Monday, July 28, 2008

Word Order Matters (redux)

Grammar geeks get grumpy over the placement of adverbs such as "just" or "only"--they are often simply stuck into a sentence. But their positioning affects the meaning.

You know, 
Only he will buy a car, or 
He only will buy a car, or 
He will only buy a car, or 
He will buy only a car.

However, most times, it's just not that big a deal for the ordinary person. It's pretty clear, most of the time, what it was the speaker/writer wanted to emphasize. The context usually makes it obvious.

In fact, sometimes when I'm listening to people talk, I don't even notice where the "just" or the"only" ends up.

But in an NPR story about a lawsuit filed against the governor of Illinois over how fast the state responds to clemency requests, Cheryl Corley, the reporter/commentator, put a "just" in a very bad spot. And she really threw me. Because, it WASN'T clear what she meant.

There have been 3,000 requests filed during the Bogoyovich administration, but he's just granted 89 pardons, and decisions on nearly 2,000 cases are pending.

(the reporter did stress the word "just")

He just did this? Recently? Like, just the other day?

Could be, right? The story is ABOUT timing, so maybe. 

But look at those numbers--maybe she meant "he's granted *just 89* out of 3,000--that would be a sensible point to make, too. 

For the last few days, since I heard it, I thought she really meant "he's granted just 89 out of 3,000. But today, when I re-listened today, I thought, maybe she does mean "recently."

Word order matters.

And I don't know what she meant.

And it occurred to me this morning, as I walked past the phone booth w/ a pic of Helen Keller and the words "could only see possibilities" (no, she could only *feel* possibilities), that a big part of my problem is that I have been conditioned not to trust people on their adverb/modifier placement.

If I could trust people to always do it strictly according to logic, or if I knew more about the care and precision Cheryl Corley was able or inclined to apply to her work, then I'd know that Cheryl Corley meant "recently."

And maybe that's one reason to pressure people to do it strictly right. But of cousre, that's not achievable.
I'd Just Assume

I found a new eggcorn!

Well, new to me.

I was reading "The Sea of Monsters" by Rick Riordan. It's a young-adult fantasy novel, part of a series.

Toward the end of the book, his main character says, in response to his friend's offer to remove an "empathy link" between them: 

"I'd just assume keep it . . . "

Instead of: "I'd just as soon keep it . . . "

Others have spotted this "in the wild," but it's a first for me. 

I think part of the confusion stems from people's not using the other half of the idiom:
"I'd just as soon keep it as not . . . "

Other citations:

And, it turns out it *is* in the Eggcorn Database. I did a search for it on that site and didn't find it, or a second thread of comments, but Google turned it up.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Great Composer Beholden

I bought the game Password for my family, since the kids love Catch Phrase. Password is harder, so I'm not sure successful we'll be.

The Girl (14yo) and I like to just "ping" back and forth, no official game.

The password was "owe," and I said, "beholden."

"Classical music?" she guessed. She thought it sounded like a composer's name. 

It's interesting sometimes what words we haven't run across yet, and so we don't recognize them.

What word did you find yourself embarrassed or surprised that you didn't know?
Speaking of Notes to the Typographer/Editor

Bill Walsh spotted one on YahooNews

Check out his July 23 entry over at

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A Linguist Lies

Go read this post at Language Log:

Then come back and tell me if you think I'm right.

Geoffrey K. Pullum says he has disabled comments because he doesn't want to hear all the accusations of unfairness about his attitude toward animals and what he staunchly maintains is their lack of linguistics.*

He *really* disable comments because he doesn't want to read all the stories people are going to post about the time their dog/cat/parrot got up on the dining room table, or the time their dog/cat/parrot followed a command in the properly conditioned manner and created a funny situation.

I don't honestly think Pullum was *lying*--I think he just omitted part of his reason.

But you can tell your funny story here, if you like.

*With which I wholeheartedly agree, btw.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Word Order Matters

The kids are in Film School after their summer day camp. (Mr. TootsNYC runs this*; he picks a film he thinks they ought to see, such as The Manchurian Candidate, and makes them watch it.)

Today's film was National Treasure, which was The Girl's choice (tomorrow The Boy gets his turn--it'll be Scooby-Doo).

She was gratified by the villain--he stays villainous all the way to the end, and is soundly defeated. She ranted about Spy Kids and similar movies, in which the villain gets converted to being a good guy at the end of the movie.

"You should be able to win, to defeat him!" she said.

Oh, I said--"Win over them--not win them over?"

Can you think of another example in which word order (no negatives allowed) completely change the meaning of the sentence?

*I just found out that the real reason he does this (so he claims) is that they can't make a mess in the house if they're watching movies!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Some Charts Are Just Stupid

One thing that makes me shake my head when I see some charts is, "Why is that even a category?" I actually think charts can be hard. But sometimes, it seems like even the least experienced chart maker would think, "I can leave this one off!"

I'm trying to book a flight for unaccompanied minors (no, I'm *not* sending them back to Hawai'i).

Northwest has a chart on the page for its "unaccompanied minors" program. 

The headers:

Age (years)  -- This makes sense; they have different requirements for different ages.

UMNR Program  -- This works as well; for one age group, the program is option; for the other two it's mandatory.

Nonstop/Direct Allowed  -- This is the one that gets me. Is there any question that a nonstop, direct flight would NOT be allowed? That they'd tell *anyone*, "No, you HAVE to change planes, you CAN'T fly nonstop"? 

Connections Allowed  -- This one really should simply take the place of that stupid one. Because of course really little kids MUST take a nonstop, direct flight, but older kids can change planes.

Fee  -- An no-brainer; you need this. (even if the fee was all the same, I'd vote for leaving it)

I can understand a chart in which all the answers under a category are "yes"--say, a product chart that indicates that all the flashlights on the list use AA batteries, or something. Because, well, someone might actually wonder about the batteries required; some of them *could* be D cell, you know.

But nobody is going to be *stopped* from taking a direct flight.
Was This Note for Us, or for Your Editor?

I'm a sucker for advice columns. I think that, because my families (birth, in-law, nuclear) are mostly sane, I crave vicarious drama.

The Advice Goddess on has this at the end of the first letter in her column today:

" . . . Of course, being pickier may mean that women like "Almost A Bride" will miss out on that "full-time mommy dream" you talk about — or whatever you'd call life with a tantrum-throwing 3-year-old who's just this side of 50.

STYLE NOTE: Please make COULD and WILL lowercase and italicized.
<  But because something COULD happen to somebody in your demographic doesn't mean it WILL happen to you. >

[brackets hers]

Oops--I think she wasn't talking to us. Oh, well, at least it makes sense to us! (and, it could be a sort of jaunty writing tactic, which I would not put past Ms. Alkon at all--and it's sort of fun if it is that. It's just that I've never seen her do that sort of thing. Carolyn Hax, yes. Amy Alkon, no)

Aha! I've spotted another instance, and I do think it's a case of the "notes for the syndicators of my column" that wasn't stripped out of converted, either bcs someone missed it or bcs they intend to leave it in. It is:

. . . Now, there is that chance he's freezing up out of performance anxiety or because he sees sleeping together as an I.O.U. for commitment. But more than likely, his favorite sex positions are spooning, snoring, and doggie-style — as in, rolling over and playing dead.

Ultimately, the person in need of your honesty is you: whether the man for you is one who's always got Mr. Happy at the ready, or whether you can make do with a guy who should probably pet-name his entire sex drive Nuclear Winter.

STYLE NOTE, CONSERVATIVE PAPERS ONLY: In the first paragraph, "doggie-style" can be omitted (only if you must!). The last sentence in the first para can be replaced with this:

>Now, there is that chance he's freezing up out of performance anxiety or because he sees sleeping together as an I.O.U. for commitment. But more than likely, his favorite sex positions are spooning, snoring, and rolling over and playing dead.<

This is much more comprehensible than the line, "with enemies like this, who needs goose allies?"

That's the last line of a Field & Stream article a friend of mine edited years and years ago. The story was about something like a wetlands conservation group that found local farmers (who you might have expected to favor draining the wetlands) were in fact pursuing the same conservation goals for reasons related to their own industries. That last line was intended to marvel at the role of these expected enemies: "with enemies like this, who needs allies?"

Whence the goose?

At the time, the magazine used a dingbat at the end of every story--one in the shape of, you guessed it, a goose.

My friend dug out the proof, and indeed, someone had written "goose" on it and drawn a line pointing vaguely in the direction of the last sentence. This being the days of out-of-house typographers (hey, it wasn't THAT long ago; technology moves pretty fast, I'm not THAT old, it's just that I was very young when this story happened!), the typesetter, not being an editor and not being familiar w/ the story, had simply inserted the word "goose" somewhere without querying it, and nobody caught it.

What typographer/proofreader mark have you seen in print?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

A Headline from the Trojan War!

On ATT.NET's news channel right now, this:

Arrest made in stolen N.J. horse statue

Had to be room for at least 2 people in there, right?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The 1th of Never

My little brother* has always liked playing with words. He sent me a message via my mother on the occasion of my undergrad degree (he wasn't able to attend the ceremony, but he coached her carefully):

Congraduations on your gratulation.

When he studied Spanish in high school, he found the colloquial sayings and figures of speech of the language to be the hardest to learn--he called them "the idiots."

When mom was cooking a particularly deliciously aromatic dinner, he's sniff appreciatively, smile largely, and say, with enthusiasm, "Mmmm, mmmm, that stinks good!"

While we were visiting him in Hawai'i, where he's stationed (have I mentioned lately that we went to Hawai'i?), we were going over the schedule for all the activities we'd planned. "What day is that?" someone asked.

He answered, "The oneth."

So I thought that was amusing. Then, today, Mr. TootsNYC was scanning a 2-page document, and the software was telling him which page was being dealt with; the text on the computer screen said:

"scanning 1th page now."
I didn't think to stick around to see if it would have said, "scanning 2th page now." But I'm guessing it would.

What word do you use when you probably shouldn't?

(Mine is "arrove"--and I first started saying it, I did it without even thinking. Now I sometimes do it on purpose, but mostly do it because I didn't think about it. Drive, drove; arrive, arrove--right?)

*OK, OK, he's not that little. In fact, yes, he is bigger than me. But I'll always be older (and no, you don't need to point out, as my little sister did, "Someday you'll mind!")
The Mini Mighty Mo

We toured the battleship "Missouri" while we were in the Pearl Harbor area, and my son (he's 10) bought a small replica of the ship.

He realized just a bit later that he has a larger version of the "Missouri" already, from the days of playing w/ big ships on the floor. 

So, after he unpacked, when I stepped on a teeny helicopter hiding in the oriental rug, I asked if it came from the smaller model--" Is this from the mini Mighty Mo?"

Here's my favorite story about that mini Mighty Mo.*

My son got stopped by the x-ray folks at airport security on the way home. They saw a long, skinny, slightly-pointy-on-one-end metal shape in his luggage.

Once they found the model and rescanned it, they put him back in line.

I joked, "You can't bring a battleship on an airplane! It's a weapon!"

Yuck, yuck.

*how do you style a ship's nickname?

Friday, July 18, 2008

I Hate When They Try to "Bend" the Cliché

It never works.

In a Thursday, July 17, deck about Billy Joel's concert at Shea Stadium, Newsday had this phrase:

". . . and happiest when he's firmly on home base"

Ummm, it's home plate, in baseball. And no one is ever  on it. 

They stand beside it or at it, crouch behind it, cross it, touch it, step on it (and if they're the batter, they could be called out for doing so). 

So, only dirt is *on* the plate, and it's not supposed to be there, either.  (hence the plate brush: check out this cartoon--

Home base is for tag, or the military, or the Roomba.

So, that cliché didn't work.

That same day, I got a promo package in the mail from M&Ms/Mars, with a line that said

"M&Ms is getting even sweeter on weddings"

You can be sweet on someone or something (usually a "," not a "...thing"). But it's weird to be getting sweeter on someone.

So, that one didn't work either. 

What cliché(s) have you seen someone bend beyond recognition lately?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Did You Spell It Right?

Playing Etymologic!, I hit this question:

Where does the word coco come from?

Here are our choices:

* The Aztec word cachuatl for chocolate
* From the Portuguese word coco, meaning 'goblin'
* From the French caocao meaning milk

I'm thinking,"'What word did they mean? Cocoa?"

OK, so I know it's cheating, but I get out the Web9 on my shelf to look up the word "coco."

It's the fruit of the coconut palm. (the answer: 'goblin,' which was my guess bcs I assumed they had proofread themselves--a chancy assumption, but one I felt it was fair to make; if I got it wrong because of my assumption, I'd just add one on to my score at the end--who would know?)

Oh, you know what's stupid about this? I just got back from Hawai'i, where they grow coconuts. And when I was trying to figure out what a coco was, it never occurred to me that it might be from "coconut."
More Words from the Trojan War!

Just discovered this while taking the etymology quiz at Etymologic! (thanks, Mighty Red Pen):

Pander, which, to quote the website, means

 "to pimp,' or more broadly, to provide base gratification. How did it come to the English language?

From Pandarus, who acted as go-between for Troilus and Cressida during the Trojan War (Boccaccio).
Today's Terry Pratchett Quote

I've gotten all hung up on Terry Pratchett. If you hate fantasy, you won't like him, probably. But if you kind of like fantasy, and really like language, and like social insights and social commentary, I bet you'd love him.

Here's my favorite line from today's subway reading.

"Deep in the snow, in the middle of a windswept moorland, a small band of traeling librarians sat around their cooling stoe and wondered what to burn next.
"Tiffany had never been able to find out much about the librarians They were a bit like the wandering priests and teachers who went even into the smallest, loneliest villages to deliver those things--prayers, medicine, facts--that people could do without for weeks at a time but sometimes needed a lot of all at once."

from The Wintersmith, Chapter 7

Saturday, July 05, 2008

How Do You Pronounce a Symbol? (or, a star is not a word or a letter)

I'm in Hawai'i on vacation (eat your heart out), thanks to my Army-man brother, and reading The Honolulu Advertiser.

Today in the arts & leisure section, there's a mini review for the movie The Rape of Europa.

I read the last sentence six times before I could figure this out. (OK, OK, I was reading at the breakfast table, so I wasn't really concentrating hard.)

Film critic Roger Ebert gave it ***.

(I can't do the solid black stars on here.)

OH! Roger Ebert gave it three stars!

Use English, please!

All right, I sort of like the idea of using symbols as though they were words, for fun--but not in a straight news story.

What symbol have you been tempted to drop into written work?