Friday, November 30, 2007

More on Hypercorrection

This comes from Garner's Usage Tip of the Day:

Hypercorrection (3).
Part G: Unsplit Infinitives Causing Miscues. Writers who have given in to the most widespread of superstitions -- or who believe that most of the readers have done so -- avoid all split infinitives.

They should at least avoid introducing unclear modifiers into their prose. But many writers do introduce them, and the result is often a miscue or ambiguity -- e.g.: "Each is trying subtly to exert his or her influence over the other." Mark H. McCormack, What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School 26 (1984).

In that sentence, does "subtly" modify the participle "trying" or the infinitive "to exert"? Because we can't tell, the sentence needs to be revised in any of the following ways:

  1. "Each is subtly trying to exert his or her influence over the other,"
  2. "Each is trying to exert his or her influence subtly over the other,"
  3. "Each is trying to subtly exert his or her influence over the other," or
  4. "Each is trying to exert his or her subtle influence over the
Part H: Unsplit Verb Phrases. A surprising number of writers believe that it's a mistake to put an adverb in the midst of a verb phrase. The surprise is on them: every language authority who addresses the question holds just the opposite view -- that the adverb generally belongs in the midst of a verb phrase. The canard to the contrary frequently causes awkwardness and artificiality -- e.g.: "I soon will be calling you." (Read: "I will soon be calling you.")

Part I: Prepositions Moved from the Ends of Sentences. "That is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put," said Winston Churchill, mocking the priggishness that causes some writers and speakers to avoid ending with a preposition.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


This is how former supermodel Janice Dickinson spells "pretentious." She claims to have a house full of dictionaries, and a 10-word-a-day learning plan.

We just thought you'd like to know.


This is Irony

A square named in honor of dictionary daddy Noah Webster features a mural with a spelling error. Whoops!

WEST HARTFORD, Conn. -- West Hartford's Blue Back Square opened to much fanfare earlier in the month, but is now being criticized for a spelling error.

The square is named after the "Blue Backed Speller," a book written by West Hartford's most famous resident -- Noah Webster, the author of the first American dictionary.

However, despite being named for an acclaimed speller, a mural in the square is marred by a spelling mistake.

The word "cemetery" is spelled with an "ary" on a mural depicting the town's Old Center Cemetery.

Channel 3 Eyewitness News reporter Aleesha Chaney reported that the mural is located feet from a Noah Webster statue and next door to the Noah Webster Memorial Library.

Developers said that they are aware of the error and plan to correct it by the beginning of the year.

Ah, Spellwrecker

The New Scientist will feature this article in its Dec. 1 issue:
IF YOU have ever received a document containing off-putting expressions such as "At your desecration" or "Sorry for the incontinence", then you have witnessed the havoc that can be wreaked by placing unthinking trust in spellcheckers. The problem is widespread enough to have acquired a name: the Cupertino effect.

Cupertino, a city in northern California, is home to computer giants Apple and Hewlett-Packard. It owes the dubious honour of sharing its name with a dumb error to the fact that some early spellcheckers flagged up the word "co-operation" if it was spelled without a hyphen. Type "cooperation," and they came up with the suggestion "Cupertino".

That problem was soon fixed, but a quick search of the UN website still turns up evidence of Cupertino carnage. There are references to the "South Asian Association for Regional Cupertino", "political, economic and trade Cupertino," and a "presentation on African-German Cupertino" - ...

It reminds us of when we were in college--not too far from Cupertino. The first Gulf War was in full swing, and we often carried stories about Saddam Hussein in the school newspaper. Spellchecker didn't know what to make of the name, and would inevitably suggest Sodomy Hussy.

Later, in our cub-reporter days, we had an editor who liked to spell-check and send, instead of reading stories. This could lead to interesting errors, so smart reporters always snuck into the production queue and read the stories after he touched them. Spellchecker once changed a source's name from "Wanda Coats" to "Panda Coats."

There's an eats, shoots and leaves joke in there somewhere, but we're too lazy to find it. Either that, or we're sodomy hussies. We can't decide.

But Never Octopussy...

We liked this entry today from Garner's Usage Tip of the Day:

Hypercorrection (1). Sometimes people strive to abide by the strictest etiquette, but in the process behave inappropriately. The same motivations can play havoc with language: a person will strive for a correct linguistic form but instead fall into error. Linguists call this phenomenon "hypercorrection" -- a common shortcoming. In the coming tips we'll look at some ways this happens.

Part A: False Latin Plurals. One with a smattering of Latin learns that in that language, most nouns ending in "us" have a plural ending in "i," so "fungus" forms "fungi." The trouble is that not all "us" words do end in "i," and traps abound for those trying to show off their sketchy knowledge. (Besides, the plain English plural is usually better anyway.)

So the true Latin plural of "apparatus" is "apparatus," not "apparati" (but prefer "apparatuses"); and the Latin plural of "prospectus" is "prospectus," not "prospecti" (prefer "prospectuses"). Some trip over the "um" neuter nouns: the Latin plural of "forum" is "fora," not "fori" (prefer "forums"). Some "us" words now used as nouns were always verbs in Latin: "ignoramus" never formed a plural "ignorami," and as an English formation the plural is "ignoramuses." And some Greek words are mistaken for Latin ones: the Greek plural of "octopus" is "octopodes," not "octopi" (prefer "octopuses").

Interestingly, if you search on Google, you will find more than 358,000 references to "octopi," 348,000 for "octopuses," and a mere 21,700 for "octopodes."

"Octopussy," the Bond movie, generates 116,000 results. Not too bad, for a creepy single-entendre.

The Angry Grammarian

He blogs here about the Second Amendment. The upshot? Even grammar nerds remain confused, though likely to cling to the clarifying (sort of) powers of the comma:

Eats, Shoots and Dies

Last week the Supreme Court decided to hear a Second Amendment case on the D.C. handgun ban, and it sent opponents scurrying for the battle lines. On one side, Charlton Heston, Ted Nugent and the militiamen of Pennsyltucky. On the other, grammarians.

This particular case, say the grammarians, reignites an age-old debate about how many commas are actually in the Second Amendment. The number of commas has the potential to dramatically change the meaning.

The handwritten copy at the National Archives reads: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

But lots of folks—including the official U.S. Government Printing Office—omit the first and third commas: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

As University of Illinois English professor Dennis Baron wrote in the LA Times earlier this year, “The first comma in the Second Amendment signals a pause. At first glance, it looks like it’s setting off a phrase in apposition, but by the time you get to the second comma, even if you don’t know what a phrase in apposition is, you realize that it doesn’t do that.”

Instead, Baron says, “That second comma identifies what grammarians call an absolute clause, which modifies the entire subsequent clause.” Which basically means that the framers intended the Second Amendment to be about not guns, but militias.
Typically, the fewer commas the better, but with an argument this sound, we’ll hold onto commas like our lives depend on it.

When does a hyphen follow the word “well”? I’m always confused by this.

Don’t tell the militia, but the framers actually got this one wrong.

“Well” needs a hyphen whenever it’s part of a compound modifier (i.e., two words combining to modify the same noun): well-dressed man, well-known woman, well-written amendment. The only times compound modifiers don’t get a hyphen are after “very” and after any adverb ending in “-ly.” And when older interpretations are needed to talk down psycho right-wing gun nuts.


Monday, November 26, 2007

Let Freedom, um, Rain

We liked this essay from The Christian Science Monitor:

Reign in those vocal chords

The English language is a thing of wonder. But, alas, spellings that were once deemed incorrect have gained official acceptance.

By Robert Klose

I consider myself rather progressive in my political and social views. (Look to wind and waves for electrical power? Seems like a good idea to me!) But when it comes to the English language, I may very well be a fogy.

Recently, on National Dictionary Day, there was a report on the evening news about revisions being made by the Oxford University Press (OUP) to its American Oxford Dictionaries. In short, the spelling of many terms and expressions, long deemed incorrect, would now be listed as acceptable forms simply because a lot of people use them.

One example is "vocal cord." As a biology teacher, I've written this on the board so many times that I consider myself an expert on its spelling. However, the OUP tells us that many, many people write "chord." Therefore, "chord" has now been given the status of a bona fide spelling.

Another instance is "to rein in." I am not a horseman, but I've always understood that this refers to a rider's pulling back on the reins to either slow his steed or get it to stop. However, many people, it seems, like to write "reign." And so – poof! – this is now acceptable.

Read on...

Video Camera Technology We'd Like to See

Diana J. sends along this find today:
I was visiting our local (Eugene, OR) Jack-in-the-Box and noticed a sign that said, "This Premise Under Video Surveillance." As far as I know, a premise is a proposition supporting or helping to support a conclusion.

She's correct, of course. Premises is a plural noun that means building, part of a building, or in a legal context, "things stated at the beginning."

Sigh. This is what happens when people dig into their fancy-Latin-word bag and pull out the wrong thing. What's so bad about saying "This restaurant is under video surveillance"? Or even "You are being videotaped." Either is going to be more clear to the people who most need it: the sadsacks who can't figure out how to behave in a fast-food joint.

Still, we would like a video camera that would examine premises--the plural form of the singular noun premise. It would be nice if a camera let us know when someone, a politician, maybe? is making a bad argument.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Hypermammifery, hyphens

Barry L. alerted us this morning to an interesting bit on Contact Music. The actress Salma Hayek credits her bountiful bosom to a benediciton before God.

While it's perhaps a shame she didn't think to ask for world peace when the almighty was listening, we're frankly more aghast at the inappropriate hyphen between flat and chest.

Let nothing come between us and our flat chest, we say!
Mexican actress SALMA HAYEK was so upset by childhood jibes about her flat-chest, she would pray to God for larger breasts. The Ugly Betty star reveals she was bullied for having small breasts as a youngster - and decided to turn to her Catholic religion for help. She says, "My mom and I stopped at a church during a road trip we were making from our home in Mexico. "When we went inside, I prayed for the miracle I wanted to happen. I put my hands in holy water and said: 'Please God, give me some breasts'. "And he gave me them! Within a few months, I developed a growing spurt, as teenagers do, and I was very pleased with the way I grew outwards."

Monday, November 19, 2007

Facebook: the Enemy of SPOGG

OK, so we're not really enemies--yet. That said, the grammar on the newsfeed there is atrocious. See the attached screenshot, sent by Mr. SPOGG.

(You might have to click to enlarge the image.)

The Fountain of Youth

Well, isn't this interesting? We're not sure it lives up to the headline, but it does reveal something noteworthy about spelling: that it can be an indicator of how your brain will age.
Secret of staying youthful is in your spelling
Poor spellers get worse at spelling as they get older, whereas good spellers don't. That's according to Sara Margolin and Lise Abrams who are reported by the British Psycological Society as saying that being a good speller appears to afford people protection from the detrimental effect that getting older can have on spelling ability.

The spelling ability of 64 healthy younger participants (aged 17 to 24 years) and 64 healthy older participants (aged 61 to 91 years) was tested by asking participants to say whether words presented to them were spelt correctly or not, or by asking them to write out the correct spelling of words that were spoken to them.

Among the younger participants, the half who scored higher in the spelling tests were categorised as good spellers; the half with lower scores were categorised as poor (i.e. a median split). The same good/poor split was also applied among the older group members.

Margolin and Abrams found that the older good spellers were just as good at spelling as the younger good spellers, but crucially, the older poor spellers were significantly worse at spelling than the younger poor spellers.

"...these results suggest that being a poor speller is especially problematic in old age, where ageing compounds the existing problems caused by poor spelling," the researchers said.

Margolin and Abrams went on to say that their finding raises some interesting questions for future research. "If being a poor speller compounds age declines in spelling, then the same principle may also apply to other cognitive processes," they wrote. "i.e. Do young adults with poorer memories exhibit more pronounced memory declines as they age than young adults with good memories?"

This comes from the British Psychological Society by way of Abeceder. Note: "spelt" is the British way to spell "spelled."

Caught by Bad Spelling!

November 19, 2007

WHEN an old man came to them asking about a family treasure, the experts at the British Museum were glad to help.

But when George Greenhalgh, 84, hinted that he would be willing to let go of the 2,700-year-old Assyrian stone frieze for £500,000 ($1.5m), the museum staff got suspicious.

They inspected the carving of a bearded horseman leading two steeds, and found that something was wrong with the way the harnesses were drawn, reported The Independent.
More importantly, there was a spelling mistake in the ancient Mesopotamian writing.

The piece was a clever fake.

This discovery was promptly reported to Scotland Yard, and an 18-month investigation was launched.

The detectives were astonished to find that Greenhalgh, his wife, Olive, 83, and their 47-year-old son Shaun, an antiques dealer, were at the heart of a huge fake art scam.

The Greenhalgh's home was filled with a collection of carefully faked treasures, made from original materials like Egyptian glass and Roman silver, and given extensive fake histories based on detailed research.

The 120 pieces found would have brought in an estimated £10 million in total if they had been sold at market prices.


Still, aren't there any examples of spelling errors in ancient works? Or were sculptors better proofreaders than we are?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Whom Shall We Blame?

The Seattle Times today is reporting on the case of the "Hoody [sic] Bandit."
A man nicknamed the "Hoody Bandit" for his propensity of wearing hooded sweat shirts and masks while committing robberies in King and Snohomish counties
struck again Wednesday, police said.
It's HOODIE. That's an IE, not a Y, on the end. Check the Oxford English Dictionary, which lists:

hoodie, n. A hooded sweatshirt, fleece, or other garment.

1990 R. DOYLE Snapper (1993) 130 They heard cloth ripping.You're after ripping me hoodie. 1994 i-D Oct. 86/2 Those with bumpy areas...can look forward to lurking fascinatingly beneath one of his striped velour hoodies. 2005 Daily Tel. (Nexis) 12 July 22 Members of this demographic wear the dodginess of their surroundings as a badge of honour on their Marks & Spencer hoodies.

There is, of course, hoody. It's a type of crow--which someone should be eating for giving a criminal a misspelled name. That's enough to give a robber a complex.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Punctuation Rap

SPOGG has a new favorite teacher: Ms. Lindsay Rivas of the University Charter School in Modesto, Calif.

Check out the punctuation rap she shares with her kindergarteners. We love it!

Punctuation Rap

Punk, Punk Punctuation
Punk, Punk Punctuation

Paulie the period.Looks just a dot.
Every time you see her, You must stop!
Punk, Punk Punctuation
Punk, Punk Punctuation
Quincy question mark.
I wonder what he’ll do.
He’ s at the end of questions like
Where, what, or Who?
Punk, Punk Punctuation
Punk, Punk Punctuation
Collin the comma.
Looks like a hook.
Every time you see him
Slow down and look!
Punk, Punk Punctuation
Punk, Punk Punctuation
Lexi exclamation markis like WOW!
If your writin’ so excitin’ then put her in now!
Punk, Punk Punctuation
Punk, Punk Punctuation
Quinn and Queeny quotation marks.
They’re in groups of two.
Every time you see them
Talking is what they do.
Punk, Punk Punctuation
Punk, Punk Punctuation

Seema the Semi-Colon,
is a pause.
Who’s friends with 2 sentences.
She’s an independent clause.

Punk, Punk Punctuation
Punk, Punk Punctuation

Coaly the COLON,
has two dots.
She’s in between time and the introducer
to express your thoughts.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Yes, What *Does* This Mean?

The New York Times today has a story about the strict gun laws in Washington, D.C., which might soon come under review by the Supreme Court. One thing the Justices will consider is the meaning of the Bill of Rights statement described here:

A decision in 1939, United States v. Miller, held that a sawed-off shotgun was not one of the “arms” to which the Second Amendment referred in its single, densely written, and oddly punctuated sentence: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

We wouldn't call the punctuation odd. The syntax, however, is a mess. Did Yoda write it? We love to call him our Founding Father. May the Force be with us all.

I've Fenged My Shui

Mr. and Mrs. SPOGG spent the weekend painting the bedroom, only to realize they'd chosen a non feng-shui-approved color.

Bad Bedroom Feng Shui Tip # 6: Decorate you bedroom in dark, drury colors. For a splash of color, get creative with your halloween costumes and accessories.
At least they're just guessing it's non-approved, as "drury" is not in the dictionary.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

You Can Keep Your Hat On

This comes from the back of the Netflix envelope. It's an advertisement for "Pulse: Stomp Odyssey," (which, if you didn't know, is a dance routine). Apparently, this version features
"...hard hat-clad men strutting atop a mining platform."

We're guessing this rental is rated R. Had the men been wearing anything--hard hats, perhaps--it would have been spelled and hyphenated thus:
...hardhat-clad men...

Either way, we'd watch.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Banana Peels: Always Funny

The comedy potential of the banana peel remains fresh as ever, apparently. Kelly F. sends this find;

I was eating at the ice cream chain Marble Slab Creamery and caught a funny error. On a large commercially printed poster were the words "Freshly Pealed Banana". I was shocked that a national chain would have such an obvious misspelling.

Ah, but it is a misspelling? Or is the sound of "pealing" bananas an awful lot like cash register bells? OK, fine. It's just a bad misspelling. Even so, we're sort of hungry for ice cream now.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Typo Tee Hee Hee

Rachel sends this titillating typograhic nugget from Neil Gaiman's blog:

Neil Gaiman put this up on his journal today (he's involved with the movie), under the label "department of faintly amusing typographical errors:

"Angelina Jolie has admitted she was got a little shy when she saw her nude scenes in her latest film 'Beowulf.' The actress says although the nude scenes were stimulated, she was still a little embarrassed. 'I was a little shy,' she says. 'I was really surprised that I felt that exposed. There were certain moments where I actually felt shy – and called home, just to explain that the fun movie that I had done that was digital animation was, in fact, a little different than we expected.'"
-- from

Friday, November 02, 2007

Justin Timberlake and Rolling Stone

Xavier sends in an amusing misplaced modifier:

"It's like, I'm over myself. I'm sure a lot of other people are too." -- Justin Timberlake

The singer shared his thoughts on the approaching end of his tour with Rolling Stone.
As Xavier points out, the Trousersnake didn't tour with Rolling Stone, the magazine, or the Rolling Stones, the band.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

SPOGG Contest!

This Joe Biden quote comes from MSNBC:

SEN. BIDEN: I’m not running against Hillary Clinton. I’m running to lead the free world. I’m running to lead this country. And the irony is Rudy—Rudy Giuliani, probably the most underqualified man since George Bush to seek the presidency…. Rudy Giuliani. I mean, think about it. Rudy Giuliani. There’s—there’s [sic] only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun and a verb and 9/11. I mean, there’s nothing else.
Hmm... a noun, a verb, and 9/11. Sounds like the makings of the first-ever SPOGG grammatical/political construct-0-matic sentence contest.

Which noun and verb best complete your 9/11 sentence? Send your nomination to

*Note... We will soon need to establish a category for things that are called ironic that aren't actually ironic. Ironic, isn't it?


We're just going to pick on the Associated Press today. That's all there is to it.

Check out the headline:

Elaborate prank leaves Oregon officers in custody of gnomes
The Associated Press

That sounds interesting, right? How'd those gnomes subdue the cops? Did they use weapons? Enchanted buttons? Flatulence?

Read on...

SPRINGFIELD, Ore. — A number of gnomes have taken sanctuary at the Springfield police station.

Somebody apparently collected 75 lawn ornaments from around town and then, on the night of Oct. 17, placed them meticulously on and around the lawn of one house.

Among the plastic and porcelain geese, deer and frogs are gnomes, such as a weather gnome outfitted with a rain gauge.

Police want to find the rightful owners.

"We need to get them out of here," Capt. Richard Harrison said. "Every time I leave my office they're sitting in my chair, working on my computer. I can't seem to get rid of the darn things."

There will be a public viewing Tuesday.

"If they come here and they can identify it," Harrison said, "we're more than happy to let the gnome go home."

After that the gnomes, and any other ornaments, will be sold at auction.

Oh... It's the other way around. The officers have the gnomes. Only flamingoes would care about that.

This is the trouble with stock expressions, like "in custody of." We get a little soft on what they mean, and sometimes use them in entirely the wrong way. This is what's happened to the expression "I could not care less." It morphed into "I could care less," which makes no sense. I could care less, only I don't care enough to care that little. What?

If you find yourself auto-inserting multiple-word expressions into your prose, stop. Make sure you're doing it right. Or someone might leave gnomes around your house in protest.

Semicolons: Why All the Hate?

We all do regrettable things when we're young, and in school. Patricia Bobek, however, might never live this one down:

Semicolons Sever the Spirit of a Sentence
Patricia Bobek / Columnist

Semicolons: What an absolute waste of punctuation. Who really uses the semicolon anymore? You do? Really? Well then: You are a square.

Talk about being something it’s not. Semicolons, you are not a colon: You do not introduce the logical consequence to the fact stated before or introduce a description. You are like the Donald Trump in a world full of people with hair. Just because you comb that little bit of hair forward, semicolon, doesn’t mean one day you will be caught in a disastrous wind and it won’t blow right off. Global warming is watching and waiting for you, semicolon. The jig is up.

Read more:

Seinfeld, with a Side of Irony

This comes from an Associated Press interview of Jerry Seinfeld:

To those who wish they saw him more, Seinfeld replies with his characteristic flare for language: "Me too, but I wonder if they would be willing to accept me being not good. I wish I could do more, too, but I can't do more as good, so I figure I'll do less, but good."
Read the story.

That would be a flair for language. And it should be "I'll do less, but well." Some flair...
Now that's some flair, Jennifer Aniston