Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Mysterious L

We've all been there, haven't we? Going along, minding our own business, writing an e-mail, say, when suddenly, out of nowhere, it hits.

Is there one L or two in the past tense of the word cancel? Or travel? For that matteris it traveling or travelling? Why are they both accepted spellings on Google?

It is because, my befuddled brethren, there is more than one form of English. Most of us on this side of the Pond know that Britsand even, well, Canadianshave different spellings of some words (like that 'u' in 'colour'; or having an 'e' in lieu of an 'a' in 'grey'). Both cancel and travel (as well as others) fall into this ambiguous category of different, but arguably correct-either-way, spellings.

As a citizen of the United States of America (I do so disagree, on principle, of the use of the word 'American'. Where does that leave Canada and Mexico? And Central America? And South America? Aren't we all, technically, Americans?), one uses the (as always) simplified version of the word: Canceled, canceling, traveled, and traveling. No extra L for us. Why is this arguably correct? Well. Allow me to argue it out.

While I've no qualms with traveled and canceled (though, aesthetically, I do prefer adding an extra L), I think there's a real case, pronunciation-wise, for that second L in traveling and canceling. I can only truly make a case for the way I speak,  but I've noticed this in others as well. When we say the word traveling, we pronounce it, "Travel-ling". Think about it. Two Ls. Rarely do I hear trave-ling, or travel-ing, it is almost always travel-ling. It flows off the tongue much more nicely, does it not?

So, Microsoft Word Document, perhaps you will think of that the next time you give me the red squiggly when I choose the logical spelling of travelling over traveling, hm?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Words that look far too much alike

It happens that every now and again, when venturing forth through the rough terrain that is the English language, one stumbles upon words that look (homonyms) or sound (homophones)alike. Yet, though these words may look and sound similar, or really exactly the same, their meanings are vastly different.

Homonyms can be tricky because one can say to one's friend, "Meet me at the bank at three o'clock." If you live both by a river and that special place we go to put our money away for safety (and earn ridiculously poor interest), your friend may be in a bit of a quandary. In such a situation, he or she may end up in a swimsuit by the the cool waters of the river, ready for a picnic in the sun; or standing beneath the awnings of the local bank, wondering if you are finally getting that small business loan for your up-and-coming lightsaber business.

Homophones pose a much more serious problem, however. Why? Because though a bank may be a bank, whether a building or the slope of a river, an isle is most certainly never an aisle. Ever.

Yes, we have once again stumbled upon a very specific pet peeve of mine. An isle is a small spit of land surrounded by a body of water. An aisle is a walkway, usually surrounded by seating or shelving. Grocery stores have aisles, not isles. The ocean has isles, not aisles.

If ever in doubt, one may a. Pull out one's compact OED; b. Employ the services of that lovely website known as "Google"; c. use an on-line dictionary such as or or even, my personal favorite,

A list of common homophones:
Eye, I
Balled, Bald, Bawld
Basal, Basil
Bear, Bare: I feel the need to note that the word "bare" is only ever nakedness. Ever. One does not "bare a load" unless one is stripping it.
Cache, Cash
Capital (a place), Capitol (money)
Cede (to withdraw or give up, as in a point), Seed (a thing you plant)
Die (to cease to exist, life stops here, do not collect 200 dollars), Dye (to stain something with color). Important note here: dying is a sad thing, that bit where your heart stops beating. Dyeing is where you are in the process of staining fabric that lovely vermilion color that took you two months to find.

Augh, there are too many to even try to list. Fear not, fearless reader! As more come to me and offend me with their glaring wrong-ness, I shall again venture forward into the Land of Homophones and post a new and entertaining blog!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Underline vs Italics

As a child, when I was taught to write my book reports in elementary school, I was told time and time again: Underline the titles of books, or I would be marked down. But then in high school, I was taught that, no, no, no, we italicize our book titles. When I asked my teacher why the change, she said she honestly didn’t know. It was simply becoming more “popular” to italicize.

I knew there had to be a real reason, however, rather than a simple change in aesthetic. And, of course, there is.

What’s the difference? Here’s where it gets a little funny:

There isn’t one.

When one underlines a title (note: this applies to longer works such as books, epic poems, periodicals, newspapers etc. Shorter works such as single poems, short stories and song titles are encased in quotation marks), this signifies a note, presumably to the editor, to italicize the marked words.

Example: In the good guide to grammar, Punctuation Plain & Simple, by Edgar and Jean Alward, I learned that titles come before proper names.

Example: In the late-nineteenth century novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, the title character undergoes many hardships before achieving true happiness.

Example: I think the poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” is one of Robert Frost’s best.

As most of us have no editors—or if we do, we hopefully try to make their jobs as easy as is possible—there is not only no need to underline, but it looks, dare I speak the word?, unprofessional. If you are writing something by hand, and then intend to type it, underlining can be more visible than trying to make your cursive look like italics. But when it is typed, do be sure to use italics, rather than an underscore.

Though I can see why, I suppose, we are taught in grade school to underline. When I was a child, back before the real boom of technology, we weren’t “taught” typing until fifth or sixth grade. As my handwriting was already rather atrocious (my school refused to allow us to print anything; papers had to be written in cursive at all times), attempting to make me write a title in italics would, most assuredly, have been a really rather rotten idea.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

There they're sitting, with their thistles.

As the title demonstrates, this time I am going to rant blog about the different, but oh-so similar sounding words, their, there, and they're. I'm not sure why this is such a tricky one, but it is one of the more flagrant misuses of the English language of which I can think.

So, let's begin, shall we?

There: This is a place. A specific location, sometimes to which you may point.
Example: "Where is the hawk?" she asked, her eyes shaded by the delicate curve of her hand.
"It's right there," he said, pointing at the bird circling above, a mere black speck against the heat of the sun.

Do you see how he is pointing at a specific place? There is the location of the hawk.

Their: This is a possessive adjective, of the third person. So, in other words, it's the plural of his or hers.
Example: The cup belongs to the Humperdink couple. It's theirs.
Example: Their eyes shone like glimmering lodestars in the dark of night, the only beacons in that endless sea of black.

In each case the word their denotes possession of the noun it modifies. One could say, The cup belongs to Prince Humperdink. It's his. When making this plural however, simply switch to their and you are good to go.

They're: This is a contraction of the words: they are. It is only ever a contraction.  Never write, "Where does this Humperdink cup go?" she asked. "They're?"
If you do, know that a small cat somewhere is being smothered to death by dark avenging angels of the English grammar. And it will be all your fault. Not you're fault. Your fault.

Example: "Where are they?" Jake demanded, gazing anxiously from his seat on the porch for his daughter and her weasel of a Prom date.
"Calm down, Innis. They're just running a little late."
"They're forty-minutes late, Ethel! Where did I put my shotgun?"

Though the Humperdink couple barely made it through high school, they both employ proper use of the "they are" contraction. And so should you.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Objects vs. Subjects

So, because I was thinking of perhaps teaching English abroad (an imaginary high five to who can guess where), I decided to look at the Oxford Seminars institute…thing. I saw them advertising in one of my creative writing workshops and thought to myself: Self, you may as well check out these people and see if they are legit. I went home and promptly looked them up on-line.

It seemed fairly safe at first, until I got to the France page. Now, I knew before that this was an issue, but I have never, EVER, seen such blatant misuse of the word ‘whom’ in my life.

In every single sentence where ‘who’ ought to have been used, it was egregiously substituted with the word ‘whom’. Everywhere, with all thought to grammatical construction thrown to the rather erroneous wind. It was so very offensive that I very nearly wrote them a snarky (which Word doc is trying to tell me is not a word. Silly Word doc.) e-mail asking if the graduating test was correcting the webmaster’s misuse of an object as a subject?

I have to admit it wasn’t one of my finer, more patient moments. I didn’t do it, but still, the temptation was there and strong. I remember when I was still in grade school—early grade school—some of my fellows thought ‘whom’ was simply a more grown-up way of saying ‘who’. I had no idea that this misunderstanding continued to adulthood for some. I knew that people, for the most part, ignore ‘whom’ as if it doesn’t exist. But this flagrant misuse on a website designed to designate people to teach English abroad

Well. Clearly it has thoroughly upset me. It is time to set the matter straight. What, exactly, is the difference betwixt ‘who’ and ‘whom’?

It’s easy, once it’s been explained a little.

Who: A subject.

Whom: An object.

What does this mean? Subjects are the ones that do in a sentence. They are the words that take the verb. An object is acted upon in a sentence, or receiving what is being done. Let’s have an example, shall we?

Example: Who signed the treaty of Versailles? 
See how the subject and verb go together? The subject is acting on the verb here, so we use who.

            Example: Who slapped whom?
A little trickier, but the subject is the one doing the slapping, the object receiving the slap.

            Example: To whom is it directed? It is directed to whom it may concern of course!

Whenever I am in doubt, I replace who with “I” (a subject), and whom with “me” (an object). The distinction between I and me is typically a little more apparent, as one uses it with more frequency. As such, the former becomes: Is it directed to me? We may have the urge to put “who” simply because whom is followed with a verb. However, if we think on it, we see that the verb is actually acting in conjunction with the word it. Again, this is why putting the sentence into the first person is helpful. We instinctively know to say something like, “It is directed to me!” rather than, “It is directed to I!”

See? Objects and subjects are really quite easy to differentiate. Now we need never, ever, ever mistake who for whom (or vice versa, Oxford Seminars) again. Hooray!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Bane of my existence: Transitive versus Intransitive Verbs.

You may perchance think I am being a tad extreme when I vehemently state that transitive and intransitive verbs are the bane of my existence. In fact, the words “over zealous” may come to mind. I fully acknowledge the following blatant misuse(s) of the English language for dramatic purposes.

You. Do not. Under. Stand.

Allow me to explain.

I am a writer. Throughout both my academic and artistic careers, this small, niggling thing has seemed to follow me around like a nasty case of halitosis. And yes, it is has been just as unpleasant. But let’s begin with the beginning, shall we?

Intransitive Verb: A verb which takes no direct object.
            Example: Subject + Verb = Complete Sentence.
                        Example: I (subj.) rise (verb).
It is a simple example and not a complicated sentence, but it serves the point. The verb doesn’t need a direct object to complete the sentence.

Transitive Verb: A verb which needs a direct object to be complete.
            Example: Subject + Verb + Direct Object = Complete Sentence.
                        Example: I (subj.) raise (verb) the bar (d.obj.).

Most of us instinctively know when to use a transitive verb, and when we need an intransitive. One typically does not hear others saying, “I rise the bar.” If you’re like me, it sends cold chills down your spine and makes your hackles rise, much like the sound of nails on a chalkboard. Or a cat yowling off-key. Or a banshee screaming at the top of her lungs.

So then, you may be wondering, why are transitive and intransitive verbs the bane of my existence? Well, since you asked so nicely, and care so much, I’ll tell you:

Lie vs. Lay

Oh, good God in heaven above, lie vs. lay! It makes me want to gouge out my eyes, much like Jocasta when she finds out she married and bore offspring with her son. This is where the fact that I am a writer comes into play.

I write fiction. As such, I read. Fiction. A lot of it. I have taken multiple workshops and creative writing classes. Where is this going? From song lyrics (Snow Patrol, I am indeed looking at you—and no, I will not lay here) to published and acclaimed novels, people make this mistake. In every single workshop or class I have taken, someone, usually multiple someones, and yes, this includes the professors/teachers/workshop leaders, makes this mistake.

What do they do, all these innocent people, that makes me want to find them and bludgeon them with a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style?

They use lay, a transitive verb, when they should be using lie, the intransitive form of the verb! They write horrid, nasty things like:

            The boy laid down on the soft earth, gazing soulfully up at the star-speckled sky. (Except they usually leave off the hyphen, but that’s for another blog.)

Okay. Deep breath. Calm. I am centered in an ordered universe, where rules are upheld, and laws to which we must confine ourselves, adhered.

Right. So then—what should it be? It’s easy, really.

Lie is intransitive, so it takes no direct object. What that means is:

            Example: The boy has lain down on the soft earth.
            Example: I lie down. You lie down. We lie down together.

Lay is the transitive form of the verb, so it does take a direct object.

            Example: The boy laid the book down.
                        The boy (subj.) laid (verb) the book (d.obj.) down.
            Example: He laid me down. I laid the quilt down. She lays the Glock 17C down on the dresser. The mother laid her son softly upon the heather.
                        He (subj.) laid (verb) me (d.obj.) down.

See? Quite straightforward. It has simply become so accepted to use lay as a blanket verb, because we as a people have chosen to dislike the word lie—why? Perhaps because it reminds us of that rather nasty verb we use when we aren’t telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help you God.

Whatever the case, I hope that this alleviates some confusion regarding verbs, transitive or intransitive. Most specifically those absolutely-NOT-interchangeable verbs lie and lay.

Go ahead. Google it.

I dare you.

Welcome one, welcome all!

I make no pretense at expertise--no grandiose proclamations of all-encompassing knowledge of the English language's idiosyncrasies and archaic syntax.

No, I am a mere bachelor graduate, who happened to major in English. I was taught grammar at the usual age in elementary school, forgot nearly all the rules immediately (as, let's face it, we most of us did), but was blessed (read: raised in an unusually literate family) with a good instinct for it. My obsession  fascination with the rules of language didn't begin until my first high school French class. Learning the grammar of another language is, I think, one of the fastest and most efficient ways of learning the grammar for one's own native tongue. The contrasts, the similarities, etc. etc. etc.

I began a half-hearted study of the (ir)regularities of English syntax and grammar, that slowly grew stronger when I got to college and realized: No one has any fucking idea what they're doing. I include professors in this unfortunate mass. How many of us, after all, answer the question, "How are you doing?" with the adjective, "Good"? I know I used to, before I re-learned the difference between adjectives and adverbs.

What do I hope to accomplish here? It's simple. I'm hoping to right the more flagrant misuses of my second-most favorite language. One reader at a time.