The Compulsive Copyeditor

February 29, 2020

“Couple” therapy

Filed under: language degenerating,language evolving,pedantry of the day — amba12 @ 10:46 am

From an article on the coronavirus in Italy:

there are only a couple cases in all of Tuscany.

As long as I live this will never sound right to me in print, though it is fast becoming default standard usage (William Safire famously cited Norma Loquendi as the ultimate authority on linguistic correctness—I imagine her as a statue like “Blind Justice”: her name means “the norms of speech”).

As a copy editor I am forever inserting “of” after “a couple,” which, alone, sounds like a sloppy colloquialism to me. It’s fine to say “See ya in a couple days” (though even there I would probably say “See ya in a coupla days”). It’s not fine to write it. (Besides, how many is “a couple”? Two? Then why not just say “two”? To me “a few” is three and “several” starts at four, but that’s another topic.)

I know this is just Round 1,254,997 in the endless cage match between Norma Loquendi and P. Dant. But people like me will have to die out before such barbarisms go amnesically unchallenged and slide frictionlessly into the canon.

January 21, 2020

Getting the most out of “most”

new CNN poll shows that most Americans want the Senate to remove Trump from office (51 to 45 percent), most want to hear from the witnesses that Trump blocked from testifying in the House (69 percent), and most believe that he abused the power of the presidency (58 percent) and obstructed Congress (57 percent).

~ Teresa Hanafin, “Fast Forward” (Boston Globe newsletter)

I’m sorry, but no matter where you stand on Trump, the Senate, impeachment, or CNN, 51 percent is NOT “MOST” Americans. It is, for all practical purposes, half.

The 69 percent who want to hear from the witnesses can make a much better case to be “most Americans.” The 57 and 58 percent who agree with the substance of the two articles of impeachment cannot. They are, at best, “a majority.” Not even the Senate two-thirds “supermajority” required to convict an impeached president.

Here’s the dictionary:

The synonyms tell the tale. Most of them—four out of five, 80 percent—connote considerably more than a mere “majority.”

In my opinion, the rhetorical inflation of any majority into “nearly all / almost all / the bulk of Americans” is a propaganda weapon in our Uncivil War. It’s a purely verbal tug-of-war for domination that seeks to belittle the other side and magnify one’s own, just as Trump exaggerates the size of his inauguration and rally crowds. Talking this way turns you into a liar like all the other liars. It degrades language and thought, both serving and obscuring the critical problem that the country is being very calculatedly driven into two large, irreconcilable camps. It is because neither of these camps comprises “most” Americans, and neither of them accepts the very existence of the other, that we can have neither consensus nor clear majority rule with a confident, and therefore perhaps magnanimous, winner. It’s because no one can have actual victory that each side strives for total victory.

Where do you think “most” begins? This is a matter of connotation (judgment, feeling, consensus) rather than denotation (bare meaning), so there’s some wiggle room. To me it’s not less than two-thirds, but better yet, three-fourths.

January 15, 2020

What does this writer think “trenchant” means?

Filed under: etymology,language degenerating,Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 8:49 am

The writer is talking about political polarization:

Gerber tries to use his sermons to steer congregants to a less trenchant view of politics by urging them to accept that others may disagree with them.

Answer: “entrenched.” Dug in. What it actually means:

If you’re trenchant, it means you think or say smart, sharply worded things that cut right to the heart of the matter.

Consulting the trusty Online Etymology Dictionary, the two meanings spring from one root:

trenchant (adj.)

early 14c., “cutting, sharp,” from Old French trenchant “cutting, sharp” (literal and figurative), present participle of trenchier “to cut” (see trench). Figurative sense in English is from c. 1600.

Interesting! It implies (unintentionally, but aptly) that the sharper the opinions used as a trenching tool, the deeper the trench in which one becomes entrenched.

January 14, 2020

What does this person think “raucous” means?

Filed under: language degenerating,Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 2:19 am

In a tweet:

January 3, 2020

Oh, Marianne.

Filed under: language degenerating,slipped cognates,spelling — amba12 @ 4:23 pm

But then, you didn’t write this yourself, did you, Marianne Williamson. (In your latest email fund appeal.)

I assume there are reasonable people in the American defense establishment trying hard to reign in the more reckless impulses of our president now.

“Reign in.” “Tow the line.” “Palates of cash.” AAAARRRGGHHHH.

Palate, Pallet, Palette

Filed under: language degenerating,spelling,Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 9:23 am

Can you define each of the above? Do you know which is which, and the uses of each?

A very warlike woman on Twitter named Amy Curtis prefaced her call for swift and total annihilation of:our enemies with this:

Giving the Iranians palates of cash is not the answer. Restrictive rules of engagement is not the answer.

I find that unpalletable.


November 8, 2019

Turning Typos into Lemonade

Filed under: language degenerating,spelling,Typos — amba12 @ 10:52 am

Historian Claire Berlinski sends out a special edition of her newsletter, detailing her new strategy for repurposing typos:

I just sent out a newsletter riddled with typos again. This time, it wasn’t owing to my neglect . . . I just seem not to have saved my corrections properly. You just received my penultimate draft . . .

Worrying about this will result in my never again sending out the newsletter for fear it hasn’t yet been properly proofread. So here’s my new policy:

This is an artisanal product. The imperfections are part of the charm. This is a deliberate part of my marketing strategy:

Imperfect or “unperfect” products are becoming increasingly appealing to many consumers, who relish the fact that these offbeat products are unique and aren’t typically replicated. In fact, as we have seen from a growing number of company examples we have been tracking through our research, consumers not only love to associate themselves with these products but will also become, in effect, their brand ambassadors.

Also, any typo-ridden newsletter may be exchanged, one day later, for the copy-edited Internet version. Free of charge.

Because the typos actually make me insane.

Mostly, the typos that riddle writing on the internet are just ignored, or not seen at all. Young people who might labor for hours to perfect a visual illustration or animation, or a string of code, regard the written word as only a sort of throwaway paper bag for the juicy burger of content. Older people, on the other hand, were trained in “grammar school” to be hyperaware of such things, to a fault—how many gifted potential writers were silenced for life by mortification over their lack of the spelling gene?

How important is it? Provided they do not change meaning, mere typos are on the level of dandruff: they’re not a matter of life and death, but they can make you look like a slob. Respect for the medium of language, and for oneself as a worker in it, mandates a meticulous but not martinet level of attention to these finishing touches. I think of copyediting as giving a book a manicure before it goes out on a job interview. The impression it makes may be subliminal, but it is powerful.

September 29, 2019

The Ize-ization of English, II

Filed under: language degenerating,Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 7:54 am

Both Giuliani and Trump have grown increasingly excited by a conspiracy theory that in 2016 Biden pressurized Ukraine to fire its then chief prosecutor, Shokin.

“Pressured,” or even “pressed,” would be correct. “Pressurized” suggests that Ukraine was flying at such a high altitude that its citizens needed protection from hypoxia and their blood boiling.

October 3, 2018

The Ize-ation of English

Filed under: language degenerating,sensory qualities of words — amba12 @ 9:26 am

Or should that be the ize-ization?

The example that came to my attention this morning was “acclimatize,” where “acclimate” would do just fine. More examples? Put them in the comments, please. The august yet homey Strunk and White find perhaps the prototype, the Patient Zero of this plague:

-ize.  Do not coin verbs by adding this tempting suffix. Many good and useful verbs do end in -ize: summarize, fraternize, harmonize, fertilize. But there is a growing list of abominations: containerize, prioritize, finalize, to name three. Be suspicious of -ize: let your ear and your eye guide you. Never tack -ize onto a noun to create a verb. Usually you will discover that a useful verb already exists. Why say “utilize” when there is the simple, unpretentious word use

This parasitic little syllable, which inserts itself needlessly into good, clean verbs like a transposon into a genome, seems to make bureaucrats happy. It is one of those syllables that makes a word longer and more machinelike (jazz it up with a chainsaw! Not enough noise here!) and so, more important-sounding and intimidating (here come the Hell’s Angels!). That’s the only explanation I can think of for voluntarily making the sound of a word uglier and more technological.

The syllable has its uses, though it is never pretty. I remember somebody once joking that if to put someone in the hospital was to hospitalize, then to throw someone in a canal should be to canalize. But when a verb already does its job just fine in its smaller, plainer, smoother body, why mechanize it? Why add a chrome tailpipe? It’s as if we’re so infatuated with machines as evidence of our own power that we won’t rest until we’ve turned every horse into a motorcycle and every bird into a drone.



August 3, 2018

Beam I Up, Scotty!

Filed under: language degenerating,Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 1:42 pm

That’s it! I’ve finally hit on it—the formula that WILL get through to people who persist in writing the likes of “I’m going to sign my niece and I up for lessons.”

UPDATE: A friend on Facebook responded, “Huh?”

I wanted to say, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”

And this is someone who studied Latin in high school!

I’ll put my reluctant explanation in the comments.



Next Page »

Blog at