Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Banished: Monkeys, mavericks, the First Dude and anything green

It's here ... the Lake Superior State University 2009 List of Banished Words. Topping this year's list are environmental buzzwords, including just about anything "green." Also sent out to pasture are Sarah Palin-inspired words like maverick and First Dude, and -monkey added to anything.

It's New Year's Eve -- all day long

Every year I seem to have an argument with somebody as I point out to them that there is no such thing as "New Year's Eve day," or "New Year's Eve morning."

While many like to think the eve part of the phrase denotes evening, it is in fact the entire period, or day, before New Year's Day (also applies to the Christmas holiday).

From my Apple dictionary:
eve |─ôv|
the day or period of time immediately before an event or occasion : on the eve of her departure he gave her a little parcel.
• the evening or day before a religious festival : the service for Passover eve.
So please just leave it at New Year's Eve. If you want to be more specific, say New Year's Eve at 12:33 p.m.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Then they found more than a dozen dictionaries

Everyone messes up homonyms once in a while. But there are some pairs of words that trip up a great number of people more than others. Then and than are one example of a pair you are likely to regularly spot wrongly used. Amazingly, it's a pretty common error in newspapers (see this example of "less then" from the Detroit Free Press, among the 523 stories with that error currently found on Google News), an industry which at one time in the 20th century showed the way with their stewardship of the English language.

It's not difficult to get it right -- if you stop and think for a moment, you can get it correct every time. Just remember this: then refers to time, while than is used in comparisons:
  • If ever there was a time, then this is it; if you want to die, then by all means leave a candle burning in your living room.
  • Items in this store cost less than a dollar; it costs less than you think.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Back in the day it was what it was

For more than three decades, Lake Superior State University has been releasing a list of overused, wrongly used and annoyingly used words that came to prominence in the previous 365 days. The tradition began in 1976; these days the group that oversees the list is bombarded with suggestions from guardians of English.

In the past, phrases like "We're pregnant," "Back in the day," "It is what it is" and "blank is the new blank" have been shown the door. Words like "Sweet," "awesome" and "decimate," when they are wrongly used, generally in some new slang, have made the list. "Gitmo" was banned for sounding too much like a Japanese cartoon name and combined celebrity names like Brangelina were labelled as obnoxious by one nominator.

The full Lake Superior State University 2008 List of Banished Words is online for your viewing pleasure. The new list should be posted on New Year's Day.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Who's to blame ?

There's no doubt the proper use of the language has declined over the past 40 years. Standards have been lowered, parents don't take the time (or have the time) to help their children along, and for too long there has been a reluctance to fail students who don't make the grade (I graduated from college with people who still couldn't string a sentence together -- and this was a journalism program).

Barry Turner has the following opinion:

The culprits are many and varied. The rot set in early in the 1960s when schools adopted a libertarian approach to education which involved giving up on difficult subjects including grammar. Led on by politicians dedicated to mediocrity, (or ‘equality’ to use the accepted term) teachers were encouraged to set standards by the lowest common denominator. The impact on English was catastrophic as the best educationalists soon came to recognise. But it is easier to destroy than to build and the return to formal and effective learning still has a long way to go. One has only to listen to the delegates to an NUT conference to know that for many teachers clarity of thought let alone clarity of language is way beyond their capacity. Dimly aware of their failings, the incompetents look to technology to compensate for poor linguistic skills. We are now committed to making our children computer literate; no matter that most are illiterate in every other sense.

The decline of English language teaching in schools had its knock-on effect on academia. A recent survey found that nine out of ten graduates submit applications that are full of spelling and grammatical errors. Are we surprised? Pupils who are unable to express themselves clearly become students who are unable to express themselves clearly. Worse still, some then become university and college lecturers. To judge their standard of communication refer to any book list for higher learning.

You can read the whole article here.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Let's get it right

It's incredibly frustrating to see someone write "1970's." Or "lets play ball." Or "Cleveland rock's." Or "Its a Wonderful Life."

The above should, of course, be written as: "1970s," "let's play ball," "Cleveland rocks" and "It's a Wonderful Life."

The improper use of commas is prevalent -- and it's getting worse, particularly as so many people think apostrophe-S makes a plural word. They can be tricky, but it's really not that difficult to use them properly. The easiest way to remember the proper use of apostrophes is that they are used to denote possession or exclusion.

To explain a couple of the examples found above:
  • Its is possessive, while It's is the contraction of It and Is (It is a wonderful life).
  • Lets (allows) and Let's (the contraction of "let us," as in "let us play ball).
Just think of it this way:
  • If you are removing letters, use an apostrophe in their place (let 'er rip, rock 'n' roll).
  • If you are writing the possessive form of a singular word, add apostrophe-S (Cleveland's airport, Ohio's embarrassment).
  • To make a plural word possessive, add the apostrophe after the S (Residents' anger, parents' pride).
And if you are simply making a word plural, just add an S.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Full of compliments, missing complements

As far as grammatical errors go, one of the funniest I can recall was in a job ad for a newspaper. One would think that to be among the top two or three places to expect perfect grammar (though I am sure many outside of the business would say they are not surprised at all, given what they've seen in print over the years).

But there it was, for all to see — and probably not noticed by most who read it — a strange request: "Wanted: reporter to compliment three-person newsroom."

I wanted to email them and tell them how great they were.

Right now, as I post this, there are 102 examples, some in prominent papers, where someone got it wrong and others missed it in the correction stage.

compliment: My, you look lovely today.

complement: That color complements your eyes.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

There have been complaints. There's no mistake about that

There's an awful trend which should have been nipped in the bud a long time ago. It's regarding sloppy verbal usage of "there is (or there's)" and "there are" and its effect on the written language.

The movie title There's something about Mary shows the correct usage. There is something about her.

But the sentence "there's things about Mary I don't like" is wrong. Think about it: would you write "there is things about Mary I don't like"? Of course not. There are things about her we don't like.

Yet, thanks to laziness, apathy and no one standing up for the language, it is increasingly more common to see such errors.

Check out Google News at any time to see dozens of examples of improper use of today's subject.

(And yes, in quoting someone for a news story some minor correcting of grammar is acceptable -- but I would wager it's just laziness, not journalistic integrity, for so many of the errors you will see when you click that link above)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

There's no debate

Yes, rock 'n' roll, rap music and other fads or trends embraced by youth have been pronounced at various times over the years as a sign of the end. Those cries were, as it turns out, premature, but count me as one of those who believes text messaging is the beginning of the end for the English language.

There really can be no doubt that text messaging will finish the job started by advertising copy writers. But there's always someone who plays devil's advocate.


"Faced with a new kind of communication problem . . . people all over the world have set about solving it . . . not by inventing a new language but by adapting old language to suit the new medium," David Crystal, honorary professor of linguistics at the University of Wales and author of said book, tells the Times of London. His book essentially argues that, much like the hula hoop, we have nothing to fear from digital shorthand.

If I could make a tidy sum out of such a book, I might make a similar argument, too. But I would be wrong.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Don't be a looser

A few years ago (and if I can dig it up I will post it) I wrote a column headlined "Don't be a looser." A contributor to the paper said his heart stopped when he saw what he assumed was an error, but was quite pleased once he read my rant.

It's one of those errors that drives me insane -- misspelling "loser" -- and I believe the Internet, allowing 12-year-olds to post whatever is on their mind on a bulletin board, is responsible for its perpetuation.

But the Internet can be used for good as well as evil, and a website I found today is an example of that. Thankfully someone has spent their own time and money to post a permanent reminded of the proper use of the two words. Check out Losers spell it "looser".

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Time to fight back against the slaughter of English

Some argue the language is constantly changing or, perhaps more correctly, evolving. It was only a few decades ago that we were still taught to write to-night and to-morrow, so one can imagine the consternation of a guardian of English when the hyphen was first dropped and the tonight and tomorrow became common usage.

Generally, the hyphen will eventually be dropped from an oft-used hyphenated word, and many people can accept that. Some argue that if you can see that one day the hyphen is going to be dropped, why use it in the first place (video-tape would be one example), especially in our rapidly changing world.

But things really are different today. With the lack of proper English teaching in elementary schools -- remember phonics? -- kids are being told it's okay to write incorrectly as long as there's enough information there for a reader to decipher the meaning. Text-messaging shortcuts creeping into everyday writing. It's no wonder more and more people are fighting back.

Take the current use of the word "anniversary," for example. How often is it used correctly these days? For the past decade its proper usage has slipped, as young people eager to celebrate a milestone in their relationship, talk about their "one-week anniversary" together rather than saying "we've been together for a week." From that forgivable slip by love-struck teens it has grown into common usage. Not willing to wait for anything anymore, it is common to hear "one-month anniversary" and "six-month anniversary." Heck, so many people (and this is in print or on TV) have forgotten the proper usage that it is now common to hear those who don't understand the word say "one-year anniversary."

Even worse, this morning I hear Evan Solomon on a CBC broadcast say "13th year anniversary" while promoting a segment on the end of the Bosnian War. If we have prominent broadcasters (on what is supposed to be a top-quality network) bastardizing the language, what hope is there of ever correcting the problem?