The Compulsive Copyeditor

July 24, 2009

Hybridioms [UPDATED]

Filed under: Uncategorized — amba12 @ 10:49 pm

An article came across my desk this week that had “changed the playing field” in its subtitle.  That itched at me, but it took a while to figure out what was wrong with it.  I Googled the phrase and found that it’s in use, but that doesn’t necessarily make it right — at least not yet.  (William Safire is famous for saying that “Norma Loquendi” is the ultimate authority on matters of language.)

No, the idiom is “leveled the playing field.”  So where did “changed the playing field” come from?  I thought about it for a while and figured out that “leveled the playing field” had mated with “changed the rules of the game.”

Other examples of such mash-ups?

Back to ground zero.”  A chilling unconscious merger of the innocuous “back to square one” with the point of impact of a nuclear weapon.  A real atomic-age mutant, this one.  Should we call it a Szilardian slip?  An Oopsenheimer?

Jerry-rigged.”  I’ve used this one myself, but then I read that it’s the illegitimate offspring of “jury-rigged” and “jerry-built.”

More examples as they occur to me — or you.

UPDATE: Althouse quotes Charles Grassley, saying “Judge Sotomayor’s very lukewarm answer that she gave me left me with the same pit in my stomach I had as a result of my vote for Souter.”  “A pit in my stomach” isn’t a mash-up with the words and meaning of another idiom, it’s a mash-up with the form of another idiom — a mistaken structural analogy, my wild guess is to “a lump in my throat.”


July 23, 2009


Filed under: language degenerating — amba12 @ 6:34 am

“The fact that”.  “In order to”.  “There is”.   Rarely, rarely do these serve any purpose.  They are filler — the Styrofoam packing peanuts of language.  Cut them out, and 99% of the time what you want to say will lift free unbroken, with the expensive density of leaded crystal.

Think of some others for me.  “A kind of,” “a type of,” “in such a way as to”?  I’ve been editing somebody who starts many a sentence with “As such,” out of the blue, just for the hell of it.

UPDATE: Ah! Ah! Ah!  Another one — another two:  “tended to,” “seemed to.”  Get off the pot!  It either did or didn’t, was or wasn’t!  What weasel words these are!

UPDATE II: “That is the reason why” instead of “That is why.”

There are syllables that are fillers, too.  (Fyllables?)  Tacking -ical, -ization, or -ification onto a perfectly good root often has much the same [“kind of”] deadening effect.  (Come to think of it, “effect” . . .)  Is just as deadening.  You’d be amazed how short, bright, and fresh a word can look, shorn of all those gimcracks and tailfins.

What is the need to say “conceptualization” when you can say “concept”?

July 12, 2009

Pet Peeves

Filed under: grammar,language degenerating — amba12 @ 5:44 am
  • People who write “prior” when they mean “before” and “previous” in place of “earlier.”  Sounds more important, don’tcha know.   It’s the old Latinate posing and pretense versus Anglo-Saxon forthrightness.  Lawyers and yeomen.
  • People who write “I” where “me” is properly called for (“he gave it to Sally and I”) because they think it sounds . . . taller.  More refined and debonair.  Really it just sounds ignorant — because they don’t even know they’re saying “he gave it to I”!

You don’t learn the names of noun cases unless you study Latin, German, or Russian, but they’re there in English just the same:  “I” is the nominative case, the agent who acts in a sentence, and “me” is both the dative, or indirect recipient (“he gave it to me”) and the accusative, or direct object, of an action (“he hit me”).  “Me” got a bad rap because little kids, who can’t get anything unless an adult gives it to them, say “Me, me, me!” like gaping baby birds before they attain to the dignity, agency, and autonomy of “I want that.”  Poor “me” — it’s just a part of speech that forever makes us feel like short and greedy toddlers.  Saying “me” is humbling, so people punish grammar to preserve their amour-propre.

July 11, 2009

Twice the Size of Roget’s!

Filed under: etymology,history of English,language evolving — amba12 @ 7:37 pm

Word freaks can now start salivating over the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, in the works since 1965 and due for publication this coming fall.  It includes not only modern and cutting-edge English, but all those delicious historical layers we alluded to recently:

With 800,000 meanings for 600,000 words organised into more than 230,000 categories and subcategories, the thesaurus is twice the size of Roget’s version.

It contains almost the entire vocabulary of English, from Old English to the present day, giving a unique insight into the development of the language. …

The thesaurus is divided into three major sections: the external, mental and social worlds.

The 354 categories cover subjects including leisure, authority, education, faith, armed hostility, philosophy, mental capacity, aesthetics, sleeping and waking, matter, the supernatural and relative properties.

Read the story, it’s quite a cliffhanger.  Back before computers when its evolving contents were scribbled down on slips of paper, the project survived a catastrophic fire because it was stashed in metal file cabinets.  It’s outlived several of its contributors and survived decades of funding and labor shortages, and just when they thought it was done, around 1980, they decided to open it up again to include new words like “speed-dating.”  There went another thirty years.  A sublimely obsessive project that required as much perseverance as the Hubble Space Telescope.  I don’t know about you, but I want one!

July 9, 2009

When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It.

Filed under: grammar — amba12 @ 11:52 pm
Tags: ,

That famous koan of Yogi Berra’s?  That’s how “grammatical ambiguity” makes me feel.

Grammatical ambiguity is my own private term (unless of course I saw it somewhere and unconsciously stole it) for when you know perfectly well what a sentence means, but the grammar shunts you off in two possible directions simultaneously.  One is absurd and quickly ruled out, but you have to do a microsecond’s extra work in reading the sentence, and it’s unsettling, like slipping on a cake of soap and losing your balance for an instant, or having your two ice skates go their separate ways.  (I told you grammar is physical to me.)

Here’s an example I just came across, unfortunately not the most flagrant or funniest one:

Researchers in England have shown that those cells let pollinating insects get a grip on unsteady flowers while they extract nectar and pollen.

When you first hit “they,” didn’t you think it was going to be something about the flowers, like “while they sway in the breeze”?  And then you had to revise your expectation and change direction, turning on a dime.  This may have happened so fast you weren’t aware of it, but it gives you that slight, subliminal feeling of instability, like walking on slippery ice.

This was how I suggested revising it:

Researchers in England have shown that those cells let pollinating insects get a grip on unsteady flowers while extracting nectar and pollen.

Not a perfect solution; I don’t like having two “-ing” words in such close proximity.  May work on it some more.  But anyway, I’ll add more examples of the genre to this post as I find them.

July 7, 2009

Usage Find of the Day

Filed under: language degenerating — amba12 @ 4:47 am

So we’re riding to the swimming pool and a news reader on NPR, talking about tomorrow’s L.A. Michael Jackson memorial, says:

“Police are trying to minimize the crowd from milling . . .”

Takes me back to the day I collected (I’ve been reading too many entomologists) my all-time favorite in this same genre, from CNN’s coverage of some sort of riot or demonstration.  A young woman announcer said with a straight, nay solemn, face:

“Police reduced the disorder to a semblance.”

July 1, 2009

Usage Find of the Day

Filed under: language degenerating,Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 6:04 pm

This issue has submerged up on several popular blogs . . .

~ Why Twitter Might Sink

(There’s a good new word in there, though, probably new only to me:  followship.)

(Just so you know:  just because I am The Compulsive Copyeditor, it doesn’t mean I’ll write off a post like this one that’s a copyediting disaster.  It’s written by an Australian sixteen-year-old who’s bravely wading into the blogosphere, it makes a really good point, and its (I wrote “it’s”!) determination to own and use language without having mastered it is part of the post’s charm.  When I read something like this, I hit the Copyeditor’s mute button and enjoy.  Unless the tweeter is advertising editing services.)

Spelling as Archaeology

Filed under: etymology,history of English,language evolving,spelling — amba12 @ 5:20 pm

You people are getting me going.

Relating the spelling of “devastate” to its etymology in the comments on the last post — “vast” is in there, and is related to “waste,” as in “a desolate waste(land),” so “to devastate” is “to lay waste” — reminds me of reading this proposal for reforming English spelling by an innovative Australian thinker in her 80s, Valerie Yule.  If the goal is solely to communicate, why not “mischivus,” “gardian,” “sovren”?

I realize that it’s not fair for me to weigh in on this topic because I have the gene for spelling.  (I was the spelling champion of Lee County, Florida, in 1958.  So there.)  You either have it or you don’t, and it has nothing to do with intelligence or cogency of expression.  Spelling is an autistic-savant talent, like seeing numbers in colors, probably owed to a synaesthetic crossover between the auditory and visual cortices.  If you care about getting spelling right (as ever fewer people do) but don’t have the gene for it, just get a compulsive copyeditor, or a spellchecker, to do it for you.

But I have to confess that even though I’ve watched it drive generations of immigrants mad, I love English spelling.  Love it.  It’s an archaeological treasure trove of the uniquely layered history of our language.  You’ll be going along glibly in lubricated Latinate and all of a sudden the plough turns up a rough chunk of Anglo-Saxon.  There are at least two of them in that sentence, what I think of as the “fossil gutturals.”  If you’ve ever heard the opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales read out loud, you’ll forever hear a ghostly echo of that marvelous rasp and traction whenever you see the letters “ough.”  There are silent Greek-Latin fossils too:  you may have noticed the one in “synaesthetic.”  I like the “ae” too; it shines, like Au.

It isn’t practical to be dragging this museum along with you as you speak, text, and tweet at 21st-century speeds.  But it is beautiful.

Not To Be Cruel, But . . .

Filed under: language degenerating — amba12 @ 3:39 pm

. . . if you got a Twitter follow from someone advertising editing services, and these were among the tweets —

It is more likely to become injured while taking a shower or board a plane with a drunken pilot than snag a nationally syndicated column.

The loss of an article, or an entire book manuscript, can be devistating to a writer. To back uo your work for free, email it to yourself.

The best thing about rejection letters is to save them.Once they become inconsistent, you know you have a good manuscript.

— what would you do?  Shake your head sadly and muse on the blind leading the blind?  (Mind you, I’m not talking about the content.  And no, you don’t need to remind me that it is ridiculous to be copyediting tweets — I already told you, I can’t stop! — or that my own tweets doubtless would flunk such scrutiny.)  Saddest of all, most of this person’s potential clients probably no longer know the difference.  Even some young editors in publishing houses probably don’t.  Marketing is all.

My unsolicited advice to this person:  don’t call yourself an editor.  Market yourself as a coach.

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