Saturday, April 25, 2009


"Try and Remember A Time in September"

Consider this notice I saw posted recently:

"Be sure and remove your papers from the table before leaving the room."

"Oh," you say, "Is there something wrong with that sentence? Looks perfectly fine to me."
What does it mean?
" this is trick question? Because I think it means: make sure to pick up my stuff before heading out."

Well! If the writer had actually written "Make sure that you remove your papers..." that at least would have been correct grammar. Because, and here the grammar cop is almost reduced to tears, because there is no verb form in the english language that uses
and as a substitute for to.

That's right. "...
And remove" is completely meaningless in this sentence. The writer should have written "Be sure to remove....". Otherwise the sentence is really two ideas, one of which could be construed as redundant:

1. Be sure. This sentence is grammatically an imperative or a command to the reader to not be mistaken. Yes. Isn't that what "Be sure" means?
And remove your papers from the table before leaving the room. Since strictly speaking, no sentence can begin with a conjunctive, it would be better written as simply another imperative statement to "Remove your papers from the table before leaving the room." (Can you count how many times though I have committed that lapse in grammar here myself?)

So, what we really have here, in this crime against literacy, is a command to be sure, (but really we don't know what we are supposed to be sure of), and a command to remove your papers. I would argue that being sure is completely redundant and rather patronizing.

"But", you sputter, "I use that construct all the time in spoken english and it is universally understood by everyone I communicate with". There is only one way, I tell you, to construct an infinitive (which is how the sentence should be built) and that is with the root of the verb remove plus the word
to.* The same applies to the use of "try and" and "go".

In case you think that my rantings would hold up in the high court of literacy, alas, it appears they would not, as suggested by Mark Israel:

"These colloquial constructions are synonymous, or nearly so, with "try to", "be sure to", and "go and" respectively, those equivalents being undisputedly acceptable in both formal and informal style. They are syntactic curiosities in that they can only be used in conjugations identical to the infinitive: we can say "to try and do it", "try and do it" (imperative), "I'll try and do it", "if I try and do it", and "he did try and make the best of it", but not "if he tries and does it" or "he tried and did it" with the same sense."

And Bartelby lets us know that:

"For generations, commentators have criticized try and, as in I’ll try and see her tomorrow, preferring try to in such constructions. Both have been in constant use throughout the period, however, and the main difference is that try and is almost always limited to Casual and Impromptu levels and their written imitations, whereas try to is Standard, appropriate at all levels."

I suggest that you be the judge of this matter for I have become weary of the fight.



Infinitive: the root of a verb plus the word to. To sleep, perchance to dream. A present infinitive describes a present condition: "I like to sleep." The perfect infinitive describes a time earlier than that of the verb: "I would like to have won that game."

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


I Need a Place to Quiess My Weary Head

Information Technology people love to make up words. In a recent technical change deployment guide, that I had the privilege to vet, the following instruction was found:

1. Quiess the Testing Environment.

So...what the heck does quiess mean, everyone asked. Well the grammar detective squad got right on it. Turns out that there is no such verb. Doesn't exist. Never did. What's happened is that some geek who knows more about fibre optic cabling than language thinks (s)he is also an expert in the fine art of human communication. The nerd has gotten it into her head that just because she knows the $5.00 word queiscent and can use it in a sentence to impress her new boyfriend, that she can make up a word that she thinks derives from the root. In fact, it's a feeble attempt to create a verb from the Latin quiescere that means "to become quiet or rest". So our misguided geek wants to put the testing environment in a state of quiet or inactivity, perhaps to distinguish that state from a complete shutdown of servers and services. That's my guess. Here is the definition that has gotten our technical guru into all the trouble in the first place: (from the online Webster's dictionary -)

Main Entry: qui·es·cent
Function: adjective
Etymology: Latin quiescent-, quiescens, present participle of quiescere to become quiet, rest, from quies
Date: 1605
1 : marked by inactivity or repose : tranquilly at rest 2 : causing no trouble or symptoms
synonyms see latent
— qui·es·cent·ly adverb

Monday, September 19, 2005


Can Legs Ever Be Akimbo?

The official answer is no. Never. Can't happen. That is because the word akimbo, strictly speaking, may only refer to a position of the arms where the hands are placed on the hips and bent outward at the elbows. But you will find reference to limbs other than arms being akimbo mentioned with abandon in many well respected works of literature and non-fiction. I heard it used with reference to legs on the radio the other day. In this way the term akimbo has come to mean any part of the body that is askew, splayed, bent at a joint, or otherwise angled in some way.

Sunday, August 28, 2005


What is a Candlelight Vigual?

I have no idea what a vigual is. I hear a word pronounced as vij-ooo-all from time to time by intelligent and otherwise thoughtful, observant individuals, so I am only guessing at the spelling. I hear it used in concert with words like candlelight, peace, midnight, or memorial. I'm pretty sure when it is used, these misguided folks actually mean vigil.

A vigil is, according to the Merriam-Webster, an act or period of watching or surveillance. It can mean a watch before a religious festival, spiritual preparation before a religious feast, evening devotion or prayers and keeping awake during a time when sleep is customary. It is also associated with keeping an evening watch of any kind. This particular word is prounounced vij-ill. There is no extra syllable ooo in this word.

The word prounouced as vig-ooo-all does not exist. If anyone call tell me what the etymology of pronouncing vigil this way is, since it is so prevalent, I would be most interested.

So next time you want to tell your friends about a candlelight vigil you went to, do your listener a big favour and prounounce the second word as vij-ill.

Monday, August 22, 2005


Isn't the Word Herb Prounounced "Hurb"?

Well it depends on whether you are referring to Herb the person or herb the plant. It also depends on how old you are (at least in Toronto Canada).

If you are referring to Herb the person, then by all means prounounce it hurb. In fact you must. There is no other way to call out to Herb. If you mean a variety of plants that include rosemary, thyme, basil, peppermint, corriander, and parsley, to mention only a few, then you can prounounce it in one of two ways: hurb or urb. Both are perfectly acceptable.

I have done an independent (and very unscientific) survey and have found that at least in Toronto, Canada if you are over forty the chances of prounouncing it as urb are extremely good. If you under forty you will invariably prounounce it as hurb and screw up your nose if you hear urb. But now you will also know what generation the speaker is from!

Thursday, August 11, 2005


How do You Prounounce the Word Victuals?

If you're like me, you have often wondered why, even though you have seen this word from time to time in print, you have never actually heard it. I say if you are like me because you may actually know how to pronounce victuals and you are snickering in a knowing superior way as you read this. Before now, I would never have attempted to say this word out loud because I learned my lesson at a very early age. I noticed a hero in a book I was reading was named Prince Stephen. Step Hen. Imagine my humilation when my own cousin looked at me with a mixture of shock and insult and informed me that this was the same spelling of his name, thank you very much, and was prounounced Steeeevin. And what about dingy which I persisted in prounouncing as ding ee perhaps until I was an adult? I admit it. I was too lazy to look it up and just let a phrase like the dingy, dank room remain mysterious or a reference to something from the sea. (That's the dinghy that's prounouned ding ee). Thank goodness that I have changed my irresponsible ways.

First, we should get the meaning of this word out of the way. Victuals means food or provisions, especially food meant for people. So let me tell you how I think it is supposed to be prounounced (and it seems that I am not alone in this): vick two alls or if I say it faster: vickchewls. You may be very surprised as I was to learn that this word should be pronounced: vitilz. vittles. Listen to it yourself: victual. Now vittles, by the way, is an valid alternate, and I think, more reasonable spelling.

I think I only ever heard this word used on The Beverly Hillbillies. (Didn't Jed often tell Granny to put them vittles on the table?) Or Hee Haw. Its etymology is from Middle French adopted into Middle English originating from the Latin victus meaning nourishment. Who knew?

And it may interest you to know that someone who provides victuals is known as a victualler and that this is pronounced as vittler

If you have similiar stories about your disconnect between a word you saw in print and how you misprounounced it - I invite you to let me know about it. Let us share your pain.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


Why Does J.D. Salinger use the Word Crumby?

Because he can. It was perfectly ok in the 1940s, when he wrote Catcher in the Rye, to use the word crumby to mean something miserable, filthy, wretched, shabby, cheap or worthless. Come to think of it, if you want, you can still use it. It is quite acceptable. It does seem more common however to use the spelling variant crummy. Your readers might be tempted to think of crumby as rhyming with Gumby.

I think I might find myself using crumbier in my writing rather than crummier, but crummiest rather than crumbiest. They just feel more natural. Whatever turns your crank, as they say, because all four are acceptable. So are crumminess and crumbiness if you want to be a an advocate for variety. As always, the watchword is consistency in your writing. We can at least be thankful that for all the dozens of times Salinger used it in his novel, (his main character also found most of the people in his life phony and used the word to excess), it was always spelled the same way.

If you do use crumby in your written communications rest assured that you can hold your head up high and cite its use in that classic work of the twentieth century.

Thursday, July 28, 2005


"Lay. Lie. You've Got Me on My Knees. Lay. Lie." - Eric Clapton

Of all attempts at writing and speaking good English I have the most trouble with the words lay and lie and all the variations thereof. No sooner do I look up these words, read and absorb the differences between them, than the distinctions between them fly out of my head. I usually have no idea how to properly use lay and lie. Perhaps this is a good exercise then to give you the benefit of my research, process the usage of lie and lay and move past my difficulties wiser but not necessarily with a better grasp of how to use these words properly.

I will not blame you if you now want to go straight past this particular column. I can imagine that your eyes are glazing over. I know I would have been inclined to surf entirely away from this blog.

Thanks for sticking around. Now: Let' s get down to business.

The main difference between the verbs to lay and to lie is that lay is usually transitive, meaning the verb refers to an object and lie is usually intransitive, meaning it does not refer directly to an object. It is the difference between the chicken lays an egg and the tired chicken lies down.

Lay, as a verb, means, in general and most commonly, to place or put something down. This can be as in lay that egg, lay a bet, lay flooring, lay the land to waste. It also means to assert or allege as in lay claim to my fortune. And of course, it can be used as a synonym for copulation. The past tense of this word is laid. She laid a bet on my behalf. The chicken laid an egg. The army laid the land to waste. He laid claim to my enormous fortune on the occasion of my death. For the first time in many months, he was finally laid. The past participle is also laid as in: He has laid tile many times before.

as a verb can mean to recline in a horizontal position. She went inside to lie down. It can also mean to be in a place or to exist in a certain state as in the water must lie deep below the ground, the egg lies beneath the chicken, the matter lies in your hands, he lies in wait for his enemy. The past tense of lie is lay and this is often where the confusion exists for speakers and writers. Yesterday she lay down. We discovered that the jewels lay in the dragon's lair. Last year the matter lay in your hands but now it lies in mine. The past participle is lain. He has lain in wait for his enemy for many days.

(I don't think anyone reading this has any trouble with the verb lie that means to tell an untruth. Its past tense and past participle is lied . Do not lie about where you were last night. She lied to me about where she was last night. He has lied about where he found that chicken. )

Martin H. Manser in his book Good Word Guide reminds us that to lay low and to lie low are two very different things. Laying low means to actually place something down or in a low position. To lie low is the one that means to be in hiding. Now you know.

The Merriam-Webster people seem very intolerant of those of us who use these words interchangeably. They acknowledge that "...lay has been used in the...sense of lie since the 14th century." That is a very long time. But still they admonish: "Remember that even though many people do use lay for lie, others will judge you unfavorably if you do." Whoa. Harsh.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005


Is There Something Wrong with Writing I Should of Taken the Road Less Travelled?

Um. I am afraid so. Yes. The construct should of is completely and utterly meaningless. I know. You use it all the time in e-mails. Your colleagues and staff have never complained. They seem to understand what you mean. So what is my problem? Would of. Could of. Should of. What you are really doing is deforming the contraction 've into of because they sound the same. Would've. Could've. Should've. And what is the contraction 've short for? The verb have. Oh. Yeah. You knew that. Somewhere deep in that gray matter of yours, this makes sense. You should have known that all along. We would've come if only we could have left our other engagement earlier. It might help if you consider that would is a past tense of will , could, is the past tense of can and should is the past tense of shall. By the year 2015 we will have paid off our house. Would you ever say in a fit of sentimentality, "I shall of never loved so well as I have loved you" or would you say instead "I shall have never loved so well as I have loved you"?

my well meaning friend, is a preposition that has a variety of meanings and functions none of which fulfill the requirements of being a verb.

I know your staff and peers are just being being polite. I have been there. I have had to endure this kind of grammar offence from my managers. Really. It is not worth embarrassing you over it. But just stop doing it. Please. Knowing readers will appreciate it and have new respect for you.

Note: Careful readers will notice that Mark Z. Danielewski uses the construction everywhere in his novel House of Leaves. This usage does not make the practice correct. If anybody can give me a reasonable explanation for why he would dare ticking off discerning lovers of literature like that, I would be most interested.

Saturday, July 23, 2005


Do Discreet and Discrete Mean the Same Thing?

No. They are completely different words, but are sometimes confused because they sound the same. Discreet is an adjective which is used in the sense of tact, judiciousness, prudence and unobtrusiveness. There is also the sense of being discerning. He excercised discretion in all his dealings with his clients. She discreetly placed the gift where he would not find it right away. The furnishings were discreet and elegant.

is an adjective which indicates separateness and disctinctiveness. He had to remove the discrete parts of the mechanism that were causing the problem. Each discrete formula has its own properties. The discrete colouring of the animal was very striking.

Friday, July 22, 2005


How Do I Pronounce Slough?

You've got my sympathy if you are not entirely sure about this word. It just so happens that slough has several meanings depending on its pronounciation. When prounouned as slow or (to complicate matters), slew, it means: a place of deep mud or mire or a state of moral degradation or spiritual dejection according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. When prounouced as sluff it means something that may be shed or cast off or to shed or cast off according to Merriam-Webster. It means to shed something, for example, the skin of snake or as an abstract concept to disregard or overcome something as in: He sloughed off his colleague's comment.

I have completely avoided the word in its slow or slew form, and while I may say it from time to time, hardly ever write it in its sluff form. Hopefully, you will be more courageous than I.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005


When Did the Millennium Start?

To answer this question, think about when the first millennium started. Was it the year 0 or the year 1? As it turns out we don't count year 0. It never existed. From the year 1B.C. we went straightaway into 1A.D. So the first millennium began in 1A.D. The second millennium started in the year 1001. The third millennium, the one we are in now, began on January 1, 2001 not January 1, 2000. December 31, 2000 ended the second millennium.

It is the same with centuries. The twentieth century did not end on December 31, 1999. It ended on December 31, 2000. The twenty-first century began in 2001. It might sound better but Prince had no business partying like it was 1999. There was no point.

If you wish you can refer to the year 2000 as the dawn of the new millennium. This is a perhaps romantic way of referring to the actual millennium without actually having to commit to when it actually started.

While we're on the subject, don't spell this word wrong. There are two ls and two ns.

(See for an interesting explanation of the history of how our years are currently reckoned.)

Monday, July 18, 2005


Are i.e. and e.g. Interchangeable?

No. They are not. But they are often used as though they are. The abbreviation e.g. is Latin for exempli gratia. It means for example and should be used to illustrate or provide examples of something previously referred to. I love all kinds of candy, e.g. taffy, mints, gumdrops, ju-jubes, and Atomic Fireballs. The abbreviation i.e. is Latin for id est and means that is. It should be used to qualify, clarify or otherwise further explain a previously mentioned point. The Lord of the Rings is a trilogy, i.e. three separate books.

Formally both e.g. and i.e. are spelled using the full stops. It is becoming more acceptable to render them as eg and ie. The best rule of thumb is to be consistent. If you omit the stops in one place omit them everywhere in your written practice, otherwise always put them in.

Friday, July 15, 2005


What is The Difference Between a Pandemic and an Epidemic?

I am not sure, to be honest. I personally have a lot of trouble with these two words. I sometimes wish one of them would be thrown away or otherwise not used. But that is not going to happen. So, I'll try to explain what I think I know about these words.

From what I can tell an epidemic is an outbreak of disease (or sometimes other event) that affects many people over a large geographic area. A pandemic seems to be an outbreak of disease that affects many people over an even wider geographic area. The Greek root pan connotes the notion of all or universality. I have seen the word pandemic qualified as a global epidemic. But a pandemic does not have to be global to be used in the context of bigger than an epidemic. In other places, I see them used quite interchangeably.

Dictionaries I've consulted are quite noncommital on the differences.


What is the Etymology of Paparazzi?

In 1959 the Italian filmmaker Fredrico Fellini made a movie called La Dolce Vita (meaning the sweet or good life). It's about a gossip magazine journalist who spends his time in vaccuous shallow partying among the rich and famous. One of his colleagues and companions is a young photographer named Paparazzo who is the quintessential tabloid photographer harrassing and jostling his way to flash a picture. It is generally believed and accepted that the word paparazzi, (Paparazzo made plural), to refer to photographers who hound and dog celebrities to get a picture, comes from that character's name.

Fellini is reported to have decided on that character's name after reading a book that contained a character by the name of Coriolano Paparazzo who owned a hotel. The book was called By the Ionian Sea by George Gissing.

The movie itself is considered a classic and should by all means be seen.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005


Does Punctuation Really Matter?

Yes. A year ago I noticed a sign put up at my local dry cleaner. It read:

If you like our service
Tell a friend

If you don't tell us

I can take this advice two very different ways. In one interpretation it reads that if I like the service and fail to inform the dry cleaner, then tell a friend instead that you like the service. The second interpretation and the one I assumed the dry cleaner meant was that if I like the service then please tell a friend, otherwise if I do not like the service inform the dry cleaner so presumedly the owner can remedy the situation and get the business back on track. The fact that I can read the sign in two ways makes the message ambiguous and therefore reflects poor communication. It makes an otherwise pithy attempt to reach out to consumers confusing.

Because I am a self appointed member of the grammar police and because there was no punctuation in places that reflected the true intent of the message, I could not help but read it the first way. I went back to the office and was distracted as only an officer of the force could be under the circumstances. I had a dilemma. How do I go back to the dry cleaner and explain my concern in a way that would make a difference? Would I be ignored? Laughed at? Be given a vacant stare? Have something thrown at me? The next day I tried my hand at explaining the situation to the on-duty clerk. At first she couldn't see it but then when I explained that perhaps what was really meant was : "If you like our service tell a friend, period. If you don't, comma, tell us." The comma, in particular,I suggested, really helps the reader understand that the auxilliary verb don't refers back to liking or not liking the service. Her face brightened. "Yes," she agreed, "I see the problem now." A few days later the sign had been changed to use the well placed comma and a period. Just another victory for the word warrior.

One can legitimately argue that now, the apparent sentence: If you don't, tell us, is actually not a sentence at all. It is a sentence fragment that looks like it is part of the previous sentence instead. A comma would be completely unnecessary if the fragment were to be changed to a real sentence like this: If you don't like the service tell us. But then the advice, which is really a piece of found poetry, would not have that snappy ring to it. Poetry and poetic licence in this case really require a snappy ring.

Sunday, July 10, 2005


Can I Use the Word Irregardless in Scrabble?

Absolutely not. It is not a word. It does not mean anything. Do not use it anywhere. If you utter this word aloud in any group of people, there will be derisive eye rolling behind your back among knowing users. Use the word regardless instead. Regardless of the facts, he claimed he was never at the scene of the crime. You can use irrespective too if you want to. Irrespective of the facts, he maintained he never used that word in his entire life. Maybe that's where you took the wrong turn. Mutating and blending regardless and irrespective. Trust me. If you find it in any dictionary you will be advised that "[the word] is...a long way from general acceptance."

Thursday, July 07, 2005


What is the Difference Between Enquire and Inquire?

The root e comes from the Latin (and Greek) ex which means "out of" or "from". The root i comes from the Latin in which means "into" or "towards". Strictly speaking, shouldn't inquire mean "to be asked of" and enquire "to ask of or about"? We seem to enquire after someone's health, and others inquire of me why I was late for dinner. But, in fact it is widely accepted that enquire is a variant of inquire and that they can be used quite interchangably. Entrust and intrust have the same flexibility in usage. Personally, I would never intrust my violin to you. I am more apt to entrust it to you instead. I am giving it up, giving it out, handing it away and over to you after all. You are well within your rights to differ on this.

To emigrate, however, always means a very different thing from immigrate. If I leave the country to take up citizenship elsewhere, then I have emigrated. And I could be an emigre, but this word often refers to a political exile. It is more likely that I am a plain vanilla emigrant. In the country I have moved to I will be considered to have immigrated into it. And I will likely be treated in many matters as an immigrant in my new land.

Consider explode and implode. An explosion is an outward event. According to the Pocket Oxford, it means to "expand suddenly with a loud noise owing to the release of internal energy." An implosion is an inward event. A "burst[ing] inward", according to the Oxford, instead. An explosion that is directed inwards rather than outwards. I must admit, I find that quite hard to visualize.

In any case, you need no longer wonder if the National Enquirer could have been named the National Inquirer since either name would serve the same purpose in providing the same kind of information.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005


What is the Etymology of Curfew?

The common meaning of curfew is a designated hour at which adolescents are required to be home in the evening by order of their parents or when all citizens or military personnel are required to retreat indoors by order of the state. But it is derived from the French
covrefeu spoken in the middle ages, which was the signal to bank a fire for the evening and further means "cover the fire". The root feu itself is derived from the Latin focus which means "hearth".


What is the Difference Between Entomology and Etymology?

The next time that you are at a party discussing the West Nile virus and the mosquitos that carry it, you could be engaging in entomology, that is: the study of insects. Among those that are fleetingly familiar with both words, this one is often confused with etymology which is the study of word origins. Etymology often offers a fascinating foray into the progression of meaning of some words. The word mosquito comes from the Spanish diminutive mosca or fly. The Latin word for fly is musca. A variation is midge which is a "small dipteran fly". (If you are a fan of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, you may recall one or two scenes when the hobbits were besieged by armies of annoying midges.) A mosquito is of the family of dipteran flies.

Monday, July 04, 2005


What is a Skeptic and How is it Spelled?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary a skeptic is someone who has "an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object". The Oxford Dictionary says that it is someone who is "inclined to doubt accepted opinions; critical; incredulous."

Americans spell it skeptic, while the rest of the English speaking world prefers sceptic. This use of k rather than c extends to the adjectival form: skeptical, the adverbal form: skeptically, and the abstract noun skepticism. Both forms of spelling are perfectly acceptable and do not let anyone tell you otherwise.

However, please don't hesitate to exercise sceptism as you enjoy my column. On the other hand, you had better be ready to back up your outrageous claims about the correct usage of language before you tangle with me.

(Of course, if you spot an error in my writing - I will be the first to eat a most generous portion of humble pie).

Saturday, July 02, 2005


What is Poetic Licence*?

Language is ever evolving and changing. Its changes reflect the dynamic and creative progress of culture and society. I am all for experimenting with language as we should in any artform. Consider this essential factor as you proceed: In order to break the rules know what those rules are in the first place. So it is in a true spirit of fun, exploration and experimentation that I offer this advice column to help you understand the difference between the right use of words, spelling, and phrases so that you can knowingly break the rules if you need to.

That's what poetic licence really means.

*Incidently: In British English usage, (what the rest of the world uses), the noun is legitimately spelled licence . As in : Did you remember to pick up the marriage licence? It is the verb that is spelled license. As in: We cannot license this vehicle for use. American usage accepts the spelling license for both the noun and the verb.


What's the Plural of Criteria?

is already plural as in : According to what criteria will you choose a new car to buy? By way of this example, you would use more than one factor to decide on the purchase of new car. You would undoubtedly consider the cost, colour, fuel efficiency, and safety features among other factors to make your decision.

Example 2:
The set of criteria you have presented will help us determine the right course of action.

If only one factor is being considered in a matter, then the singular form criterion should be used. His crime was the criterion by which his character was judged.

We can't help but notice however that in the spoken language and increasingly in the written form, criteria is now often used both as a singular and plural form of the noun. Grammar and usage experts discourage this practice. And I will not contradict them.


What is The Difference Between Between and Among?

The word between should only be used when referring to the relationship of two things. Among refers to the relationship of three or more things.

Example 1:
John told Mary she had to choose between the sweet and sour.

Example 2:
John told Mary she had to choose her poison from among the ingredients.

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