or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Page Down

Tell the truth: how often do you use a printed dictionary. and how often do you use one online?

Since most of us write nowadays sitting at our computers, I am willing to bet that print dictionaries aren't seeing a lot of action these days; it's so much easier to type "allegory definition" into the Google search bar (or whatever you happen to use) and have the answer a couple of seconds later.

Mind you, I use the Oxford English Dictionary all the time, because it is without question the preeminent sourcebook for the language, and I use the printed version, because it's the version I happen to have. I'm glad to have it, and I'm glad it exists, but if I had the CD-ROM or online versions, I think I would never open the covers of my paper edition again. No more flipping through pages, no more squinting at tiny print (it's the compact version, with six miniaturized pages jammed onto every page), no more memorizing dates and exact wordings until I can trot back to my computer to type it in (the book is big and heavy, and I just don't have room for it on my computer desk, so it sits on a low bookcase in my living room).

I don't own either electronic version because they're kind of expensive. The CD-ROM edition is $295, which is not a horrific amount of money in the long run, but I haven't bought it because the online edition exists, and it seems likely that that would be superior to the disc. Think about it: the second a change is made, a new definition added, a new word deemed eligible, it would instantly be available to its users. And more, of course. Compared to that, the CD seems fusty, static, stuck in a rut. But online is even more expensive, because it's an ongoing charge: $295 U.S. a year.

So I am caught in this waffle. Either electronic version would be better than the cellulose edition I have, but they're both expensive, and the presumably better one is even more expensive--an expense that continues year after year. And I suppose I can't justify spending money for an electronic version of a book I already have, even though it would make my life easier.

But at least I have one. Future generations might not have even that, because sales of printed dictionaries are tumbling so fast that the third edition of the OED is probably never going to make it onto the page, but will instead be available exclusively online.

I don't know how to feel about that. My inner Luddite thinks that the complete reliance on electrons is a mistake in the long run: you're always one power outage or natural disaster away from being cut off from all sources of information. Then again, in a natural disaster or a blackout, you're probably not thinking of using the dictionary. And we can't very well compel book, newspaper, and magazine publishers to keep using paper in perpetuity just in case our computers happen to fail.

So maybe wave goodbye to the OED as it's existed for eighty-plus years. And maybe think of getting a used hardcover edition, just in case.

Monday, August 30, 2010

And That's An Order

There's probably a way to block ads from Facebook, but what the hell, they're small and unobtrusive and they don't blink or flash or move around the screen, so whatever. Those, I can ignore.

These two, one on top of the other, did catch my eye yesterday, though. The first one has a silly typo in it, the sort of thing that makes me think the product is likely worthless because the vendor couldn't even be bothered to make sure his ad copy is written in standard English.

The second one, though, is a doozy, because it's so tin-eared and badly worded. The verb "to deserve" does not operate well in the imperative mood, which is how it's used in the ad. If I start a sentence with the imperative "deserve", it actually means that I am telling you that you have to something else in order to deserve whatever I'm offering, which is not a sentiment often expressed in English, which is why the ad reads so badly and feels so wrong.

I suspect the copywriter intended the ad to suggest "Get more from a card," or maybe "Expect more from a card," but somehow had to get across the idea that the bearer deserves it. And if that is what the copywriter intended, then the copywriter failed miserably. If the ad had said "You deserve more from a card," then it would have unexceptionable, just more advertising flotsam, along the lines of "You deserve a break today."* But since it's pretty much commanding me to somehow be the sort of person who is worthy of having one of their scraps of plastic, and since I don't want a credit card that isn't as accepted in as many places as Visa or Mastercard but nevertheless wants to charge me a fee for being less versatile, my response is to laugh at them.

Still, the ad did make me notice it, so I guess it worked, if by "worked" we mean "made me want to poke fun at it".

* The old McDonald's ad campaign rendered in the imperative is an arresting idea, is it not? Sober, almost military. And that's the trouble with the American Express ad: it comes across as sternly authoritarian.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

That Sucks

I was reading News of the Weird today, as I do every Sunday, and the following article caught my eye:

News of the Weird has reported on several mothers' desires to prolong breastfeeding past the culturally normal age, some continuing well after the child's sixth birthday. The issue flared again in July in Melbourne, Australia, when a 6-year-old boy's birth mother (who had relinquished the child as an infant) used breastfeeding as a strategy to try to wrest him away from the caretakers who had raised him. During sanctioned visitations with the child, the birth mother had pressured the boy to suckle, but he rebelled, and the caretaker obtained a judicial order against further breastfeeding.

I stopped not because it was such an arresting story, but because of the use of the word "suckle".

Richard Dawkins is an all-around excellent person, I think, a really good writer and science-popularizer, and his "The God Delusion" is a measured, even-handed discussion of atheism and the ramifications of widespread religious belief (in contrast to Christopher Hitchens' thrillingly splenetic "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything"). But Dawkins is after all human like the rest of us, and therefore subject to the bane of every educated person, the unwitting absorption of a grammatical rule which is untrue.

On page 35 of the British (Black Swan) edition of his most recent book, "The Greatest Show on Earth", is the following pair of sentences and corresponding footnote:

The American zoologist Raymond Coppinger makes the point that puppies of different breeds are much more similar to each other than adult dogs are. Puppies can't afford to be different, because the main this they have to do is suck*, and sucking present pretty much the same challenges for all breeds.

*Not suckle: mothers suckle, babies suck.

When I read that sentence, I folded down the corner of the page to mark it--something I almost never do, because I like my books to stay in good condition, but I thought it was important, because it's wrong, and because his editor ought to have pointed this out to him. I mean, I noticed it right away; surely a British editor, who probably has a better education than I did, would have noticed it, too.

Maybe the editor did point it out, and Dawkins said, "No, this is what I was taught in school." I had English teachers who told me things that were demonstrably wrong, and those things were doubtless taught them in childhood by their teachers in turn. It was an English teacher who informed the class that "You have two choices" was wrong if you were deciding between two things, because you were only making one choice, between the two things--as if "choice" hadn't been roughly synonymous with "option" and meant "person or thing being chosen" for hundreds of years.

We all have these blind spots in our language and usage, all of us, however educated we are. Some conservative types love to point out that gay people have hijacked the word "gay", which means happy and is therefore inappropriate because gay people are all miserable, ignoring the fact that, whatever the joviality of such people individually or as a group, "gay" in that context has meant more or less what it currently means for going on a century now, so "homosexual activists" (nice term) certainly didn't steal the word out of malice.

But Dawkins' mistake is perhaps less excusable because the distinction he makes hasn't been strictly true for centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary dates "suckle" from 1408 with Dawkins' transitive meaning "to cause to take milk from the breast". However, by the end of the seventeenth century, its meaning had expanded to overlap with "suck"; the OED gives 1688 as the date for intransitive "suckle" meaning "to suck at the breast", which is how it is--correctly--used in the News of the Weird story.

Ah, you may argue, but usage changes over time. "Ain't" used to be good English, and now it, well, ain't. And that is true enough, but the fact is that "suckle" continues to have its two meanings to this very day: as far as I can tell, there never has been a time since 1688 when it didn't have both meanings, distinguished by transitivity or intransitivity. Every dictionary nowadays lists both, as well they might: three hundred and twenty years is surely enough to give legitimacy to a usage, however much English teachers and their students dislike it.

One last note: although "suckle" looks for all the world like a frequentative, "suck" made quick and rapid and repeated by the addition of the usual suffix "-le", the OED says that it is not, but is instead a back-formation from "suckling", as in "suckling pig".

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Lions And Tigers And Bears Oh My God Will You Sad Hacks Just Knock It Off

Here's a screen cap of the headline from a recent Salon article:

I have only one thing to say:

Stop it. Just fucking stop it.

When writers can't think of something to say but have three nouns at their disposal, why why why do they always end up pathetically referencing a seventy-year-old movie, appropriating and altering a quote that hasn't been the least bit amusing in at least sixty of those years?

The last even remotely successful use of any variant of the "Wizard of Oz" line was in "The Emperor's New Groove", and that was ten years ago, and it was the least funny joke in the entire production: if "The Emperor's New Groove", one of the cleverest movies of the last couple of decades, can't make something funny, then the rest of the world has no hope at all, so seriously, fucking drop it forever.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Happy Happy Joy Joy

None of my usual ranting. I'm having a really nice day. Here are some reasons why.

1) If you wanted to make the argument that there exists a loving god who wants us to be happy, I think these pictures of the so-gorgeous Christina Hendricks would be, if not persuasive proof, then a step in the right direction.

See, fellow white-white folks? We don't need to resort to hideous self-tanner or damaging sun to look good! (I had a customer yesterday who looked like an anorexic moccasin; her even more deeply tanned mother looked like a leatherette handbag. The sun is not your friend.)

2) This picture is a pretty good argument for same-sex marriage. Nice-looking guys in formal wear in love with one another!

It's Neil Patrick Harris and his beau, David Burtka. And they're having twins!

(All three pix totally heisted from Project Rungay, which you ought to be reading.)

3) CeeLo Green is an awesome singer with a fantastic voice, and the video for his new song, "Fuck You!"

is so much fun, with lyrics like

I pity the fool that falls in love with you
(Oh shit she's a gold digger)
(Just thought you should know, nigga)

Laura Schlesinger will be turning over in her coffin (you just know she sleeps in one while the sun is up), but a black person saying "nigga" is like a gay person saying "fag", which maybe we'll get into some time. Not now. Watch the video. It'll cheer you right up.

4) You know what contact juggling is? I think Michael Moschen pretty much invented it; it's the artful (and dance-infused) manipulation of objects without letting go of them, as Moschen does, hypnotically, here. Watch particularly from 1:50 to 2:30, where the ball seems to be uncannily attached to him in ways that defy physics and gravity:


This Japanese guy, Okotanpe, is also a gifted contact juggler; just watch what he does from about 1:30 to 1:43:

You have the unsettling sense that the acrylic ball exists independently of normal spacetime, that it's a piece of another dimension that the performer somehow got his hands on. At other times, the ball seems to be moving on its own, with the juggler merely containing or directing its motion.

That all of these people exist makes me very, very happy.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


From the blog Towleroad (probably safe for work, although you never do know), a fairly typical story about vandalism, accompanied by this picture:

Not even FAGS, but FAG'S. And not even that! FAG"S.

A rare sighting: not only the greengrocers' apostrophe, but a misspelling of the greengrocers' apostrophe--the greengrocers' quotation mark. In other words, someone who can't punctuate correctly who can't even mis-punctuate correctly. Is this the birth of a whole new form of stupidity?

If I could, I would submit the vandal to this:

Friday, August 20, 2010

Snipe Hunt

I just got a comment on an old blog posting:

After a Google search on the proper spelling of Hallowe'en I came across your blog which was quite interesting. I do have to point out, with your extreme interest in spelling, that you are probably interested in your constant misuse of the quotation marks. Any punctuation that immediately follows a end quote is placed INSIDE that mark. e.g. "Halloween," and "All Hallows' Evening." Just so you know.

Oh, I do so love to be condescended to.

If you are an American, then the rule is indeed that the punctuation mark always goes inside the quotation marks. However, not every single person on the Internet is an American.

Other people--Canadians, for example--use a different system, as even one minute's Googling would have disclosed, which a great many people consider more logical: we look at the punctuation mark and see where it makes more sense, and then we place it there. If what's inside the quotes is a complete sentence, then the terminal mark (period/exclamation mark/question mark) or comma (to replace the terminal mark if there's more following it) goes in there with it, because it belongs to the sentence.

"Drat!" she said for the third time.

"I don't know about you," he said wearily, "but I am going to kill the next person who asks me where the bathroom is."

Otherwise, the punctuation goes outside, because it is not part of the enclosure but of the surrounding sentence.

Puffballs are called "horse farts", at least where I grew up.

This is how I have unfailingly used it in the blog posting, how I was taught to do it, and how I always do it. (Which is not to say I don't slip up from time to time: I don't have an editor.)

People who correct others' English usage do so at the risk of having their own scrutinized and found wanting.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

It Happens

Dear every news outlet of any size or description in the entire world:

Please hire a proofreader, or sooner or later this will happen to you.


All the proofreaders in the world

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Do they still teach things like the misplaced modifier, aka the dangling participle, in school? Do they, in fact, still teach grammar in school?

I ask in all seriousness, because the sorts of mistakes you see in published writing suggest that people aren't being taught such things, and go on to spread their ignorance and abysmal style to yet another generation of readers.

Here is the lead--the lead!--to a typical women's-section newspaper article in the local rag:

Bursting with vitamins, fiber and flavour, an increasing number of nutrition aware consumers are incorporating sweet potatoes into their daily diet.

I was honestly shocked when I read that ridiculous sentence. How is it even possible that that thing fell off the writer's fingertips onto the keyboard, that it was (presumably) reviewed and revised by the writer, that it was (theoretically) given the once-over by a copy editor, that it made it into print without one single person noticing that the way the sentence was written, the adjective "bursting with vitamins, fiber and flavour" refers not to the sweet potatoes but to the people who buy and cook them?*

One of the most basic rules of English grammatical style is that there has to be a clear connection between related words--that adjectives have to obviously belong to the nouns which they modify, that verbs have to impart motion or agency to the appropriate noun and not some other. You can write huge meandering compound-complex sentences, but you have to ensure that all the parts of those sentences relate sensibly to one another. Rearranging your sentence structure in a desperate attempt to give it some sort of style, and in the process making a hash of its meaning, just makes you look like another undereducated person who doesn't know how to write.

* Correctly yoking the adjective to the noun, unfortunately, would require reversing the order of the noun phrases, putting the sentence in passive voice, which is not much of an improvement. Any teacher or editor would tell the writer to go back and reconsider the whole lead.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Not What You Think

One of the most challenging things about using English well is that it is a huge mesh of words, with many overlaps and intersections and many close-but-not-quite relations. Part of this massive web is a large collection of categories--words that describe collections of other words--and if you choose the wrong category, if you call the Sun a planet, then people who know better are going to think less of you.

Here is a sentence from a Slate article about the apparently never-ending cupcake boom:

...we must turn to TV for signs that this madness must stop. It was here, after all, that Sex and the City—without reference to which no cupcake article is complete—transformed the pastry into a totem.

The thing, though, is that a cupcake is not a pastry, and here the reader gets the unfortunate sense that the writer was simply grasping for unnecessary variation to keep from saying "cupcake" one more time (why?).

A cupcake, like a muffin or a torte, is a cake, made from batter, which is a liquid. A cookie or a bread is made from dough, which is a fluid--stiffer than a batter but a fluid for all that. A pie, a danish, a cream puff, or a baklava is made from a paste of flour and water and fat (although in the case of baklava the fat is applied after the fact): paste = pastry. It's right there in the etymology!

Some people use "pastry" as a categorical term for "any baked sweet confection": bread pudding, zweiback, macaroons, blonde brownies--pastry, every crumb of it. Other people think that it doesn't matter either way, that people like me are making a mountain out of a molehill. All those people are wrong. They're probably just as comfortable calling a frog a reptile or an AK-47 a pistol.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Straight Shooter

I don't read io9, a science-fiction blog, very much, but when I do, I am as likely to find a big fat typo there as anywhere else. From a recent article on how to destroy satellites once they've outlived their usefulness:

The basic idea of satellites is that they don't push away from the ground, they outrace it. Throw a ball and gravity pulls it down to the ground. Launch the ball out of a canon, and gravity still pulls with the same force.

Someone should ask the canon how he feels about being used as artillery.

"Cannon", the intended word, is related to "cane", or tube, from Latin "canna"; it's also therefore a relative of Italian "cannoli", a filled tubular dessert, and therefore "cannelloni", a filled tubular pasta. not to mention "channel" and "canal".

"Canon" may also ultimately derive from "canna", but it hasn't been near that word and its relations in a long, long time. Starting from Greek "kanon", referring to a straight rod (hence the association with "kanna" or "canna"), the word came to mean "church law", the straight line you have to follow (or else), and from there, eventually, to mean a clergyman.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Street Smarts

In my job as a framer, I see a lot of really bad art, much of it brought back by people who bought it while on vacation. They're out on the beach in Cuba or the Dominican Republic, and maybe some hack artist convinces them to buy, or maybe his work just catches their eye. It's usually a sort of geometrical abstract, the surface painted dark brown and then divided into rectangles of various sizes, each of which contains a vague human figure or a fish or a sunburst in raised paint daubed with gold. It's probably painted on a bedsheet; surprisingly many of them are. (I'm guessing they're taken from hotels by chambermaid girlfriends.) If I'd seen only one or two, I wouldn't care--people like to have souvenirs of a trip, and a framed painting is a good one--but I have worked on literally hundreds of these things, all essentially identical, and so I am left with the only possible conclusion: it's ugly, meretricious junk. The customers like them enough to pay for them and then pay to get them framed, though, so I try not to judge. Not too much, anyway.

But there is one category of painting that never fails to grate at me, and that is of a little French street scene, shops and doorways and cafes with tables, a painting of which I have seen dozens of incremental variants. It's badly done, always, but what makes it truly an abomination is the lettering on the shop windows and above the doors. Just this evening I had one such painting at the counter, and here is some of the signage depicted on this quaint French market street, signage I wrote down for your delectation:

GONFEGTION NOUVEAUFE ("confection nouveaute")

PSSAGE STE ANE ("Passage Ste-Anne"), and just below it
PHARMAGIE STE ANNF ("Pharmacie Ste-Anne")

PARFUMPIE (which is actually sort of cute--"parfum pie"!--but should be "parfumerie")

CHDCOLATS AU LAIT ("chocolats au lait"), and just below it

I think I know exactly what's going on: the artist does not know any French at all, in fact speaks a language which does not use the Roman alphabet--Chinese, probably--and is copying the words down from a printed source (or another painting).

This is forgivable in its way, because even talentless hack artists have to make a living, even if that living is earned (I surmise) in a Chinese sweatshop where they churn out such dreck by the carload. What is beyond excusing is that people who ought to know better buy these typo-riddled things, which they will have to look at for years to come, and somehow never quite register that, however innocently, they are being made of fun of.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Heavy Topics

Apropos of nothing, you really owe it to yourself to read this excellent article by New Yorker medical writer Atul Gawande on the difficulty of deciding when to not pursue medical treatment at the end of life. It's a tough read that will stir up all kinds of messy emotions, but Gawande is a terrific writer (you should read his ghastly piece about the mystery of itching, too, and while you're at it this horrifying discussion of the complications of childbirth) and well worth your time.


There were some really stupid typos in Slate, as ever, and I was going to deride them, but really I think I'm done with that. It seems pointless to keep harping on the many, many typos I find in my everyday reading, when nothing will ever change, not in Slate or anywhere else, not if publications refuse to hire people to copy-edit their text--and they will refuse this, because it's not cost-effective, and any notion of caring about such things, in the publishing industry or the public at large, is dying.

There is an interesting series of articles in Slate about the periodic table of elements, and the most recent is about the curious fact that more than a few of the table's elements have symbols that don't match their names well if at all. Any young science student will have been puzzled by the fact that the symbol for lead is Pb; if they're lucky, they will have had their teacher explain that it's from the Latin word for lead, "plumbum", from the time when Latin was the international language of science, and further that "plumbum" is the source of the English words "plumbing", since pipes were made of lead, and "plumb bob", since a heavy, non-rusting lead weight was the obvious metal to use for such a device.

One of the biggest puzzles for the novice chemist is the symbol for tungsten, which is W; easily solved when you learn that the German name for the metal is wolfram, but this leaves another, bigger puzzle, which is where "tungsten" comes from and why we use it. As it turns out, "tungsten" is a Swedish word meaning "heavy stone"; the "-sten" part is an obvious cognate to "stone" (and German "Stein"), but the "tung-" part appears to have no relatives in English, certainly not the "tung" of "tung oil" (which is the oil from a Chinese tree), nor the "tung" which was an older spelling of the word "tongue" for reasons that are too complicated to get into right now, and I won't even promise to deal with it later, since we all know what my promises are worth, blogwise.

Amusingly, the Swedes call tungsten wolfram, which means that they don't even use their own word for it.