Friday Quiz: Leavitt, Yamane, Soldner (episode 2; take 3)

This is now going to be my third try at posting this quiz. I don’t know WHAT was wrong with it before, but it seems to be working now, even though I SWEAR I’m not doing anything differently now. Not only is it working fine now, but the original post looks fine, too. I don’t know what’s going on. However, for those of you who, at my request, did not read the rest of that post so I could get things straightened out, here we go. The original text:

We had so much fun with last week’s Friday Quiz that I thought we’d ask Leavitt, Yamane, and Soldner back for a second go-around. Watch this short television commercial and identify the grammatical error. Then click “continue reading” and see if your answer matches mine!

Get the Flash Player to see this movie.

Continue reading Friday Quiz: Leavitt, Yamane, Soldner (episode 2; take 3)

Late Show Viewer Mail!

And now: Viewer Mail.

In response to this post, Blaine writes:

Scrivener! “Cemetary.” Dude, for SHAME! Cemetery! Or is it Cafetaria?

Yes, I misspelled it. How odd. It was embarrassing enough an error that I went back and corrected it, so now Blaine’s comment doesn’t look like it refers to anything. It brings up an idea I’ve been working on, where people earn points for finding my errors. I’m working on a scoring system.

In response to the same post, Mokihana writes:

Eh! You’re gonna love this one! It combines your plurals post as well as this one.

“Built in the early 20’s the Usa Building is graced with large lanai’s, and shaded by the enormous branches of monkeypod trees…”

Do I get extra credit for finding it?

No extra credit, but photographic evidence for a weekend photo would have been nice! I want to build contributions like this into the scoring system, too. As for the quote: Yuck!

In response to this post, Nickoli clarifies one of Blaine’s comment:

The example of a team being called the A’s doesn’t seem to be a problem to me, for there is another use of apostrophes: contractions. Shortening “Athletics” to “A’s” is surely as valid as shortening “is not” to “isn’t”. I think this is the point Blaine is making above, as well.

When Blaine left the first comment, I was so blown away (not to mention liberated!) that I didn’t know what to say! A lifetime of guilty rooting for a team whose punctuation I could not condone vanished in an instant! I have to think about this one, because if you are right, I can feel good about myself. However, if you are right and the continued use of A’s confuses other people so that they THINK this is the OTHER use, then I might still have to avoid using it myself!

RJG, in response to this post, writes:

I don’t know why, but I think putting the name second, and putting the possessive “his” first, is wrong. Is that a grammatical rule or am I just being weird?

It’s definitely not incorrect to write it the way it appears, but I understand your beef. Writing should be clear, and in the case of newswriting, the copy needs to be read quickly, too. Readers are not expecting James Joyce. They want good, clear writing that does the job quickly, so for a news article, I think your suggestion is better. However, I can think of times when, for stylistic reasons, you might want to put the possessive his first, as in Although her audience wasn’t expecting it, Madonna surprised the crowd with her costume of rubber bracelets, bangles, and big hair, just as she wore them in the mid-eighties.

Whoops. Sorry. Little fantasy of mine.

We’ll return with more viewer mail the NEXT time I can’t think of anything to write!

Italics Within Italics

As we’ve discussed before, titles of big containers (albums that contain songs, anthologies that contain stories, novels that contain chapters, and magazines that contain articles) should be written in italics.  However, sometimes those titles contain titles, or sometimes you are already writing in italics for some reason, so what do you do then?

The answer is really whatever you want.  The idea with italics is generally to set apart the text so you know it’s special.  If you’re already writing in italics and you need to use italics, you COULD use boldface or underlining, but the generally accepted practice seems to be to UNitalicize.  Let’s say I was writing to you about a great book about the making of the film Casablanca, my favorite movie.  I would type it like this:  I’m reading this great book called The Making of Casablanca: Everyone’s Favorite Movie.  Notice that everything’s in italics except the name of the film

Usage Tuesday: George Carlin is Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead.

In commemoration of the death of George Carlin this past weekend, let’s consider euphemistic language.  A euphemism is a word or phrase used in place of another, possibly offensive or harsh word or phrase.  Most commonly, euphemisms for death (passed on, passed away, made the transition, went to be with Jesus, was called home, claimed his eternal reward), bodily functions (passed gas, broke wind, the runs, numbers one and two), and stupidity (unfortunate, unlucky, bless his heart) find their way into our writing and speaking.

George Carlin hated euphemisms and frequently talked about how they took some dignity away from certain important ideas.  However, Carlin knew better than most people how powerful language can be:  he lost jobs because he used certain words while on stage, and his “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” had the power not only to get him fined in some cities but also the power to make him a wealthy man.  Carlin knew language capacity to offend and capitalized on it.

Carlin was right and he was wrong.  We have all known people who have been unable to describe another person as “black” without whispering the word, as if a person’s blackness were something not to be discussed, like a terminal disease or a criminal record.  The use of a euphemism when “black” is as clear as it gets is an insult to us all, as if not only were the person’s blackness something to be ashamed of, but also as if our own delicate sensibilities might be injured upon hearing such a word.

On the other hand, one must always be aware of one’s audience.  When a straightforward word can distract the audience from the writer’s purpose, a euphemism must at least be considered.  Many euphemisms go ridiculously overboard, such as domestic engineer, but some grant people the credit they might not otherwise get, such as homemaker.  The language I use when I speak to my grandmother, who grew up in a time when certain things just weren’t spoken of, is different from the language I’ll use on, not because my grandmother can’t handle certain thoughts or ideas, but because it is not my job to shock her into seeing the world my way.

This is not to say that I never tried to shock her into seeing the world my way, but I was young and stupid.

If I seem to be sitting upon the fence with euphemistic language, it’s because the issue isn’t simple enough to be covered by one rule.  My general advice is to avoid euphemism whenever possible, but always to be conscious of an audience.  There is always another way to say something, and your first job as a writer is to be as clear as possible.

What the Heck?

Okay.  I scheduled updates for Friday’s Quiz and the Weekend Photo but wasn’t paying attention and scheduled them for the wrong month.  We’ll pick it all back up from here Tuesday.  Darn it!

PS: Thanks for the emails alerting me to the problem.  I was locked up all weekend working on my Masters thesis and therefore couldn’t really do anything about.  Thanks also for the Weekend Photo submissions!  I’ve received a few in email and will definitely use them!

Your Punctuational Traffic-Director: The Semi-Colon, part 2

We first took a look at the semi-colon here, where we saw that the semi-colon acts sorta like a period (coming at the end of a complete sentence) and sorta like a comma (continuing the thought into the next sentence). But my favorite punctuation mark has another very nice use, which we will examine here.

You already know that a comma is used to separate items in a series, as in I purchased new albums by Cream, Eric Clapton, and Traffic.

However, when the items in the series themselves contain commas, this can be confusing. Here are the names of three great rock bands whose names contain commas.

  • Emerson, Lake, and Palmer
  • Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young
  • Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe

If we were fortunate enough to purchase albums by these three terrific band in one trip to the store and unfortunate enough to have to write about it, we could end up with a sentence like this.

I purchased new albums by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe.

I believe I speak for us all when I say BLECH. The sentence above actually works out okay if our audience is familiar enough with the musicians, but anyone NOT familiar with these three bands would never know where one band’s name ended and the next began. In times like this, when we have items in a series and some of the items contain commas, we can use a semi-colon to separate the items, like this.

I purchased new albums by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer; Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young; and Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe.

In fact, any time the items in the series can be confusing, a semi-colon can clear things up very quickly. For example, sometimes the items in the series are kind of long (and in this case, also contain commas).

I wrote thank you cards to my mother, who gave me a nickel; my father, who gave me a dime; and my sister, who gave me a boyfriend whose name was Frankenstein.

This is not the kind of thing you want to overuse, but keep it handy, because many of us tend to speak this way and have difficulty writing this way. There are times when a nice, long sentence is called for, and when you’ve got a bunch of different words all swarming around in your sentence, you want to keep your tools ready to keep things in line. Remember: Good writing is clear first and elegant second. As I wrote in our first look at the semi-colon, you could go your whole life and never use one and always be correct; however, this wonderful punctuation mark can help you with clarity AND elegance, and that’s why I love it so very much!

Nobody says Graffito or Spaghetto, so What’s Wrong with Leis?

About ten years ago, Hawaii television stations stopped calling the University of Hawaii (Manoa)’s women’s volleyball team the Rainbow Wahines, calling it instead the Rainbow Wahine. The reasoning for this change was that wahines is not a word in Hawaiian, as there is no plural form for nouns. In this way did the Wahines become the Wahine (“Three of the Wahine will be out with injuries this weekend”), keikis become keiki (“Three hundred keiki showed up for Santa’s first appearance at the mall”), leis become lei (“Thousands of lei were donated to the cemetary”), and kupunas become kupuna.

In its effort to be more linguistically correct, however, the local journalistic community has made sentences awkward-sounding while forgetting one very important thing about itself: It’s communicating in ENGLISH. When reporters say that someone gave someone a lei, they are not speaking Hawaiian; they are speaking English. They may be using a Hawaiian word, but the rest of the report is in English, so they are speaking English. To deny the rules of English in order to satisfy the rules of Hawaiian in this case makes no sense, especially since the reporters aren’t bothering to restructure the rest of their sentences to satisfy Hawaiian grammar (you can change the articles in front of the nouns in order to indicate plurals, if I understand correctly).

We have to draw the line somewhere, and the line in current use seems to be not to change the form of the noun but also not to change any of the structure of the English grammar that surrounds it. This is a dumb, awkward, arbitrary rule, and I propose that the line should instead be at reasonably accurate pronunciation and that’s it. Leis would be fair game, as would lanais and wahines. The point is to be as clear as possible without being unreasonably offensive. I suggest that this would do it.

Hyphen Help

One of my online haunts is the language reference desk at Wikipedia, where people with questions about language put them forth, and wannabe smarties like me do our best to answer them.  It’s a fun exercise for me, because there is seldom one opinion about how to solve a sticky grammar issue, and the interplay of ideas and suggestions teaches me a lot about the complexity and beauty of the English language.

Someone recently posted this question under the heading Hyphen Help.

Being too lazy to slog through (the Wikipedia article on the) Hyphen, how do I handle “his second hand car salesman friend?”

I offered my suggestion first; others followed soon after.  If you haven’t already clicked over to the reference desk to see what I suggested, I’d love to hear how you would hyphenate this awkward phrase.  Leave a comment below with your suggestion keeping the phrasing as it is first, then also rephrasing it if you can think of a better way.

Any takers?  C’mon!


Darn it.  Four tildes don’t work here.