Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Mile-High Grammar Club?


I love the website and the fresh, tongue-in-cheek approach you take to the subject of grammar. Recently a couple of things came to my attention that you might want to post in your blog.

The first has to do with apostrophe catastrophes. I know you've addressed the subject before, but when the New York Times uses apostrophes to make abbreviations and numbers plural not once but seven times in one piece, it seems too good to pass up.

The second concerns the epidemic of businesspeople saying utilize when all they mean is use. While perhaps not grammatically incorrect in the strictest sense of the word, this practice seems to be another case of carelessly throwing in extra syllables in order to sound impressive. My understanding is that the word utilize carries a connotation of having found a novel or more efficient use for someone or something. To talk about utilizing Excel to build spreadsheets or utilizing Photoshop to edit images seems a bit pretentious. By the way, it should be noted that George Carlin discusses this topic in his book When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?, published by Hyperion Books.

Finally, I'll leave you with a question. A couple of years ago I noticed that flight attendants, when making their announcements, started saying, "Welcome on board," rather than the more familiar, "Welcome aboard." Has someone discovered a grammatical error that flight attendants have been committing for the better part of the last century, or is this just a shift in preference?

Dear Our New Favorite Fan,

So many great points and questions.

1) The New York Times is on our list. Their "style" is to use apostrophes where none belong — 1980's, for example. When we have time, they will receive a letter from us urging them, in the strongest possible language, to revise their style to eliminate apostrophe catastrophes.

2) You are correct; use and utilize have different meanings. Here is what Encarta's dictionary recommends:

utilize or use?

means "make use of something, or find a practical use for something" and so is more specific than use. Utilize is more common in technical contexts: The device utilizes a special plug-in connection. It can also refer to using things in unusual or unintended ways, as a more formal equivalent of "make use of": When the fan belt broke they had to utilize a leather belt. In business jargon and in other contexts, utilize is often found when the meaning intended is simply "use," a use that should be avoided: Successful applicants will be able to use [not utilize] their skills and experience in this field.

3) Flight attendants are expert at serving beverages at high altitudes. They also do a fine job demonstrating seatbelt-fastening techniques. We also marvel at their ability to fly all day long and not end up looking like they've been dragged behind a bus. We can't do this ourselves, and believe us, we've tried. But one should not look to the average flight attendant for excellent grammar. It's just not in the job description.

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