A common myth is that there’s something wrong with the serial or “Oxford” comma – that is, the comma before and or or in a list. That myth is especially prevalent among media writers, most of whom use the Associated Press Stylebook. That stylebook may have unwittingly contributed to the confusion by saying it’s OK to omit the serial comma in a simple list: The flag is red, white and blue. He would nominate Tom, Dick or Harry. But AP style also demands the serial comma when the series is complex, or when the last two items run together ambiguously, or when an item in the list contains a comma. Examples:
• The main points to consider are whether the athletes are skillful enough to compete, whether they have the stamina to endure the training, and whether they have the proper attitude.
• I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.
The gist of the AP guideline is that we should retain the serial comma in all but the simplest and shortest list, and it does not say that the serial comma is wrong in any case. But that’s not the way the guideline has been assimilated. Instead, some writers have concluded—entirely without support—that the serial comma is wrong and should be deleted. But it’s not wrong, and no accepted authority would say that it is.
Interestingly, even those who would in some cases delete the serial comma require in all cases the serial semi-colon—an even heavier separator than the comma. That doesn’t make sense, and such inconsistencies point to a style practice that causes more trouble than it’s worth. And it isn’t worth anything. Omitting the serial comma destroys parallel balance, forces writers to decide whether this is one of those times when the serial comma is optional, and often muddies meaning.
Writing authorities agree that the serial comma should be retained in all cases. Here are excerpts from experts:
In their revered Elements of Style, William Strunk and E.B. White write that in a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, commas should separate the terms, including before the conjunction. Examples:
• Red, white, and blue.
• Gold, silver, or copper.
• He opened the letter, read it, and made a note of its contents.
From the equally revered Modern English Usage, H.W. Fowler: “Where more than two words or phrases or groupings occur together in a sequence, a comma should precede the and . . . . The ‘Oxford’ comma is frequently, but in my view, unwisely, omitted by many.”
From the bible of the contemporary literary and publishing world, The Chicago Manual of Style: “When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series, a comma is used before the conjunction. Examples:
• Attending the conference were Farmer, Johnson, and Kendrick.
• We have a choice of copper, silver, or gold.
• The owner, the agent, and the tenant were having an acrimonious discussion.
The Chicago Manual adds that in a “series of short independent clauses, the last two of which are joined by a conjunction, a comma should be placed between the clauses and before the conjunction. Example: Harris presented the proposal to the governor, the governor discussed it with the senator, and the senator made an appointment with the president.”
The Columbia Guide to Standard American English: “Commas separate words in a series (a horse, a dog, and a cow); note that American English prefers and many editors require the comma after dog.”
Modern American Usage, Wilson Follet, et. al.: This entry is five pages long, with many examples showing the resulting confusion of omitting serial commas. An excerpt:
“A widely parroted dictum is supposed to settle the issue: If you have the conjunction, you don’t need the comma. That is bad reasoning or no reasoning at all. A conjunction is a connective device, as its name announces; whereas a mark of punctuation is nothing if not separative. To insist that the first perform the duty of the second is like prescribing sand in the bearings . . . . It is implicit in the standard form of a series that when you write red, white, and blue, you mean red and white and blue — three equal terms. . . . The recommendation here is to use the comma between all members of a series, including the last two, on the common-sense ground that to do so will preclude ambiguities and annoyances.”
Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate dictionary: A comma “separates words, phrases, or clauses in series:
• He was young, eager, and restless.
• It requires one to travel constantly, to have no private life, and to need no income other than living expenses.”
Webster’s New World (The Associated Press’ dictionary of choice): A comma is used to “separate words, phrases, and clauses in a series:
• The menu offered the usual choices of steak, chops, and chicken.
• Expect it tomorrow, next Monday, or a week from today.
• If you study hard, concentrate, and take your time, you are sure to pass.”
The New World notes that some writers omit this series comma, but that it is useful in preventing ambiguities.
The U.S. Government Printing Office’s Manual of Style insists on commas in series before and, or, or nor—no exceptions.
The Modern Language Association’s Line by Line, by Claire Cook: “In a series of coordinate words, phrases, or clauses in which a conjunction precedes only the final item, a comma should follow every item . . . . For example:
• On the New York Stock Exchange yesterday the industrials were up 9.5, the transports were down 4.35, and the utilities were unchanged.
• The agency lists openings in publishing, broadcasting, advertising, and public relations.
The McGraw-Hill Style Manual: “A comma is needed for clarity before and or or in a series of three or more items.”
The Dictionary of Modern America Usage, Bryan Garner: A comma “separates items (including the last from the next-to-last) in a list of more than two—e.g.: ‘The Joneses, the Smiths, and the Nelsons.’ Whether to include the serial comma has sparked many arguments. But it’s easily answered in favor of inclusion because omitting the final comma may cause ambiguities, whereas including it never will.”
The Copy Editor’s Handbook, Amy Einsohn: “Use commas to separate the items in a list or series:
• Bring your books, pens, and pencils.
• A driver’s license, passport, or other official photo ID must be shown to the clerk.”
Shipley’s Style Guide for the Workplace: “A comma separates the last two items in a series although these items are linked by a conjunction. . . . This comma was once considered optional, but the trend is to make it mandatory, especially in technical and business English. Leaving it out can cause confusion and misinterpretation.”
And there’s more. All of that may seem overkill. But it substantiates my claim that experts unanimously recommend the use of the serial comma.
Why do some writers hang onto a practice that the rest of the literate world either never heard of or rejects? Habit and tradition. Nothing else, and nothing better. (A newsroom copy editor actually told me it was to save space. Please. Prune one redundancy, delete one unnecessary word—we’d make enough room for a handful of serial commas.)
For decades, much of my writing has gone through the hands of media copy editors. In all that time, I’ve diligently included serial commas in my work, and some copy editor or other has just as diligently deleted them. I live for the day that copy editors either wake up or give up!
So my best counsel regarding the serial comma? For clarity, balance, and beauty, restore that elegant little squiggle to your work. There was never good reason to omit it.
# # #
(This article appeared in a slightly different form in The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well, by Paula LaRocque [Marion Street Press, Inc., 2003].)
Media writers are often advised to avoid first-person pronouns in their work, and for good reason. The greenest reporter knows there’s no place for first-person pronouns in objective news coverage, and that focusing on oneself in analyses or opinion writing is suspect even if permissible. So this most obvious kind of writer intrusion is rarely a problem in hard news. It arises chiefly in columns, criticism, and features.
The problem is one of focus. The best writers focus tightly and relentlessly upon some subject other than themselves. They are like cinematographers. They illumine the subject, and they themselves stay offstage. Sometimes they develop literary or rhetorical devices to help them stay out of the copy. Syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman, for example, often writes in the third person (she) when writing of herself. And Mike Royko, also a syndicated columnist, sometimes dispenses opinion through imagined conversations between created characters.
Such devices are alter egos that let the writer avoid that off-putting me, myself and I.
Unfortunately, as newspaper writers search for their own strongest, most colorful and individual voice, they sometimes latch onto an egocentric writing style that is as boorish as it is misguided. They’ve been admonished to tell stories, to “get the people in,” to be human, personal, and revealing. So they tell their stories, get themselves in, and the humanity they reveal is their own.
Do they never guess that most readers respond: Who cares?
The sad truth is that most people who cry look at me are not very interesting. And neither are writers who write about themselves. It’s true that some of the most memorable and affecting pieces we’ve read have been first-person accounts. But those were the exceptional accounts of exceptional events or people. Take, for example, Associated Press writer Tad Bartimus’ prize-winning first-person story of her father’s death. People die every day. But Ms. Bartimus’ father died only once; it was an exceptional event matched by an exceptional treatment from a writer who did not ordinarily write about herself.
Effective first-person accounts in which the writer is the subject can teach us something about the human condition and the universality of human experience. They are both welcome and enriching. But when the subject is something or someone other than the writer and still the writer is in the story, the reader wants to say you again? In those cases, the writer is cheapened and the reader cheated.
Here are some examples.
• A food writer’s subject is the joy of canning. But she begins with a tedious childhood reminiscence on canning day at Auntie’s farm.
• A travel writer gives a detailed report on what he did in Belgium—rather than what the reader might similarly do.
• A film critic doesn’t review a newly released tearjerker so much as he reviews his own performance as a Sensitive Guy. He takes four paragraphs to say how hard the movie made him cry.
• A columnist on the work of a local artist:
I thought the small, dense works so different from the large airy ones greeting me in the foyer that I found it hard to believe they were from the same painter. When I mentioned it, he told me I was right—that he was in a sense different people when he created them.
How do we stay out and still stay personal? It’s neither difficult nor a mystery. Reader-friendly writing focuses on the reader (and the subject) rather than on the writer:
• Maybe you already know about the joys of canning. Maybe you’ve admired your own freshly filled Mason jars, immaculate and glowing on the shelf.
• If you find yourself in Brussels, consider renting a car for a side trip over the hump-backed bridges of Bruge.
• Just try to sit dry-eyed through “Tijuana Tear-Jerker.”
• The small, dense canvases are so different from the large, open ones in the foyer that they seem the work of different painters. Yes, acknowledges the artist—in a sense, he was different people when he created them.
Again, it’s not that first-person pronouns are forbidden, or should be. If there’s compelling and appropriate reason to use them, we needn’t hesitate. Otherwise, we should be modest—and find interesting, imaginative and engaging ways to stay out of the work. After all, it’s both better writing and better manners to aim our cameras at something other than ourselves.
# # #
“If nothing else, it lay the groundwork for a family-led public relations campaign to humanize Kenneth Lay.”
That sentence, which appeared in a national newspaper known for careful writing and editing, concerned an interview with Linda Lay, wife of former Enron chief Kenneth Lay. You probably immediately spotted the problem in “it lay the groundwork”—an unintentionally amusing lie-lay error in a story about a man named Lay.
That sentence shows that the irregular verbs lie and lay can cause even careful writers and editors to lay an egg. But no need to lie low—the verbs aren’t complicated, despite their frequent misuse. It helps to remember that TO LIE means to rest or recline, and TO LAY means to place or put something somewhere. (We’ll ignore the forms of lie that mean to fib—that’s a different word and causes no confusion.)
Here’s a quick and easy rundown:
The verb TO LIE means to rest or recline, and it applies to both animate and inanimate subjects. (We lie on the bed—or the floor depending on what we did last night—the same way the book lies on the desk.) LIE conjugates thus:
• This moment I am (or something is) LYING (down, on the table, beneath the tree, etc.).
• Today I LIE (down).
• Yesterday I LAY (down).
• Tomorrow I will have LAIN (down).
Notice that there’s no “laid” in the verb TO LIE (meaning to rest or recline).
The verb “TO LAY” means to place or put something somewhere. It’s a simple verb that conjugates thus:
• This moment I am LAYING (something down).
• Today I LAY (something down).
• Yesterday I LAID (something down).
• Tomorrow I will have LAID (something down).
Notice that there’s no “layed” in the verb TO LAY—or anywhere else, for that matter. “Layed” is not a word. Spell it “laid.”
Also notice that the verb TO LAY has an object (place or put something), while the verb TO LIE does not.
The two verbs share a word, unhappily, which helps muddy the water. That shared word is lay, and it’s both the past tense of LIE and the present tense of LAY.
So back to that newspaper passage: The phrasing “it lay the groundwork” should have been “it laid the groundwork.” It’s a simple past-tense sentence including the verb TO LAY, meaning to place or put. (If the sentence were in present tense, it would read: “It lays the groundwork.”)
That’s about as complicated as it gets. But before we lay this matter to rest—or let it lie—let’s consider a few other small hitches in the correct use of lie and lay.
Since there is no laid in the verb to lie, it is always wrong to say we “laid down” when we mean that we rested or reclined or lay down. One of the reasons this error is so common is that, in speech, a vowel preceding a consonant usually takes on the sound of the consonant. That means that even when we correctly say “lay down,” it sounds the same as “laid down” because of the silent Y—the sounds merge, and “lay down” becomes “layDown.” Most blending or elision of sound causes few problems, and can even amuse. For example, “Did you eat yet?” can sound like “Jeet yet?” But in the case of “lay down,” the merging of sound can confuse the issue because it happens to mimic a grammatical error.
Another problem is that we can become confused by such structures as “I’m going to lay my weary head on the pillow.” We might be tempted to use lie because it seems we’re talking about lying down. But in this sentence’s logic, my head is a direct object—I’m going to place or put it somewhere, same as I would a brick or a block of wood. (No jokes, please!)
One good thing: Even if we can’t think fast enough to make the right choice in speech, we can make the right choice in writing—because of that incredible luxury of being able to look back at the sentence and edit.
A final note: Don’t trust your computer’s grammar or spell checker to catch lie and lay errors. Believe me, it hasn’t a clue. Throughout this column, my grammar checker made insane suggestions—suggestions that would have made the work ungrammatical. Wonderful as such software is, it’s a machine, and machines can’t handle certain intricacies of language. That’s one limit of artificial intelligence. Sometimes we need the real thing.
# # #
[This article originally appeared in Quill magazine in a slightly different form in 2006.]
The long line dwindles, the passengers boarding in groups from priority to coach to open boarding to last call. And still he waits. And watches, scanning the long terminal corridor, growing concern showing in the creased forehead and solemn line of his mouth.
Then he is alone, his boarding pass in hand, the flight attendant looking his way, her own expression not yet anxious. Most of the travelers seated nearby, like me, are waiting for a later plane to another destination and are drowsing, reading, tapping computer keyboards, fiddling with their mobiles. But some have caught the aura of drama around the young man and are watching with him, gazing down the long corridor as if they might be able to call up the person he awaits—a young woman maybe, breathless with apology. But maybe not. Maybe a friend, an aging father. But why didn’t they come to the airport together then? A business colleague? No, pleasure surely, and adventure—he’s wearing casual dress, a back pack. Headed for Denver.
The flight attendant says something I can’t hear to the young man and, checking his watch, he moves a little closer to the gate’s double doors and draft and subdued jet roar. A voice over the intercom announces last call for the flight to Denver: All passengers are aboard, and the doors will close in three minutes. The young man pulls his roll-on to the door of the gate and stands with one foot in the terminal and the other on the ramp.
My eyes meet those of another traveler; her expression is grave. She glances at the young man and down the corridor and back again at me, shaking her head almost imperceptibly. I blink hard and look down. The voice on the intercom continues: If Denver passengers Tasir Sopha or Ashley Anderson are in the terminal, they must report to the gate for an immediate departure.
Now I see a slender elderly man in a hat and with a wide snowy mustache coming down the corridor as fast as his bandy legs will carry him. He is dragging a roll-on and waving a boarding pass.
My eyes fly to the young man, whose expression does not change. No.
“Mr. Sopha?” the flight attendant asks the elderly man. The young man pulls his foot from the ramp and backs up a little to make room for the older man to pass, then resumes his stance on either side of the threshold.
The intercom calls yet again for Ashley Anderson.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the attendant says to the young man, then something else I don’t catch.
“I know,” he says. And stands for a moment, looking as if he could jump either way. Then, with another long glance down the corridor, he decides. He bumps his roll-on across the threshold and, planting both booted feet onto the ramp, enters the gateway. The flight attendant presses him from behind, and he moves out of sight.
The attendant pulls the door closed behind them, and the latch catches with a soft chink.
It sounds final.
# # #
People who love words usually love word play. That often means word games, whether Scrabble or crossword puzzles or other brain teasers such as acrostics or anagrams. And word lovers usually—whether they admit it or not—like puns.
One word game that needs no equipment and that even children can play is the Tom Swiftie, so named from the Tom Swift adventure stories of the 1920s. Many young people, especially boys, grew up reading about Tom Swift, a noble young hero created by Edward Stratemeyer. The Tom Swiftie, also called an adverbial pun, spoofs the habit of Swift characters never to simply say anything. Rather, they say it excitedly, sadly, happily, loudly—you get the idea.
The Tom Swiftie turns that adverb—such as excitedly, sadly, happily, loudly, etc.—into a pun. For example: “The stock market is going through the roof!” said Tom bullishly. Or: “Who ate all the apples?” asked Tom, fruitlessly.
That’s the basic Tom Swiftie. And here are others:
“I just drank a huge pot of coffee,” said Tom perkily.
“Our hostess fed us fake turtle soup,” said Tom mockingly.
“I’m going to cash in my chips,” said Tom winningly.
“My pencil lead is broken,” said Tom pointlessly.
“I hate the taste of unsweetened chocolate,” said Tom bitterly.
“I have to visit the cemetery,” said Tom cryptically.
“Be sure to put plenty of starch in my shirts,” said Tom stiffly.
“I can’t find my CD player,” said Tom tunelessly.
“Could I have some of that dark bread?” asked Tom wryly.
“They’ll never guess I made this basket myself,” said Tom craftily.
“I’m sort of fond of modern art,” said Tom abstractly.
“Those atomic tests were something!” said Tom glowingly.
Some Tom Swifties depend upon the names of well-known businesses or products. Here are examples of that sort of Swiftie:
“I forgot my toothpaste!” said Tom, crestfallen.
“Are we eating at McDonald’s again?” asked Tom archly.
“I wish we had some pineapple,” said Tom dolefully.
“Hey, we’re out of laundry detergent,” said Tom cheerlessly.
Another kind of Tom Swiftie is a pun in which the verb—rather than an adverb—provides the humor. That kind of Swiftie usually focuses on the verb of attribution:
“Hey, get this dog off me,” Tom barked.
“My oil well just came in!” Tom gushed.
“Where’s my bullfrog,” Tom croaked.
“Can’t you darn your own socks?” Tom needled.
Yet another kind of Tom Swiftie—and the most challenging—is the double Swiftie. In this sort of Swiftie, both the verb and the adverb are puns. For example: “How did I do on my final exam?” Tom quizzed testily. Here are a few more double Swifties:
“That dog is nothing but a mongrel,” Tom muttered doggedly.
“I love sweet potatoes,” Tom yammered starchily.
“This meat is so tough!” Tom beefed jerkily.
Word play of all kinds is not only fun and funny, it’s especially valuable to children and young people. Something as elementary as the Tom Swiftie can help them appreciate words and how words work. It also can enlarge their imaginations as well as their vocabularies. But the best thing about such word play (as you can see) is that any age can play.
We have celebrated Father’s Day for nearly a century, yet this tribute became an official national holiday only in 1966, when President Lyndon Johnson signed a proclamation declaring the third Sunday in June Father’s Day. Even later—in 1972—Richard Nixon signed a law making Father’s Day a permanent observance.
The first Father’s Day was celebrated in Spokane, Wash., in 1910. The commemoration was the creation of Sonora Dodd, whose father, William Smart, was a farmer who was widowed and raised his six young children alone. As an adult, Sonora Dodd realized how selfless and courageous her father had been, and she wanted to thank him and all such fathers.
She chose June for the first Father’s Day because it was William Smart’s birth month.
In preserving, protecting, and nurturing his family, William Smart not only did what good fathers do, but he also did what the word “father” means.
“Father” has been an English word for as long as there has been an English language—and its root predates English by untold centuries. How do we know? Because it came from the Indo-European tongue, a major taproot for English. The word’s form and pronunciation changed as Indo-European branched into different languages, but root and meaning stayed the same.
Simply stated, father descends from the Indo-European word for father, pater, which incorporates the ancient root pa, meaning to feed and protect. From this same source came various forms—the Greek and Latin pater, the Sanskrit pitar, the Old English faeder, the Germanic fader, the English father. The Indo-European pater became father because a consonant shift in the Germanic branch of Indo-European changed P to F, and T to TH. (The P to F shift is seen, for example, in the P of pyr—as in pyromaniac or funeral pyre—becoming the F of the Germanic fire.)
So such renderings of father as fater, fader or fadre share the same root and meaning as the Latin pater, Spanish padre, Greek pappas, and French pere. And whether transcribed as P or F, that ancient pa root denoted food or foodgiver in languages sharing Indo-European roots—extending logically over time to mean protector, progenitor, teacher, counselor, and the like.
From this root also came the Germanic food, fodder and forage, and the Greek foster. In Latin (the consonant shift generally was not seen in Romance languages), it generated panis, meaning food; pascere, to feed; panarium, breadbasket; and pasture. Pan, panne and pain mean bread in different languages. The English have pasties, the Americans pastries, and the French pattisseries. We cook in pans, and we keep food in the English pantry, the French paneterie, the Latin paneteria.
A repast is a meal, and antipasto is what we eat “before the meal.” Pamper originally meant to feed too much.
Patriarch, paternal, patron, pastor and pope also derive from this root and denote fatherly benefactors. The Paternoster, the Lord’s Prayer, literally means “our father.”
So: Happy Father’s Day to all you paters and papas who feed your brood—not just daily bread, but food for the heart and mind as well. You are a blessing in what you do and in what you teach, as basic and indispensable to our culture as your name is to our language. As the proverb declares: “One father is more than a hundred schoolmasters.”
So Lois Lane and reporter Brown from The Sun meet on the street. Does Lois Lane say: “In the wake of spiraling confusion spawned by an unprecedented rise amid . . .”? And does Brown from The Sun respond: “Following cautiously optimistic reports, anonymous sources launched an unprovoked attack on . . .”? No, they don’t. Journalists don’t speak as they write—which is too often in hackneyed, warmed-over media clichés. The reason they don’t speak as they write is that they know if they did, nobody could stand it—or them. But if they did speak as they wrote, here’s how it would sound:
Hack: Hi, Frack. What’s ongoing at your journalistic facility?
Frack: Amid a burgeoning crisis spawned when the editor disliked a story I wrote, he hurled a litany, even a laundry list, of verbal insults at me and launched an unprovoked attack on my copy editor, 45. That triggered a firestorm of criticism from staff members, who weighed in on the issue and unleashed a new round of difficulty.
Hack: Sounds like sort of an unprecedented development. Such a heated exchange can quickly escalate into a defining moment, or even a critical mass.
Frack: You bet. In the wake of the controversy, my boss suggested I could level the playing field by an immediate withdrawal—by resigning!
Hack: Whoa, the R word! Worst-case scenario! Even a bizarre twist!
Frack: I hotly contested the suggestion and mounted a staunch defense. But the idea was hailed by high-ranking sources who said it might send a very clear signal to the rest of the staff. I don’t know who the architect of that idea was.
Hack: Send a clear signal, eh? More like a chilling effect. But, at the end of the day, this must be a daunting challenge.
Frack: We’re in the midst of negotiations, and I hope to hammer out an agreement on key provisions. And their hard-line stance does seem to be softening. So the bottom line may be that there’s a thin line between a soft and a hard line.
Hack: But things may yet turn in your favor—if not in a sea change, maybe in a ground swell. Instead of a staggering defeat, it could be a stunning victory!
Frack: Or I could get shipped off to the oil-rich Middle East.
Hack: Or to delegate-rich New York.
Both: Yuk, yuk.
Hack: Does this storm of controversy decimate your hopes for a promotion?
Frack: I think that hope has suffered a sudden downturn. Or a steep decline. Or a sharp decrease. Maybe even a free fall. Let’s just say I’m hopefully optimistic.
Hack: So, going forward, the outcome is unclear. Or it remains to be seen.
# # #
“Here’s a word that I’m thoroughly sick of: TOTALLY. Here’s another word I’m thoroughly sick of: AWESOME. Here are two words I’m thoroughly sick of: TOTALLY AWESOME.”
A cascade of responses followed. It was as if my FB friends were just waiting for a chance to air their own language grievances.
Ed offered OMG, Denise countered with are you serious, and Dave weighed in with you know and right.
Donna wrote: “We watch this house-hunter show on cable and actually count the number of times someone says awesome. Last night: 15. Recently saw an edited clip of how many times awesome was used on ‘The Bachelor.’ Incredible number of times. Now, about incredible . . . .”
Henry nominated narrative, Paula added backstory, and copyeditor “Byliner” asked us to take (please!) the word amid.
Stacy asked (with an emoticon grin): “You’re totally sick of such awesome words?”
Sylvia wrote: “What about AMAZING!?! Notice how often it is used in print and especially television. Please put it at the top of your sick list! It tops mine.”
A consensus: What is commonly described as “amazing” is not amazing at all. I thought about my new tee-shirt’s emblazoned front: “HYPERBOLE! THE BEST THING EVER!”
Byliner wrote: “Incredible means ‘not believable.’ It does not mean ‘totally awesome.’ I hear incredible, like, you know, in every other sentence on the Sunday interview shows. ‘And then she goes . . . and then I went . . . .’ ”
Britney: “And they always preface their points by saying: Look.”
Paula: “Going forward. Reach out instead of contact.”
Terry: “I hate going forward and all its variations, especially ‘on a go-forward basis.’ Oy, and don’t get me started on reach out. And literally—I love to hate literally, as in ‘I was so mortified, I literally died.’ One can only wish . . . ”
Byliner: “I should be editing, but the wheels are turning: added an additional. . . unnamed sources. That should be unidentified sources—they have names!”
Britney: “It’s interesting how Google, Wiki, You Tube, Facebook, etc., have become VERBS! ‘I’ll Google it.’ We have a new vocabulary with social media.”
Chuck: “I’m tired of people misusing words. Transition is a noun, not a verb.”
Paula: “Ditto for impact. A friend who hated coining words with the suffixes ‘ize’ and ‘wise’ warned: ‘Don’t verbize a noun.’ ”
Byliner: “Incentivize. ”
Paula: “A news story said the victim would be funeralized Tuesday.”
Terry: “Funeralized? And I thought ambulanced (he was ambulanced to the hospital) was bad.”
Mark: “And to think I was sure I was the only one who hated those words!”
Harry: “This thread beats about 95 percent of what I hear or read. Thanks, guys. I had a student in my public speaking class say like 36 times in a five-minute speech. No, she wasn’t aware of it, but I promise she won’t do it the next time. I’ve got a clicker that I will use every time I hear it. And my contribution to the ‘banned’ list: WTF, MF, or effin’. Who determined that this was clever?”
Donna: “I’m sick of every use of the ‘F’ word—noun, verb, adjective, etc.”
Lois: “I don’t even like the proliferating friggin’.”
Alan: “Far out, like, for sure, dudette.”
Alan: “You know.”
Greg: “Dude. Sweet.”
Edward: “Dude! I’m totally with you on that . . . and I would find it awesome if I never heard ‘on the ground’ and ‘collateral damage’ again.”
Ed B.: “I’ve always hated feisty and zesty.”
Ellen: “Ever listen to women in a clothing store? What’s the ONE word you hear over and over again? (This is a test.)”
Susan: “I have banned the word countless. Because most of the time what’s being described can actually be numbered . . .”
Ellen: “No guesses? Cute. Cute. Cute. Everything is cute.”
Chuck: “Another word I’m fed up with is ‘arguably.’ So many people parrot this word . . . Another thought—if someone is explaining something, they shouldn’t use words like obviously, naturally, of course. If the person doesn’t know, then it is not obvious, etc.”
Paula: “Arguably is a weasel word—favored by media folk when making claims they can’t support. What does it mean? Maybe/Maybe not. And you make another good point about such words as obviously, naturally, or of course—especially in argumentation, where they condescend or patronize. Other offenders: clearly and everybody knows.”
Janet: “What totally awesome posts!”
Mark W.: “I think you have a book here! May I suggest a title? How about Weasel Words and How to Avoid Them?”
Paula: “Or maybe: How to Avoid Being a Weasel.”
# # #
(Previously published in April 2011 as one of Paula LaRocque’s regular columns on writing and the language in Quill magazine, the magazine for the Society of Professional Journalists.)
The English alphabet seems completely different from some other languages—Chinese characters, for example, or Egyptian hieroglyphs. But experts in the origin of our alphabet say the ABCs, too, were originally tied to pictures, difficult as that may be to imagine now.
The great distinction among writing systems is whether a symbol stands for a sound or for a thing. A symbol in some writing systems is not a letter—it may represent, as I just suggested, the whole word. So a sequence of symbols is not necessarily an alphabet, in which you can arrange any number of individual symbols (letters) together to make one word. It may just be a sequence of symbols.
Let’s say, for example, that a simplified figure with a flat top and four legs represented a table in some system of writing. If that symbol came to stand for the sound of the “t” in table—rather than for the thing—the table itself—the symbol would be a letter rather than a picture, and therefore one unit in a potential alphabet.
Our alphabet, of course, stands for sounds—and that enables us to combine any number of sounds to write any number of words.
The English alphabet is ancient and its origin obscure. Through Latin and Greek, however, it’s traceable in part to the Phoenicians of about 1300 years before Christ. And its letters originally were simplified or stylized pictures of things.
Let’s take our capital A, for example. (And we’re speaking only of capitals here. The rounded, lower-case forms came later and were developed for script rather than for carvings.) Now, the A originally was upside-down from the A we now know—sort of an inverted triangle with two horns. That Phoenician symbol stood for an important animal, the ox. If you draw a capital A and turn it upside down, you can see the picture (in this case, the ox’s face) in the symbol. The Greeks took that Phoenician symbol to represent the sound of their alpha, or first letter. In time, they turned the symbol upside-down so it would mesh better with the Greek style of writing. Hence, the stylized animal head with horns became our letter A.
In the same way, our letter B comes from the early symbol for house. The original symbol was a sort of box with a triangular roof. The forms gradually rounded and changed into our capital B.
And so on. Our C was originally a symbol for camel—the hump of the C representing the hump of the camel, maybe? D was a picture meaning a door, E a window, F a hook, H a fence. If we use our imaginations, we can see the hook in F, or the fence in H.
And some other letter representations also seem logical upon reflection. L was the symbol for whip. T represented the cross mark that illiterate people used in lieu of a signature. M comes from the pictorial representation of water; imagine a set of waves and you’ll see why. And if you can see the M in the waves picture, you’ll also be able to see W as the symbol for teeth.
Human body parts were well represented in the alphabet. The capital I, for example, was a symbol for the hand. And K originally was a sort of on-its-side symbol for the palm. If you wonder why, turn your hand over and look at the lines marking your palm. From one perspective or another, you’ll see a K. Our O was originally a picture for the eye, and P was the mouth.
Some of the ancient word-pictures that went into the English alphabet are as delightful as they are logical. Q, for example. Experts say that for the Phoenicians, that cute little word-picture symbolized the monkey. Sure. A little circle with a tail. Young children often draw certain animals that way even today.
My last blog discussed misunderstandings concerning the passive voice—even among professional writers and editors. For example, some think that any sentence containing a “be” verb is passive. Others think that any weak, static, or unassertive expression is passive. Still others, that we should avoid the passive voice whenever possible.
None of that is true. And the only question concerning the passive voice worth asking is this: Is it more effective in this case than the active voice?
But before we consider that question, let’s de-mystify the passive voice:
• Active: John ate a hamburger.
• Passive: The hamburger was eaten by John.
• Passive: The hamburger was eaten.
The first example shows that the active voice is a straightforward subject-verb-object structure—or, described another way, actor-action-acted upon. The subject is “John.” The verb is “ate.” The object is “hamburger.” This is English at its most basic, dynamic, and lucid. Everything necessary to a clear message is here, in its usual and predictable position: S-V-O.
It’s important to distinguish between a subject and an agent. The doer or initiator of the action in a sentence is called the agent. Notice that in the active voice, the subject and agent are one and the same.
Not so the passive voice. There, the agent is tacked onto the end of the sentence with the preposition “by,” or it disappears altogether. See the passive examples above. In the first, the agent (John, the eater) and the object (hamburger, the eaten) have changed places. And in the second example, the agent has vanished.
It’s that simple. It’s a structural matter. So why all the blather and bafflegab about the passive voice? Why do so many wrongly identify or fail to recognize it? I believe the confusion derives largely from ill-expressed and misleading definitions and discussions of the passive voice—both in print and on the Internet. Google “passive voice” and fish around in the results for a few minutes and you’ll read that in the passive voice, “the subject receives the action,” or the action is “performed upon the subject.”
That language is confusing and unhelpful. Why? We’ve all cut our grammatical teeth on the idea that subjects are doers, and objects the done to. So when we read—without further careful explanation—that a subject “receives the action,” we’re bamboozled. We wonder: Why is it called the subject if it receives the action—isn’t that the function and definition of an object?
Better to say simply that in the passive voice, a sentence’s subject and object change positions—which in our examples places hamburger in the usual subject position (before the verb) and John in the usual object position (after the verb). Visual concepts are more helpful than slippery abstract language.
Back to the question of effective passives: It’s true that the passive voice can be vague, weak, wordy, awkward, and can even blur responsibility (“mistakes were made,” instead of “I made a mistake”). But the passive voice is still, as Strunk and White remark in The Elements of Style, “frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.”
An obvious example is when the subject/actor is irrelevant or gets in the way of the main point: “John’s memoir was considered a masterpiece.” Who, exactly, considered the memoir a masterpiece? Who cares? The emphasis is on the artistry of the work, not on those who recognized its artistry. The active voice would distort the statement’s intent by emphasizing the wrong elements: “Some people considered John’s memoir a masterpiece.” Thus, the active version evokes an off-the-point response: “And some people didn’t?” More examples:
• The company’s mission statement has been completed.
• The suspects were cleared.
• Brad Pitt was elected president.
Again, what matters in those examples is action, not actor. Who completed the mission statement, cleared the suspects, or elected Brad Pitt is less important than the action.
Similarly, the passive voice is often preferred in scientific or technical writing because such writings usually focus on finding, process, or method—on action rather than on actor:
• Active: The [whoever: researcher, technician, lab worker, scientist . . . does it matter?) then heats the compound and adds the catalyst.
• Passive: The compound is then heated and the catalyst added.
We see at once that the passive voice is better in this case—it’s both clear and concise.
Even writers who decry the passive voice often use it—and to good advantage. George Orwell, for example. His “Politics and the English Language” is considered by many (considered by many!) to be a model of fine writing. In that essay, Orwell inveighs against the passive voice. Yet, an unusually large number of Orwell’s own sentences in that piece are passive—20 percent, according to Wikipedia contributors, and 17 percent, according to my computer’s grammar software.
Oh, dear! We can only surmise that while so eloquently condemning the passive voice, Orwell failed to notice how often he himself used it—probably because he did it so well.
There’s a lesson there.
# # #
[Parts of this blog originally appeared in another form in Quill magazine.]