Mighty Red Pen

May 3, 2010

Aquapocalypse now

Filed under: Wordsworthy — mighty red pen @ 7:20 pm
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The impulse to blend words always amuses me.  This winter, we had the Snowpocalypse. MRP readers are familiar with the Four Grammarians of the Apostrophocalypse. And there’s the irresistible urge to put the suffixes -gate, -licious, or -holic at the end of pretty much any word. Here in the Boston area, the onset of what some are calling the Aquapocalypse (and others, H2OMG) reminded me of Jan Freeman’s column the other week on “frankenwords.”

Reminding us that words we take for granted, such as bureaucrat, electrocute, and starvation are as blended as words such as chocoholic, humorectomy, and danceathon, Freeman writes:

“Today the air is thicker than ever with such verbal fireflies, though most will glow only briefly. And what’s “acceptable” has become a matter of taste — or age. We may groan at irritainment and adultescent, but miniskirt and glitterati, now over 50, are old friends. Like our censorious forebears, we love some blends and hate others, call some adorable and others ugly. What we don’t do, in the 21st century, is condemn them as crimes against Latin and Greek.”

Read “Frankenwords: How We Came to Love our Unholy Creations.” Would it just be too much to call thousands of gallons pouring into the Charles River from a burst pipe Watergate?


December 21, 2009

The female of the species: Female vs. woman

Filed under: Word wars,Wordsworthy — mighty red pen @ 5:21 pm
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Prompted by the possible election of a woman as U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, Jan Freeman muses in “The Female Question” on the correctness of woman and female as modifiers, asking: “If she wins the special election in January, will Martha Coakley be Massachusetts’s first female senator or its first woman senator?”

Freeman writes:

First, the defense of woman, the modifier: There’s nothing wrong with drafting woman for adjective duty, even if your dictionary calls it a noun. In English, nouns are allowed (and widely used) as attributives, modifying other nouns: cat food, bubble wrap, grammar mistake, goldfish bowl, child prodigy.

Some ‘woman’-haters argue that such adjectival use should be parallel with that of man: If we don’t say “man judges,” we can’t say “women judges.” But where is it written that words (any more than women) automatically get equal treatment?

But even if “woman senator” is fine, you might think female – indisputably an adjective – would be the safer choice. But female has its own PR problems. “Female connotes a biological category,” the linguist Deborah Tannen told columnist William Safire in 2007. “I avoid female [as an adjective] in my own writing because it feels disrespectful, as if I’m treating the people I’m referring to as mammals but not humans.”

Naturally, I’d like to see a world in which we didn’t have to point out anyone’s gender, but sometimes the fact of gender is the story, as in the case of this possibly historic election.

So in thinking this over, I realized that I tend to use woman as a modifier instead of female, probably for some reason related to the one given by Tannen. By saying female anything for me reduces women to a the female-of-the-species kind of status, as though there might be a Mutual of Omaha special on female senators, female secretaries of state, and rarest of all, female presidents.

Or, perhaps my aversion to female might be because I’ve been reading Twilight, in which the evil woman vampire is consistently referred to as the female. Creepy.

Which do you think is correct … or which do you simply prefer?

August 24, 2009

Were vs was

Filed under: Grammar goddess,Word wars — mighty red pen @ 7:36 pm
Tags: , ,

So I’d like to think that if there’s anything I’ve learned since I started this blog nearly three years ago (yup, it’s been that long), it’s that a little flexibility goes a long way in talking about issues related to grammar, spelling, and language. Although my job as an editor requires me to be fairly precise in adhering to certain style guides, in my life outside of that work, I’m more interested in the nuances.

So I was surprised when I read “Fade Away: The Slow Retirement of a Tricky Subjunctive” by Jan Freeman that I found her thesis—that the subjunctive were is slowly fading away—tickling my peevologist’s funny bone.

Bergen Evans, an English professor and a popular usage maven in the mid-20th century, often criticized “rules” that were really just crotchets. And he said it was OK to use was instead of subjunctive were pretty much anywhere except in the expression, “if I were you.” “Was has been used as a past subjunctive for more than 300 years and is the preferred form today,” he wrote.
. . .
I sent my query to Geoffrey Pullum, coauthor of the imposing Cambridge Grammar of the English Language and a linguist at Edinburgh University. Was there an obvious cure, I asked, for our was-were puzzlement?

There was, he said: Have it both ways. The Times’s choice of the “irrealis were,” as it’s called in the higher grammarspeak, is correct; so is our preferred was. “In informal style, Standard English substitutes ‘was’ for the irrealis ‘were,’ ” Pullum explained. This simply regularizes the verb to the pattern of other English verbs, which all use the past tense form for the subjunctive: “If I went out and robbed a bank.”

And someday, he predicted, the difference will disappear. “The irrealis form is clinging by its fingernails to the cliff of extinction. Only (unlike with most species extinctions) its final extinction will not matter: absolutely nothing will be misunderstood and there will be no ill effects.”

Maybe it’s true what they say, but this is one bit of language evolution I have trouble accepting. I like using were, it feels comfortable to me. But what do you think: Is the subjunctive were a grammatical dinosaur whose bones should finally be laid to rest? Or are Freeman and Pullum reading its last rites a bit too early?

June 8, 2009

“Quote, bemoan, repeat”

Filed under: Grammar goddess — mighty red pen @ 7:32 pm
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MRP is always amused when anyone puts up a brave front against those who tremble before the coming of the Four Grammarians of the Apostrophocalypse, and this latest salvo from Jan Freeman, “Thou Shalt Not Worry About It: Stern Commandments of Language Use Crumble” is no exception. This time she examines the way in which the Interwebs help to perpetuate grammar and language myths:

More insidiously, the Web is a wonderful place to vent about language that happens to annoy you. Peeveblogging, as Ben Zimmer of Visual Thesaurus has named it, is ideally suited to the medium. Instead of boring your friends with your obsession, you put up a blog devoted to misuses of literally, or apostrophe protection, or business buzzwords. Commenters, too, now have a safe place to show off their peeves. Quote, bemoan, repeat at the next thread, ad infinitum.

Since the 1860s, when Richard Grant White held forth on the evils of stand-point and aggravate, American usage mavens have been spreading the word to an insecure and socially mobile nation: avoid loan as a verb, shun contact, renounce hopefully, and you just might pass for a person of taste and education.

However, she says, “But the Era of Nitpicking won’t last forever, and lately I’ve seen some signs that it might be losing its momentum.” Freeman contends that there are some sane voices in the wilderness (she cites linguistics blogs Language Log and usage maven Grammar Girl as examples).

In the meantime, I sigh every time I encounter didactic lectures about “10 items or less” at the grocery store or commenters bashing on each other’s poor grammar or spelling as a way to win an argument on a message board. Do I see the light at the end of the tunnel? Sure, but as a friend of mine used to say, I’m not so sure yet it’s not a train.

December 1, 2008

It’s a jolly holiday

Filed under: Lit review,Wordsworthy — mighty red pen @ 7:07 pm
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Maybe you are looking for gifts for the word nerd in your life. Here’s a couple of tidbits:

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night: The Game for People Who Love to Read. It’s a board game something like Trivial Pursuit, although to be perfectly honest, so far Mister MRP and I have only used the cards to quiz each other on our knowledge of first lines, not so much to play the actual game. Topics range from poetry to children’s books to novels (with science fiction, Shakespeare, and some other stuff in between).

Or check out The Word for Jan Freeman’s suggestions here and here about great books that will delight the above-mentioned word nerd in your life (or you, if you happen to be the word nerd in your life).

October 26, 2008

Singularly speaking

Filed under: Grammar goddess,Wordsworthy — mighty red pen @ 2:44 pm
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Here’s a little bit of light word nerd reading.

In “Singular Challenge: Maybe ‘They’ is Becoming OK,” Jan Freeman takes on a topic MRP loves: the singular “they/their.” She writes:

Usage writers, even if they don’t think singular they has achieved respectability, agree that its day is coming. Barbara Wallraff explains why in a post at her new blog at TheAtlantic.com: “Write ‘he’ about a nonspecific person and you’re a sexist. Write ‘she’ and you’re a flaming feminist. Write ‘he or she’ and you’re a pedant. Write ‘they’ and you’re an ignoramus.”

And hat tip to Moondog for directing me to “A Dolphin or a Lonely Transvestite?: How Best to Talk About English in English.” Christine Kenneally writes:

Overall, English is portrayed as either language triumphant or the scrappy linguistic underdog who came out on top.

Of course, you can’t talk about 1,500 years of codified sound waves without using some kind of analogy, but is it helpful to call English a mallard or a dolphin or a lonely transvestite? What’s the best way to talk about English in English?

So, um, if English were an animal, what animal would it be?

October 13, 2008


Filed under: Lit review,Wordsworthy — mighty red pen @ 7:08 pm
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An interesting pair of articles this week:

On Slate.com, “Emily Dickinson’s Secret Lover! Why the Big News is Being Ignored.” Christopher Benfey explores the secret life of Emily Dickinson. He writes, “Evidence that Dickinson’s love life was fairly ordinary, with ordinary temptations and disappointments, doesn’t quite fit the bill. Her exile on Main Street has seemed a necessary part of the Dickinson myth, so necessary, indeed, that contrary information—which happens to have been piling up lately—has often been discounted or ignored.”

In the Boston Globe, “Buzz Factor: Annoyed by Catch Phrases? Chill Out.” Jan Freeman takes on  a topic near and dear to MRP’s heart. “Slang and catch phrases are the shooting stars and comets of the language firmament, shining brighter and moving faster than the (relatively) fixed stars of usage,” she writes.

August 24, 2008

& another thing

Filed under: Perilous punctuation,Pop culture — mighty red pen @ 6:33 pm
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It seems like everywhere I turn, lately, there’s someone saying something about semicolons. So it was no surprise to come across this image on the Word yesterday. Yes, there’s someone out there (Rachel Manwill, an editor for PR Newswire, to be specific) who’s gone and gotten themselves a semicolon tattoo:

In the meantime, hat tips to Editrix and Fritinancy for the heads-up on a piece by Sarah Hepola at Salon, “Is the Semicolon Girlie?” which references a recent Jan Freeman piece about said punctuation, “Sex and the Semicolon: The Punctuation Mark that Makes Men Tremble.” Here’s an excerpt from Freeman’s piece:

The credit probably belongs to Trevor Butterworth, who in 2005–citing [Lynne] Truss as partial inspiration–wrote a 2,700-word essay on the semicolon in the Financial Times. Butterworth, who had worked in the States, wondered why so many Americans shared Donald Barthelme’s sense that the mark was “ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly.” His answer: As a culture, we Yanks distrust nuance and complexity.

But are you possibly over the whole semicolon thing? Then I give you The Ampersand.

June 25, 2008

Just one of the guys

Filed under: Word wars,Wordsworthy — mighty red pen @ 7:28 pm
Tags: ,

Here’s a little something MRP came across the other day in Jan Freeman’s excellent column. In “When Girls are ‘Guys’: News from the Battle Over You, Plural,” Freeman takes a stab at making sense of the debate over whether using “you guys” to refer to a group of girls or women is sexist.

Some of the naysayers are objecting, at least partly, to the informality of “you guys.” But even people who don’t mind that — and who address women friends as “you guys” — are still debating a deeper question: whether that usage, which has been increasingly common since the 1940s, is sexist.

This question has been simmering for a while. Twenty years ago, the New York Times published an op-ed article arguing that including women in “you guys” was just like subsuming them in the generic “man” and “he” of textbooks: It treated women as a subset of men, not as equals. . . .

Sexism is not the motivation for “you guys,” of course. Scholars generally agree that it’s simply an attempt to fill the hole left in English when we abandoned the singular thou and thee.

Having attended a women’s college, where the students were sent into absolute fits over being referred to as, say, chicks, this interested me. Nowadays, while I will edit a sentence that comes across my desk employing “fellow” (as in “fellow editors”) or “man” as a verb (as in, “they manned the table”), in speech, I regularly use you guys as a plural form of you.

It’s not done completely without a second thought, but what’s the alternative? You gals or you girls, if it’s a group of females? You hes-and-shes, if it’s a mixed group?

Anyway, I mean, it never bugged me as a kid when Rita Moreno used to shout it on “Electric Company.” So . . . what do you guys think?

May 28, 2008

Splitting hairs

In the article by Jan Freeman that I posted about yesterday, she mentioned a recent post on Language Log called “Crazies Win.” I didn’t follow up, but a subsequent comment by the ever-vigilant TootsNYC compelled me to check out what the fuss was all about.

Well, what I found was a kerfuffle about split infinitives to rock the blogosphere the likes of which I’ve not seen since the whole National Grammar Day incident. Word nerds gone wild!

If you can tease out the threads worth reading from the name-calling and hurt feelings, there are two interesting conversations going. One is about the basic issue of splitting infinitives (to do it or not to do it?) and the other is about grammar rules: to apply or not to apply, when, and why or why not? A commenter calling herself “Linda the Copy Editor” chimed in:

I’m sure this will make you all laugh, but I wish commenters could distinguish between “prescriptivists” who have some idea what they’re talking about and “prescriptivists” who don’t. To me, people who don’t accept singluar “they,” for example, might be compared to people who think it’s unethical to take ballpoint pens home from the office.

Check out the Language Log post got the party started (read the comments, too) and then check out the post on the blog Punctuality Rules! that kept it going all night long. And at times like this, I like to conclude with the sage words of John McIntyre at You Don’t Say, who gives the issue a proper round-up.

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