Tag Archives: language

A polite correction

A reader writes:

I know how you feel about correcting others’ grammar, but I’ve been noticing a particular recurring mistake for years. I just need to get it off my chest, as it always immediately distracts me from what you’re writing. (I’ve read both your blogs and your column for as long as you’ve written them.) You write “here’s” or “there’s” when the construction should be plural (“here are” or “there are”). A recent example is your use of “Here’s palettes…” in the entry of 4/13/2011.

Obviously I mostly enjoy your writing, or else I wouldn’t continue to read. I just hope you might be more mindful of this in the future.

Thank you! This is an apt correction, politely delivered. My subjects and verbs may not always agree, but I can’t argue with what this writer points out. I will try to be more aware of here’ses and there’ses in my writing. (I suspect the problem has to do with finishing a different sentence on the screen than I had begun writing in my head.) And correcting the writer of a public blog is different than interrupting a friend in the middle of a dramatic or comedic tale in order to nitpick her grammar.

[I do, however, continue to reserve the right to use “they” as a singular when necessary. I realize it’s technically incorrect, but it seems more natural and euphonious than alternatives. So don’t bother trying to reform me on that.]

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My favorite sign in New York

In a deli restroom:

It’s hard to “use” a toilet if you “can’t put anything” into it.

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Does THIS ad work for you?

Mr. Improbable directed me to this beauty of a … typo? Freudian slip? Unintentional honesty?

Whole story here. Let’s just say, Mr. Glodis, hiring a good copyeditor is never a waste of money.

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Conversation of the week

Yesterday I had an appointment with the psychiatric nurse who writes my Paxil prescriptions. (I went on Paxil in December when my health problems were properly diagnosed, and I’ll write more about my thoughts on that later. Right now we’re not going for the deep personal/sociological insight, we’re going for cheap laughs, ‘kay?) After our conversation, I noticed, as I always do, the sign pointing to the waiting room, and I stuck my head back in her office:

Me: I love the sign out there that says “Mental Health Reception.” I’d love to attend one someday.

Nurse: I don’t think anyone’s ever noticed that before.

Me: Well, you’ve never had an etiquette columnist as a patient before.

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POSSLQs and Hoodlums

Many of you responded enthusiastically to my use of the word “POSSLQ” in Sunday’s column, and Molly was delighted by the use of “Hoodlum” in the bad spam I received yesterday.

So what are some other underused, archaic, or eccentric words you are fond of?

I use the word “interlocutor” a lot, which Mr. Improbable says he has never heard anyone use it in conversation before. But it’s such a useful word: it basically means “someone you are having a conversation with.” And since I often talk in a meta- kind of way about conversational strategies, it does save me sometime.

What odd words do you like?

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A bit of holiday confusion

Through Facebook, it was recently revealed to me that several of my friends were under the impression that “Up on the housetop, reindeer PAWS.” (The actual line is “reindeer pause.”)

Did you think this? Did you ever wonder why all other reindeer have hooves, but Santa’s have paws? (Genetics are complex, perhaps the mutation that allowed them to fly had unexpected consequences, sort of how like if you breed foxes for tameness they also develop floppy ears.)

Did you wonder who “Olive, the Other Reindeer” was? How about Round John Virgin? I’d heard those two mondegreens before, but not the reindeer one.

Because I am a theater geek, having to actually think about the lyrics of “Up on the Housetop” made me come up with A Very Pinter Christmas:

Scene: Up on the housetop.

Woman: Reindeer.


But you don’t have to play my reindeer games. Instead, here’s an open thread for cute kid stories — your kids, or your own kid-hood — holiday-season misconceptions.

My own? Apparently, the first Christmas that I was cognizant at all of what was going on, I got really upset when it was time to go to bed on Christmas night (not Christmas Eve). Why? Because I’d taken “You’ll get presents on Christmas” extremely literally, and thought that they would disappear the next day as magically as they had appeared that morning!

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BAA (Bad Acronyms Again)

This came up when I was chatting with a friend last night, and I can’t believe neither I nor any of the commenters thought of it back when we were discussing bad acronyms:

PCP for “Primary Care Provider.”

As I wrote to my friend (we were chatting on Facebook), “BTW, PCP = TLA WTF?”

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Acronyms Gone Bad (ABG), rural edition

Coincidences never cease. Cousin Dan doesn’t always read my blog, so he’d missed my post on “When acronyms go bad.” But he’d left D.C. for his hometown of Springfield for Thanksgiving, and posted on his Facebook a photo of the local flea market:


The Springfield Trading Depot. From a review on Yelp:

Don’t let the state of the place fool you, either. You will always find the vintage treasures or tacky gifts here that you heart so desires. So, pack your hand sanitizers, some tissues and a soda and your set for your STD excursion!

Thanks, Dan!

(For those of you keeping track at home, Dan went as a 1970s undercover cop for Halloween, and thanks you all for your suggestions. I’ve seen FB pictures of his costume, too, and thought he looked good, although he claims not to have been feeling it. Cousin Dan is a Halloween artiste, and like all true artists is his own worst critic.)

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Southern lessons

Last week we went to Tupelo’s with some friends. Tupelo’s, as the geographically astute among us might have figured out, specializes in Southern cuisine and it is indeed all that. (And reasonably priced, Boston locals take note.) However authentic the food and drink may be, however, the wait staff is distinctly New England.

One of our friends, who is from the South herself, decided to give our delightful Italian waiter some lessons to expand his Southern repertoire beyond “you all.” I’m not sure if my friend has had server experience herself, but she focused her language lesson on the art of the hidden insult, the deployment of which surely everyone who works with the public would find a soothing balm to their psyche.

The phrase she taught him was “Bless his/her heart.” This, apparently, is a codicil to conversation that will alert one’s fellow Southerner that one does not, in fact, approve of the individual whose heart has just been blessed. As in, “My sister in law certainly does love her Yankee Swap,* bless her heart,” or a simple, “Ahmedinejad, bless his heart.” Our waiter seemed to like this a lot, and I wonder how many “Of course we can substitute olive oil for bacon drippings, bless your heart”s he’ll be muttering in days to come.

(*The mere existence of the Yankee Swap ought to be enough to convince anyone that the South, despite its iron-fist-in-velvet-glove reputation, has not entirely cornered the market on sweet-seeming passive aggression.)

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When acronyms go bad

There are only 26 letters in the English alphabet, which has proven sufficient for a lexicon of some quarter of a million words or so, but nonetheless appears inadequate for creating non-repeating acronyms. How many times have you changed jobs to find out that at XYZ Corp., “TPS report” stands for “Tactics, Priorities & Strategies Report,” while at NewCo, “TPS reports” means “Talk to the President’s Secretary, she’ll report it to him so you don’t have to.”

I was thinking about that this weekend, when a friend of mine posted the following link to his Facebook page:


I’ve said it before: aren’t moms amazing? I swear, motherhood gives you political — and apparently hostage-negotiation — skills like nothing else. (As my friend said, “I feel sorry for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, but that’s got to be a hell of a recruiting tool.”)

I have to show you the graphic, because if you follow the actual link, someone at the Christian Science Monitor clearly had the big “D’oh!” and removed the last two words since it was originally posted.

(Author’s note: If you don’t know what a MILF is, I’m not telling you. You are by definition on the internet as you read this. Go look it up.)

So it got me to thinking about other acronyms that go two ways, or more than two. I used to work in central administration at Harvard when we were installing a new HR and payroll system, the doing of which required us to get clear on a lot of our HR policies and practices. Anyway, you can take two kinds of medical leave at Harvard: short- and long-term disability. Which are referred to by, of course, acronyms.

Which is why, when the benefits lady said, “We more or less consider pregnancy to be an STD,” I really shouldn’t have choked on my coffee and blurted out, “Good Lord, I don’t even want kids and I find that offensively cynical!”

Acronym lag. It happens to the best of us. Share your stories (SOS)!

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Lessons from a Dan: Talking

And here’s another post I meant to write up from last year! Dan Ariely also came with us to the 2008 festival. Dan, along with his co-authors, won the 2008 Ig Nobel Medicine Prize for demonstrating that high-priced fake medicine is more effective than low-priced fake medicine. (And his book, Predictably Irrational, is a wonderful read.)

So we were at one of the parties that local folks throw for the visiting speakers and their own friends, and I mentioned to Dan, as I did here, that I tend to feel inferior to European women in terms of style. Dan suggested that this was merely the placebo effect in action: that because I knew they were European, I attributed greater panache to them than might be objectively determined. (Ig Nobel Nutrition Prize winner Brian Wansink has shown that people rate a “fine California wine” higher than a “fine Nebraska wine,” despite nothing changing but the label.) “What would you think of that woman’s dress if you saw it in America?” he asked.

Now this was a move of some rhetorical cleverness. It flattered or reassured the other person (i.e., me), invoked the awesome explanatory power of the speaker’s research, and gave the conversation somewhere to go afterward. Quite the hat trick. We can’t always speak as productively as Behavioral-Economist Dan, or listen as productively as Sword-Swallower Dan, but it’s something to aim for.

(Since it is the name of his book, I’m tempted to refer to Dan Ariely as “Predictably Irrational Dan,” but that doesn’t sufficiently distinguish him from Sword-Swallower Dan, as what could be more predictably irrational than a person who swallows a sword whenever someone asks them to? So “Behavioral-Economist Dan” it will have to be.)

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Tomorrow is Milo’s fourth “Gotcha Day” with us! I wrote a little essay about him on his second, and a poem for him on his third. Digging through some old computer files, recently, I found something I’d written a couple of months after we got him, that will suffice as this year’s celebratory post:

Much as I often type “teh” instead of “the,” I’ve discovered–since the arrival of Milo, our adorable mixed-breed rescue dog–that I usually type “god” when I mean “dog.” I always manage to notice this and correct it, usually with an obscure feeling of guilt. However, if I hadn’t, here are some of the things I would have written in various e-mails to friends in the past month:

• If you’re really not up for having a god in the house along with the new baby that’s perfectly okay.

• He is a great god, bra fetish notwithstanding.

• And we have a new god, who is a constant source of puzzlement and delight, and who appears to find us much the same.

• He’s a gentle god but “calm” is not a word I would use to describe him.

• We are working on “quiet god” right now.

• My husband and my god like each other.

• If anyone is afraid of or allergic to gods be assured that he will be crated and upstairs during our meeting. If anyone likes gods you can go meet him after we’ve concluded our business.

• The important question is how are you doing these days, and the really important question is when are you going to come admire my new god?

• And can I force you all to admire the attached picture of my new god, bravely defending us against an evil, scary bunch of bananas?

• He doesn’t feel the need to mark his territory as male gods often do.

• On the upside, I LOVE MY NEW GOD! He is the BEST god ever and we just signed the adoption papers today.

Happy Gotcha Day, little man. While your humans are cavorting in Italy, you are staying with a friend in the country, and I hope you are having a wonderful time. We are probably looking at all of the Italian dogs and saying to ourselves, and sometimes each other, “That dog’s not as cute as Milo.” You remain a source of puzzlement and delight to us, and it appears we remain so to you, as well.

And here, for anyone who cares to see it, is the picture of Milo the second night we had him, defending his new home against that sleeper cell of terrorist bananas (he’d been barking at them, so we put them on the floor and let him investigate):


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Read, talk, love

David Brooks of the Nashua Telegraph — a fan of the Igs and an all-around good guy — has a good question on his blog: have you read a book if you’ve listened to the audio version?

When somebody asks you if you’ve read a certain book, and you’ve only listened to it in audio version, what do you say? “Yes?” “Yes with an asterisk”? “No, but I’ve heard it”? “No”?

What about you?

This reminded me of a similar question: if you have been e-mailing back and forth with someone, or having a dialogue on Facebook, or chatting online, do you say you’ve been “talking” to them? I usually will, unless there’s something specific about the technology that I wanted to make a point of, e.g., “So, I was Facebooking with Mimi, and I noticed she still hasn’t changed her relationship status!” But if I’m just reporting the substance of the conversation, I’ll say “talking.” I suppose it seems weirdly over-specific to fixate on the technology itself, as though the technology were the important thing and not the conversation.

What about you?

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And then toward the end there, a few more words

Finally wrapping up a little series on religion and language. I talked about the use of magical/religious language even by non-religious folks here, and the magic of swearing and singing here.

When I think about religious language, one moment always comes to mind: our first trip to Australia, when we encountered a troop of kangaroos quite by surprise while exploring a park in Alice Springs. It was a magical moment, one of those little snatches of beauty that you’ll remember forever. And in a moment like that, you can say one of two things: a prayer, or “Duuuuude.”

I chose the prayer. I went with the Shehecheyanu, the Hebrew blessing for special occasions. I’m still grateful to my religion for giving me words in that moment, when no secular speech would do.

I’m not that damn reverent, though, so I repeated it afterwards in a heavy Crocodile-Dundee style accent, which sounds pretty funny if you know how it’s supposed to sound. I couldn’t make meeting those kangaroos into something so sacred that I could never approach the moment again in my own mind.

And I wonder … is that what’s behind all the “Mary is My Homegirl” and Candy Torahs and all that? What do you think of religious kitsch, if you are a religious person?

You can become a “fan” of Jesus on Facebook, you know. What do you think of that? (Besides the obvious point that he probably doesn’t write his own updates.) I think I’d become a “fan” of Torah, but not of God. That just seems — unseemly. What do you think? Is this kind of domestication, kitschifying, joking around with the sacred a healthy way to relate to our religion? A fun in-joke among a particular faith community? Or does it diminish without adding?

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Also, in the middle were some more words

So, let’s talk a little more about religion and language. As noted, we use magical talk to express our hopes for others (and for ourselves). I’m not really sure I have a point with any of the below–but hey, I’m blogging, I don’t have to have a point. These are just some ideas I’m batting at you.

So if I sneeze, perhaps you’ll say to me, “God bless you.” If I hit my thumb with a hammer, I know what I’ll be saying, and it will be rather on the opposite end of the devotional spectrum. And my blue streak might serve a purpose. A study published this summer indicated some scientific backing for the folk belief that yes, cursing up a storm does, in fact, help you cope with pain. Subjects could hold their hands in ice water, and reported less pain, if they got to swear while they did it. Words are magic. (The scientists point out, interestingly, that swear words can lose their mojo if overused–no, mojo wasn’t their exact word, but you know what I mean–and thus not have a pain-relieving effect.)

Profanity and religious language overlap in the category of “blasphemy.” Subjects in the experiment were allowed to chant the “expletive of their choice,” so we don’t know if any of them were using blasphemy as well as or in addition to profanity. I use both, myself, with frequency and no small degree of skill–but the time in my life during which I was most blasphemous was when I was working at a Catholic college, because I picked it up from the people around me. All the same, though, I don’t think the blasphemy would have worked, would have had any mojo in it, if Christian/Catholic imagery weren’t highly accessible to me. If I had been in that pain and profanity experiment, I bet I could hold my hand in icy water a lot longer if I got to chant “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!”–which feels like blasphemy even though those names are not sacred to me–rather than “Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva!,” which doesn’t.*

Just as taking the names of Jesus or the saints in vain feels like blasphemy even though, for me, it isn’t, using Christian religious language feels like a declaration of faith, even when it’s not. There was a lot of gospel and country music in July when I visited my cousins in the Ozarks. And I noticed, as I have at the occasional Christmas party-slash-singalong, that I feel really strange singing about Jesus. Singing in general, of course, is not a good idea for me, but I don’t usually feel the need to assess the truth conditions of lyrics before firing up the karaoke machine; I’m not going to refuse to sing “My Boyfriend’s Back” on grounds that I am a faithful married woman. (“But they did not in fact try to make me go to rehab, nor is my father in any position to have an opinion on whether I am fine or not, having been dead these ten years.”) Songs with religious language in them feel different, though; it feels strange to sing something I don’t believe in.

As long as I’m singing it in English. I suspect I’d have no (spiritual) problem singing a Christian hymn in Latin, however vocally challenging I might find it. The Traveling Psychologist does research on this kind of thing: one’s native language feels real in a way that other languages, even if spoken fluently, do not. People have a stronger physiological response to seeing emotionally charged words (sexual, aggressive, religious, or otherwise taboo) in their native language. She told me once that in China, the words “I love you” are used very rarely, perhaps at one’s wedding and/or deathbed. Chinese pop songs about romance will often use the phrase “I love you” in their chorus–in English. You can say the deeply emotional, taboo phrase in a foreign language, even if people know perfectly well what it means.

We once had some young neighbors, foreign grad students, who had a rather tempestuous relationship, and we could often hear them arguing in their native language. Occasionally, the woman would yell at the man, “I hate you!” I was always tempted to tell him that as long as she was saying it in English, he was probably safe.

*One spring while I was teaching at Emmanuel College, I was helping to clean up after a Purim celebration at my synagogue and dropped a table–not on, but frighteningly close to, my foot, and gasped, “Holy Mother of God!” At which another woman on the cleaning committee looked up and said, “Oh, do you work in a Catholic school too?”

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