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.

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.

Words Used Well: Not everything is terrible

I don’t drink Jagermeister anymore, mostly because nothing good ever happened to me when I was drinking Jagermeister. And also because I’m not 20 years old.

But I saw a great Jagermeister ad the other day on a taxi sign: A festive scene with the words For the we hours.

Nice. And while it didn’t make me want to take a shot, I appreciated the wordplay, and it made my morning commute slightly less tedious.

It occurred to me, too, that as a copy editor, it’s possible that I can be a little too critical. We notice things that are wrong or terrible (I’m looking at you, Chevy and your awful Malibooya ad), and we point them out probably far too often than we need to.

So I want to start acknowledging Words Used Well, an appreciation for the sublime moments in our language instead of the constant snark about its misuse. I hope to pay attention and notice the good things more.

Jagermeister, which is German for “regret,” has a pretty good ad campaign going that I don’t have a picture of. So look at this guy. Slayer’s guitar player Kerry King drinks Jagermeister. You can kind of guess that, can’t you?

UPDATE! I found the Jagermeister ad on an El platform.

Jagermeister ad
Stumbled onto the Jagermeister ad tonight on an El platform while waiting for the Brown line at Diversey in Chicago. So here you go.

Streisand Effect

Again with something I didn’t know. In fact, I’m starting to think that the list of things I don’t know is getting longer.

Anyway, I’m reading about the NSA wanting to ban some parody T-shirt (and then a later story debunking the earlier story), and some Internet commenter says this will turn into the “Streisand Effect.”

Streisand Effect? Yes. Looks like that’s a thing. Interesting.

The Streisand effect is the phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely, usually facilitated by the Internet. It is named after American entertainer Barbra Streisand, whose attempt in 2003 to suppress photographs of her residence in Malibu, California, inadvertently generated further publicity.

Reminds me of how Beyonce’s publicists wanted to somehow remove from the Internet those “unflattering” Super Bowl pictures that would have faded into obscurity had her team not given them so much attention. Poor Beyonce.

Beyonce’s people believe this is an “unflattering” photo. Fine. They should check out every single photo of me ever taken.

And poor me for not knowing what the Streisand Effect was all this time I’ve been alive. I could have used it in conversation and seemed smart to someone.