Wednesday, January 30, 2008

There's an Elephant in the Room

We found this in today's New York Times:

There’s been more people hurt by roller coasters in the last 10 years than there has been by elephants. Nobody wants to ban roller coasters,” says Minneapolis police Sgt. Timothy Davison. He may not be an expert on roller coasters, but does know a thing or two about elephants. Before he became a cop, Davison was an elephant trainer and caregiver. Davison worked regularly with the Shrine Circus and disputes the contention by activists who charge that circus animals are routinely mistreated.

It's a classic subject-verb disagreement problem. "There's" is a contraction of "there is." "Is" is a singular verb. People...yes, that would be plural. "There've" looks weird. We're not sure it's really a word. But "there's" isn't correct, here.

Far be it from us to cast judgment on elephant trainers turned lawmen, but we'd like to think someone who's sworn a vow to serve and protect includes Mother Grammar among his constituents.

Grammar in Advertising

Truth in advertising: We're old enough to know that we're not going to get that. We do, however, think we can expect better grammar than this:

It's fewer wrinkles, people. FEWER. We'd settle for less wrinkly, though. Here, and in real life.

Our Favorite Basketball Player

We always loved Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. When we were little and culturally insensitive, his name reminded us of some sort of delicious soup. Now that we know better than to admit such things, we love him for his enthusiasm for punctuation and grammar:

Here's how he's quoted in the Los Angeles Times:

"I loved school, loved UCLA," Abdul-Jabbar says. "I remember, in an English class taught by a Mr. Lindstrom, we were asked to do essays and he said he would read the best three to the entire class. He read the first two, then said he was going to read the best one, and it was mine.

"It was right then that I thought maybe I could do this, that maybe I had what it takes."He also played at UCLA for John Wooden, always more English teacher than coach."We'd sit on the bus and talk about when to use a colon and when a semicolon," Abdul-Jabbar says. "We'd argue the difference between "like" and "as if."

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

National Grammar Day: It's Coming

John McIntyre's blog at the Baltimore Sun carried this bit today:

Though this blog is listed as participating in the event, I feel a tremor of apprehension at how the various mavens, snobs, SNOOTs, elitists, prescriptionists and precisionists, drunk with power at getting a day all their own, might comport themselves.

Shall we see people who say “between you and I” clapped into stocks in the public square? Will insurgents sweep through markets, tearing down signs announcing TOMATO’S and CUKE’S? Will newspapers and magazines find themselves buried under sacks of mail full of letters that begin, “Have any of the members of your staff attended college” or “Are any of your employees native speakers of English?” (Read more...)
Mr. McIntyre gives us a great idea: to list the things that will NOT happen on National Grammar Day.

For starters, we will not use stockades. Those aren't terribly portable, and worse--in Restoration London, they were sometimes covered in bits of ears that had once been nailed to the boards.

It would defeat the purpose of the day if participants lost their ears. How would they ever hear correct grammar again?

If you have ideas for other events that will not occur, please send them to

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Lasting Influence of Nirvana?

If you're a sushi eater, then the New York Times story about mercury-tainted tuna might have given you a bit of indigestion.

Leave it to Slate's Jack Shafer, the master contrarian of them all, to launch a harpoon through the story. There's just one thing... in the teaser text, "nevermind" is listed as one word:

The Times' Fishy Story

Nevermind that scaremongering story about mercury-tainted sushi.posted Jan 25, 2008
By Jack Shafer

Besides being a Nirvana album, "nevermind" is a regionalism that essentially means "attention." E.g., "Pay no nevermind to the blogma you read online...those people all think the same."

The rest of us write "never mind" as two words.

Brave New Word

Craig Conley sends along this gem from the blog of poet Geof Huth. It's worth passing along, only for a reminder of the way the poets see the world:


Nancy found the word “recautionment” in a paper she was grading the other day, and all I can think when I see this word is how beautiful it is, how amazing it is that a student can imagine this word effortlessly into being as if it had always existed before us, perfect and whole. Nancy believes that it is a synonym, a replacement word, for “precaution,” which might indeed be the case. But what the word seems to mean is something more subtle and satisfying, something like “the process of cautioning someone for a second time.” Imagine these
sentences: “Recautionment is the parent’s permanent charge. Children learn to recognize and avoid danger only with repetition.” I can imagine the federal government devising a Department of Recautionment, which could encompass so many of the current departments that attempt to protect us: the FDA, the TSA, the HSA, the FBI, the ATF, even DoD.

Yet the DoR would protect us from all dangers: those we create ourselves and those created by others and even by forces outside of human control. I’ll sleep well tonight knowing that recautionment is on people’s minds.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

We're Shocked

We decline on principle to participate in Facebook challenges with hideous grammar errors in them. So there!

We're Tearing Up

Barry L. caught this great example of a nasty bit of verbing in today's New York Times (though it's an Associated Press piece).

Police Tear Gas Zimbabwe Opposition


"Police Use Tear Gas On Zimbabwe Opposition" isn't THAT much longer.

But we certainly "gas" people, as a verb, so maybe "Police Tear-Gas Zimbabwe Opposition"

Barry's right. The hyphen does make this better.

It's a bad headline not just because of the missing hyphen, though.

"Tear" has two meanings (and two pronunciations). There's "tear," as in the thing that leaks from your eye. And there's "tear," which is what you do to your garments when you see a really terrible (or tearable) headline. A reader coming to the story cold doesn't know which one this is, and could spend quite a bit of mental energy translating the headline.

It's true that newspaper headlines often have to be short. This one should have been rewritten to avoid that ambiguity.

See the story.

Monday, January 21, 2008


We did not know there was a Guinness World Record for longest grammar lesson. Nonetheless, we have no desire to break it. As much as we love grammar, we love sleeping and eating even more:

Mumbai: An English teacher from Mumbai has been awarded a Guinness Book of World Records' certificate for the Longest Grammar Teaching in the world when he taught grammar to the students continuously for 73 hours and 37 minutes.

Sanjay Kumar Sinha, known as 'Gramathon man', received the certificate last week for this feat, which he performed on October 20, 2005. A total of 59 students participated at the Bay City Club, Bandra for a continuous period of 73 hours and 37 minutes.

Along with him, the students who participated in the venture also got certificates for learning the subject for the longest lesson learnt.

"I got the certificate only last week. This is because there were 65000 claims to be assessed by the Guinness, and it takes a long time to get the final inclusion and a place into the Guinness," Sinha told PTI.

When he conducted the Gramathon a total of 72 students participated. However out of them 13 students were disqualified on the grounds of health, as keeping awake for 73 hours was not easy.

Their blood pressure and other health parameters were not satisfactory during the event. There was only 10 minutes break after eight hours of gruelling session. There was no break for lunch or dinner. All the participants could only consume light food while they were learning.

Still, what if we staged a National Grammar Day event with the most simultaneous lessons in grammar? Would there be a record in that?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Babies and Grammar

Apparently it is very difficult for celebrities to speak grammatically once they have conceived and/or borne children. Christina Aguilera's people issued a news release last week with an I/me error. Matthew McConaughey did the same thing earlier this week.

Here he is on the miracle of parenthood (and kids, let this be a warning to you—this is your mind on nude bongo playing after consuming copious amounts of marijuana):

"Wish us the best, keep us in your prayers, and God bless evolution. Thanks for being fans of me and my work and now this new and miraculous chapter in my life, as me and Camila and our child do our best to just keep living.”

We're all for evolution here at SPOGG, even if we oppose letting language evolve so much that "I" and "me" become interchangeable.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

That Would Be a Smart Bomb

We found this today on Slate, in a story summarizing what's being said in the blogosphere:
They also reflect on President Bush's decision to offer "smart" bombs to Saudi Arabia and congratulate the children's book authors who won the 2008 Caldecott and Newbery Awards.
So, when these bombs explode, does everyone sit down and read? That would be nice, especially if the book bombs were immediately followed by grape-juice and carpet-square bombs.

But we don't think that's what the writer meant. A comma would have made this sentence much clearer.

They also reflect on President Bush's decision to offer "smart" bombs to Saudi Arabia, and they congratulate the children's book authors who won the 2008 Caldecott and Newbery Awards.

A Midsentence Crisis

Forget the midlife crisis. The problem we're having today in the New York Times is a midsentence crisis:

It was not that her husband no longer loved her, she said he told her; he just did not find the relationship exciting anymore.

“Maybe it’s a midlife crisis,” she said, then added derisively, “Whatever that is.”

What is that semicolon doing there? We're sort of guessing, but we believe the author meant to stick it after the first her. Like this:

It was not that her husband no longer loved her; she said he told her he just did not find the relationship exciting anymore.

“Maybe it’s a midlife crisis,” she said, then added derisively, “Whatever that is.”

Or maybe the attribution got in the way:
It was not that her husband no longer loved her; he just did not find the relationship exciting anymore.

“Maybe it’s a midlife crisis,” she said, then added derisively, “Whatever that is.”

We're half expecting that sentence to fold itself into a red Porsche convertible and drive around town with a 23-year-old trophy girlfriend. A midsentence crisis—there's nothing sadder. And everyone knows you're bald under that baseball cap.

Monday, January 14, 2008

What a Girl Wants

What a girl wants (and what a girl needs) is a grammar lesson, apparently. Pop singer Christina Aguilera delivered a baby boy Saturday, and her official Web site carried this message (via MSNBC):

Aguilera said that Saturday was "a very joyful and special day for Jordan and

For Jordan and ME. Would she say Saturday was a very special day for I? Probably not (though one never knows, with pop singers). When in doubt whether you should use "me" or "I," drop the other person from the sentence. You'll know right away.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Look! SPOGG on

The gracious Richard Nordquist has written a lovely bit about our upcoming celebration, National Grammar Day, on his blog.

Do you have ideas for how we can honor the mother tongue this March 4th (which happens to be the only day of the year that doubles as an imperative)?

If so, please send them in!

Does Verbing Weird You?

Then perhaps you might like this piece we wrote for Encarta:

Verbs Gone Wild: Are We Taking Too Many Liberties with Language?

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Here's the Beef

Newspaper reporters are taught to shun the serial comma. So, in a sequence of three things--apples, oranges and pears--the newspaper reporter would NOT put a comma in front of the and (even though someone writing a book would).

This is the only explanation we can give for this sentence, which is positively screaming for a comma (and maybe the sort of surgery that separates conjoined twins):
The matter is not simply that his writers were on the picket line on a primary eve that saw both a formerly fat former governor of Arkansas introduce a sandwich called the Huckaburger and Mike Gravel, the presently zany former governor of Alaska, advise an audience at Phillips Exeter Academy to smoke marijuana, as if boarding-school students needed such encouragement.

The sandwich is called "the Huckaburger." It's not "the Huckaburger and Mike Gravel," even though that's how anyone not from a town called Hope would read it. When a sentence sprouts a complete second half, you need to insert a comma before the conjunction.

Sometimes, when you have two complete sentences joined by a conjunction, you can drop the conjunction and insert a semicolon, but not in this particular example, or on Slate in general because its former editor, Michael Kinsley, hates semicolons. That's awfully rich for a guy who was still wearing handsome little gold-rimmed spectacles in the 1990s.

A Bit of Vulgar Latin

A headline on Slate misspells the Latin expression ad nauseam.
Change vs. Experience, ad Nauseum

While MSNBC shoved campaign narratives down my throat last night, I heard very little about the fabled change vs. experience debate. The story line that was all the rage in Iowa and the days after had suddenly evaporated from the collective consciousness of the punditry. For some reason, nobody thought to mention what Hillary Clinton's strong early returns might mean: that New Hampshire voters might have chosen experience over change....(more)
If one must misspell a pompous Latinism, we rather like this version. It calls to mind museum, and what would be more...interesting than a museum of nauseam? We're stepping now into the projectile wing; please put on your protective eyewear.

The Little Things

When you're holding a sign with your name on it and making a national television appearance, here are some things you'll want to check:

Capital letters?

Apostrophe after the I?

Spelling his own name correctly?

Unless this is some sort of subtle Iraq war reference that we just don't get, it's Joaquin. With a u in it. And this, my friends, is probably the saddest thing we've seen all week, even if we wouldn't mind being the sassy June Carter to his strung-out Johnny Cash. We proofread Joaquin! Call us!

Monday, January 07, 2008

When Spice Girls Blog

No wonder there's no Grammar Spice. This comes from Sporty's blog:

Woo hoo!! 2008, Happy New Year everybody, it's going to be a good one.

Myself and all the Spiceys had a great Christmas. We caught up with our families, ate lots of mince pies and got some well-needed sleep!

Sigh. It should be:
Wahoo! [Or, if you went to the school of Homer Simpson, "wuhoo."] It's 2008. Happy New Year, everybody. It's going to be a good one. [Excitement is no excuse for a run-on sentence.]

The Spiceys and I had a great Christmas. ["Myself" can never be the subject of a sentence, unless it's a sentence explaining why "myself" can never be the subject of a sentence.]

We caught up with our families, ate lots of mince pies, [unless you're following AP style, which omits the comma] and got some well-needed sleep. [well-needed...really? How about much-needed? Or just sleep?]

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Poor, Innocent Juggler

We belong to several discussion groups for writers. While we don't ordinarily point out errors in e-mail settings, the following comes from a discussion about typos:

If you happen to notice a co-workers zipper is down (highly un-professional, but it can happen to any of us) do you discretely let them know so they can save face; or do you go for the juggler & tell everybody in the board room how un-reputable they are as a manager or layer based on a rather simple error.

Sigh. Where to begin? Some errors are easy.
  • Co-worker's (or colleague's) needs an apostrophe and no hyphen.
  • Unprofessional doesn't need a hyphen, either. Also, is it unprofessional to have a fallen zipper, or is it unprofessional to be looking at a colleague's bathing-suit zone?
  • Discreetly has two e's in this context. It means tactfully or subtly. Discrete with one e means completely separate or unconnected--chances are if you went that route, your colleage wouldn't hear you.
  • Unless many coworkers are running around with open barn doors, you have to say "him or her" to keep your subject and object parallel.
  • Go ahead and write out the whole "and." Ampersands should be used with company names, some academic references, when space is limited, or in artsy-fartsy logos.
  • Un-reputable is not a word. Disreputable is.
  • And for the sake of clowns, leave the juggler alone. Go for the jugular--if you must.