Thursday, March 30, 2006

Tricky words and our tricks for using them

Some words don't sound like what they mean. And some words don't mean what they sound like. We aim to provide some clarity.

could have/could've - not could of. Ever.

enormity (n) - despite how it sounds, enormity doesn't refer to size. Rather, means "extreme evil" or "a very evil act." The enormity here is how many times you'll hear this word used incorrectly.

histrionics (n) - Is there anyone left old enough to remember when John Tesh provided color commentary for Olympic gymnastics? Is there anyone old enough to remember John Tesh? Well, anyway... he said "histrionics" thinking it was a fancy way to say "history." It was hilarious. Histrionics means exaggerated emotional behavior. Which, when you think about what sometimes happens in gymnastics, isn't all that far off the mark.

insure/ensure - We've seen this wrong in the New York Times! Tsk! Insurance with an "i" always refers to the kind of insurance you have to pay for. You can remember this by saying, "I pay for insurance. I do. I do. Aye, aye, aye. (Smack forehead) It's expensive." Ensure means to make sure something happens. For example, we would ensure that we never get in a fender-bender. (And if insurance could do that, it would be worth what we pay for it.)

irregardless - Regardless of whether this appears in the dictionary, this is not a word. Not a real word, anyway. The dictionary calls it "non-standard," which is a polite way of saying "made up word used by people who don't know any better." The equivalent, as we have explained in our Encarta writing, would be wearing a pair of underwear as a hat. Sure, it might fit nicely on your head. But you'd look silly — almost as silly as someone running around saying "irregardless."

it's/its - It's with an apostrophe is short for it is. If you can substitute it is in your sentence, then you want it's. If you can't, then you want its, which is a possessive. Remember, his and hers don't have apostrophes, so its the possessive doesn't get one, either.

For the truly picky:
Is it compare with, or compare to? It depends on what you mean to say. If you're pointing out similarities, you compare with. If you're focusing on differences, then you compare to.

Semicolons and You

"Son of Sam was the first murderer anybody ever knew who could use a semicolon."
— Jimmy Breslin, Newsday

How do I use a semicolon correctly?

Semicolons sound and look so tricky. What are they, after all? Overdressed commas? Melting colons? No wonder people get intimidated.

The truth is, semicolons are easy to use correctly. They do two jobs:

1) They join independent clauses that aren’t linked with a coordinating conjunction (a word that joins two equally important clauses, e.g. "and")
2) They separate items in a “complex” list – meaning a list that has other punctuation marks within it.

Here are examples of both rules in action.

Rule No. 1 An independent clause has a subject and a verb and can stand alone as a sentence. Why join two clauses that could stand alone? This is a stylistic thing, used because the full stop of a period would provide more pause than the author wishes to insert.

For example: Grammar is fun; everyone says so.

Independent clauses set off by a transitional expression such as however or in fact also require semi-colons. Check out this example:

This sounds complex; however, it is easy to understand once you see it in action.

Usage advice: SPOGG tends not to use semicolons with transitional expressions, though. We think this kind of “pivot” within a single sentence just makes the point of the sentence trickier to absorb. If your linked clauses aren’t supporting each other in agreement, it’s better to split them. If they do agree and build on each other, by all means, use the semicolon.

Rule No. 2
Here is an example of a complex list split with semicolons:

SPOGG loves fantasy heroes despite their scars: Harry Potter, with his thunderbolt scar; Sunny Baudelaire, who has fangs and a limited vocabulary; and Frodo Baggins, who eventually loses a finger to the extremely creepy Gollum.

The sentence would not need semicolons if the clauses set off by commas weren’t there:
SPOGG loves fantasy heroes despite their scars: Harry Potter, Sunny Baudelaire, and Frodo Baggins.

(The sentence isn't nearly as good without this information, in our humble opinion).
English Prof. Corey Marvin:
Strunk and White (they get a little more persnickety):

Apostrophes, 101

How should I use apostrophes?

If you really want to set grammar people on fire, use an apostrophe incorrectly. This humble teardrop of a punctuation mark forms the bulk of the bestseller Eats Shoots and Leaves. The
author's zeal on this point almost makes you feel sorry for grocers who are just trying to sell their potato’s.


There should be no pity for those who can't remember these simple rules. You can remember the first two by telling yourself, apostrophes are all about to have, and to have not.

First to have not:

1) Use an apostrophe to indicate a missing letter in a

These might require some memorization:

a. Will not - won’t
b. Cannot - can’t
c. Should not - shouldn’t, and so on...

Do you see the pattern here? The o drops out, and you stick an apostrophe in its place.

And now, to have...

2) Use an apostrophe plus the letter s to form a possessive singular noun -- even if the word ends in S.

a. It was the teacher’s fault.

b. If the noun ends in s, you still add the apostrophe “s” – for
example, the bus’s

c. Note the weird exceptions: ancient proper names that end in an s just get an apostrophe on the end. Also, rare forms such as "for righteousness' sake." You know you've got one of these when you don't pronounce the final "s" on the end. It's not righteousness-ez sake.

If you can’t remember this, you can write around it. Instead of saying, Moses’ sandals, just say, “the sandals of Moses.” Or, "It is the fault of my teachers that I can't remember how to use

3) Use an apostrophe if you’re talking about the plural of letters.

a. The 3 R’s.

This rule, by the way, is hotly debated by grammar nerds. Some purists view this as an abomination. Others go so far as to say you should apostrophize such things as if’s, and’s and but’s.

SPOGG splits the baby here. We believe you can’t talk about all the A’s you got in English class if you don’t stick the apostrophe in there. (It sounds like you’re saying, “I got all As.” As what? As if!

On the other hand, ifs, ands and buts are perfectly clear without the apostrophe, so don’t use them there.

But what about its and it's?

Memorize this. There are no apostrophes in his or hers; there is simply no room on the towel. Same thing goes for its. So, if you've got a possessive on your hands, you don't need an apostrophe.

If you can substitute "it is" where the "its/it's" dilemma lies, then you know you need the apostrophe. It is loses an i, so it gets an apostrophe. It's all fun and games until someone loses an i. (And then it's apostrophe time.)

Hey, what about plurals?

On these, English speakers around the world do not agree. Some say, "Is the Jones's house," while others say, "It's the Jones' house." Who's right?

This is a toughie. When you're talking about the house of the Jones family, you say "Joneses house." But when you're talking about the binding of books, you do not say, "the bookses binding."

It looks cleaner if you don't add that "s" after the apostrophe. So, that’s what we lean toward (even if it does mess with the Jones’ pronunciation a bit).

Whatever you decide for yourself, stick with it. You might not be right, but you won't look as though you're in doubt (and it's doubt that makes the wolves come out of the walls).

Weather or Not...


The Weather Channel in the past few years has decided there are various degrees of lightning. Of course, I'm referring to the "deadly lightning" as opposed to the other forms of lightning that elude me for the moment. I'm still waiting for a forecaster to say "...but don't worry, the lightning right here in this area has been deemed safe by our weather experts." That hasn't happened.
-- P.R., Jr.

Dear PR, Jr.:

The only safe lightning we know of is the kind that hits someone we don't like on the head. But seriously, you have happened upon a fine example of bloated writing for the sake of drama. This is more a matter of style than of grammar. But a good test to see if your modifier is ridiculous is to put its opposite in place. If that makes no sense (such as "safe" lightning), then chances are, the modifier is just larding up your sentence. As the surgeon general will tell you, there is no such thing as safe lard. Except the kind eaten by someone we don't like.



Dean C. Logan,
Director King County Records, Elections & Licensing Services Division
King County Admin. Bldg., #553 500 4th Avenue Seattle, WA 98104

Dear Mr. Logan,

We are writing on behalf of SPOGG, the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar. We have some good news and some bad news. The good news is this: You used a semicolon correctly in the notice you sent out to inform voters of the change in the September Primary System. For us, any correct semicolon usage is cause for celebration. Hooray!

The bad news, however, is that you omitted another necessary semicolon. Just as every ballot cast must count, every punctuation mark also is crucial. The missing semicolon is on the back of the notice. The sentence should read, “Discard any other cards you may have; they are no longer valid.”

Please don’t fret about the fate of the comma currently holding the place for the missing semicolon. You could put it to use elsewhere. Several sentences start with introductory phrases that are not set off with commas. Generally, it’s a good idea to set any introductory clause longer than five words off with a comma. This helps with clarity. What’s more, you have some subject-verb agreement problems and a missing hyphen. We will point out one particularly problematic sentence, making necessary corrections in red:

“If your residence address, mailing address or name has changed, or you would like to become a permanent absentee voter, please submit a new voter-registration form.”

We are hopeful you can update this form the next time you must alert voters to important changes.

And, as a side note, we are grateful for the absentee-ballot services you have provided to some of our members. This makes it easier than ever to vote, and we are particularly excited about the upcoming presidential election. Grammatically speaking, we have never before faced such a clear choice for president, and we hope the end of an error is upon us.

Sincerely yours,

We'll Drink to That

Mr. Bruce Crawford
Chairman, Omnicom Group
437 Madison Avenue New York, NY 10022

Dear Mr. Crawford:

We are writing on behalf of SPOGG, The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar. Our members have discussed the Bud Light campaign your company developed urging carbohydrate-conscious customers to “choose on taste.”

As much as we enjoy a frosty beverage, we do not enjoy the language your campaign employs.
One does not choose on something. One might choose based on a factor. Or one might choose a beer for its taste.

"Choose on" sounds positively uneducated. It’s reminiscent of the phrase, “she was huggin’ on me.” The horror! This sort of thing does not leave us inclined to choose Bud Light.

We firmly believe that grammar still counts, even for people who are counting carbohydrates.
SPOGG urges you to change your campaign language to say, quite simply, “Choose taste.”
If you do make such a tasteful choice, we will drink to that. Repeatedly.


Structurize This!

Dear Infusium Marketing Team,

We are writing on behalf of SPOGG, the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar. SPOGG applauds your attempts to rid the world of frizzy, unmanageable hair, but SPOGG is, at the same time, concerned with some of the language in your marketing campaign.

You claim your product “corrects, restores and structurizes” hair. (The italics are ours.) As you rightly recognize that the English language does not yet correctize or restorize, it does not yet structurize either. It structures, just as Infusium — if it lives up to the language of your advertisements — structures limp or otherwise unruly hair.

It is not as though SPOGG is opposed to coining new words when clear and lively expression demands them. We like how Infusium makes it sound as though our hair will be infused with some space-age, frizz-taming magic. When our language already has words that perform the task at hand, however, we believe those are the words that should be used, instead of mutant offspring that sound, to our ears, like split ends might appear to your own eyes.

SPOGG is grateful for the time you took in reading this letter, and would feel a collective thrill if you would be so good as to correct your advertisement.

Sincerely yours,


A Storm of Controversy


I know my two dictionaries were printed in the dark ages and all, but I didn't think there was such a word (nor should there be) as "tornadic." However, the Weather Channel (WC perhaps, ha ha ha) will use the word tornado as an adjective repeatedly. Maybe it is now an official word, but I would still rather hear them say something like "we have some conditions right here ripe for tornadoes" than "it looks like we have some tornadic activity over here." Am I right or wrong or both? Is there such a thing as "tornadic"?

-- P.R.

Dear P.R.,
We hate to be on the side of television broadcasters, who have turned roads into "roadways" and regularly employ even worse jargon. But the very reliable Encarta Dictionary recognizes tornadic as the adjective form of tornado. It's ugly; it sounds awful, but it is OK to use.

A Prime Candidate for a Spanking

Ms. Stacey Snider
Universal Pictures Chairman - Marketing

Dear Ms. Snider:

The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar loves Meryl Streep. We especially loved her turn as grammar-obsessed Aunt Josephine in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.

But alas, we have been informed of an unfortunate event of a marketing nature regarding Ms. Streep’s movie, Prime.

It was generous of you to send a box of prime-quality frozen meats to key movie reviewers. And although we at SPOGG appreciated the pun, we were dismayed to read the accompanying note, which describes the film as “a real juicy romance.”

If the romance is literally oozing juice, which we hope it is not, then you would need a comma separating the words “real” and “juicy.” This is generally the case when you have a string of adjectives modifying a word, particularly one as tenderly evocative as romance or meat.

To research whether the movie literally dribbles the juice of Ms. Streep or the even more moist Uma Thurman, we visited your Web site, which informed us that Prime was “a gentle comedy that weaves a tale of two lovers trying to keep the flame alive as an unusual obstacle is hurled in their path.”

We suspect the unusual obstacle is metaphorical, and not, say, the box of frozen steaks and hamburger patties we wish we had received ourselves. While it would be comical to watch lovers dodge meat, it could hardly be described as gentle, either to the human or bovine participants.

Therefore, if the movie is merely metaphorically juicy, then we would recommend all further meat deliveries be accompanied with a note that describes Prime as a “really juicy” romance.

With that small change, your meat recipients can anticipate the joys of their meat and movie with all the appropriate forms of salivation, and none of the horror of unclear grammar.

Sincerely yours,


The Casting Couch: $10,000

This ad appeared in the Los Angeles edition of Craigslist:

1980s most prominent soap stud's white couch set for sale.
$10,000. White herringbone cloth on black legs with chair and ottomon.
Cash or money order or certfied cashier's check only.
Serious inquires only, duh!
This item has been posted by-owner.
this is in or around hollywood hills
no -- it's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests

Naturally, SPOGG had to write a letter to the stud. We'll let you know if he writes back.

Dear Soap Opera Stud,

As people who thoroughly enjoyed stud-filled soap operas in the 1980s, we are writing with more than casual interest in the couch, loveseat and ottoman you have listed for sale on Craigslist.

We sincerely wish you the best with your sale. We urge you, however, to correct the spelling and grammar on your advertisement. After all, you're asking for $10,000 for used furniture, and in your line of work, buyers must beware of what sort of use a couch might have received. In any case, you're far more likely to get it if you can demonstrate you know your way around a comma as well as fabric as improbable as "white herringbone."

And now for the corrections. For starters, you should refer to yourself as a "most-prominent" soap stud. In such descriptions, the hyphen is required, even if we must take your account of your prominence on faith. (Secretly, we're hoping you're Blackie. We never got the Luke thing.)

Second, it's "ottoman," not "ottomon."

Third, "cash, money order or certified cashier's check" is more elegant than the "or, or, or" construction you've come up with.

And finally, we believe the interjection "Duh" should be set off with an Em-dash. Or, it should be its own sentence. The comma -- duh -- makes it a run-on sentence.

Very sincerely yours,

The Members of The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar

a*n*G*r*y E-mail

We think we know what Marilyn Manson is doing with his free time: writing us a*n*G*r*y e-mail under the pen name "AsTrO."
We will do him the favor of editing his work:

You recently did wrote an article on fashion, and how trends are repeated through history. During In the article, you bashed several music sensations (Editor's note: By "sensations," he means Britney Spears and Marilyn Manson. Britney Spears, yes. But Marilyn Manson? Tee hee!). Of the few you mentioned by name, the one thatspan style="COLOR: rgb(204,0,0)"> who caught my eye was Marilyn Manson. I've contacted you for rebuttle rebuttal purposes. (Editor's note: or, "to make a rebuttal." But while we're on the topic, do these pants make my rebuttle look big?)

Although ancient Egyptian men wore makeup to accentuate their appearances, Marilyn Manson wears makeup for shock value. He's not concerned with how he looks to others; he's concerned with what he looks like for to himself. To himself, he's beautiful. (Editor's note: Milk just shot out our noses!) Furthermore, anyone with half a brain agrees. (Editor's note: Certainly. But what about the people with whole brains? They're much smarter.)

That wasn't my reason for e-mailing you, but it makes a good segway segue for my actual point. (Editor's note: a Segway is a gyroscopic scooter.) My point is: SHUT UP. Nobody gives a flying rat's fuck about what you think about modern culture. (Editor's note: You've seen a flying rat? I'd like to write about that.) You're too old, too fat, and too wrapped up in "Good ol' family values" to be making critical statements., Pparticularly when you do so on the iInternet. The iInternets is OUR medium., I suggest you stick with the local two 2-bit, one 1-horse-town newspaper that shit you into the spotlight. (Editor's note: What's the Internets? Can you get on the Net from there? Also, I thought he was going to tell me to get back on my one-horse open sleigh. That would have been cool.)

Deal with it. (Editor's note: Done!)


And this one, from Lexi Malone, size 0...

I just got done finished reading your 5 Weirdest Fashion Trends. I was appalled… to say the least. Who are you to say what is weird? Bare-midriff’s; why shouldn’t we all be free to express ourselves through clothing whether it be someone else’s idea or our own? (Editor's note: Too many mistakes to correct. But if Lexi can express herself with her navel, why shouldn't the rest of us express ourselves with actual words?) If you don’t want to see it, turn your head. It seems like all the “trends” you’ve scrutinized were that of people who by “society standards” find attractive, partake in regularly. (Editor's note: Again, hopeless.) The pointy shoes, tanning, men wearing makeup. Who cares if people want to wear pointy shoes? How is it affecting you? How are people wearing their undies as clothing affecting you? (Editors note: Undies as clothing.... So that's what they're for!) Can’t turn your head? Or is it that your husband who can’t? What’s really the root of your rants? Could this be that you are jealous of women who wear the midriff-baring clothing, simply because you are can’t? You certainly can’t blame this on being a mother…..having babies doesn’t make you incapable of wearing following the trends. I’m a proud mother of a 7-month-old baby boy (Cameron) and I still maintain a size 0 (Editor's note: Passing on the easy IQ joke.). I just think that your discontentment disdain for these “fashionable” trends may stem from issues with your self? . Maybe instead of judging people for their fashion chooses choices, you should simply shut your mouth, turn your head, and get over it judge them for their grammar. (Editor's note: OK!)

A Letter of Truth, Corrected for Grammar

It’s been a long time since our last update. So we’re going to start off slowly by correcting the language in Britney Spears’ latest letter to her fans. Yes, this is the equivalent of swatting flies with the wing of a 747. But we can’t resist. Our corrections are meant to improve her grammar, logic and style without in any way altering her very special message. After all, her dog didn’t fare so well after she was altered. Read on to know why…

I haven’t really thought a lot about work lately. What better time for a greatest hits album to come out? [SPOGG: Never ask a rhetorical question if you’re not certain the answer is what you want to hear.] I can actually enjoy & and reflect on my success at this point in my life. I may might be disappointing some fans out there [SPOGG: Does she have fans on the inside?] but I don’t think I’ll do another tour for a couple of years. My priorities in life have changed [SPOGG: have her priorities in death changed?]. I am having fun again reading all the magazines that I enjoy (mainly because I am not on in them). At this point and in time, [SPOGG: But really, why say “point in time” at all?] what I want is not my face on every cover, but someone else’s instead. I really want to help other people achieve their dreams and possibly even develop new artists [SPOGG logic alert: But she said she hadn’t been thinking about work. We're confused!]. Everything is in the very beginning stages and it feels great to just think about different opportunities that I am interested in pursuing [SPOGG: redundant].

Holiday’s holidays are right around the corner and I can’t wait to have my own Christmas tree in my very own house. As far as New Year’s plans, I really wanted to have a huge party for all our friends and relatives who were unable to be at couldn’t attend our wedding, due to the last minute surprise element, but I think we might have to wait until after the house is completely finished.

Well, I’ve got to go. My dog, Lacy, just got fixed and she’s not acting like herself! I’m going to have Shabby Chic re-cover her bed and maybe that will lift her spirits! [SPOGG psychiatric insight: Yes. Redecorating beds always does make the infertile feel perky again.]

Sigh. Our irritation with this writing is only compounded by the fact that book publishers saw fit to give Britney and her mother a contract to co-write a book.

Hyphen-ventilating for Truth

After giving the matter some careful thought, SPOGG has come to a conclusion regarding the furor over John Kerry's service in Vietnam.

In this debate, which focuses on whether he was a hero or a fraud, something very important has been lost.

Some might say it's perspective. Others might say what has been lost is a more important focus on issues facing the nation right now.

But we at SPOGG say something else. We say the hyphen has been lost, and it's a travesty.

It should be Swift-Boat Veterans for Truth, or -- depending on one's perspective -- Swift-Boat Veterans for Kerry.

This is because the veterans were not swift; their boats were. When two words come together to modify a noun, they are married by a hyphen.

We feel strongly enough about this that we are writing to the Swift-Boat Veterans to demand they restore the hyphen to the debate. Is it no less important, after all, than the "truth"?

Thus, we have sent the Swift-Boat Veterans this letter.

Girly Men? Or Girlie Men

Are democrats girly men or girlie men?

The media can't decide (and have quoted Schwarzenegger both ways).

Let us clarify, with a little help from our friends at the Encarta dictionary.*

Girly means "extremely or deliberately feminine."*

Girlie means "showing or involving naked or scantily dressed women."

So which one does Arnold "I've oiled myself into a banana hammock and groped multiple women" Schwarzenegger mean?

We'll let him answer that in 2008, when he runs for President

Oops, She Did It Again

What's disturbing us most about Britney Spears' wedding?

If you think we're going to pick on the cash bar, you're wrong.

If you think we're going to pass judgment for the lack of prenuptial agreement, you're still wrong.

And if you think we're going to make fun of the custom-embroidered velour tracksuits the wedding party wore, you're still wrong.

We're not the lovechild of Miss Manners and Joan Rivers, and we don't raise a fuss about etiquette or fashion. No, indeed. We're SPOGG, and what gets our thongs out of alignment is bad grammar.

So, back to those tracksuits. Our contact in the gossip business says the women wore pink ones emblazoned with the always-classy word "ho's."

While to some, that might seem like a nice accompaniment to the "pimps" tracksuits worn by the men, it's wrong, all wrong.

There are two acceptable ways to spell the plural of ho: hos or hoes. We prefer the first, because it's shorter and does not invite confusion with the garden implement that goes by the same name.

All in all, the weekend was a catastrophe for our friend the apostrophe. ABC called the Emmys the "Emmy's," as well.

Just because everyone who's ever been remotely associated with a major network show has an Emmy does not mean the awards show has gone possessive on us.

For a refresher, feel free to check out our lesson on the apostrophe.

Thanks, Mitch. But Really...

We received this e-mail in our inbox from a 15-year-old named Mitch whose last name is being withheld for obvious reasons:

Subject line: Your hot oh my, i saw your picture on a website, and i must say, you are a definite hottie, i may be 15, but i know what is hot and what is not, and you martha, are a milf.

While we are not going to dispute our MILF status, there are a few problems in this e-mail that must be corrected:

1) It's you're hot, not your hot (but thanks, anyway, Mitch)

2) Web site. Two words, with a capital W. The acronym MILF also must be capitalized.

3) The e-mail is one run-on after another. It's the verbal equivalent of a train wreck and should be recast thus:

Oh my. I saw your picture on a Web site, and I must say, you are a definite hottie. I may be 15, but I know what is hot and what is not, and you, Martha, are a MILF.