and the like? And when you hear it pronounced, isn't it usually "Yee Oldie Tobacco Shoppie"?

All wrong, you won't be surprised to hear.

The "ye" isn't the word we discussed a couple of days ago, an archaic form of "you". It's actually "the". Yes, really. A much older form of English used a runic character now obsolete called the thorn: it represented the dental fricative I talked about here, and it looked a bit like the letter "y". As it slowly faded from use, typesetters replaced it with the letter "y" from their fonts as a matter of convenience. Eventually, even that convention died out as the more literal digraph "th-" came into use. So whenever you see "ye" where you'd expect to see "the", it really is "the"--and it's even pronounced the same.

Now, as for the rest of the pronunciation: it's true that English once had "-e" suffixed to all manner of words. This wasn't for ornamentation: since spelling was originally a literal representation of how a word was pronounced, we know that those terminal sounds were also pronounced, but as a schwa, not a long "-e". If you had seen that sign above a tobacconist's shop in Chaucer's time, it would have been pronounced "The Old-uh Tobacco Shop-uh". But this pronunciation had died out by the 19th century; the spelling was a mere artifact.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Antiquities, Part 2

Now; those old-fashioned verbs.

Once upon a time, there were more verb endings in the present tense than we have nowadays. In fact, we have only one ending for all regular verbs, as this conjugation will make clear:

I take
You take
He/she/it takes
We take
You (plural) take
They take

Third person singular is marked with an "-s"; everything else is unchanged from the infinitive. It just doesn't get easier than that. (Okay; it would be easier if we used the bare infinitive for all pronouns in the present tense. Maybe in a few hundred years, that's what we'll be doing.)

Early Modern English had two verb endings, very similar on the surface, and this is what trips people up nowadays. In E.M.E., regular second person singular verbs ended with "-est"; regular third person singular verbs ended with "-eth". (This mutated into "-es" and finally into the "-s" we know and love.)

"Thou doth", therefore, is incorrect. The verb is actually "doest", contracted down to "dost"; that is, "do" with the standard second person plural ending "-est". (The archaic form of "you have", "thou hast", is particularly interesting; it's almost a perfect echo of the German second-person singular "du hast", and yet the E.M.E. version is not precisely the same word: just as "dost" is a contraction of "doest", "hast" is a contraction of "havest".)

So the conjugation above would correctly read in E.M.E.:

I take
Thou takest
He/she/it taketh
We take
Ye take
They take

If you have trouble remembering which ending goes with which pronoun, just remember that when the pronoun begins with "t-", the verb ends with "-t", and when the pronoun begins with "h-", the verb ends with "-h": "Thou sayest", "He reigneth". It really is that easy.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Antiquities, Part 1

"Thou doth protest too much!"
"He shall reap what he hast sown."
"I shall smite thou!"

How many times have you seen expressions like these? And how many times have you given them a second thought? It's just old-timey talk. It's archaic.

It's also--and this should come as no surprise to any reader who's been paying attention--wrong.

The rules for Early Modern English (not, it should be noted, Old English) speech were clearly somewhat different than they are today, but rules they nevertheless were, and if we're going to use such locutions, we should use them correctly. And the fact is that it's much easier than it may seem at first glance.

Today I'm going to discuss the pronouns (I'll leave the verbs until tomorrow, because they're incredibly, brainlessly simple, and after the pronouns they'll be cake). In three short lessons, you can use antique pronouns with the best of them.

1: Thou vs. Thee. This one can be confusing because in Modern English we use the same pronoun for subject and object: singular "you". What makes it worse is that in modern English it's so irregular:

he / she / it----him / her / it

In Early Modern English, for singular "you", "thou" is the subject pronoun, "thee" the object. "Thou art the winner! I give this medal to thee!" This suggests an easy method of figuring out which is which, based on the structure of English: if the pronoun appears at the beginning of a clause, it's probably the subject, and if it appears at the end, it's probably the object. (You may have to do some mental gymnastics, though, unknotting a sentence like "To thee I give this medal" or "Of thee I sing".)

2: Ye vs. You. "Ye" and "you" are the plural forms of "thou" and "thee". It would have been easier to learn if the endings had matched up properly, but they don't, so the rule is that "ye" is the subject pronoun, "you" the object. "Ye know of what I speak. I will not say it again to you." Once again, in most cases, beginning = subject = ye, ending = object = you. Probably.

3: Thy vs. Thine. Once again, it's subject pronoun versus object pronoun, except this time it's in the possessive. Luckily, this one is much easier: these two words are exactly parallel to "my" and "mine". A quick mental substitution will supply you with the correct word: "My house/thy house"; "It is mine/it is thine". (There is an exception for subject pronouns, easily learned: just like "a" and "an", "thy" is used before a consonant, "thine" before a vowel. Thus, "thy face", but "thine own face".)

"Ye" as second person plural, I would like to note, is still alive and well in my birthplace, Newfoundland, where you can hear such expressions as "Will ye guys get over 'ere!" It's worth noting that it doesn't always stand on its own: it often acts in concert with a noun, as "you" does in standard English when we say "You people are driving me crazy!" But it can also function on its own, just as plural "you" can in standard English: "Ye are the nicest people I've ever met."

Wednesday, April 27, 2005


It's one thing to read about theoretical or putative errors in everyday usage; it's quite another to find them in action, which is why it was such a shock to read on a website yesterday the expression "low and behold". Someone actually used it! Someone thought it was correct!

It's another example demonstrating the validity of my unshakeable belief that people who don't read will never be able to use the written language properly. Merely hearing an expression such as "lo and behold" wouldn't give you any clue to the spelling, and therefore wouldn't give you any idea that "lo" and "low" are two different words.

Random House's Maven website, by the way, says that "lo and behold" is an example of redundancy, since both words mean "look". They don't, though; there are hardly any precise synonyms in English, and these two words are no exception to that general rule. "Lo" does mean "look", but it's closer to "look at that!", and the meaning of "behold" is more like "see" than "look"--a fine distinction, but a worthwhile one, as the pair of terms "hear" and "listen" demonstrate. (Unlike "lo", "behold" has a past tense, "beheld", which means not "looked" but "saw": "They beheld his glory.") The expression can be interpreted as "Have you ever seen anything like that!" At the very least, it literally means "Look at that!--Really see it!" Perhaps age and overuse have diluted it, but it ought to convey a sense of surprise or wonderment.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Free Association

I was reading a fascinating New Yorker article when I ran across the intensely irritating phrase "software program".

It's not quite redundant, but it's very, very close. For all intents and purposes, software is a program. It isn't always: sometimes software is a set of instructions or subroutines. But in day-to-day life, for just about everybody just about all of the time, any software they encounter is going to be a program, and so the two words are interchangeable. "Software program" (sometimes "software application," which is just as redundant--an application is a program) is one word too many. It's even worse than the annoying but relatively benign "tuna fish". (As opposed to, say, "tuna cattle", one must assume.) A quick Googling indicates that more than a few people felt it necessary to cover all the bases by using the multiply redundant phrase "software application program", which is like saying "book tome volume".


Elsewhere in the article, which is about medicine, was the word "coronary", and suddenly it occurred to me that I couldn't see what the heart had to do with a tiara, all those mildly alarming chromolithographs of Jesus exposing his heart engirdled by a crown of thorns notwithstanding. Because, as I knew, "corona" is the root of the word "crown" (it comes to us from the French "couronne"), but what does that have to do with the human heart? It turns out that anatomically, a corona is a collection of like things radiating outwards, as (I must assume) the arteries and blood vessels radiate outwards from the heart, and so the adjectival ending "-ry" was attached to "corona" to describe these arteries. A "coronary infarction" was a blockage of these blood vessels leading to a heart attack, which in time simply came to be called, with notable brevity, a coronary. ("Infarction", in case you were interested, is from the word "infarct", any area of tissue that has died due to lack of a blood supply; it comes from the Latin word "infarcire", which means "to cram". Why? Because an infarct is caused when a blood clot gets crammed into the blood supply.)


Back when I was studying to become a fitness instructor--I've held quite a few jobs over the years, for some reason--I had to learn the Latin names of large number of the muscles in the human body. I discovered that anyone with even a smattering of Latin would have an easy time of this task, because far from being randomly difficult, the muscles are given extremely pragmatic names--names which describe the shape or location or other salient physical feature of the muscle. Latissimus dorsi: the broadest muscle in the back ("lati-" as in "latitude", which is to say "breadth", "-issim-" which I knew from Italian to mean "most", and "dors-" as in "dorsal fin", the one on the back of a fish or a shark). Biceps brachii: the two-headed muscle in the arm ("bi-" meaning "two", "-ceps" meaning "head", as in "cephalopod" or even "cephalogenic", and "brach-" meaning "arm").

Naturally, being a massive geek, I wasn't content to merely learn the muscles involved in fitness, and so I studied quite a few more. My favourite was the grandly named corrugator supercilii: it's the muscle that creates vertical wrinkles (that's the corrugator part) in the forehead by bringing the eyebrows (that's the supercilii part) downwards and inwards.


"Supercilii", of course, brings to mind the word "supercilious", and why wouldn't it? They're the same word. "Supercilium", as I noted, refers to the eyebrow: "super-", "above", and "cilium", "eyelid". (And anyone who took high-school biology will recall that cilia--the plural of "cilium"--are little hairs, which if I'm not mistaken is a perfect example of synecdoche in action, the part standing in for the whole.) And a supercilious look is one that involves the raising of the eyebrows: not the wide-eyed full-brow lift that indicates surprise or shock, but the kind that raises only the inner part of the eyebrows. It helps to pair this with a little smirk.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Same Old Same Old

Here are three news bulletins that will not come as a surprise to anyone who's read more than a few of my blog entries:

1) Everywhere I turn, I see typographical errors.
2) Most of them nowadays are actual words used incorrectly, because
3) A spell-checker won't catch such mistakes.

Just today I was looking up the notes to a particular fragrance and discovered the odd expression "sun-repined fruit". "Repine" is a word: it means "to yearn" (closely related to its root word, "pine", which is a cousin to such words as "pain" and "penalty"). But "sun-ripened" is what the writer was aiming at, and badly missed. (As it turns out, the website doesn't even spell-check its information, at least not consistently: on another page are the non-words "inspried" and "celbrates".)

I swear I don't go looking for these things. Typos leap off the page and fling themselves at me; it's almost endearing, their affection.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Sign of the Times

I sometimes feel sorry for people who get signs made up professionally. They're at the mercy of their own spelling ability and that of the sign-makers, and it seems to be a real coin-toss.

I once worked in a bookstore next to a small natural-clothing shop called Cotton Comfort. They made the mistake of ordering their shop signs--the kind that are made of translucent plastic and lit from behind by neon bulbs--from Qu├ębec, where French is the dominant language and "comfort" is not spelled quite the same way, resulting in two large, expensive signs that read COTTON CONFORT.

I was reminded of this when walking to work today. I saw a defunct building sporting a large professionally-made sign poorly obliterated with grey paint: the sign read ELITE MESSAGE CLUB AND ESCORT. It's possible that it really was a message club, whatever that's supposed to be, but I'm pretty sure that, coupled with an escort service, the place was offering massages. Not enough to stay in business, though: presumably the confused customers stayed away in droves.

Also on the way to work: a discarded supermarket crate that had once contained, according to the large-type, four-colour artwork, BEEFSTAKE TOMATOES.

Saturday, April 23, 2005


The word "synthetic" had a very bad reputation in the '70s. Anything natural was good: wood, metal, wool and cotton fabrics. Anything synthetic was just bad, and not without reason--plastics weren't what they are nowadays.

In linguistics, though, "synthetic" isn't a term of disapprobation. It simply denotes the method by which words and sentences are formed. A synthetic language is one in which morphemes, or indivisible units of linguistic information, can be cobbled together to form longer words.

The opposite of a synthetic language is an isolating language, in which each word is a morpheme, with no suffixing, prefixing, or other word-joining. The other extreme of a synthetic language is a polysynthetic language, in which a batch of words and linguistic units can be strung together into a single word which carries all the meaning of an entire sentence.

English is, broadly speaking, an isolating language: many of our words are stand-alone morphemes ("Please hand me that box to put this cake in"). As well, word order is crucial--one of the hallmarks of an isolating language. Synthetic languages such as Latin have a much freer word order, because each word carries a grammatical marker which indicates its part of speech. In English, "dog bites man" and "man bites dog" are wholly different sentences, because the placement of each word determines its meaning, but in Latin, the words in the sentence "dog bites man", "canis mordet hominem", can be arranged in almost any order, because each word's ending signifies its grammatical intent. The opposite sentence, "man bites dog", would consist of the words "homo mordet canem"--again, in almost any order.

However, in English we can and often do string elements together to form a single word which carries a great deal of information. "Uninterruptedly", to grab an example out of thin air: "not" plus "interrupt" plus "adjectival marker which also happens to be past-tense verb marker" plus "adverbial marker". (And "interrupt" itself is a compound of two ideas--"between" and "break".) We commonly use suffixes, prefixes, and other morphemes to alter words; we do it all the time, when we make words plural or possessive ("Michelle's dresses"). In this way, English has aspects of a synthetic language.

English is clearly not a polysynthetic language, but it is nonetheless possible to speak an entire sentence with a single word. The spoken language has evolved a manner of stressing a word which constitutes a sentence, rich in meaning; not only all the information of a sentence, but also an expression of how the speaker feels about the subject. In the absence of a voice recording it will be a little difficult to express this precisely, but it's a roller-coaster of an inflection: the word (even a single syllable) starts on a relatively high pitch, drops down, and then slides back up in a sort of melisma of surprise, delight, or shock. "Cute!", the speaker might say in this fashion, meaning "He/she/that is extremely cute!". "Ears!", I have said sotto voce to Jim on more than one occasion, denoting "That person over there has got just about the biggest pair of ears I've ever seen!"

It's not quite polysynthesis, but it will do nicely, I think.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Ain't That a Shame

I could really get some mileage out of "ain't". I want it back, but I also want a few million dollars in small unmarked bills, and I can't have that, either.

"Ain't" is a very nice solution to a nettlesome problem, which is that we don't have a good, sensible way to negate the contraction "I'm". "Am I not" sounds stuffy: "amn't I" never caught on, with good reason: and "aren't I" is ungrammatical ("Aren't I? No, apparently, I are not"), though it's what we use. "Ain't" has a solid grounding in etymological history; it began life as "an't", an abbreviated form of "am not", certainly cleaner-sounding and easier to say than "amn't". But along with other contractions, it was roundly derided and vilified; somehow, most other contractions survived this onslaught ("i'n't" also didn't), and now "ain't" has been contaminated beyond recovery. Alas.

Part of the problem, I suppose, is that "ain't" became spread far too thinly. Instead of merely standing for "am not", it started doing duty as "are not" ("we ain't going"), "is not" ("he ain't here"), "have not" ("we ain't done nothing wrong"), "has not" ("she ain't told me"), and more besides. Standard English likes its contractions in a tidy little box: if they start spreading themselves promiscuously thin, it treats them with contempt. (The same thing has happened with "don't", which has exactly one meaning in standard English, "do not", though to some people it stands in for "does not"--"he don't live here"--which is considered substandard by most.)

Thursday, April 21, 2005

In Trouble

Two common words that baffle even native English speakers are "inflammable" and "invaluable". So let's have a look at them.

The reason they're confusing, of course, is that "in-" is a very common prefix meaning "not": "invulnerable" means "not vulnerable", "insane" means "not sane", and so forth. And yet this clearly doesn't hold true for either of the words above: "invaluable" doesn't mean "not valuable", it means "enormously valuable", and "inflammable", confusingly and even dangerously, is an exact synonym for "flammable". So why doesn't "in-" work for these words?

As a little reflection will demonstrate, it doesn't work for quite a few other words, either. "Ingest", "inspire", and a whole host of other words aren't negated by "in-". The reason is that there are two drastically different prefixes that merely happen to look the same. One of them, from the Latin, does indeed mean "not": the other one means, logically enough, "in". "Inspire" is broken down into "in-" and the "-spire" that should be familiar from such words as "respire": it means "to breathe", and so "inspire" once meant "inhale" and now means, by way of a metaphor, "to breathe creative life into". "Ingest" is likewise "in-" plus the "-gest" that is familiar from "digest": it's from the Latin "genere", "to carry". (The "di-" in "digest", by the way, is from "dis-", "apart", as in "dissect", "to cut apart".) "In-" also shows up as "en-" ("enfold", "encapsulate") or "em-" ("embark", "emplace") sometimes; same root, different spelling, thanks to the tortuous history of the English language.

Did I say two? I lied. There's a third "in-", and it's a simple intensifier. It shows up in such words as "incantation" and, again in a different guise, "enfeeble" and "embolden". You can recognize this sense because it's often prefixed to a word that has more or less the same meaning on its own (though sometimes, as with "enfeeble", it has the effect of converting the original word to a different part of speech).

Now that I've thoroughly confused the issue, as is my way, let's get back to the two words in question. "Inflammable" isn't the result of attaching the negative prefix to "-flammable": it couldn't be, because it's the older word. "Inflammable" derives from "inflame"--that's the third sense of "in-", the one which intensifies and changes the part of speech--plus the standard verb-into-adjective suffix "-able", "able to be...." The word "flammable" exists only because of the obvious danger of a mistake arising from stencilling "inflammable" onto things that burn readily. Unfortunately, the misunderstanding is still with us.

"Invaluable", perversely, does have the first, negative sense of "in-", "not". The trouble is that it uses an older, literal sense of "valuable", one which is lost to us. If we cut "invaluable" into its three component parts, we can make some sense of it. "In-", "not": "value": and "able", "able to be". Something invaluable is something so precious that no value could possibly be assigned to it.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Redundancy Again

There are a number of phrases which some commentators will decry as "redundant" because they contain an unneeded word, one which would seem to be built into the rest of the phrase. I don't have a lot of patience for that point of view, because language isn't algorithms: we're allowed to chuck in extra words if it makes the sentence flow better, if it contributes to the sense, or, in fact, if we just plain feel like it.

However, here are three that do kind of tick me off.

From whence: This one doesn't bother me a lot. It's very old; it's in the King James translation of the Bible, and Shakespeare used it repeatedly, so it's got some credentials. Mind you, I could do without it, because "whence" does carry the sense of "from" within it--it literally means "from where"--and because, since it sounds a little antique to begin with, that feeling of antiquity is better served by using the word as it once was, without "from" ("Go back whence you came, vile creature!"). But I'm well aware that these are tiny cavils. "From whence" is well established and no longer wrong, if it ever was.

Continue on: This one bothers me a little more, because "continue" means "go on"; it incontrovertably carries "on" within itself. It's useful for people who believe that more syllables equal more impressive speech, maybe. (Obviously, there are phrases in which "on" is not attached to "continue": if you were to say "You may continue on your way", "on" belongs to "on your way". But even that usage is a little clumsy: "go on your way" is better; shorter and cleaner.)

Equally as: This one drives me around the bend (and it's heard all the time--a co-worker said it just yesterday). "Equally" is interchangeable with "as much as" or "just as", and it doesn't require an adverb, or in fact any sort of helper at all. "They're equally strong." "Equally interesting is the spotted cavy." Use "as" (or "as...as", depending on context) or use "equally", but don't try to mash them together.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Real Thing

I find it hilarious that people object to one utterance or another on the grounds that "it's not a word". I think that if a particular set of consonants and vowels 1) has been heard on the lips of at least two people and/or 2) has appeared in print more than twice with 3) an obviously intended and understood meaning attached to it, particularly if it was 4) formed according to the rules of English, it may safely be called a word. What else is it going to be: a breath mint?

Words even get invented out of whole cloth. When Gellett Burgess invented "blurb", or Elzie Segar put "jeep" into his comic strip "Popeye", they may not have been words, but they sure are now. The words below weren't simply invented; they (or their non-standard usage) evolved naturally, due to the structures of English (except the last case, which is simple carelessness).

If you Google any of the following boldface words plus "not a word" you'll find that someone, somewhere thinks they don't exist, when clearly they do.

1) Supposably. "Supposable" is an actual in-the-dictionary word, formed in the standard manner--by taking a verb and suffixing "-able" to it. It means "able to be supposed: presumable; imaginable." "Supposably" is also a word, changed from an adjective into an adverb by the also standard method of appending "-ly" to a word. The trouble is that some people say "supposably" when they mean "supposedly". They're wrong, of course. But they're not using a non-word; they're using a real word incorrectly.

2) Irregardless arouses strong passions in some people, often the kind of people who think that English is algebra and therefore the two halves of a double negative must cancel one another out instead of intensifying one another, as they're clearly meant to do. "Irregardless is wrong because it must mean 'not regardless'!" Well, yes, and it is wrong, but it's not a non-word. It's an accidental formation mirroring "irrespective", which it more or less is intended to mean. It's not an attractive word, and to a great many ears it sounds wrong, its use indicating someone who's at best sloppy, at worst semi-literate. But that doesn't make it not a word.

3) Orientate is clearly a word. If we can back-form "motivate" from "motivation", then why shouldn't we be able to do the same with "orientation"? The trouble is that to some people (including me), we already have a perfectly good word, "orient", which has the added advantage of being shorter. "Orientate" appeals to some who think that the more syllables an utterance has, the grander it is; but there's no denying that for a significant number of people it's also the standard way of saying "orient". It makes me grit my teeth a little, but it isn't wrong. Not quite.

4) Loaned has been the target of some ire for a very long time. Loan, we are told, is a noun; lend is a verb, and the past participle is "lent": therefore, "loaned" is unnecessary and therefore it is wrong and therefore it must not really exist. Plainly it does, though. It is a substandard usage to some, despite the fact that "loan" as a verb dates from the twelfth century, and the really careful writer or speaker won't use it because of the stigma attached to it; but a non-word? I don't think so.

5) Alot is as close as we'll come to an actual non-word here. An unfortunate number of people write this when they mean "a lot". And they are wrong: "alot" is still considered incorrect in standard English. But in the most literal sense--it's a collection of sounds with a clearly understood meaning--it's a word. An awful, wrong one.

Monday, April 18, 2005


A clerihew is a light verse form simultaneously rigid and wide-open. It must consist of two rhyming couplets both amusing and unexpected; the first line must be the name of a person; and the couplets need not--in fact, should not--scan. Within those restrictions, there are no rules at all, leading to such clerihews as

Sir Humphrey Davy
Abominated gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

(Well, this one scans rather nicely, as it turns out; but it was one of the earliest efforts of Edmund Clerihew Bentley, the man who invented the form. Others later improved on it, and there's no reason that the lines can't be as wildly varied as those in this poem by Ogden Nash:

I find it very difficult to enthuse
Over the current news.
Just when you think that at least the outlook is so black that it can grow no blacker, it worsens,
And that is why I do not like the news, because there has never been an era when so many things were going so right for so many of the wrong persons.)

The manufacture of consumer products, it will come as no surprise to anyone, is a big, high-stakes business. It costs millions of dollars to shepherd one product from conception to launch, and many millions of dollars more to wedge that product's identity in the public mind. So no expense is spared to make sure that everything about the product is perfect: the colours used in the packaging, the product name, the typefaces in the logo, and the words that are printed on the box.

I like picking up new products in the stores and checking out the packaging. A new, moderately expensive skin-care product called ReNoviste caught my eye in a drugstore the other day (glimmery silvery packaging, I'm a raven, I couldn't resist), and so I was glancing at the ingredient list when it caught my eye: the Holy Grail for proofreaders, the thing that is never supposed to happen--a typographical error on a commercial package, and what's more, a typo that no mere mechanical spell-checker could ever have caught, a typo that proves someone was sleeping on the job and is now likely looking for other work:


Can I even express how happy that made me?

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Just Folks

So: is it "hoi polloi" or "the hoi polloi"?

Extremely precise types (such as I) are wont to say that "the hoi polloi" is redundant, because "hoi" means "the" in Greek. On the other hand, more forgiving types (also such as I: Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes) allow that English absorbs words and phrases wholesale and changes their sense, which is as it should be, and therefore "the hoi polloi" is entirely acceptable, because the phrase as a whole, not just the word "polloi" itself, has taken root in the language. (It has been used in this manner, in fact, almost since the day it was first used in English, and that's a while ago by any calendar.)

Then the more precise types say, "Yeah, but we don't say 'The Le Cirque', because 'Le' means 'The' in French," and the the more relaxed sorts say, "So? English isn't a set of mathematical algorithms. We can have different rules in different situations." And nobody is quite satisfied. But "the hoi polloi" is still acceptable to all but the most precise and/or pedantic.

"Hoi polloi" does not, though, mean "the elite" or anything like it; fortunately, this error seems to be rare. It means "the masses" or "the common people". But you knew that.

Saturday, April 16, 2005


I'm not a linguist, but I've read that very few languages use the interdental fricative, and really, who can blame them? It seems counterproductive for a language to produce a sound that could theoretically result in the tongue's being bitten off.

A fricative sound is one which is produced by forcing air through a small space in the mouth. The first sounds of the words "fake", "sake", and "shake" are fricatives. Dental sounds are those which are produced by placing the tongue against the teeth, and interdental sounds are produced by placing the tongue between the teeth. English is one of those rare languages that uses the interdental fricative, and in fact it has two: the voiced (that is, involving the vocal cords) "th-" as in "those" and "clothe", and the unvoiced (a mere hiss of air with no vocal cords) "th-" as in "thwart" and "cloth".

These sounds give learners a huge amount of trouble, because they're so rare. Not the spelling: French and German speakers use "th-", but the "-h-" is silent. When they run up against the sound in English, the French (who have a soft, nasalized, vowelly language) generally produce a "-z" ("anuzzer" for "another") and Germans are likely to produce a "-d" ("mudder" for "mother") in keeping with their harder, more consonantal tongue.

Even if the sounds should be mastered, there's no reliable clue as to which of the two sounds is called for. It's almost always true that an "-e-" following "-th-" indicates a voiced fricative, but there are exceptions ("theatre"). An "-i-" or "-u-" almost always indicates an unvoiced fricative, with a couple of tiny exceptions ("thine", "thus"). Other vowels are wildly irregular ("thank"/"than", "thought"/"though", "thyroid"/"thy").

And, predictably, the vowel sounds preceding the interdental fricatives are just as random. Look at "wreath" and "breath"; "heath", "heathen", and "heather"; or "hearth" and "earth" (and "dearth"--even native English speakers can't agree on which of those two words it should rhyme with).

Friday, April 15, 2005


Back in the day, when I worked at a few newspapers, there was a word that denoted those little bits of filler you sometimes see; little one- or two-paragraph news stories, bits of trivia or "factoids", smidgens of gossip. Those bits of filler were called "brites". I couldn't bring myself to use this wretched neologism, so I called them "squibs" instead. Anybody who's met me knows how incontrovertibly stubborn I am, so my co-workers would allow me this. Some of them even picked it up. Were they humouring me, or did they hate "brite" as much as I did? It hardly matters; language is meant to share information, and they understood me.

As may be expected, the history of the word "squib" is murky; since the word originally meant a tiny firecracker or explosive device that went off with a small, unimpressive bang, the name might have referred to the sound it made. Eventually it came to mean a small piece of satirical writing, and then in my hands it came to mean a small piece of writing, period, something not large enough to stand on its own. I'm not influential enough to have it catch on, but dammit, that's how I'm going to use it anyway.

So: some squibs.


I don't know how I get through the day, having such a hair trigger, but once again I heard the pronunciation "heighth" on television and it sent me into a spasm. I understand how the mistake is made. "Length". "Width". "Breadth". Shouldn't
"height" also have an "-h" at the end of it?

It used to, but it doesn't any more. (And even when it did, it wasn't pronounced like "height" with a "th" tacked on the end, doubling the "t" sound almost into two syllables, as it invariably is nowadays; it was pronounced like "high" plus "th"--like "hith" with a long "i".) There's no escaping the fact that to many ears, it sounds uneducated, or at the very least wrong.


How about stressing (in speech) or italicizing (in print) "the" as a way of saying "the pre-eminent" or "the only one worthy of mention"? "It's the place to go." Doesn't it sound slangy and modern?

Surprisingly, it isn't modern at all. The Oxford English Dictionary (the source for this sort of information) lists a citation from 1824.


Yet again--I read a lot!--I saw "decimate" used incorrectly. Its meaning was once "to kill one in ten". Somehow that meaning has shifted to mean "to annihilate entirely" or "to kill the great majority of". This will no doubt become the dominant if not the only meaning in years to come, with its root ("decem-", "ten") fading into antiquity; but it still annoys me and other persnickety users of the language to see it used incorrectly.


Speaking of which: I recently learned that "persnickety" is strictly a North Americanism. In England, it's "pernickety", which is the older spelling of the word. My Canadian-English spell-checker flags the first spelling as incorrect but allows the second; I have a feeling what I have here is a British-English spell-checker with a few Canadianisms tossed in, because I've lived in Canada all my life and never once heard or seen "pernickety". It flags "gotten", too, but while "had got" may be the standard in British English, it absolutely isn't in Canadian English: we use "had gotten".

Thursday, April 14, 2005


Right now there's a debate going on--you may have missed it--regarding the status of bloggers, and whether they really qualify as journalists. My opinion is that they can, sort of, but only if they have editors.

I enjoy reading James Wolcott's blog: he's a good writer, sharp and smart and funny. But he needs someone at Vanity Fair looking over his shoulder with a red pencil in hand. His blog entry titled "Money Changes Everything" and datelined "04.12.05 4:46PM" starts with the following sentence: "I share Tom Watson's yecch reaction to this week's cover story of New York magazine luxury class of ultra-rich, which I read attentively in the checkout line while waiting for some dimwit ahead of me to punch in the correct PIN number to purchase a bag of potato chips, a gallon of orange soda, and an apple. "

The sentence contains one of those expressions that all but force me to ask, "As opposed to...?" These are expressions that by design or ignorance contain unnecessary redundancy, as opposed to useful grammatical redundancy. To my mind, these expressions come in two forms.

First is the one that Wolcott commits: overexplaining an abbreviation. "[W]aiting for some dimwit ahead of me to punch in the correct PIN number....." "As opposed to the correct PIN letter?" The acronym "PIN" contains the word "number", and "PIN number" sounds kind of stupid. Same with "SIN number", "VIN number", "CAD design", "ATM machine", and depressingly so forth.

Second is overstating the obvious, something newspaper writers are all too guilty of: "Jane Smith, a woman doctor..." "As opposed to a man doctor?" ("Doctor" would be fine, since her sex is irrelevant and in any case her first name tells us all we need to know.) "Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones had a homosexual relationship..." "As opposed to a heterosexual relationship?" (They had a sexual relationship.) This seems to be done for an elbow-in-the-ribs effect, which makes it doubly reprehensible; journalists are expected to know better.

(Despite all this finickiness, I'll admit to a moderate liking for the construction "-shaped". "Cube-shaped" ought to drag out of me the question, "As opposed to cube-coloured?", but it doesn't, even though "cubic" would probably do the job just as well. Such are the mysteries of language.)

I'm not picking on Wolcott, and I don't read his writing (or anyone else's) with an eye to editing it. It's something I can't help but do; errors in other people's writings stand out like a beacon, for some unexplained neurological reason. (I can usually find the errors in my own writing after a quick re-reading, but not always; one of the axioms of editing is that you absolutely cannot copy-edit your own work.)

Wednesday, April 13, 2005


"Petri dish" or "petri dish"?

Eponyms are a special problem because there's simply no logic to whether they ought to be capitalized or not. The word is from the Greek: "epi-", "after", and "-nym", "name". An eponym is something named after someone, whether directly (a "curie" is a measure of radiation, named after Marie and Pierre Curie) or indirectly ("Rome" is thought to come from Romulus, alongside his twin Remus a founder of the city). Since the word comes from a proper noun, shouldn't it be capitalized?

The trouble is that English has an aversion to capitalizing anything that isn't immediately a proper noun. Marie Curie, yes; a curie as a measure, no. (A curie is defined as 37 gigabecquerels, and poor Antoine Becquerel doesn't get any respect, either.) But sometimes the capital letter sticks to the common noun as well, so we're left with a mishmash. We have a Granny Smith or a McIntosh apple, but a loganberry and a macadamia nut; the Heimlich manoeuvre, but pasteurization; Queen Anne's lace, but a gardenia; a Shirley Temple, but a napoleon and a sandwich; a Horatio Alger story, but a valentine; a Nehru jacket, but a raglan sweater.

There are some general rules. Something named after a place usually remains capitalized: a Tasmanian devil, a Roman nose. Ditto when we use both first and last names to describe something: a Mae West, a Benedict Arnold. (If Luisa Tetrazzini had managed to have her first name attached to the dish called chicken tetrazzini as well as her last name, it might still be capitalized.) Latinized common nouns in the worlds of botany and microbiology (the discoverer's name followed by "-ia") are never capitalized: listeria, salvia, poinsettia. Nor are the elements: einsteinium, rutherfordium. (But some other scientific terms, perversely, are: degrees Kelvin, for example.) Mostly, it all seems very catch-as-catch-can.

As for Dr. Petri, his invention's name is capitalized or not, as the speller sees fit. A quick Googling of the phrase suggests that it's fifty-fifty.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005


As I've said before, there are pairs of words with slightly different spellings which denote different parts of speech: for instance, in the pair "advice"/"advise", "advice" is the noun and "advise" is the verb (and you can tell which is which because "advice" ends in "-ice", and "ice" is a noun). There are also a few pairs of words with a medical connotation which share the same trait; different spelling, different part of speech. The correct usage of these words is made trickier by the fact that both words in each pair are pronounced identically.

"-ous" is a common adjectival suffix: grievous, heinous, horrendous, and so forth. And so it is with the words "callous", "mucous", and the less well-known "villous"; they're all adjectives. Their noun forms are spelled without the "-o-"; "callus", "mucus", and "villus". And it drives me around the bend, because I am so easily driven there, to see in print something like "she has a callous on her foot" or "he had a lot of mucous in his chest".


What do "villus" and "villous" mean, anyway? Well, "villus" is the Latin word for "shaggy hair", and so villi (the plural form) are small hairs on the surface of something like a leaf or a colon. I am not sure how they differ from cilia, but that's because I'm not a doctor.

There's a pharmacy chain in the United States called CVS. I don't know what CVS stands for; their website is not very forthcoming. But their television ads still strike me as bizarre, because anyone who read a lot of medical books as a boy knows that CVS stands for a medical procedure performed during pregnancy called "chorionic villus sampling".

Update: Reader Frank guesses that CVS stands for ""Consumer Value Stores", and a quick web search proves this to be the case. Kind of a limp name for a store, like "Box of Grains" for a breakfast cereal, but I suppose all commercial names can't be as good as Mach 3 Turbo or Lexus.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Compound Fracture

Quick: what's the plural of "son-in-law"?

If you form the plural by the standard English method, tacking an ess onto the end, you get a perfectly sensible, reasonable answer: son-in-laws. There are some, however, who'll tell you it's just flat-out wrong, and their reasoning is also perfectly sensible. "Son" is the noun: "in-law" is an adjective that's tacked onto it to make a compound noun, and we should pluralize the noun itself, making the correct compound "sons-in-law". (I once had a huge argument with someone on this very point--someone who adamantly took the latter point of view.)

What if I said that Shakespeare thought "son-in-laws" was just fine? Not only does he use it, he has a king say it (in King Lear, Act IV, Scene VI).

Okay; now what about the plural of "teaspoonful"? By the standard method, it's "teaspoonfuls". By the strict, literal method, it's "teaspoonsful"; the noun "teaspoon" attached to the adjective "full" to make a compound noun. And yet the spell-checkers I used allowed the first one and flagged the second as erroneous, and "teaspoonfuls" is by far the commoner usage.

There are a few compound nouns which, I think, we can all agree have only one correct pluralization. For example, "attorney general", whether we hyphenate it or not, requires the ess to fall after "attorney", because otherwise it looks as if "general" is a noun instead of an adjective--attorneys who are also (military) generals. "Sergeant-at-arms" also takes the ess after the noun, because the adjectival phrase already has an ess. (These might, of course, change in the future: "attorney generals" is not inconceivable.) But such exceptions are really rather few, and it seems to me that if someone wants to say "aides-de-camp" and another prefers "aide-de-camps", what's the harm?

I am not always so lackadaisical about grammar. In this case, though, I think both sides have a point--which is to say that they're both right, and therefore either method can be used with relative impunity. And how often does that happen in life?

Sunday, April 10, 2005


The invaluable Languagehat discusses a piece by a writer named Roger Pulvers about the supposed myth that Japanese is the most difficult language to learn (I always thought it was Basque); the quoted writer attempts to debunk the myth, and then the blogger himself debunks the debunking, so that's that. What I want to talk about is a contention made by Pulvers about languages in general. He says,

"Verbs are generally the horror element of language learning. In English they are irregular, with auxiliary verbs and the conditional to make matters worse. "

And here I always thought that English verbs were breathtakingly easy.

There are some irregular verbs, it is true, but not an inordinate number, perhaps a hundred in everyday usage. The great majority of English verbs are conjugated in exactly the same way: in the present tense, always use the bare infinitive except for third person singular, to which you append "-s"; in the past, add "-ed" (with perhaps a minor spelling change, the rules for which are easily learned); in the future, prefix the bare infinitive with "will". For the progressive tenses, the situation is similar: present, conjugate present-tense "to be" in front of the progressive verb ("am going"); past, conjugate past-tense "to be" likewise ("was going"); future, insert "will be" before the progressive.

These six tenses, plus the modals (can, must, should, will, want to, may, might, need to, would like to, and so on), which are simply slapped in front of a bare infinitive, will cover the vast majority of daily speech. The subjunctive can be dispensed with entirely, since forms like "If I was going" don't sound wrong to a great many people. (The finicky among us are fighting to keep the subjunctive alive, of course; but having a learner ignore it is not a bad thing.) Conditional structures ("If I had known they were coming, I would have tidied up") may be simplified by recasting the first half in the past tense ("If I knew...") without any loss of meaning. Using only the six tenses plus modals won't make one fluent in English, but it will go a long way indeed.

Not that I think English is easy to learn to speak well: it has a great many difficulties and traps. The spelling is a near-impossibility, even for many native speakers. It has the ne plus ultra of vocabularies: where many other languages convey shades of meaning through affixes, English gives its users a nearly endless storehouse of slight variations on themes (big, large, gigantic, humongous, enormous, colossal, huge, massive, gargantuan...) and invites us to pick the best one, with consequences if we fail ("slender" and "skinny" are not the same thing).

Perhaps worst of all, the tongue is hugely idiomatic, with (to use but one example) thousands of prepositional phrases (and nouns derived from them) whose meaning cannot be divined from their components in a predictable or trustworthy way--just look at "set": set up, set-up, upset, set off, set to, set-to, inset, set in, set out, set about, set down, set aside.... Or "put": put on, put-on, put off, put in, input, put out, put back, output, put away, put down, putdown, put over, put aside, put up, put to, put over, put forward, put through, throughput.... And to make matters worse, the same expression can have multiple, non-overlapping meanings:

Put down the gun
Put down the baby
Put down the cat
Put down a deposit
Put down your name

I once baffled a Romanian native by innocently saying the second of these two sentences: "I threw out my computer last week"/"I threw out my back last week", and what are learners to make of "She threw up her dinner in the toilet"/"He threw up his hands in exasperation"?

Pulvers is right that verbs are generally are the most difficult part of a language--in my limited experience, at least. (In French, they're driving me mad.) But compared to all the other complexities of English--and speaking from the luxurious throne of having been born into the language--it seems to me that the verbs might well be the easiest part about learning to speak it.

Saturday, April 09, 2005


Very often in English, one word will serve as two or more parts of speech without any surface change, which makes possible such smart little puns as this line from Snidely Whiplash:

"You'll never get her back! Or any other part of her!"

But sometimes you'll have two words, often different parts of speech, that are spelled slightly differently; perhaps they come from two different sources, perhaps they stem from the same word but parted company in the past, or perhaps they just happen to have a surface similarity. These words create the spelling and usage traps that so many people have trouble avoiding. One of those traps is the pair of words "loathe" and "loath" (sometimes spelled "loth", just to make things even more complicated for the unwary)--and to make things even more confusing, the words are sometimes pronounced in the same way. They're distantly related, but their meanings diverged a long time ago.

"Loathe" is a transitive verb. It's invariably pronounced with a soft "-th" sound (it rhymes with "clothe"). It means "to despise". "Loath", on the other hand, is an adjective meaning "unwilling or reluctant". At least some of the trouble arises from inconsistent pronunciation; it generally has a hard "-th" sound (rhyming with "both"), but sometimes it's heard sounding exactly like its cousin "loathe".

One of the first rules children learn is that adding an "-e" to a word lengthens the vowel (Sam/same, pet/Pete, writ/write, lop/lope, cub/cube, and so on endlessly); this is also generally true of words ending in "-th", and the "-e" also has the effect of softening the "-th" sound (breath/breathe, lath/lathe, cloth/clothe, and so forth) "Loath/loathe" is an exception to the first half of this rule--both forms have a long vowel sound. ("Sheath" and "sheathe" form another exception.)

I think it's this lack of a vowel change which leads to the spelling confusion. If you Google "I am loathe" and "I loath", you'll see a great many people using the words incorrectly. They're not interchangeable; not yet, not while I'm around.

Friday, April 08, 2005


Back when I was a university student I had an English teacher, a charmingly eccentric and aged maiden lady, who told the class how a colleague shocked some students of hers by referring to her as "my pearl". (This will have been some time ago, when such familiarity could still have the power to shock.)

Here in North America, we pretty universally pronounce "margarine" with a soft "-g-", as if it were a "-j-", like the first half of "marjoram". It wasn't always so, though (and as far as I know still isn't in Great Britain); the prescribed pronunciation had a hard "-g-". The reason for this is that one of the compounds involved in the fabrication of margarine was margaric acid, and that word was pronounced with that hard "-g-".

Now; what of margarine? "Margaric" is an adjective meaning "pearly", and crystals of margaric acid have a pearly sheen. Margarine was originally called oleomargarine: "oleo-" will be familiar from such words as "petroleum", "petr-" meaning "rock" and "-oleum" meaning "oil", and "-ine" plays two roles, as a common chemical suffix ("bromine") and as a suffix meaning "like" ("aquiline", "like an eagle").

And where do "margaric" and its relatives come from? That's a matter of some small debate, but it seems to be along these lines: the word "margarites", "pearl", is possibly of Iranian origin in the distant past, adopted by the Greeks (and then the Romans), and over time, in its travels through German and English, pummeled into a slightly different shape through the familiar offices of folk etymology to better resemble the pair of words "mare", sea, and "greot", a small stone, which is the source of our word "grit" (and also "grits", cooked ground hominy, and the clearly related "groats", not to mention "grout"). A small sea stone: a pearl.

From this through French comes "marguerite", a small daisy; through Spanish, "margarita"; and from Middle English, "Margaret". So the name Margaret literally means "pearl", and this is why my teacher's colleague could forthrightly bestow such a name on her; because in a sense, it really was her name.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Sleave It To Beaver

Yeah, I know. That doesn't even make any sense. The hardest thing about writing these pieces is coming up with a title that's simultaneously sensible and amusing. I usually fail. I don't think there are any points for trying.

Anyway. I saw the phrase "plastic sleaves" in print yesterday and couldn't quite believe my eyes. Not because it's an especially awful mistake, but because the word "sleave" is so uncommon; I was surprised it survived a spell-check (assuming, obviously, that it got one).

A sleave is not a sleeve. When Shakespeare wrote of "sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleave of care", he wasn't talking about the sleeves on your pajamas. A sleave is a fine thread, particularly a silken one, and "ravelled" means, among other things, "tangled". Any sewers or knitters out there? A tangled mass of fine thread is not an easy thing to unknot, let alone knit up.

Googling "sleave of care" and then "sleeve of care" reveals that about two and half times as many people got it right as got it wrong. That's heartening, a little.

Here's what isn't heartening: a theoretically useful online resource called The Literature Network gets it wrong. A search in the complete text of Macbeth for "sleave" reveals nothing, while a search for "sleeve" gives the expected quotation (it's in Act 2, Scene II). How's anyone supposed to search Shakespeare (or anything else) when there are significant spelling errors?

Wednesday, April 06, 2005


A little while back there was a commercial for Bacardi rum, and at the end of the commercial, at the bottom of the screen in small type, was a legend along the lines of "Bacardi and the bat device are registered trademarks of the Bacardi Corporation". Jim, baffled, said, "Bat device?" And, since it is a word not in the commonest of parlance, I explained it to him.

"Device" now has one predominant meaning; it's a machine of some sort. It doesn't even have to have any moving parts--I have a clever little hand-held gizmo for peeling citrus fruit that looks like a cheap ring with a tiny shark's fin attached (look two-thirds of the way down the page), and it's most definitely a device--but it has to be something that performs a function. In this sense, a wedding ring is not a device, but an orange-peeling ring is.

And yet "device" has a number of other meanings that aren't quite dead. If we think of "device" in terms of its root, "something devised or designed", then we can get closer to the panoply of meanings inherent in the word.

1) "Left to my own devices". To many modern ears it might sound as if it had something to do with machinery, but what it really means is just "left to whatever it was I could devise."

2) "A miracle of rare device". Once again that machine image intrudes: is this speaking of a miraculous machine like a DVD player? Nope; if we mentally replace the word "device" with "devisement", then we have the sense of "something so uncommonly well-made as to seem miraculous".

3) "A literary device". A typewriter? No, more like an allegory or a synecdoche: a literary tool that a writer uses to achieve a certain effect.

4) "The bat device"/"a heraldic device". A device is simply a graphic design of some sort. In the first instance, it means a single graphic element; in the second, a limited and unified collection of graphic elements. But the idea is the same: it's something devised to create a visual effect.


I used the word "commonest" up there, didn't I? That deserves a looking-at.

It's easy to create the comparative and the superlative in English:

1) add "-er" and "-est" to virtually all adjectives of one syllable (great, greater, greatest) and most words in which the last letter is "-y" (sly, slyer, slyest), except that we
2) change the terminal "-y" (after a consonant) to "-i" in virtually all words that end in "-y" and sound as if they end in a long "e" (grimy, grimier, grimiest), and
3) double the consonant before the suffix in one-syllable words that end with consonant-vowel-consonant (grim, grimmer, grimmest), leaving us to
4) place the words "more" and "most" before almost all other adjectives.

Rules 2 and 3 are really spelling rules: in terms of usage, there are just the two, and they serve us well. Yet because in ornery old English there has to be an exception to every rule (slippery, slipperier, slipperiest, but ordinary, more ordinary, most ordinary), there are words that break the pattern, and "common" is one of them. Some people prefer to use the suffixes; others, to use the adverbs. There's no right way.

One objection which I find a little odd is that some people don't like the suffixes for "common" because the comparative becomes "commoner", which is also a noun. But there are plenty of comparative adjectives which do double duty as nouns: dryer, madder, slicker, number, and crisper, to name just a few.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Out of Place

I'm still sifting through the January archives of the fascinating Boing Boing (I have a job, I have a life, these things take time), and I ran across this, the opening salvo from a customer-service letter:

"As a valued GTC Telecom customer, we are concerned about your current unpaid balance."

Even as a child I had an eye for such sentences, before I knew that there was a name for them, because it was always immediately clear to me how and why they were wrong; so much so, in fact, that I couldn't understand how people could make such a mistake.

As it turns out, this common error is called a misplaced modifier, for the obvious reason that the modifier (which can be a word, a phrase, or an entire clause) is in the wrong place and therefore appears to be modifying something it shouldn't: in this case, "a valued GTC Telecom customer" must necessarily refer to the word "we".

The annoying thing about this example is that it's so easy to fix: "As you are a valued GTC Telecom customer...." A more literal rewriting would give us "As a valued GTC Telecom customer, you have a current unpaid balance which concerns us."

Doubtless it's just me and a small scrappy band of grammar fiends who find such errors glaringly obvious, but I can't see how anyone re-reading his or her writing can miss something like that. I just can't.


So I'm thinking about misplaced modifiers and how in other circumstances they're called dangling participles ("Daydreaming, the cat startled me.") And that made me think of Lieutenant Dangle on "Reno 911", so I Googled "dangle 911" for no particular reason, and the last link on the first page disclosed this marvellous error:

"Reno 911 is something you have to see to be believed."

I don't even know what to call that. I've never seen anything quite like it. It's as if the writer couldn't make up his mind between "You have to see it to believe it" and "It has to be seen to be believed" and decided to split the difference.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Dynamic Tension

There are so many things to love about the English language, and one of the things I love the most is the way the present tense can sub for the past and the future if need be.

Here's a snippet of dialogue to demonstrate the point. Anyone wishing to stage this might want to consider something along the lines of Racine or Pinter instead.

"Have a bad day?"
"Bad?! I go into my office and there sitting in my chair is the boss, and standing next to her is that smarmy geek from accounting. She tears a strip off me, and the geek's just standing there smirking. It takes half an hour and a lot of smooth talk to get rid of them. You bet that wrecks my whole day."
"Yikes. So what are you doing for the long weekend?"
"We're heading out of town for some camping. Anything to get away from here. Are you two planning anything?"
"Nah, we're staying put. Mike's working and I'm doing some things around the house."
"You're stuck in town on the first long weekend of the summer?"
"Yeah, but we can get away for two weeks in August if things work out."

Not an identifiable past participle or marked future form in the bunch, and yet any reasonably fluent speaker of English will instantly understand that the first half is a discussion about the past, while the second half is postulating about the future. There may already be a name for such grammatical constructions, but I always think of them as "implicit past" and "implicit future".

Sunday, April 03, 2005


I use a tabbed browser, and it's a wonderful thing. If I go to a page with a lot of links on it, and I often do, I can open every one of those links in a new tab without leaving the page I'm on. Then I can read those pages at my leisure, knowing they'll hang around as long as the main window does. I go to Salon.com and open eight or ten windows, to Slate.com and open another half-dozen, to Onion.com and grab another fifteen, and so on: I might have thirty or forty tabs going by the time I'm finished.

I'm telling you this to explain why what currently annoys me is something that appeared almost a week ago, on Salon.com on March 28th: because I've only just gotten around to reading it. The piece (it's here if you want to read it) contains this aggravating error:

"Some gun law experts say the Bush administration has shown a remarkable willingness to push the edge of the civil liberties envelope, citing the necessities of war -- the "sneak and peak" provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act and the naming of U.S. citizens as "enemy combatants" being prime examples."

"Sneak and peak"? Argh!

To peak is to reach a maximum. To peek is to take a quick glimpse. They're unrelated, and even a cursory copy-edit will nab such an error. (I suppose it could have been worse: the writer could have said "sneak and pique".) Every day I wish more and more that spell-checkers had never been invented, or that grammar checkers had been perfected.

Saturday, April 02, 2005


All right. This one won't be easily settled, but that doesn't mean I'm not willing to have a go at it.

How exactly does one pluralize the possessive of a word that ends in "-s"? Suffixing apostrophe-ess is the usual technique for forming the possessive: "John's haircut looks like a pig's breakfast." But when a word already ends in "-s", slapping another ess on the end looks odd to some people: "Louis's megaphone bothered the neighbours's cat." If the word ends in two esses, it looks even worse, and if the following word begins with an ess, well, that's a nightmare slurry of sibilants: "Jess's sister stole the hostess's silverware".

A solution that has arisen is to delete the ess following the apostrophe in some or all of these cases. Some prescribe that the ess be removed only when the next word also begins with an ess: "Marlys' sister is dating Hans' son". Others prefer that the terminal ess be deleted whenever the word ends with "-s", whatever the first letter of the following word: "Dickens' novels are Jules' favourites." With the understanding that the implied ess is still pronounced--it sounds like "dickenses", not "dickens", "juleses", not "jules"--I'm in the latter camp. (Some people don't pronounce that invisible "-s", and I have to wonder why not; don't they want to indicate the possessive? Even if the ess isn't there, can't they assume, as I do, that a bare apostrophe is pronounced like a zed?)

Even if I'm provably wrong, I don't care: it's said of artists and writers that they can't break the rules unless they know them, and I know the rule (if a rule it be); I just don't like it. I think ess-apostrophe looks nicer, and there's plenty of precedent for it, so that's what I'm going to use.

I call it the toilet-seat argument: a man and a woman get into that snarly, unresolvable discussion about the seat and/or the lid. She says, "What if I fall in in the middle of the night?" He counters with, "Hey, guys have to sit down sometimes, too, and you never hear of them falling in. And if we're smart enough to check to see if the seat is down, then you should be, too." And that sort of thing goes on for a while, and eventually something is said that shouldn't be said and feelings are hurt and nothing gets resolved. But as soon as she says, "I just think it looks nicer with the seat down," then as far as I'm concerned, she wins. It is very difficult to argue aesthetic principles.

Friday, April 01, 2005


Ah, April Fools' Day, when a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of messy and/or mean-spirited jokes. Not mine, though. I'm not much of a prankster. All you'll get from me is a pun.

Omen #1: There is a strip club in Moncton called Miss Be Haven. That rather sad attempt at a pun is eclipsed by the sign outside, though. It's one of those ubiquitous rentable signs that permit large Day-Glo letters to be slid into three or four rows of slots to create easily changed signage. I don't remember the entire text of the sign, but the bottom row was memorable: intending to suggest that women who entered the bar could order shots of alcohol for $2, but apparently having been created to fit into a limited space and in the absence of such niceties as decimal points, dollar signs and apostrophes, the sign read


Those poor ladies! And how simple it would have been to have the sign read LADIES SHOTS 200. It still needs an apostrophe, but at least its meaning isn't open to misunderstanding and, from my corner of the field, wide-eyed disbelief. (Was it someone's honest stab at a readable, meaningful sign from a depleted pool of letters, or was it someone's attempt at a joke? Because if it's a joke, it's not an especially funny one.)

Omen #2: A large billboard in town advertising a curling event of some sort. (That's curling the ice sport, not curling the hair. Curling the ice sport is a big deal in Canada.) I've never gotten close enough to read the fine print, but it would appear to be a tour, presumably featuring Canadian curler Colleen Jones. The billboard's headline reads


They didn't say "ROAR'N", so I suppose that's a small blessing. But "JONES'"? What the hell is that?

Once and for all: a proper noun ending in "-s" takes the suffix "-es" to form the plural. Dickens: the Dickenses. Jones: the Joneses. It absolutely does not ever under any circumstances take the apostrophe, which indicates the possessive: Colleen Jones' Fabulous Curling Tour or whatever it's called.

Should I have written Colleen Jones's Fabulous Curling Tour? Some say yes; I say no. I'll talk about that tomorrow.