Wednesday, April 02, 2014

So Far

Since last August, I've been doing a monthly chat on ICYMI, here's an archive:

"Over" vs. "more than," and a little mojibake.

It's Grammar Day! We lay, and we lie.

After Superb Owl Sunday, we tackle the singular "they."

A capital idea about logo-philia.

In which I rant about "Black Friday."

Nov. 5, 2013
A modest proposal for the National Natural Resources Defense Council.

If I'm going to be miked, it sure as heck won't be with a "mic."

The first in a series, literally.

Monday, March 31, 2014


Ben Zimmer's informative Visual Thesaurus post on the NCAA men's basketball tournament and its "brackets" and other lingo reminded me of the much less useful post of peeves I've had in mind for some time. 

If you're inferring that the subject makes me a bit crotchety because I simply don't like basketball, well, you may have a point. But I do pay attention to my alma mater's exploits in the tournament. The photo above is from the Arizona Daily Star -- that would be the riot that followed my Wildcats' one-point overtime defeat the other day. (And I'm not at all bitter that, after years of loyally picking Arizona to win, I forgot to enter a pool in 1997, the year the Cats actually did win.)

Anyway, here are some things that irk me about what we talk about when we talk about March Madness:

1. "Brackets" are not unique to this event. It's a draw sheet. Every single-elimination tournament has one.

2. The infantile alliteration. March Madness. Final Four. Elite Eight. Sweet Sixteen. Thirsty Thirty-Two? Sardonic Sixty-Four? Oh, and let's not forget Selection Sunday. Selection Sunday? (I prefer Secretarial Saturday Sponsored by Staples, but then again I'm a sucker for office supplies.)

3. Final Four! Final Four! Translation: "It's the semifinals! The SEMIS, I tell you!"

4. The "regions" are not regions, unless some sort of seismic activity shifted Albany to the South since I last looked. 

5. The not-regions "regions" confuse things. Tell me what round it is, not what round of a meaningless sub-round. If the regions have nothing to do with regions, and each so-called region produces not an actual winner but rather a semifinalist, how much more confusing and/or meaningless can you get than "regional quarterfinals"?

6. A caveat: While the "regions" present me with a math problem in lieu of actual informatiion, at least the infantile alliteration tells me where things stand.

UPDATE (can't believe I forgot this)

7. You get only one No. 1 seed, unless the "regionals" are separate tournaments. The regionals are neither regionals nor separate tournaments (see No. 4). Therefore, the best No. 1 seed is No. 1, the second-best is No. 2, and so on.

Friday, September 20, 2013

At Least My Shoes Are Oxfords

In what I can only assume was an exaggerated-for-comic-effect piece on Slate, David Haglund bemoans the lack of an Oxford comma, a.k.a. serial comma, in Earth, Wind & Fire and Crosby, Stills and Nash and the like.

With a straighter face, he asserts that "right-thinking usage nerds everywhere" dutifully use that comma. Red, white, and blue, not red, white and blue. Well, I'm as right-thinking a usage nerd as you'll meet, if I do say so myself, and although I'll concede I'm in the minority, I just don't care much about serial commas one way or the other. Neither do my right-thinking-usage-nerd friends Merrill Perlman and John McIntyre.

I've spent my career in newspapers, which generally omit the serial comma, and perhaps that's why I lean slightly in that direction even when I'm off the clock.

Fans of the serial comma will point to comical examples such as "my parents, Ayn Rand and God" to demonstrate how its absence can create ambiguity. But, as many before me have pointed out, you can just as easily come up with an example of the comma's presence creating ambiguity. Think of "my mother, Ayn Rand, and God."

Fans of the serial comma will say "Crosby, Stills and Nash" inappropriately pairs Stills with Nash while leaving Crosby isolated, as if he's in prison or something. I would counter that "Crosby, Stills, and Nash played last night" carries a whiff of Nash alone playing. I'm mentioning Crosby for some reason, I'm mentioning Stills for some reason, and then, in an unrelated matter, I'm informing you that Nash played last night.

Yes, I'm reaching. But so are the Oxfordian serialists and their divine libertarian parents.

Oh, and there is an asterisk. There's always an asterisk. Even the anti-serial-comma Associated Press Stylebook uses serial commas in series that contain at least one embedded conjunction. You should, too. She worked for the departments of State, Labor, and Health and Human Services. AP also reserves the right to use a serial comma when sentences get complex, and that's also a good idea. If each clause in a series could stand alone as its own sentence, use that comma: I've worked at this place for 20 years now, I'm tired of it, and I'm going to quit.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Uniquely, Qualified

One of the kind readers who e-mailed me after my article about the figurative literally appeared in the Washington Post’s Outlook section was complimentary but added that I had misused the word uniquely.

Now, I know the drill on unique. It means one-of-a-kind, and so it’s absolute: More unique and less unique and very unique bring to mind a little bit pregnant. That reality tends to be translated into a copy-editing “rule” along the lines of “Never precede unique with a modifier.”

As with many of the so-called rules that we copy editors love, it’s a good idea to learn the rest of the story. Yes, I am the Paul Harvey of copy editing.

More and less unique are out, all right, but how about truly unique? Or unquestionably unique? In both cases, the adverbs refer not to degrees of uniqueness but rather to whether it is accurate to apply unique at all. Absolutely no problem there. Not all modifiers are literally modifying.

And if unique is one-of-a-kind, why can't one thing that's two- or three-of-a-kind be almost unique or nearly unique or virtually unique? Again, the sanctity of unique is preserved. Such a thing isn't unique at all, but there's nothing wrong with talking about how it approaches uniqueness.

When I was too young to drink malt liquor, Colt 45 was "a completely unique experience." As opposed to partially unique? That sounds dodgier, but an experience can be partially unique, can't it, if four out of five of its elements are one-of-a-kind?

I would even be open to look the other way at preceding unique with those Upper-Class Twit of the Year hmph-modifiers that don’t really mean anything: most unique, quite unique. Maybe. It might depend on my mood at the time.

So, with all this in mind, I went back and looked at what I had written about literally. Had I slipped? Did I miss an editor’s misguided insertion? Here’s what I saw:
However persuasive the historical and linguistic justifications, there’s something uniquely absurd about using the one word that most clearly means “I am not making this up” when you are, in fact, making something up.
That seems straightforward enough: I’m asserting that the figurative literally occupies a unique place in the language. I could be wrong about literally, but I am using unique correctly.

I wondered, then, whether the reader’s observation was an example of the “impact” effect, to use a term I just made up. In an extreme version of ignoring my Paul Harvey caution, some people, many of them copy editors, decide that any word with any disputed senses must be avoided altogether. If it makes sense to avoid the biz-speak-y “The economy impacted sales,” one must also avoid “The economy had an impact on sales”! Perhaps there are those who think that if very unique is bad, unique must always be bad.

That’s literally, if not uniquely wrong-headed.

Remember: There’s usually the rest of the story. Good-day?

Monday, July 01, 2013

See Me, Hear Me

Radio interviews are now, for all intents and purposes, TV interviews as well. So you can watch as well as listen to my recent appearance on WOSU's "All Sides With Ann Fisher." I had a lot of fun; the hour went too fast.