Usage Tuesday: That Pad of Paper is Just Sitting There, Motionless

stationeryWhich one of these sentences is incorrect?

  1. She likes to ride her stationary bike for exercise every morning.
  2. I have a locked drawer in my desk where I like to keep my fancy stationary.

If you are talking about the condition of being immobile, you are talking about being stationary, the adjective. If you are talking about paper, note cards, and writing implements, you are talking about stationery, the noun. This means that sentence #2 is incorrect. Notice the difference in spelling, please. That difference is actually your key to remembering which is which.

A long time ago (and not too long ago if you’ve lived in Hilo, Hawaii), you’d get your letter-writing supplies at a STATIONER. Notice how that doesn’t work if you wanted to spell it STATIONAR. See? You’d get STATIONERY at the STATIONER.

Now that you know this, you will never have a problem keeping them straight!

Grammar Rocks

Before we do anything else, please watch this video from Grammar Rock about prepositions.

I know. It’s definitely not one of Schoolhouse Rock’s stronger moments, this one; it lacks the catchy elegance of “Conjunction Junction” or “Lolly Lolly Lolly get your adverbs here,” but I wanted to give you a quick refresher on what prepositions are, even though this isn’t really about prepositions, what I am about to say.

Now take a quick look at the titles of this, this, and this Wikipedia article.

We’re just looking at the titles here, not the articles themselves. Do you notice something about the prepositions? In standard English style, prepositions (except at the beginning) in titles are usually not capitalized, especially when they are short words. You’ll notice, too, that the, a, and an, except when they appear at the beginning of a title, are also not capitalized.

Wikipedia is not the arbiter of style (I am working on a DailyWritingTip about terminal S and apostrophes, and I am coming after Wikipedia loaded for BEAR!), but in general the community does manage to get most things right. In this way, we have articles about The Cat in the Hat, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” and “Over the River and through the Woods.” Many people feel the need to capitalize EVERY word in a title, but that’s not you or me, because we know better, right?

You will please thank me for resisting my usual temptation to get punny by asking if I may preposition you.

Friday Quiz: Diana Ross

I have to say that I have never cared much for the music of Diana Ross. I do love Motown, but something about Diana’s voice just rubs me the wrong way. However, the death of Michael Jackson had me thinking about her, and that reminded me of this song, a song I especially have never cared for because of its heinous crimes against the English language. Give it a listen. Then click continue reading to see if your answer matches mine, ‘though I’m pretty sure your anguish could never match mine!

Continue reading Friday Quiz: Diana Ross

The King is Dead! Long Live the Vacancy!

mj2This will be the last thing I have to say in response to Michael Jackson’s death: I promise. Unless people keep misusing the language as they continue to discuss it, of course.

I honestly don’t remember which of Honolulu’s news anchors said this, but in concluding his report on the self-proclaimed King of Pop’s death, he said, “The king is dead. Long live the king.”

This familiar phrase, translated from the French La roi est morte! Vive la roi! can be confusing. How can you wish long life to the king if the king is in fact dead? It makes sense when you see it in movies, because when one king dies, the soldiers proclaim it about the new king. The (old) king is dead! Long live the (new) king!

Unless the local newscaster meant to crown a new King of Pop (and he didn’t seem ready to name anyone), the phrase is entirely inappropriate. “The king is dead,” he should have said, and left it there.

Not that you or I could do it anyway, but whom would you nominate for the new King of Pop?

Standing Watch Against Twice-Dying

mjI am not the sort to kick a man when he’s down or dead, but I am the sort to kick around some of the people who go a little bit too far in commemorating his death, especially if the misuse of the English language is involved.


From the Associated Press

In China, thousands of fans in cities held vigils for Jackson over the weekend. … About 200 fans gathered for a candlelight vigil in a Tokyo park.

From WHAM TV (Rochester, NY):

Fans of Michael Jackson gathered in Detroit Sunday night for a candlelight vigil in memory of the King of Pop.

From WRBL (Columbus, GA):

The official city-wide candlelight vigil celebrating the life of Michael Jackson, the king of pop, will be held Tuesday evening from 7p-9p in the 1100 block of Broadway.

To be fair, one definition of vigil is the act of keeping awake at times when sleep is customary (from our friends at, but even that definition is stretched to fit what’s going on at 7:00 in the evening in Georgia. A vigil is an act of watching or surveillance; in the context of someone who is ailing or dying, a vigil is sometimes kept so that people may lift up prayers for recovery, or even so that someone might not die alone. This kind of vigil, with or without candlelight, is a special thing. I think of that great sequence in Rocky II when Rocky refuses even to look at his new baby until Adrian returns to consciousness, because he is determined that they will look at him together.

Vigil is related to vigilante or vigilant. It’s a very cool, very powerful word, but it does not describe what Jackson’s mourners are doing this week by candlelight all over the world.

I swear, I am not trying to minimize anyone’s grief, but call it a memorial. Call it a wake. Call it group catharsis, or a freak show, or a chance for people to sell t-shirts, but please, please do not call it a vigil. The King of Pop is dead, and you cannot stand vigil against his dying again or against the truth and finality of his dying.

Usage Tuesday: PIN Numbers and ATM Machines

This one comes up a LOT when I’m discussing linguistic pet peeves with others, but I’m not the one who brings it up. It seems the uses of ATM Machine and PIN Number really bother people, because the M in machine stands for machine, making the unabbreviated phrase automatic teller machine machine. Similarly, PIN Number means personal identification number number.

I don’t know why, but this doesn’t bother me. I am sure there’s a very, very reasonable explanation for my not being bothered by these redundancies (or by VIN Number), but I can’t come up with it. Yes, redundancies bother the snot out of me, but I wonder why this one, which seems to stem simply from people’s trying to explain something clearly (What kind of machine? ATM machine! Which number? PIN number!), bothers so many people while these redundancies seems to bother most people not at all when they are the result of people’s trying to sound smarter, more eloquent, or, or, or something!

So what about you? Are you one of those people who grind their teeth whenever someone says she needs to make a stop at the ATM machine? And if you are, are you similarly bothered by each and every or every single?

Weekend Photo: Stray Bullets

Stray BulletsThis weekend’s photo comes to us from one of those promotional event posters you see just about anywhere in Hawaii they’ll let you put one up (always a goldmine for material!). The problem here, as you can see, is that there is a bullet on every line, even though some of the items take up more than one line. The purpose of a bullet, I don’t have to tell you, is to distinguish one item in a list from the other items. When you have a bullet in front of every line of a multi-line item, you might as well not have any bullets at all, right?

This is probably not an error in not knowing what bullets are for, but in (a) not knowing how to use the bulleted-list tool in MS Word and (b) not caring enough to proofread and edit carefully.

As you probably know, when you’re using the bulleted-list tool in MS Word, you get a new bullet every time you hit the ENTER key. Multi-line items don’t usually present problems because of Word’s other useful pre-programmed functions, such as word-wrapping and margin-setting. However, in those times when a forced linebreak is required but NOT a new bullet, you can use SHIFT-ENTER instead of ENTER, and this will force the type to the next line without creating a new bullet! Give it a try!

–> Oh yeah. There’s also the use of Get Away where getaway is appropriate, and the rampant, unnecessary capitalization. Someone’s English teacher is tearing up right now.

* note: This works in just about all word processors I’ve tried in the past ten years.