Don’t like singular they? Tell Mike Tyson.

Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth
Mike Tyson helps James “Quick” Tillis adjust his plans in 1986.

 

 Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.

Obviously, this brilliant quote from Iron Mike works both literally and figuratively. But it’s a great and timely example of the value and utility of a singular they, which was just declared 2015’s Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society.

If you listen carefully, you can hear copy editors and the least-adaptable among us gnashing their teeth. Late last year, the Washington Post updated its style guidelines to accept singular they, and junior high school English teachers everywhere panicked and bemoaned the decline of the language and the death of rules and meaning. Of course they probably didn’t read the memo from Post copy editor Bill Walsh:

It is usually possible, and preferable, to recast sentences as plural to avoid both the sexist and antiquated universal default to male pronouns and the awkward use of he or she, him or her and the like: All students must complete their homework, not Each student must complete his or her homework.

When such a rewrite is impossible or hopelessly awkward, however, what is known as “the singular they” is permissible: Everyone has their own opinion about the traditional grammar rule. The singular they is also useful in references to people who identify as neither male nor female.

See that? Singular they is acceptable only when a rewrite is impossible or hopelessly awkward. Most of the time, there’s probably a graceful solution. And for those rare other times when there isn’t, or we’re referring to someone who prefers a gender-neutral pronoun, we’ll continue to do what I suspect we’ve already been doing this whole time.

The language isn’t going to die, everyone. We’re all going to be OK.

UPDATE! The Associated Press has finally joined the rest of the world and is grudgingly allowing singular they:

They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and-or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy.

Hit the ground and just take it easy for a bit, you ninjas

You see this a lot in job advertisements: Candidates need to be able to hit the ground running.

Hit the ground running. I guess what this really means is that once you plant yourself at your desk on your very first day, you need to know what to do. Without any inconvenient hassles like training or guidance.

Reminds me of this dangerous* toy I had when I was a kid. The SSP Racer was a car that you pulled a zip cord through to make the wheels spin, and when you put the car on the ground, it zoomed off like a rocket. Loved those things. Problem is, when those cars hit the ground running, they usually just spun out erratically and crashed into a wall.

I suppose if I were ever writing a job description, I might revise it to say:

Candidates need to be able to hit the ground and be still for a minute, take in your surroundings, figure out where things are and how you fit in. Examine your role in the operation and work on ways that we can all benefit from your knowledge and expertise. Carefully explore the terrain and try to learn from the experience of the others around you. Meanwhile, we’ll provide excellent training and support.

This is probably why I don’t write job ads. Anyway, while we’re here, you might as well listen to me rant about a few other hiring cliches I’ve had just about enough of:

Rock stars: I don’t think HR departments realize how terrible rock stars are. They’re moody, unpredictable, ultrasensitive, with explosive tempers. Are these really the traits you’re looking for? Because I think I could be a good fit. Wait, you just mean very talented? Ah. Guess you could have said that instead. Also, it’s worth keeping in mind that not all rock stars are talented (I’m looking at you, Anthony Keidis).

Ozzy Osbourne applies for a job
Yes, right, well, my skills include shrieking and stomping around. At my previous firm, Black Sabbath, I helped define a genre. I type about 50 words a minute and am proficient in the Microsoft suite of products, including PowerPoint.

Ninjas: Companies often want ninjas to work for them. Not sure how being a stealthy assassin can help us achieve positive momentum on our initiatives and mission-critical deliverables or whatever, but I’ll play along. Are tabi boots and throwing stars included as part of employment, or am I responsible for my own weapons and gear?

Where is everyone?
Where is everyone? I don’t know, Phil, looks like everyone’s been assassinated. Whose idea was it to hire that ninja, anyway?

Wizards: Oh, you want me to do magic? Gotcha. (No disrespect intended, but this salary does not seem commensurate with actual wizardry—is there a typo in that number?)

Team player: There’s no I in TEAM, everyone! There is a me, though, so whatever. I’m not even sure what being a team player means in all these job ads. Especially when it’s always paired with the requirement that a candidate be able to work with little or no direction. Which is it, people? Am I part of a team or am I a lone wolf?

Self-starter: I guess this is where being a self-starter comes in. No idea what you should be doing? Figure it out. Then do it.

Show initiative: It’s been my experience that most managers are really annoyed by people who show initiative, so stop asking for it.

Competitive salary: We pay just as little as the other companies. Also, we will never actually tell you what this competitive salary is unless we hire you, after we’ve already taken up a lot of your time and ours.

Applying and interviewing for jobs is a horrible, degrading, soul-crushing process. The people who write job ads could make things easier on everyone by just saying what they mean.

* In the 1970s, toys weren’t dangerous. Children were dangerous. If you used a toy wrong, it wasn’t the toy’s fault. Like that time I pulled one of the zip cords on my SSP Racer and put the spinning wheels directly onto my stupid head. My hair got tangled around both axles, and my mom had to shave my head to remove it, leaving an enormous, gaping bald spot above my left ear that let the world know that I was an idiot kid who couldn’t be trusted with simple toys. They stopped making the SSP Racer soon after, and I guess the world is a safer place for stupid children.

SSP Racer
Hey, kids, rev this thing up and put it directly onto your head. Totally safe. You will not regret it ever.

Very curious.

There’s this regional bank in my, uh, region that uses the tagline: The curious bank.

Every time I see it, though, I read curious as strange: The strange bank. I don’t want to bank at a strange bank. I want my bank to be super-normal. Boring, even. I don’t mind strange or unusual things (I ate squid once!). But banking? Let’s save the adventures for someone else’s money, please.

Also, and this is really just an afterthought after I’ve pondered the whole curious thing: Its logo looks like a fraction — five-thirds. What is that? Is that a number that makes sense to anyone? Admittedly, I’m a word person, so numbers can sometimes confuse me. But five-thirds? I’m almost sure that’s wrong. I don’t want my bank to be this way with numbers.

And Fifth Third — what does that mean? Again, it sounds like they don’t know how numbers work, and that diminishes my confidence in their ability to do banking right.

Fifth Third Bank curious tagline
Fifth Third Bank. We don’t understand how numbers or words work. Give us your money!

EDIT! Looks like someone’s been reading my blog posts. Fifth Third’s new ad campaign riffs on its “ridiculous name.”

Worst headline ever? I dunno, but it’s pretty awful.

First of all, let’s answer the most obvious question: Yes, I was at the gym. I go to the gym sometimes. You don’t get pythons like this by just sitting around eating Cap’n Crunch all day and reading financial copy. Also, there’s a sauna there.

Anyway, I was in this sauna when I came across a copy of Golf Chicago Magazine (apparently there’s a magazine devoted to golf and Chicago) and this awful, terrible headline on a story about Jeremy Roenick, the badass former hockey player.

A real headline in a real magazine.

Blackhawk Down. With Golf. Someone wrote a “clever headline” referring to either the 1993 incident in Somalia in which 18 U.S. service members were killed (along with hundreds of Somali militants and civilians) or the 2001 Oscar-winning film about that incident.

Not only did someone write the headline, someone approved it. And it was published. But maybe the headline writer wasn’t referring to either of those and just meant that this former Blackhawks player is down with golf, as in, Jeremy Roenick is OK with golf. He doesn’t love golf or have a passion for golf. He doesn’t hate golf. He’s OK with it. Best-case scenario: Still a terrible headline.

In general, I’m not a fan of movie references or puns, though I’ve succumbed to the temptation periodically (Game of Thrones!). And this is why. In the very best circumstances, it’s merely lame. In cases like this golf magazine, it’s offensively horrid. If you’re going to use an unrelated pop-culture or historical reference in your headline, at least try to make sure it didn’t involve hundreds of deaths or terrible suffering.

This is me being sad at the gym after reading that terrible headline. Totally ruined my workout.

 

I don’t always peeve, but when I do, it’s about something very small

I don’t usually indulge in peevery, but I’m making an exception here.

Just a small fraction came up at work the other day, and I removed the word small, which created strife between me and the writer. A discussion ensued in which he said he wanted small reinserted because nine-tenths is technically a fraction and he was emphasizing the smallness. Without small, how would the reader know what he meant?

Yes, it’s true that nine-tenths is a fraction. And yes, one could truthfully say that a Bugatti Veyron, at $3.5 million, is a fraction of the cost of the $4 million Lamborghini Veneno. But you wouldn’t. You would never say that.

It would be a dumb thing to say because the idiom just a fraction means a very small amount. See how small is built in there? This is what I’m talking about. There’s your technical, mathematical fraction (three-fifths, etc.) and then there’s your idiom, in which the word fraction means a very small amount.

  1. a small part, amount, degree, etc.; portion

Anyway, I don’t care about who/whom or begs the question, and I’m learning to live with due to/because of. But a small fraction still gets to me a little.

My next car is probably going to be a Lamborghini Veneno, except it’s a small fraction too expensive for me. Also, I prefer the Countach anyway.

Conundrum is dumb

Aw, man. Get this: I’m at work, and a writer used conundrum in a way that didn’t feel right, so I looked it up.

 co·nun·drum: noun. 1. :  a riddle whose answer is or involves a pun.

What?! You have got to be kidding me. Since when? So add this to the getting-longer-every-day list of things I didn’t know, I guess, but it needs an asterisk, because come on. This is really so common a thing that it needs its own definition? I had to look up the definition again to find an example of such a thing.

What’s the difference between a jeweler and a jailer? One sells watches and the other watches cells.

Hurrr. Lame. How is this even a thing, people? Very disappointed in English today.

AP’s latest revelation makes copy editors cry like little girls

Pretty disappointed today in my editing brethren after the Associated Press’ bombshell that it will no longer make the distinction between more than and over.

If Facebook and Twitter are any indication, the AP ruined many lives yesterday and copy editors nationwide are in full revolt. The language world is in chaos.

But here’s the thing: Over means more than. It always has. Look:

o•ver (ō´vər) prep. [[ME ouer < OE ofer, akin to Ger über, ober < IE *uper (orig. a compar. of *upo, up) > L super, Gr hyper]]: More than, or above, in degree, amount, number, etc. [a moderate increase over his current salary, a gift costing over five dollars]

And if you can’t believe the dictionary, how about language hero Bryan Garner?

“In one of its uses, the prepositional over is interchangeable with more than <over 600 people were there>—and this has been so for more than 600 years. The charge that over is inferior to more than is a baseless crotchet.” — Garner’s Modern American Usage

It seems to me that editors and others who are supposed to enjoy language should be impressed by over‘s versatility and appreciate that it can do so much (I’m over it; hand it over; he was over the line; discussed over drinks; ad infinitum). I also wonder where all of our copy editors ever got the idea that words can do only one thing. How limiting.

The sooner we can stop blindly following arbitrary and meaningless rules and editing like robots, the sooner we can get back to the business of clarity and common sense. For the record, I don’t think much of the distinctions between over and during; like and such as; or since and because, either.

Copy editors riot after the Associated Press announced on Thursday that it no longer sees value in enforcing the imaginary distinction between “over” and “more than.” Many protesters wore helmets of bread because most copy editors cannot afford actual riot gear.

 

 

Toronto’s hockey team: Go, LEAVES!

Most sports fans have a favorite team and a backup. Sometimes the backup team’s from a favorite city. Or maybe if your favorite team is in the Eastern Conference, for example, you’ll have a backup in the Western Conference.

For many years, the Toronto Maple Leafs were my backup hockey team, No. 2 behind the Montreal Canadiens. Why Toronto? Good question. Thanks for asking. To be honest, I didn’t put a whole lot of thought into it. I liked that they were in Canada, because that seemed right for hockey. I liked, too, that they were part of the Original Six NHL teams, so they had a great deal of history. Also, and probably most important, I liked their colors: blue and white. Classic.

It occurred to me more than once that Leafs didn’t sound quite right, and I wondered why they weren’t the Toronto Maple Leaves (which also doesn’t sound quite right). Turns out there is an answer. Maple Leafs is a class of word similar to still life, leadfoot, low-life, and Walkman. What Steven Pinker calls headlessness in his outstanding book The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language.

A headless word is an exceptional item that, for one reason or another, differs in some property from its rightmost element, the one it would be based on if it were like ordinary words. A simple example of a headless word is a low-life—not a kind of life at all but a kind of person, namely one who leads a low life. …

As for the Maple Leafs, the noun being pluralized is not leaf, the unit of foliage, but a noun based on the name Maple Leaf, Canada’s national symbol. A name is not the same thing as a noun. … Therefore the noun a Maple Leaf (referring to, say, the goalie) must be headless, because it is a noun based on a word that is not a noun. And a noun that goes not get its nounhood from one of its components cannot get an irregular plural from that component either; hence it defaults to the regular form Maple Leafs. … Indeed, the explanation apples to all nouns based on names:

I’m sick of dealing with all the Mickey Mouses in this administration [not Mickey Mice]

Hollywood has been relying on movies based on comic book heroes and their sequels, like the three Supermans and the two Batmans [not Supermen and Batmen]

We’re having Julia Child and her husband over for dinner tonight. You know, the Childs are great cooks. [not the Children]

This all makes sense to me, and I approve. At any rate, now that I live in Chicago, I’ve moved Toronto down to No. 3 and promoted the Blackhawks to the backup spot. Sorry, Leafs. Don’t take it personally.

Toronto’s Dave Bolland won the Stanley Cup for Chicago last year. Thanks, Dave. (The plural of Stanley Cup is Stanley Cups, by the way.)

Probably stating the obvious here, but this is a pretty bad mistake

As I’ve said before, some misspellings are worse than others. And in this case, of all the words to misspell on this commemorative coin, you really couldn’t have picked a worse one than Jesus.

At least copy editors get a shoutout on this one from CNN:

(CNN)  For the love of “Lesus,” the Vatican needs a copy editor

Look, Vatican, I hate to pile on, especially since you’re probably feeling pretty crummy about this whole thing. But, come on, man. Lesus?!

Vatican misspells Jesus on commemorative coin
Way to go, Vatican.

Dammit, Jagermeister!

Well, that was fast.

Just the other day, I was singing the praises of the clever wordplay Jagermeister unleashed in its new ad campaign, and it was so inspiring that I decided to pay more attention to the good things in life and initiate a regular Words Used Well feature here at the personal blog.

But now I see that Jagermeister’s ad campaign includes this horrible thing:

Chillinois Jagermeister
Jagermeister’s “Chillinois” isn’t any good. I know I said I’d be more focused on the good things in life (like Jagermeister’s other ad “For the We Hours”), but this is just heinous.

So nevermind. For the We Hours was subtle and clever. But Chillinois is terrible. It’s too easy, and like Jagermeister itself, it’s just a little too much. A little obvious. Reminds me of all the bad Tiger Woods headlines I’ve seen in the world (Tiger Claws Back to Win Something) or the awful Barktober Sales Events at pet stores every fall.

It’s a good lesson, though: It’s hard to use words well. Noted, Jagermeister. Noted. Luckily, this ad is limited to only this state and maybe Chillaska!

And again, Jagermeister lured me in, then disappointed me. This time, though, no hangover and no story I need to make up about where I’ve been all night or why I’m wearing a prom dress.

 

Photo credit by this person I found on the Internet.