Friday, October 30, 2009

Friday Sign of the Apocalypse: Phallic Fallacy

Or should we say "phallusy"?

Read carefully and try not to throw up in your mouth.

Thanks to Mim E. for the photo.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Referral Is Needed

You know, when you are the "Referral Institute," you probably should refer to a dictionary in times of doubt.

Thanks to Asa D. for the photo.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Not Exactly Grammar

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is being accused of hiding a secret message in this letter. His office says the dirty word therein is nothing more than a coincidence.

SPOGG is agog if it was intended, though. Clever, direct, and ballsy. Good writing, Governator.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What's a 'crash blossom'?

Holly and Carey sent us a link to this story about the confusion that can sometimes arise with headlines that try to condense too much:

Linguists give a name to an old headline hazardIf brevity is the soul of wit, it is also the trapdoor of ridiculousness—at least in the world of headlines, which have long been prone to unintentional comedy along the lines of “Woman Better after Being Thrown from High-rise” and “Scientists Are at Loss Due to Brain-eating Amoeba.”

Now there’s a name for the phenomenon of ambiguously or bizarrely worded headlines: “crash blossoms,” as suggested by a poster at the Testy Copy Editors site in response to the headline “Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms.”

Read the rest.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Dread Pre

The spam fairies were good to us today:

Subject line: Limited time offer lets you preplan for eternity

Schedule a preneed cemetery consultation and get $100 cash plus a preneed courtesy space certificate - a $900 value! Offer available only to the first 100 respondents and expires October 31, 2009. Take advantage of this limited time offer by clicking the link below.
SPOGG submits that you either plan or you don't. There is no such thing as pre-planning. This is called procrastination, and truly, we ought to know.

The idea of a "preneed" cemetery consultation is even more amusing, though. Presumably the time of need arrives when you're actually dead. Frankly, we would pay much more for a consultation that could come after our deaths, because that would allow us to remind our dearly pre-departed husband to keep the heat at 66 degrees or he will be sorry when the bill comes.

An unrelated note: neither preplanning nor planning for eternity sounds pleasant. In the days when we worked in an office, some planning meetings seemed to stretch on for eternity. We grew sick to death of that--figuratively speaking, of course.

Tales from the Casting Ouch

One of our readers is a Hollywood actress who will no doubt start getting even better parts when she is able to emulate the genuinely bad spelling and grammar directors use in their casting calls. Below are excerpts of classified ads that really ran, along with zingers from the thespian herself:

Director's note on a real casting call:
"I am a goo director"
How exactly does one direct goo? (SPOGG: Flubber!)

"Nicole is pregnant with her boyfriend Jason."
That's impossible.
And gross.

"We are BIZZZZY!!"
Nice to meet you, Bizzy. Are you the eighth of Snow White's friends?

"Plain collard shirts"
Do they have to be green?

"If you have you're own [costume]"
Truly possessed.

"Brake Danzers"
I'm picturing Tony Danza in the driver's seat.

"All elasticities welcome and highly encouraged to audition."
Did you mean ethnicities, or are you auditioning rubber bands?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

You Know the Nightmare of Forgetting to Put on Pants?

We've had that one. Worse, though, would be this scenario, which actually happened.

Scholars turn to style manuals for guidance in authoring error-free manuscripts, but what happens when the manual itself is laden with errors?

Users of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association are trying to answer that question now, after the APA last week released dozens of corrections to the first printing of the book’s sixth edition. In addition to being used in psychology, the manual is also used in sociology, economics, business, nursing and justice administration, among other fields.

“It’s egregious,” said John Foubert, an associate professor of education at Oklahoma State University, who bought two copies of the book – one for his office and one for home – when it was released in July. “These are the standards for how we write our manuscripts and how our students write their papers …. The irony is so thick.”

Read the rest.

Thanks to Jessica M. for the link.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Friday Sign of the Apocalypse: Vice Squad

No shoes, no shirt, no... what? Clearly, we won't have any fun inside this establishment.

Thanks to Jonnie and Aaron for the photo.

Friday Sign of the Apocalypse: A Tight Squeeze

This comes from beneath a table. We think it reads more like it comes from a contortionist's instruction manual.

Thanks to Mim. E for the photo.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Favor for Bryan Garner

Every so often we link to Bryan A. Garner's daily tips. We also rely on Modern American Usage and recommend it to other writers. We just received this rather disheartening e-mail from Bryan:

I have a favor to ask of you as a loyal reader: In the next few hours or days, would you please go to or and buy one or more copies of the new third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage as holiday presents? In fact, keep this gift possibility in mind through the end of the year, won't you?

I need your help in sending a message to the major bookstore chains: they’re not stocking the book because they’ve told Oxford University Press that they consider usage guides a “defunct category.” It’s maddeningly unbelievable. Please help me show them that they’re stupendously wrong.

Meanwhile, in the coming months you might ask about the book when you’re in a bookstore: ask the managers why they don’t stock copies, and encourage them to do so.

If you’re curious to see what effect you’re having, watch the rankings on or in coming days and weeks. We’ll be alerting the major chains to those numbers, and we want to get as close to the top 50 as we can. If you're trying to order and see that the book is labeled "out of stock," order anyway: the effort is also to ensure that the online booksellers keep adequate stocks.

In return for this favor – it’s a grassroots effort – I’ll be happy to inscribe copies that you send to LawProse for that purpose, if you (1) include a filled-out FedEx airbill for returning them to you, and (2) suggest an appropriate inscription.

Thank you for whatever help you can provide in this endeavor to show booksellers that the concern for good English is alive and well.

Please consider doing this.

Another plea: Consider requesting copies of your favorite books and authors when you go to bookstores. Stores won't carry smaller books if people don't ask for them, particularly back-listed titles. Unless you want to live in a world where only "big" books--Dan Brown and the like--have a chance, it's incredibly important to support writers you like.

Brown can be one of those writers, of course. But there are great, great books that never get noticed on a tremendous scale, and when the big stores--Barnes and Noble, Costco and the like--refuse to carry them, we run the risk of a literary world determined by the mass appetites. It's not that these books are bad (though some of them aren't, shall we say, good). It's just that they crowd out the stuff that's idiosyncratic or meant for people who aren't typical. It's sort of like reducing everything to hot dogs. These are fine at times. But sometimes, you want a finer cut.

So if you think of yourself as anything different from average and if you have tastes that go beyond hot dogs, please express this about yourself by reading widely and courageously, and by supporting authors. Thank you!

When Unnecessary Quotation Marks Make Sense

This arrived today in our junk mail folder. Ordinarily, we are not a fan of the quotation mark used for emphasis, as it injects a certain insincerity into the mix. Today, though, we approve:


We are pleased to notify you the "Winner" of our last Secured Mega Jackpot Online Sweepstakes result. This is a reward program for the patronage of internet services and all email addresses entered for this promotional draws were randomly selected from an internet resource database of registered software and domain users.

Reference Number: AU 73 ES 2009
e-ticket number: 76545556452 009
Category: A
Amount: $2,500,000.00 (Two Million, Five Hundred Thousand Dollars)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Hat Tip to the Horn Book

We saw this Monday on Twitter:

@HornBook Note to reviewers: an adventuress is NOT a girl adventurer.
Tis true! An adventuress is a woman pursuing money or position, or a woman who uses unscrupulous means in order to gain wealth or social position ( dated ).

This is why we refer to our dictionary often. Words that sound similar to another word, but perhaps a tad fancier, are particularly dangerous. This is how bemused and nonplussed are so often found botched in such vaunted places as The New York Times.

That said, we can't wait to use "adventuress" in context...something like this:

The adventuress eyed the ancient millionaire, slack-jawed and drooling in his wheelchair, and knew she'd marry him within a fortnight. With luck, he wouldn't be alive much longer.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

For Elements of Style Junkies, Part II

This continues our interview with Mark Garvey, author of Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, in which it is revealed that E.B. White once took William Strunk's daughter Catherine out for at least one night on the town. (Vavoom!)

What’s your favorite part of The Elements of Style?

My favorite section is White's essay "An Approach to Style," which constitutes the book's fifth and final chapter. The core message of the chapter is that writers needn't strain to write with style. "To achieve style, begin by affecting none," White says. Style is something that accrues naturally--if a writer is doing her best to write with clarity, naturalness, and honesty. "All writing is communication," says White. "Creative writing is communication through revelation--it is the Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito." The energies of chapter five are directed toward helping writers clear the murk from their writing so that the aforementioned self-revelation can be achieved with the fewest hurdles. I appreciate White's positive, inspiring message in "An Approach to Style."

What things did you learn about E.B. White and William Strunk that people will be most surprised to read in your book?

I was surprised to learn that Strunk and White had been friends. Up to now, all we really knew about Strunk was what White had told us about him in the New Yorker in 1957, in the piece that has been used as the introduction to The Elements of Style since 1959. In that essay, their relationship comes across as a typical teacher/student relationship. The fact is, they were good friends during White's college years (White spent considerable time at the Strunk home, they played chess together, enjoyed music and literary discussions, and White even took Strunk's daughter Catherine on at least one date). And they maintained a friendly correspondence throughout the rest of Strunk's life (he died in 1946). Strunk followed White's writings with avid interest and would often write to give White his thoughts on his latest published piece. I was also surprised to learn that Strunk had taken a one-year sabbatical near the end of his career to work in Hollywood as a literary consultant on a film version of Romeo and Juliet. He had a great time in Tinseltown.

I was delighted, too, if not particularly surprised, by the letters exchanged between White and his editors at Macmillan. I'm privileged to be able to reprint some of their correspondence in Stylized, and I think readers will find it as charming as I did. As I say in the book, their letters are a poignant reminder of the days when business took the time to breathe.

Monday, October 19, 2009

For Elements of Style Junkies

It's no secret that SPOGG loves The Elements of Style. We refer to it often. We still have the version we bought in eighth grade, when we first read it and felt the proverbial scales drop from our eyes. We also have the version we bought to replace that first one when the pages started falling out. And we have an illustrated edition signed by Maira Kalman.

It makes us somewhat less delighted to learn that the Unabomber also enjoyed it. Sigh. Still, we remain happy to have discovered Mark Garvey's Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White's The Elements of Style. It's the perfect book for people who cherish their slim, little volumes: full of anecdotes, letters, and even photos of the original authors.

Mark was gracious enough to answer some of our questions, which we'll post today and tomorrow. And of course, we had to ask what he thinks of the people who can find no good in the book we love so much.

What do you make of some of the critics of The Elements of Style? Do they have a point? Or is it just nastiness?

It depends on the critic, and on the criticism. Those who fault Elements for being an incomplete guide to grammar and rhetoric have a point. The book is a bit of a hodgepodge, and it's not a thorough treatment of the subject, though it covers many issues that are of fundamental importance to writers. But its incompleteness is not what gets under the skin of most of the noisier critics. Those who are most inflamed by the book often have a political axe to grind (for example: the book demeans women, it protects male privilege, it even promotes violence (the current issue of College English, an academic journal for comp teachers, includes a long piece suggesting, with a straight face, that the Strunk and White attitude contributed to the creation of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, who is apparently a fan of Elements)). Other critics react less against the book itself than against the way it has sometimes been used, bludgeon-like, in the hands of dogmatic teachers. Still others are anti-Elements because they claim that some of the information in the book is incorrect or that S&W "don't follow their own advice."

How to answer these objections? The political criticism seems to be just another outgrowth of the "theory" fetish that has overtaken the humanities departments of our universities, and to that extent I find it irrelevant and largely uninteresting (though it can sometimes be unintentionally hilarious, as in the Kaczynski example). It is also unhelpful to student writers, who would be better served by reading and heeding the advice in Elements than by sweating the politics. To the critics who claim the book has been misused by overzealous teachers: maybe it has, but I don't see how that can be the fault of Strunk and White. As to those critics who decry the book's factual errors, they often turn out to be factually mistaken themselves. For instance, one particularly shrill professor has said (ad nauseam) that Strunk and White advise writers to stop using adjectives and adverbs (they don't) and that S&W don't understand the concept of passive voice (they do). As for Strunk and White not following their own advice, I think both authors would admit to sometimes falling short. But don’t we all? And is that any reason to stop striving toward the ideal?

The overarching concern with many critics is that the book strikes them as too prescriptive, too doctrinaire, too stodgy. But teachers and critics who see the book as nothing more than a prescriptivist cudgel are simply not reading it right. Both Strunk and White went to some pains to be clear on the point: Rules can take you only so far. If they hamper your art, it's OK to bend them, dance with them, and even occasionally ignore them. Elements is simply not as dogmatic as it's sometimes made out to be.

One more point about the critics: You’ll notice that the best of them—those whose arguments are stated clearly and persuasively—tend to follow Strunk and White’s advice even while cursing it.

[SPOGG: Oh, snap!]

Friday Sign of the Apocalypse

Smoking pets wearing shoes, though, are entirely welcome.

Thanks to Denis in Vermont for the picture.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Copacabana Explained

We know you've long wondered about the grammatical structure underlying the genius that is Barry Manilow's Copacabana. Wonder no more.

Thanks to Lynne P. for the link (though we do object at the claim that "Copacabana" is an inexcusable fragment. We excuse it. We embrace it. Indeed, unto our very bosom.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A swell portmanteau

Carey B. sent along a portmanteau we rather like: floordrobe.

She says, "This is a form of clothing storage that does not require dressers, closets, or hangers. The clothing is stored on the floor and the user simply pulls out the desired item. This could also be called a walk-on closet."

Monday, October 12, 2009

Most Annoying Words?

Barry L. recently reminded us of one of last year's most irritating portmanteaus: staycation. The word still sticks to the roof of SPOGG's mouth like rancid peanut butter.

But apparently, Americans are more annoyed by another word. There's been a poll. All we have to say to that? Whatever.

Friday, October 09, 2009

New Feature: Friday Sign of the Apocalypse

It's Friday and SPOGG is pleased to introduce a new feature: The Friday Sign of the Apocalypse*.

We got the first picture from Asa D., who has a sharp eye for errors and for potentially dirty puns, a combination we always appreciate. Given what's happening in politics today, though--wide stances, love children, surprise soul-mate trips to Argentina, paid-off mistresses--do we really need this sort of thing?

On second thought, if he gets caught with his proverbial pants down, he'll at least be able to say he was keeping his promises.

And then there's this, from the wags at Upstart Crow Literary, the rare sign with two spelling errors:

Happy Friday!

* This feature will last as long as it amuses us. Send your Friday Sign of the Apocalypse photos to info @

Friday, October 02, 2009

Not Our Cup of Tea

Amy H. sends this paragraph from a company picnic invitation:

Tickets are available for purchase between now and Oct. 16 and will not be sold at the picnic. Anyone consuming food or beverages, including children, will need a ticket.
Much as we think tender, young children sound delicious, we are opposed to eating them, and even more opposed to drinking them. Unless, of course, someone has taken the time to strain all the lumps. (Oh, but we kid! We kid!)

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Hyphen Marches On (and Away)

Yes, the English language is an ever-changing thing. Hyphenated word pairs often lose the punctuation and become one word. If only we could lose our pot-belly, er pot belly, as easily...

Thousands of hyphens perish as English marches on
Fri Sep 21 20:54:35 UTC 2007

By Simon Rabinovitch
LONDON (Reuters) - About 16,000 words have succumbed to pressures of the Internet age and lost their hyphens in a new edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

Bumble-bee is now bumblebee, ice-cream is ice cream and pot-belly is pot belly.

And if you've got a problem, don't be such a crybaby (formerly cry-baby).

The hyphen has been squeezed as informal ways of communicating, honed in text messages and emails [SPOGG: THIS USED TO BE E-MAIL], spread on Web sites and seep into newspapers and books.

"People are not confident about using hyphens anymore, they're not really sure what they are for," said Angus Stevenson, editor of the Shorter OED, the sixth edition of which was published this week.

Another factor in the hyphen's demise is designers' distaste for its ungainly horizontal bulk between words.

"Printed writing is very much design-led these days in adverts and Web sites, and people feel that hyphens mess up the look of a nice bit of typography," he said. "The hyphen is seen as messy looking and old-fashioned."

The team that compiled the Shorter OED, a two-volume tome despite its name, only committed the grammatical amputations after exhaustive research.

"The whole process of changing the spelling of words in the dictionary is all based on our analysis of evidence of language, it's not just what we think looks better," Stevenson said.

Researchers examined a corpus of more than 2 billion words, consisting of full sentences that appeared in newspapers, books, Web sites and blogs from 2000 onwards.

For the most part, the dictionary dropped hyphens from compound nouns, which were unified in a single word (e.g. pigeonhole) or split into two (e.g. test tube).

But hyphens have not lost their place altogether. The Shorter OED editor commended their first-rate service rendered to English in the form of compound adjectives, much like the one in the middle of this sentence.

"There are places where a hyphen is necessary," Stevenson said. "Because you can certainly start to get real ambiguity."

Twenty-odd people came to the party, he said. Or was it twenty odd people?

Some of the 16,000 hyphenation changes in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, sixth edition:

Formerly hyphenated words split in two:
fig leaf
hobby horse
ice cream
pin money
pot belly
test tube
water bed

Formerly hyphenated words unified in one:

Thanks to Sheryl M. for the story.

Worst. Portmanteau. Ever.

It's "vook," a hideous hybrid of video and book. While we're not at all opposed to the concept, the word is so far from good it seems like it's a joke. It sounds almost dirty. Either that, or like an ethnic insult. From this moment forward, we will only use it wrapped in the quotation marks of disdain.

C'mon, Simon and Schuster! You're supposed to be word people. Try harder. (See the NYT piece on "vooks" here.)