Posted tagged ‘grammar’

Public grammar and spelling don’ts from public players

August 4, 2016

DSC001221-2I’m not going to pick on Larry King. Not even going to pick on Scott Pelley (this time). And certainly not going to pick on everyday people who mess up grammar in everyday use.

In these occasional call-outs of bad syntax, spelling, and other offenses against the English language, I’ve smacked the typing hands or shut the pieholes of magazine editors, broadcasters, company PR departments, ad writers, politicians, nonprofit communications pros, news reporters, and more. All either know the language or have people who know the language—and all have a platform to inflict their errors on a wider public.

Regular people who mess up through ignorance, sloppiness, or laziness: Clear communication is important. Please learn from others’ mistakes. Here are some just since the holidays ….

The website tag on a Post story about Mount St. Mary’s University: “The small Catholic college in southern Maryland became embroiled in crisis this year when its previous president suggested that students struggling academically should be culled.” Nice try, Post website writer. How about “a small Catholic college in Maryland, just south of Pennsylvania.” Like seven miles south. Unless you mean St. Mary’s College of Maryland—which you don’t, because that’s a whole nuther institution. (Numerous comments chastised the paper for correcting the mistake without noting that it had done so.)

Tsk to the editors of Reader’s Digest, several of whom failed to fix this Barack Obama quote on its way into print: “But just in case there’s any lingering questions, tonight I’m prepared to go a step further.” That should be “there’re” or “there are.” The sentence was spoken, not written, and even if Reader’s Digest got the quote from a transcript, the editors (including the author) should have caught the mistake.

Write headlines in haste, repent at leisure. The editor of this Washington Post article should consider the word “him”: “McConnell focused on the ideas that unite he and Trump, and that separate he and Hillary Clinton.” (That comma doesn’t belong there, either.) And writer Jennifer Rubin should consider the word “her”: From an op-ed in the Washington Post, “In a general election, the Clintons will encounter voters who don’t really recall either she or Bill in their pre-President Obama days.”

If you still need help lowering your blood sugar, this is Jardiance.
If … you’re talking to your doctor about a biologic, this is Humira.
(The Northern Virginia hospital chain Inova had a similar line in a recent radio ad.)
These are logic failures. They imply an if-then relationship, but actually, the second phrase is true regardless of the first phrase. “This is Jardiance”—a newish medicine—whether you need help lowering your blood sugar or not. The marketing campaign is a clever way of suggesting that Jardiance will do well at lowering your blood sugar when in fact the sentence says no such thing; it simply introduces the product and lets you draw your own conclusion. (By the way, Humira, a biologic what?)

New York Post headline: “Hillary Using Bill to Shakedown High-Profile Donors.” Gimme space! A noun is not a verb.

“I am standing with the 31 Governors that are working to keep our nation safe,” tweeted then-presidential candidate Ben Carson. Last I heard, governors (lowercase) are people, too. So they take who, not that. 

“Tastes so good, you won’t believe it has 50 percent less calories.” Argh, Trop 50, you’ve already made an abomination of orange juice; now you’re butchering the English language. “Fewer,” please!

Washington Post headline: “Legendary Photographer Ansel Adams Visited a Japanese Internment Camp in 1943, Here’s What He Saw.” A run-on sentence in a headline is another example to back up the assertion that the Post has lost (most of) its copyeditors and general grammatical knowledge.

And saving the worst for last: “U.S. News and World Reports has recognized the Naval Academy …. Upon graduation, midshipmen earn bachelor of Science degree in a choice of 25 different subject majors and go on to serve at least five years of exciting and rewarding services as commissioned officers in the U.S. Navy or U.S. Marin Corps.” Bad, bad “United States Public Affairs Office”—and shouldn’t that be “United States Naval Academy Public Affairs Office”? This news release has to be seen to believed, especially because the highlighted sentences should be boilerplate.

Copyright 2016 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Literally, contranyms, and other grammar silliness

September 11, 2013

Did you know? Grammar can be funny.

That’s the conclusion I draw from reading just the titles of Bill Walsh’s books: Lapsing Into a Comma, The Elephants of Style, and the new Yes, I Could Care Less. Walsh is a copyeditor at the Washington Post (I know! Who knew there were any? snark) who led a chat there recently about all kinds of grammatical questions, from new words in the Oxford Dictionaries Online to the contradictory meanings of “sanction.”

First, yay him and yay the Post for having such a chat at all. People care about this stuff, and not just those of us who attempt to make some sort of living at it. As I keep saying, words matter, especially in a wonky city like Washington. Second, yay him for being sensible. “New words can be annoying. Changes in the way people use old words can be especially jarring,” he says. “The good news is that even if ‘literally’ can mean that other thing, you and I and the Washington Post stylebook are not required to use the word that way.”

Random comments:

• In the spirit of parking on a driveway and driving on a parkway, one reader wondered why “sanction” means both to approve of and to punish. I admit I’d never thought about that. Likewise, “sanguine” means both bloody and bloodless, “cleave” means both divide and bring together, and “to dust” can mean either to add or to subtract dust. Walsh calls these contranyms—now there’s a cool word!—words that have two opposite meanings. The Oxford Dictionaries Online have now added “literally” to that number. (Ugh!)

• Walsh says, “To founder is to sink. To flounder is to struggle, as a flopping fish might.” Oh, boy. Now, if people don’t know the difference automatically, how are they supposed to remember that? Too bad the mnemonic is confusing.

• I always feel for immigrants trying to learn English. What a nutty language. Here’s an example: A reader asks about past participles, trying to understand “shone” versus “shined” (which “just sounds wrong to me”). Walsh replies, “So many past participles are irregular in this language, you’d have thunk the grammar gods were playing a joke on us. It’s hardly surprising that new ones have snuck in.”

• Editors aren’t perfect, even at grammar, and here’s an example: I’ve always had trouble with this sort of construction. Walsh writes, “By the way, I was thrilled to read ‘one of the people who get annoyed.’ Too many people hypercorrect such things and would say ‘I’m one of the people who GETS annoyed.’ Which would be dead wrong.” Eek!

• Circling back to the beginning: Several of Walsh’s readers commented on “literally” becoming not literal in the Oxford Dictionaries Online, a change that has made many people apoplectic. Okay, not literally, but close. One of those people was Gene Weingarten, frequent maker of poop jokes and—by the way—two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

A week or so ago, he weighed in on the controversy. “I am not a language tyrant,” he wrote. “… But one must draw the line somewhere, and to me, that line is crossed when antonyms are certified for use as synonyms. It is rewarding vapidity. It is celebrating vapidity. It would be like your giving the Nobel Prize in medicine to the president of the Hair Club for Men.” Virtual panties, Gene!

Copyright 2013 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Going Forward, Part 1

June 17, 2012

Otherwise known as the Department of Redundancy Bureau.

It’s rare that this pointless phrase is ever useful. Ninety-some percent of the time, you can slice it out of a sentence and never know it was there. To prove this, let’s take some random headlines and other lines from the Internet:

“Greek economy faces challenges going forward”

“Biggest positional needs going forward for Steelers”

“Sony reveals business plan going forward for 2012”

“We recently announced that, going forward, Windows Phone will be ….”

“Celtics going forward with a familiar core”

Okay, that last one is a legitimate use. The others? Well, I could cross my eyes every time I heard such nonsense, but as Mom used to warn, “Your face will freeze like that.”

An editor risks frostbite at all the redundancies in newspapers, on billboards, in junk mail, on TV, on radio, online, on banners behind small airplanes, etc. etc. For example:

* free gift                                                                                  * 9 am in the morning

* added bonus                                                                         * continue on

* unexpected surprise                                                           * true fact

* PIN number, VIN number, ATM machine,                   * armed gunman

SAT test, HIV virus                                                               * unconfirmed rumor

* surrounded on all sides                                                     * past history

Piece of cake, as they say, to edit such phrases as “a variety of different things” and “a potential hazard.” That’s why I can pretty much promise an ability to shorten any piece of prose — there are always cliches, redundancies, multiple words and phrases where one or two will do, and so on.

In most cases, I guess, people just aren’t paying attention. Most people don’t give any more thought to language than they do to their route to work or what they had for breakfast Monday. More important, they never learned grammar in the first place, never had the benefit of reading literature, didn’t learn a foreign language and analyze the differences with English, didn’t do crosswords, or didn’t have teachers who pointed out illogic with red pens and led class discussions on, say, “9 am in the morning,” a term I keep hearing on WTOP around 7 am. In the morning.

I expect that of Everyman at this point. I don’t expect it from President Obama and his speechwriters, who allowed “going forward” a few days ago. Ugh! Speaking only about grammar and language, we had eight years of an inane president. This one was a constitutional law professor known for his erudite speeches and a couple of well-reviewed bestsellers he wrote himself. Et tu?

Of course, spoken language has something of an excuse for redundancy. You need to be understood both literally and figuratively. Advertisers want to get that magic word “free” into your head. “PIN” is one syllable, so “PIN number” is clearer on the phone and in recorded instructions. Presidents, perhaps, want to sounds like your average Joe (Biden? Plumber?), though the wisdom of that varies by what they say. If studies show that people need to hear a message eight times before it sticks, maybe a bit of redundancy is forgivable when life has so many distractions.

But there’s no excuse for “future plans” or “true fact” (do people really say that unironically?). Aggravating as it is to hear terms like this, the best approach may be a dual one: as an editor, to strike them whenever possible, and as a listener, to laugh. It’s better than raising my blood pressure or crossing my eyes. But more on that in the next chapter — Going Forward, Part 2 — about cliches.

Copyright 2012 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.