Category Archives: DfW Holds Forth!

Darn you, King James!

Attention Citizens of Earth!

The passage from the King James Bible that says “Suffer the little children to come unto me” — often unfortunately abbreviated to “Suffer the little children” — does NOT mean that little children do, will, should, or must suffer!

Way back in the day, “suffer” meant “allow” — in current parlance, one might equate it to “put up with.”

So the gospel writer reports Jesus saying, presumably to their parents, “Allow the little children to come over here.” That’s all!

The truly sad part? I most recently saw this in not one but TWO different volumes of a mystery series I otherwise enjoyed very much so I won’t tell you the author’s name. But it’s set in 1560, and the character who says it is an educated man who would certainly have known what “suffer” meant in that context. Fie, for shame, churl!

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Filed under DfW Holds Forth!, Etymology, Fancy Words, The History of Language

How to Get the Grammar Police Off Your Back, Part I: It’s vs Its

There’s a reason we language folk enjoy haranguing you about your grammar skills. And here it is.


We don’t enjoy it one little bit — we KNOW it’s unwelcome and persnickety and potentially flat-out impolite. So why do we do it? Because we are broken. Or extra fixed. Or booby trapped. Or something because believe it or don’t, NOT CORRECTING SIMPLE ERRORS IN GRAMMAR AND PUNCTUATION IS PSYCHOLOGICALLY PAINFUL.

OH, it sucks. Wanna know why I love Kindle? Because I can highlight and make inline comments. So I can correct the errors. I am not making this up. What, traditionally published books have errors? Oh, you bet your bippie they do. In fact, here is an offer for you: if a traditional publishing house has produced your book, send me an electronic copy of it and I will tell you how careful your proofreader was. #shamelessfishing forfreebooks #butI’lltotallydoit

In our defense: most of the time we do have your best interest at heart, in a well-meant-but-annoying-and-a-little-condescending way. It’s sort of like reminding you to floss. We floss, and we know that it’s a pain to get into the habit, but once you do it feels really great and there are many benefits aside from the obvious “keeping your teeth” ones. Wait, that doesn’t…  no, we’re not going to knock out your teeth if you don’t mend your egregious apostrophic ways. #althoughdeepinourhearts…nevermind

Also in our defense: as it turns out, a lot of people would really like to avoid these errors IF ONLY TO GET US TO SHUT UP ALREADY!! If you fall into this noble category, I have some tricks for you. I’ll start with an easy one. It’s vs its. And, by extension, you’re vs your and they’re vs their. (Sorry, this trick will not help you with their vs there. But please, for the love of all that is holy, please figure that one out on your own.)

First of all, here is why these constructions are so easily confused:

One of the uses of an apostrophe is to stand in for one or more dropped letters in a contraction such as “can’t” (a contraction of “cannot”,* which  can only be said by persons wearing starched collars. I think it’s a law.)

However, the most common use of an apostrophe is to signify possession, e.g.** “Lady Starchcollar’s hens cannot lay eggs.”

If we apply the more common use as a possessive marker, “it’s” should mean “belonging to it”, as in “Lady Starchcollar’s hen settled into it’s nest.” And in any sensible language it would. Ah, but this is English, and any sensibility it ever had was left behind long ago.

No, in English, personal pronouns are the exceptions that prove the rule… has exceptions. For personal pronouns, possession is marked by the absence of an apostrophe, isn’t that handy? Thus, instead of “your’s” (which is NEVER right, by the way) we have “yours”. We also have “theirs”, “ours”, and, most famously, “its”.

For personal pronouns, the apostrophe is used to signify a contraction. “It’s” is a contraction of “it is”. “You’re” is a contraction of “you are”, “they’re” is a contraction of “they are”. And herein lies your salvation.

To keep the Grammar Police off your back: never use contractions. On your first pass, that is; you can go back and contract anything you want. But if you start with “it is” and then contract, it’s easy to remember that you need the apostrophe to stand in for the letter you’re dropping.

The same works for “its”. Returning to our earlier example, imagine that you would like to write about poor Lady Starchcollar’s barren hens. (I said “imagine“.) You might start off thusly: “Lady Starchcollar’s hen settled into…” Gasp! What to write?! Well, try both options, sans contractions: “Lady Starchcollar’s hen settled into… its nest”? Well, possibly. Now try the other: “Lady Starchcollar’s hen settled into it is nest.” Oh, ho ho ho, certainly not! Thus we choose the former, “Lady Starchcollar’s hen settled into its nest… and floated into a peaceful slumber, secure in the knowledge that it had been described with admirable grammatical correctness.”

There you have it: When in doubt, un-contract and see which one is wrong. Then use the other one.


*YES, I follow UK rules governing placement of punctuation with quotation marks because US rules are baseless and silly.

**Psst: here’s a trick for remembering the difference between i.e. (“that is”) and e.g. (“for example”). “E.g.” is said as “ee gee”, but if you stick the letters together phonetically, they sound like “egg” as in “egg…zample”. You’re welcome.

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Filed under DfW Holds Forth!, Grammar, Handy Tips! You love those!, Punctuation, Usage

A Copy Editor’s Advice to Writers: Don’t write things that don’t mean anything!

UPDATE! In case you’d like to hear the gem of a corporate anthem mentioned in this essay, here ’tis —

Our Mission is Success” — Global Technology, Deutsche Bank.

“to attain a successful outcome”
“to get the results you want”
“will result in a positive outcome”
“for the best possible resolution”
“to obtain the best result possible”
“to help you achieve your goals”

Don’t write these things. Seriously, don’t. I’m just going to have to rewrite them for you.

These phrases are examples of what’s called “filler” — strings of words that sound good but don’t actually mean anything.

And how do we know they’re filler?

Story Time!

Once upon a time, I worked for a corporate investment bank in Manhattan’s financial district. This was on the upswing of the tech bubble, a time of great optimism when it seemed like the money would just keep rolling in forever. Companies were competing for talent and generally making fools of themselves, so when somebody piped up with, “Hey, why don’t we commission a corporate anthem!” nobody said, “That is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.”

So lots of companies had anthems, and larger ones had anthems for each department. I worked in the Global Technology department, and our very own anthem was called “Our Mission is Success”.

“Our Mission is Success” was thoroughly awful. And largely unsingable, mainly because of the choking sobs of laughter that followed brilliant lyrics like:

Global Technology
is no easy game to play
a new challenge, anyway
for all of us, each and every day

Not only was it just a dreadful song in general, but my bank had recently been bought by a massive German bank (yes, that one), and it was pretty clear that the song was an export. The pronunciation was actually quite charming, but further detracted from the anthem-i-ness by seeming to reinforce our newly precarious position:

Ghlobal Technolochee
iss no eassy game to play
a new challench anyway
for all of uz, each and efry day

But the central failure of “Our Mission is Success”? The basic premise was flawed. My husband’s response was… well, his FIRST response was, “HOly God, what the hell is this?” But his second response was the quote: “‘One cannot pursue success; success must ensue.'” Which means: success cannot be your mission, because success is not an action.

“What did you do today, honey?”
“I succeeded!”

One can succeed at an action, but saying “I succeeded!” is about as useful as saying, “I threw!” You threw… what? A ball? Your back out? Up?

Not only is success not an action, it is not an option. When naming an action, the success of that action is implied:

“What did you do today, honey?”
“I edited a website for a law firm.”

We can assume that the editing was successful — or at least completed — because if it hadn’t been, I would have said something like,

“I attempted to edit a website for a law firm, but…”
“I was supposed to perform heart surgery, except…”
“I wanted to go to the gym, really…”

If you had successfully gone to the gym, you would have said simply, “I went to the gym.” (But you didn’t go to the gym, did you? I know, neither did I.)

So let’s consider the following:

“We are equipped to handle tough litigation or amicable negotiations to obtain the best result possible for you.”

First let’s clear out the brush: “We are equipped to handle” means “we can.” And “obtain the best possible result” means “succeed.”

If we parse the meaning, we get something like:

“We (can) (successfully) litigate or negotiate for you.”

But success is implied, right? So strip that out and we have:

“We can litigate or negotiate for you.”

OK! NOW we’re getting somewhere. THIS was the point of the sentence all along — this firm is prepared to litigate OR to negotiate, whichever makes more sense. When we figure out what we’re trying to say, the saying becomes much more straightforward. And when we strip things down to the studs, we’re almost forced to say something more useful:

“At Lockjaw, Chubby and Fey, we negotiate when we can and litigate when we must.”

OR maybe this:

“The attorneys at Lockjaw, Chubby and Fey are known as skilled negotiators. However, if negotiations fail, we are not afraid to take your case to court.”

OR possibly,

“Lockjaw, Chubby and Fey will negotiate or litigate, whichever will get us the most money… YOU! I’m sorry, I meant you — whichever will get you the most money.”

(But surely not.)

If you don’t like those and have thought of a better one, use yours, by all means!

The point is this: if you’re having a hard time figuring out how to say it, take a step back and think about exactly what you’re trying to say. Rephrase things in the simplest terms possible, then strip out whatever is obvious, trite, mere formulaic filler. When you’ve gotten down to the one idea you really must get across, you’ll have a much easier time figuring out how to pitch it.

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Filed under DfW Holds Forth!, Tragic Biz-Speak, Writing and Writers

Spellcheckers See, But They Do Not Observe

In honor of my current obsession with Benedict Cumberbatch, I quote the great Sherlock Holmes:

“Spellcheckers suck!”

OK, he never said that. But he should have. Because they do.

Proof? You want proof? Here you go:

learn teach spellcheck

Uh… excuse me? Having already made itself ridiculous in a million other ways, Word’s spellchecker has decided that “learn” and “teach” are “Commonly Confused Words”. And I suppose there are instances where someone might say, for example, “I’ll learn ya to talk back, ya lily-livered scallywag!” Or something. But that person is very unlikely to be typing that into Word — mostly because Old-Timey Wild-West Gibberish hasn’t been spoken since the old-timey. If that sentence were to be typed into word, it would be as character dialogue, and no one will ever want that spellchecked into something like, “I will teach you to controvert my command, you cowardly scofflaw!”

Other than that, I can’t think of a single instance where someone would confuse “learn” and “teach”. It’s like confusing “throw the ball” with “be hit in the head by the ball because you have poor depth perception…” Oh, wait, that’s just me. Well, you know what I mean.

Elementary, my dear Benedict Cumberbatch: spellcheckers SUCK. 

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Free-Range Words (Warning: Some Are Naughty)

Elope. Noodle. Trillionth. Mud. Surreptitious. Alabaster. Freeze.

Nope, no pattern. Well, except that all of those, and everything else you have read or said today, are words. That’s all. And that’s everything. I don’t mean to wax revolting, but communication, human culture, past, present, future: words words words everything depends upon words.

Here’s where I do the thing I have always told my students never to do: I’m about to quote the dictionary. Ready? Here we go:

Definition of WORD

(1) : a speech sound or series of speech sounds that symbolizes and communicates a meaning usually without being divisible into smaller units capable of independent use(2) : the entire set of linguistic forms produced by combining a single base with various inflectional elements without change in the part of speech elements(1) : a written or printed character or combination of characters representing a spoken word.

OR, and here’s my preferred definition, something I say (or write) that you understand.

For example: at my house, there are some children. Occasionally, these children do not want to do a thing (usually a thing requested by their mother. Their father seems to have better luck. This is irritating.) And when these children do not want to do a thing, they suddenly lose all structural integrity and blob to the floor. “Oh, no!” I say. “They’ve got The Puddinbone!”

How these children originally developed this dread disease I do not recall. But I no longer have to say: “Oh, no! The children do not wish to do as I have asked, therefore they have lost all structural integrity and blobbed to the floor!” I just say “The Puddinbone” and, because everyone knows what I’m talking about when I say it, Puddinbone* is now a word. As is, by the way, “blob” as a verb. (See what I did there?)

That’s all. Sounds or symbols that convey meaning. And all words are that, entirely that, and only that.

So our segregation of words as being more or less appropriate in certain situations is shaky at best. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I don’t want anyone to start yelling naughty words at the afore-mentioned puddinboned children. Some things make cultural sense beyond simple logic and that’s that.

(But fair warning, I’m going to use a few of those words in a minute.)

I’m talking about words like “yes” and “no.” Like “good” and “bad.” Simple and straightforward words that rarely show up when we really need them. We mostly get kind of a runaround; we very often see words purposely arranged in such a way as to avoid conveying any meaning at all.

Are they still words at that point?

On a more practical level, wouldn’t it be great if words could just roam free across the plains, flit and flutter around the world conveying meaning in the most direct ways? If there were no such thing as being blunt, brusque, or flat-out rude? If a statement made simply and honestly in the clearest language possible were prized as the hallmark of excellence in writing?

Language like this: “Till I Die is a catastrophic, misogynistic shit of a song.”

I’ll admit, “catastrophic” and “mysoginistic” are big long words. But I’d argue that using a word whose definition expresses your entire point in one go really is simplicity in action. Your opinion may differ, but there is no way that anyone can argue with “shit”. As the most straightforward method of conveying the idea that the song is a) a waste product offering no benefit, b) offensive to the senses, and c) the one and only thing an asshole can produce… well. “Shit” wins.

That quote is from a beautiful piece of writing. A bold, fearless unequivocal piece of writing, full of free-range words that convey the author’s personal opinion with utter clarity. Words like “repugnant.” And “disgusting.” And “clusterfuck.”

Ladies and gentlemen. I bring you Chris Havercroft’s review of Chris Brown’s album, Fortune.

*Just did a quick Google search and found independent instances of “Puddinbone,” so it may not be original to me. But I own If that doesn’t make it mine, I don’t know what does.

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Jonah Lehrer Resigns After Fabricating Bob Dylan Quotes For Book

Jonah Lehrer resigned from the New Yorker on Monday, after admitting that he fabricated Bob Dylan quotes for his bestselling book “Imagine.”

On Monday, Tablet’s Michael Moynihan reported that he questioned Lehrer about several quotes that he could not verify. When confronted with the piece, Lehrer confirmed that he made the quotes up.

The allegations surfaced just over a month after Lehrer was found guilty of recycling his own work. At the time, he apologized and the New Yorker assured readers that Lehrer made a “mistake” that he would not make again.

via Jonah Lehrer Resigns After Fabricating Bob Dylan Quotes For Book.

Here’s my question:

On what planet has Bob Dylan said so few interesting things that you have to make some up? That is just plain laziness.

This guy was already thumped for posting material in his new York Times blog that he had already written, and published… in the Wall Street Journal. The best part? The post in question was called—I am not making this up— “Why Smart People Are Stupid.”

Dude. If you’re going to steal your own stuff, don’t publish it under a title that will make people want to punch your head.

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