We make mistakes in our language each day—even the most careful of us. Sometimes these little gaffes are amusing, and in Word Play you’ll find some.
Use the arrows to navigate from oldest to newest, left to right.
Be sure to let me know if you find any little language abuses along the way and I’ll add them to the collection.
I'll bring the Mojave
I recently received an email indicating a meeting to which, If I wanted to, I could bring a desert.
My first thought was, no desert could fit in my car, except possibly the Desert of Maine up in Freeport which is a very small desert and one which is usually buried in snow. Then I thought, well at least the Mojave is in this country, making that a possibility. But still, the size.
The Sahara was right out.
Okay, so the person meant dessert, like pie or cake or strawberry shortcake. And that’s one way to remember the difference. Strawberry shortcake has as its initials, SS, just like the ss in the middle of dessert.
Of course if you want to bring a desert, that’s your prerogative, but I’ve got dibs on the Mojave.
A few years back when Curb Your Enthusiasm was still running on HBO, Larry David devoted an entire episode to the phrase “having said that.” He had observed, as we all had, that the phrase was being used whenever we wanted to criticize people without criticizing people, to wit “I really like your new hat. Having said that, some people just shouldn’t wear hats.”
Last weekend I heard a TV commentator claim that, football-wise, the Patriots were the better team. I understand that TV commentators have a lot to do making themselves presentable for the cameras. Having said that, who told this man that football-wise was a word? Or for that matter, who told the rest of us that we can just tack -wise unto the end of a noun and make it..and adverb I guess.
Now I’ll admit there exist some perfectly suitable -wise words in our language: clockwise and its opposite; lengthwise; otherwise; pennywise; and streetwise. Likewise there’s, well, likewise. In some of these latter words, though, the wise implies wisdom, unlike clockwise, etc. A word like footballwise could be used in the sense of wisdom as in “My father is football-wise.” But that’s not the way the commentator meant it. Nor do people speak of wisdom when they say things like this:
Gasolinewise the cost of driving has dropped.
Donutwise, that bakery cannot be beat.
Coffeewise Starbucks coffee takes a lot of my paycheck.
Sunwise the sunrise was quite spectacular. (Try that one a few ties.)
All these are easily correctable (That bakery has the best donuts), but I guess grammarwise we just don’t care. And I suppose that blog-and-Internet postingwise, neither should I.
He will be missed
Last weekend Dean Smith, one of our greatest basketball coaches and educators, died at the age of 83. Tributes came from everywhere, many of them ending like this: he will be missed.
I wonder by whom. If it’s the maker of the statement, wouldn’t it be a lot more personal to say “I’ll miss him”? Doesn’t this sound more heartfelt? Simply saying that someone will be missed is to say nothing at all about the speaker, other than the fact that he’s betting on someone somewhere probably wishing that the deceased were not quite so deceased. That’s a pretty safe bet. I’m sure if you go through a catalog of the worst people in history, you will find someone who lamented their passing. Of course you will find many more who didn’t—maybe more still who celebrated it. “Ding Dong the witch is dead” comes to mind. There’s something genuine and personal about that song, something lost in a statement like “the witch will not be missed.”
But if we’re so married to the passive voice, then let’s have some Valentine’s Day cards to match. How about: “Be my Valentine—you are loved”? Let’s see how that works out. And if that relationship progresses all the way to “Will you allow yourself to be married by me?” and the answer is yes, then I’ll admit that I was wrong. But until then “he will not be missed” will not be missed.
The centre cannot hold
William Butler Yeats said that in “The Second Coming” ninety-six years ago, and regardless of how he chose to spell centre, he was right. Nowadays, though, the centre cannot only not hold, it can’t even be in the center.
We often hear phrases like this:
•My argument centers around…
•The whole celebration will center around…
•Dickens’ novels often centered around the poverty…
We probably know what the phrase centers around means, and since we do, many will claim that picking on it like this is worthless.
I’m okay with that…as long as you can show me the center moving. The sun is the center of our universe precisely because it doesn’t move. We earthlings, by contrast, move at about a thousand miles an hour—unless we’re watching a reality show in which case we move much more slowly. And the earth itself, well it doesn’t center around anything; it does, however, revolve around the sun, just as arguments revolve around…and celebrations revolve around…and Dickens’ novels revolve around.
If revolving makes you dizzy, then how about centering on? I mean, this whole argument centers on the fact that items can’t center around other items. It just isn’t logical.
Incidentally, if the sun should begin to revolve around the planets, this article will quickly lose its significance—whatever small amount it may have had to begin with.
Here’s something that concerns me, and it should concern you.
It’s the word concerning.
Now for most of its basically uneventful life the word lived quite comfortably as a verb. People were concerning themselves with great moral questions, with climate change, with the existence of Santa Claus.
Occasionally the word would boldly strike out on its own and become a preposition. Concerning nuclear war, one might say, I’m against it.
But within the past few years, concerning has been turned into an adjective. How this happened I don’t know, but now things have become concerning even though they can’t possibly have concerns. Consider the following:
I find your disregard for your native tongue concerning.
I find the fact that I forgot to wear shoes concerning.
The police have found the threats to the homeowners concerning.
It’s not so much that the word is incorrect—although it is—it’s just that we don’t need it. We have, in our repertoire, the perfectly suitable troubling and distressing, not to mention upsetting and unsettling, and worrisome and bothersome. These are all perfectly good words, and most are part of our everyday vocabulary.
Concerning as an adjective is just lazy English. Not horrible. Not awful. Not even bad. Just lazy.
I find it…uh… troubling.
What's a subase?
Or should it be subasé?
Or maybe sübâsė?
I Googled the word and got nothing, and yet Channel 30, our local Connecticut NBC outlet, continues to post crawls about trouble at the Groton Subase.
I’ll tell you what actually does exist in New London, and what comes close to subase. There’s a sub base there—has been for a long time. I’m pretty sure, though, that you need both b’s in those words, otherwise it would be a su base (where I suppose one would find sumarines and the workers would order grinders from Suway). Either that or a sub ase where…well who knows what that might be?
I tried to reach Channel 30—I wanted to keep this between us. I even went through their convoluted email protocol because I just wanted them to stop making up words. I was willing to let them retain “begging the question” when they meant raising one, and even keep “in the Tuesday timeframe” when they just meant Tuesday. All I wanted was the end of subase. But apparently in the age of social media, emails have become anachronistic—mine came back as undeliverable—even though I drove by that studio just a few days ago and could have easily have found it again. Undeliverable? By whom?
Now I’m going to have to issue a demand: I want to be able to drop double letters, just, you know, when I want to.
From now on it’s bookeeping. I never liked that double k—it always looked weird to me—always seemed a diservice to the language, just as disservice is. At first changes like these will look like misspellings (mispellings?) but soon we’ll grow accustomed to them, as we have with “in this day and age” instead of today or “at the current time” instead of now. When it comes to our language, we’ve always been flexible.
That’s my demand—simple enough—but until it’s met, I’ll just remain here in my subasement eeping those books.
Homing in on things
Where does grammar fit in these days?
Not quite sure anymore.
A few days ago the “Oldest Newspaper in the Country” ran a headline talking about our governor HONING IN on something. It was pretty hard to miss. Of course we don’t hone in on anything unless we’re sharpening a knife to carve the turkey (or you’re sharpening one to stop me from going on) but the truth is we HOME in on things. Remember homing pigeons? They homed in on their destinations, carrying messages from one place to another. In a sense they came home. If they were honing pigeons, the people who received the messages would probably have bled to death.
But I said to my wife—and she agreed—if the Courant had written “Homing In,” most readers would have thought the headline writer had erred. But in fact “hone in” is wrong. Not “acceptable,” wrong. I’ve given up fighting lots of usage gaffes—I no longer cringe when someone says he had a fun time—but I’m homing in on this one.
So where does grammar fit in these days? I guess wherever you want it to. But here’s a book that will make it enjoyable—Woe is I by Patricia T. O’Conner. It’s been around a while—a painless and humorous approach to grammar and usage, one that can help us hone our communication skills and home in on the minuscule problems that annoy us.
A Fortuitous Occurrence
I was watching the Masters Tournament on television the other day, and must have heard every lucky bounce of a golf ball referred to as fortuitous. It’s not so much that the usage was wrong; it’s just that it does nothing to clarify the situation.
Fortuitous doesn’t mean lucky—it means occurring by chance. So if a tree on your property—the only tree on your property—gets uprooted in a windstorm and lands on your roof when it could have gone any one of another 340º on the compass and missed the house entirely, that’s fortuitous. It isn’t lucky; in fact, it’s unfortunate…which brings me to the word the TV commentator should be using: the very simple and effective word fortunate.
Fortuitous is another example of reverse sophistication. I don’t know if it’s true in other countries, but it sure does happen a lot in America. We pride ourselves on our linguistic casualness, coining new words and phrases all the time without regard for any grammatical accuracy.
A fun time.
That impacted me.
And yet, when we get a chance to use a simple and correct word in its most logical way, we opt for something unnecessary and incorrect.
I guess we’re all guilty.
A recent statement by Connecticut House minority leader Themis Klarides compared the state’s democrats distancing themselves from the Governor to a “battered spouse support group.” The analogy probably drew an uneasy laugh from a few people, but one who didn’t laugh was Karen Jarmoc, chief executive officer of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence. She decried Klarides’s comment as insulting, citing the number of women facing the threat on a daily basis, adding that some even face the threat of homicide.
So far this is pretty much de rigueur, right?—politician says something questionable, gets called on it, apologizes. End of story.
But sometimes the apology is even better than (worse than?) the original gaffe. In this case, Representative Klarides said she absolutely did not intend to be insensitive, adding, in what has to be the worst clarification ever:
“I certainly didn’t intend to diminish domestic violence.”
I think we all know what she meant—that she didn’t intend to diminish the seriousness or the danger of domestic violence. But it’s such an easily avoidable error, and one that can only save further embarrassment down the road. Maybe instead of “diminish” she could have used “downplay,” but sometimes a revised sentence is better than thesaurus-modified synonym.
At the Present Time
There are many ways we inflate our language to make either ourselves or what we say seem more significant. One phrase that never seems to lose its popularity is “at the present time.”
The phrase comprises about twenty key strokes and, when spoken, five syllables. Not bad, but replaceable by one word with three letters and one syllable: now. They mean the same thing.
If you run to your favorite store at the mall to buy your favorite product, but the store has none in stock, expect a phrase like “I’m sorry we don’t have that available at the present time,” which isn’t a whole lot different from “We’re out of it.” Now the former does imply that the situation is going to change someday, and that the product will eventually reappear. “We’re out of” it sounds a bit too final, but “We’re currently out of it” provides the spark of hope that the customer is looking for while not wasting words.
On another somewhat related manner, meteorologists making forecasts like to talk about, for instance, events occurring in the “Wednesday time frame.” Now I’m not sure how the “Wednesday time frame” differs from plain old Wednesday. When I tell someone I’ll call him tomorrow, I don’t tell him it’s the tomorrow time frame, although I suppose we could apply it to other areas. For instance, sentencing a criminal to a long prison sentence might sound less harsh if the judge were to say “I sentence you a five-to-ten-year time frame in the state penitentiary.” And schools could eliminate the problem of tardiness by demanding that the students arrive in the 8:00 o’clock time frame instead of 8:00 o’clock.
There are probably more ways we can utilize that time-frame expression, but those were the only two I could come up with—at the present time.