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Signs, Signs, Everywhere Are Signs

March 30, 2012

I just returned from a fun road trip, during which I collected pictures and took note of signs that tickled my fancy. They were funny on purpose or inadvertently funny, oddly matched or just odd, clever or silly, on billboards or on vehicles. And of course there were the occasionally grammatically misguided ones.

Some of the ones that went by too fast for photos:

  • Savage Taxidermy
  • His and Hers Seafood
  • South of the Border: You never sausage a place! You’re always a wiener at Pedro’s!
  • Open-minded billboard seeks long-term relationship (with a picture of a bikini-clad blonde beside a pool)
  • Worms are here (at rural NY gas station)

Others announced themselves in time for my camera. See for yourself!

Road Trip 2012 Signs Slideshow
(goes to Flickr slideshow; click on “show info” to read the captions)



Grammar Tip #2: To Cap or Not to Cap

February 6, 2012

As a lifelong editor, I’ve encountered quite a few grammatical errors, and I’ve even made a few of my own. (First rule of editing: You can never ever be perfect all the time.*) Author errors can be funny, off-handed, stupid, careless, obtuse, and common. In the latter category, I’m constantly amazed at how frequently people want to use capital letters on words that shouldn’t have them. Although not often an issue in the books I’ve edited for academic presses, this common writing error abounds in—surprise!—more common writing.

Capping nouns is a Teutonic thing, I guess, since all nouns in German get capitalized. Must be the German immigrant influence that makes aspiring writers want to see the big letters scattered throughout their copy. Or maybe they think the capital letter means it’s a more important word, gives it more emphasis. They probably text each other with caps lock on, too.

Capping on Campus

When I worked in the communications office of a local college, we regularly had to lowercase nouns in the copy that came to us. It seems everyone wanted their program or center or building to have a name, yet very few of these well-meaning individuals could create a name unique to their program or their center or their building. “Honors Program” and “Writing Center” and “Science Building” aren’t exactly specific to any one college, right? So the easiest way out of the conundrum is to give your “thing” a more unique or specific name.

The development office can help quite a bit by offering “naming opportunities,” especially for buildings and rooms. The John Smith Science Building is much more specific, so can be capped as a proper proper noun. Same with the John Smith Center for Native American Studies or the John Smith Concert Hall.

Naming opportunities don’t have to come exclusively from donors or important administrators at the college. Just about every higher ed institution in the United States has a counseling center and a dining hall and a student union. Rather than cap these generic items because they might be the only ones on that particular campus, give them proper-noun status by using the college’s name to designate which counseling center or which student union: the Smith College Counseling Center or the Smith College Student Union.

Sometimes the “thing” can be named with words more descriptive of its focus, especially if it’s a unique focus (compared to all those other “things” at other colleges). The Center for Tutorial Writing Workshops is better than the Writing Center or even the Smith College Writing Center (although I freely admit my example isn’t exactly scintillating). My former employer actually used this specificity and the donor name when unveiling the final name for their spiffy new business building.

It’s All in the Name

So where’s the meat of my tip on capping? It’s simple: If it’s a proper noun, cap it. A proper noun is someone’s name (Carnac the Magnificent), something’s name (my dog Spot). According to my dictionary of choice, a proper noun is “a noun that designates a particular being or thing [and] does not take a limiting modifier” (my emphasis). So only nouns that are specific, that are names instead of generic descriptions.

Here’s another, probably more practical tip about capping: When in doubt, don’t. And don’t forget to turn caps lock off.


* Evidence here, here, and here.

Words Are Funny

January 21, 2012

So my editorial ranting is on hold while I share some lexicographical fun. In another life I spent time researching, writing, and editing dictionaries, and sometimes my editor self flips a switch to my lexicographer self to marvel at the linguistical fun of new words and new usages for old words. Here are a few that crossed my path recently.

Spite fence.Spite fence

This past week, when Wikipedia and many other sites went dark in protest of SOPA and PIPA, a Facebook friend posted a list of Wikipedia entries we wouldn’t be able to read that day. On it I found a term that is my new favorite, spite fence. It’s because I’m building a spite fence. According to Wikipedia, it’s a fence built out of spite for the neighbor, because of a spat or argument with said neighbor. Those of you who know me know how much I hate our neighbor. So I’ve planted black walnuts and redbuds, forsythia and tiger lilies, sunflowers, snowball bushes, pricker bushes–anything I can think of that will grow quickly and thickly and tall. One friend suggested we put up a chain link fence and insert empty glass bottles through it; it’s very classy, no? Did I mention how much I hate my neighbor?


I used to work with the best web team in the world. We had designers, programmers, writers, marketers, info architects, usability guys—the whole works. One of our programmers was especially great at finding ways to make whatever we wanted—and oftentimes what we hadn’t even asked for!—happen. He’s a genius at programming but many of us communication types on the team hadn’t a clue what his explanations meant (mySql, java, scripts: wha?), so I suggested he dumb it down for us when explaining his work. At meetings, when he was presenting a new feature, say, for our CMS, he’d say, “Do this and this,” and I’d ask, “So, John, how does it know to do that?” And he’d say, “It’s automagic.” I always thought John made up that word. Imagine my surprise when I found Time’s list of new words in the ODE. (Not to be confused with the venerable OED.) They say it means “automatically and in a way that seems ingenious, inexplicable, or magical,” which totally describes John’s work on our team.

Joanne, Marco, Tasha, EzioPhotobombing.

Among the many, many fabulous qualities I see in my sister Tasha is her silliness factor, which oftentimes appears as photobombing. She loves to be in photos, so even if you’re taking one without her, she’ll appear in it anyway. She also makes crazy, goofy faces right when the picture is snapped, which is a different kind of photobombing. Just check out the photo to the right, where she decided to lick Marco’s face at the last minute. Cambridge Dictionary’s blog defines photobombing as “spoiling a photograph by jumping into the picture just as it is being taken.” I think Tasha’s work will redefine photobombing, since her photobombing never spoils the picture; it makes it fun!


Another Facebook friend of mine recently mentioned that her son had been reprimanded at school that day because he’d “pantsed” another kid. I was intrigued by the term and looked it up. It’s exactly what you might think it is: surreptitiously and quickly pulling down another person’s pants to expose their underwear (or maybe more, if you grab the underwear, too). It’s like the new century’s version of the wedgie. And the opportunities for successful pantsing have got to be way higher than those for wedgies were in my day. I mean, in the 1970s we wore tight pants, yet today boys’ pants are just about falling off their butts anyway.

Broccoli journalism.

I confess: I did a little research for this post in an attempt to find another fun new word. This one comes from a site called Double Tongue, my vote for best name for a website about language. While browsing through it, I found broccoli journalism, which seems to mean journalism in which the author tells you what you should do, which isn’t anything fun or interesting but, rather, is good for you, evoking the child being force-fed her broccoli because it’s good for her. Who would you pick for today’s best practitioner of broccoli journalism?

Better Watch Out

December 20, 2011

My partner says he still has nightmares about taking Cornell blue-book tests, and no doubt others have nightmares about eighth-grade grammar lessons. Parts of speech, diagramming sentences, serial commas and—egads!—the difference between semicolons and colons. Even though I’m a lifelong editor, I have my brain-fart moments with grammar, too. Bruce as SantaSomething about verbs and all those confusing phrases to describe words as tiny as is—conjugation, past perfect, auxiliaries, subjunctive moods. (Just try to parse this section of Wikipedia’s entry for English grammar!) I confess that I always have to look up the actual terms to remind myself what they mean, but I think I know how to use them pretty well. Yet there’s one construction that I’ve noticed hardly anyone uses correctly anymore.

I refer to the now common phrase “you better,” which seems to have superseded “you had better” or “you’d better.” So many modern novels, newspaper articles, marketing copy, and correspondence use this new form, that I’m sure the average native English speaker doesn’t realize “you better” is, technically, incorrect. Just take a quick look at popular culture to find the phrase everywhere. Musical artists as diverse as Justin Bieber, the Jackson 5, Alice Cooper, Mariah Carey, and Bruce Springsteen are warning children across the land that “You better watch out / You better not cry / You better not pout / I’m telling you why.”

The granddaddies of rock and roll, the Rolling Stones, got the trend started in rock and roll with “You Better Move On.” Then there’s the Who’s classic “You Better You Bet” from 1981. And Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run.”  The younger generation aren’t immune: Kei$ha has “U Better Know.” (Ungrammatical lyrics in rock music could probably keep me ranting for weeks!)

I suspect the deletion of “had” in this subjunctive verb phrase came about because explaining the phrase put all those eighth graders to sleep. Here’s how H. W. Fowler, the doyen of English usage, described the phrase:

“The word had in this phrase is not the mere auxiliary of mood or tense, but a true verb meaning find; You had better do it = You would find to-do-it better; You had better have done it = You would find to-have-done-it better. The sense is a little strained with transfer to passives, since it is in strictness the doer, and not the doing, that would find the result better; but the transition is eased by such forms as You had better have never been chosen, and it must be remembered that in the evolution of an idiom the precise force of all the words concerned is seldom present to those who are evolving it.”

Okay, so the rule is tough to explain, but honestly, it’s not hard to follow. Just use “had” with “you better.” One online resource explains it rather succinctly: use “had better” to give advice about the present or future.

I’m guessing I’m in the minority on this one, and the whole English-speaking world will decide I’m a Scrooge to complain about perfectly fine rock and roll songs, much less a beloved children’s carol, and decide to boil me in pudding and bury me with a sprig of holly through my heart.

Grammar Tip #1: It’s or Its?

December 6, 2011

Ten or more years ago, I used to get considerably vexed by bad grammar. I still do, to a certain extent. Technology during those ten years allowed us to communicate faster and faster, so that any complaints I make about grammar in text messages, IM chats, e-mails, tweets, or even blogs just seemed like so much old-fogeyness. So I’ve stopped whining about misspellings and grammar faux pas (or obliviousness) in those media. (Now I reserve it for more traditional, printed forms of communication. More on that later in the week.)

That relaxation doesn’t mean I like the errors, but I’m thinking maybe people need some easy-to-understand pointers about proper grammar. Thus my occasional grammar tips, of which this post is the first.

Today’s lesson: When to use its and when to use it’s.

It’s really rather simple: Substitute “it is” for whatever form you used in your sentence and, if it still works, you’re good. If the substitution doesn’t make sense, take out the apostrophe, and then you’re good. In other words, whenever you’re tempted to use it’s, make sure you can substitute “it is”; if not, use its.

For those of you who want more specifics on the rules, it’s is a contraction, which is two words that contract to one word by inserting an apostrophe in place of omitted letters. It’s is the contraction of “it is.” (Aren’t is a contraction of “are not”; don’t is a contraction of “do not.”)

Its denotes possession the same way hers or his denotes possession. That is, its would be used in front of a thing (i.e., a noun) to show that the thing belongs to it.

Here are a few examples to help:

  • The book’s chapters = its chapters
  • The boat’s hull = its hull
  • It’s not necessary to attend. = It is not necessary to attend.
  • It’s hard to explain how its music affected me. = It is hard to explain how the movie’s music affected me.

For those of you who struggle with these two words, does that help? Let me know!

This too shall pass

November 30, 2011

What is up with this new way to say that a person has ceased to be, that she’s met her Maker, that she’s expired, bereft of life, pushing up daisies, joined the choir invisible?

Cruising through my Facebook feed today, I find a link from a friend to an article about a local legend in New Orleans. Check your local newspapers, listen to your friends and colleagues when breaking news of a death, and you’ll find the same. Thankfully, most of the national newspapers, including the New York Times, haven’t succumbed to this pathetic habit.

I’m speaking, of course, of the cloyingly polite word pass and all its forms (passed away, passing) that people seem to think is better, more polite, than died and death. Died is a perfectly fine word that’s been around forever. The etymology is, according to Merriam-Webster, from the Middle English dien, which is akin to both the Old Norse deyja and the Old High German touwen, both of which mean to die. If it was good for all those Vikings and Germans and the father of English literature, why must we desert it?

My theory is that we Americans (and Westerners) in the past 50 years have been so barraged with demands and exhortations to be sensitive to others’ feelings, that we’ve insidiously pulled this sensitivity into our language. The result is a lack of directness in our meaning, a diminution in our communication, and general mayhem and noise.

If any of you ever says about me that I’ve “passed,” I’ll haunt you for all of eternity in every way I can possibly imagine.

The past ain’t what it used to be

November 28, 2011

File this one under my current pet peeves.

Since when did past tense verbs go out of style? I’m talking about those lovely English verbs whose conjugation followed a certain order. Not the standard order (adding -ed) but often a spelling order: swim, swam, swum; sing, sang, sung.

Lately I’ve seen reputable writers and sources using the past participle spelling for the past tense meaning. For example, “The choir sung the new piece last week.” And I notice that Merriam-Webster’s agrees that that example is acceptable. When did this happen? And, more important, why?