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 22, 2016

Usage Finds of the Month

“As I’ve eluded to above the three key advantages are . . .”  ~ Antibody Review Blog

“Love him or hate him, Trump is one of the most consistent people you will ever meet. He changes his political opinions over time, which is normal, but his patterns of behavior rarely seem to waiver.” ~ Scott Adams, The Dilbert Blog

Like “tow the line” and “pour over [the document],” these are symptoms of a culture that has become oral and visual rather than literate. What’s wrong with that, you ask? When the spelling of written English is so perverse that it selects for people with a genetic polymorphism that links the sound of a word to the precise look of it? What is the use of being able to master English spelling for conveying meaning? It communicates like a social code to other elite freaks, that’s all.

I’m playing devil’s advocate here. I’m one of those freaks, so I don’t want to just assume we’re right and those who can’t do this trick are wrong. I happen to love written English spelling because it’s a playground, or graveyard, of etymology. How words are spelled tells you not only the words’ root meaning but the language they came from (Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Danish, Latin, and French having all poured, ahem, into the brew that became English in the first place) and the way their ancestors were pronounced. “Through, thought, rough, dough, plough” send me into paroxysms of delight because I can image phlegmy Anglo-Saxons hawking them up. One doesn’t need to know that to write a blog post that gets its point across, but a language with amnesia for its antecedents is denuded of earth and depth.


January 9, 2016

Usage Find of the Day

From a purported “Dr. Oz” skin cream ad:

On his show he said he was thrilled when after months and months of pain staking tests and research, his team came across 2 products that when combined literally took 10 to 20 years off women?s appearance in just a month.


And while I’m at it . . . the new way of expressing enthusiastic agreement is, “Here, here!” That goes with “tow the line” and “pouring over” — signs of a culture that watches and listens far more than it reads.

December 21, 2013

Usage Find of the Day

Nip it in the butt.” Don’t you just love it?!

September 13, 2013

On the Expressiveness of Certain Emoticons

Filed under: language evolving,typography — amba12 @ 11:15 am

It’s funny, but the last straw that is pushing me off Facebook is its insistence on forcing me to use bland and ugly little yellow smileys in place of emoticons. When I go to “Help” and type in “disable smileys,” its only reply is to instruct me on how to express my emotions by choosing the right smiley. Ugh. This totalitarianism of trivia, this fake individualism — like declaring your sovereign individuality by customizing your Starbucks latte; didn’t this computer-enabled prefab multiple-choice simulacrum of self-expression start with Cabbage Patch dolls? If they presented you with enough choices, like enough pixels, would it be indistinguishable from the real thing? /rant — anyway, this strikes me as insidious training for regimented consumerism. It is designed to train the chimp to press the right button to get the banana — or, better put, to give up the banana. Many bananas. It is turning us into capitalism’s lab animals or willing factory farm slaves, cash cows being mechanically milked on an Orwellian dairy farm.

But why am I writing this on THIS blog? Because it just hit me that part of the pleasure of emoticons is that they are typography, thus close to the heart of people who love typesetting and print and find it a remarkably ductile medium of expression. Then there are the real dying breed, people who love handwriting, who were taught cursive and expressed their individuality by warping and deviating from its bland norm. You see, individuality isn’t totally asocial, but the best shared media have plenty of room for you to play with them and make them uniquely your own. Facebook has none of that, just these narrow, inflexible menus of “choices” that assume that all of us come in a few “flavors” and behave in the same predictable market-tested ways. It is a preview of how compatible the digital life is with the coming consumer totalitarianism.

Emoticons were such inspired shorthand that I actually have been known to hand-write them into letters and journals, usually :-P (that expression of happy idiocy) or :\ They are not all equally expressive, nor are all possible emotions equally well expressed (which just leaves more room for invention. :) has always struck me as too much like a smile button and too wan and watery a smile; :D is somewhat better for both joy and laughter. Worry and anger (even this WordPress theme won’t let me type them) aren’t very well represented because < is too steep a unibrow. I like :S for ambivalence; it is precisely an emoticon for the Greek happy/sad theatre mask. The font that you are emoting in obviously plays a part as well.

But :( , now — I could wax eloquent on the eloquence of :( , the distillation of an emotion — rendered glum or poignant or downhearted by context. One can just feel one's head sinking and chest hollowing in empathy evoked by those three magic marks.

It was Facebook's refusal to allow me to pair this :( with this

that finished Facebook off for me.

June 12, 2013

Hurry up please its time

Filed under: language degenerating,language evolving,punctuation — amba12 @ 9:16 am

“Join us as we sample through different styles of rum while learning about it’s rich history and exciting future.” Thus the e-newsletter of the New York City University of Chicago Alumni Club. One can take this* as a sign of the end of the world, or, as I do (with a deep sigh), as a sign that a not illogical change in the language is well on its way to being anointed by Webster’s. *And how many of you already haven’t got a clue what “this” even refers to?

October 25, 2011

I’m Possessive . . .

. . . but I know when to let go.

My older (not older than me, I mean, but probably older than you) editor colleagues are appalled when I tell them that the neuter third-person possessive “its” is definitely on the way out, and that while I still loyally use “its,” I have resigned myself to its (it’s) disappearance, and even to the logic of its disappearance.

Look, we make possessives by adding “apostrophe s.”  The only reason we break that rule in the case of “it” is to avoid confusing the possessive with the contraction of “it is” (“it’s going to be a long day”).  But why are we suddenly so phobic about confusion?  We constantly distinguish between homonyms on the basis of context alone.  When we “peer” through a mail slot we don’t think of forcing a member of the House of Lords through the aperture.  Or for a better example (because both are verbs), we know that it’s one thing to “tear up” and another to “tear up your Kleenex.”  People who form the possessive “it’s” may be ignorant of the niceties of grammar, but the niceties—especially, God knows, in English!—are often arbitrary, and in this case the ignorance is logical.

I believe that sooner than later, the dictionaries will accept “it’s” first as an acceptable alternative, and then as the correct way to form the neuter third person plural.  And why not?  (Ironically, I’d be willing to betcha “his” started out as “he’s.”) Language changes because usage is the ultimate authority, or as William Safire used to call her, “Norma Loquendi.” (In this case, actually, her cousin, Norma Scribendi.)

There is one problem, and that’s that when people are uncertain about where apostrophe’s belong, they multiply like fleas.  As in the preceding sentence (I actually typed that unintentionally!), they are attracted to any terminal “s” and thus they start infecting plurals, which is beyond the pale.

And . . . here’s what prompted me to write this . . .

Today I actually saw           you’r

January 29, 2011

Two-Spacer’s Lament

Filed under: language degenerating,language evolving,punctuation — amba12 @ 2:54 am

Long time no post, but when I heard rumors of Farhad Manjoo’s Slate diatribe against “the two-space error,” I knew I would have to track it down and respond.

Farhad, two spaces after a colon or period is not an error.  It is a custom, a gracious custom that is passing away, like ironed handkerchiefs and hat-doffing and saying “You’re welcome” instead of “No problem” and starting a business letter to a total stranger “Dear Miss Welty” instead of “Hi Eudora.”  I freely grant you that two spaces after a colon or period is an anachronism.  I grant you that it is quaint.  But that is different from an error.  Farhad, you are so presentist. G.K. Chesterton would even say you are undemocratic.

It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record. . . . Those who urge against tradition that men in the past were ignorant may go and urge it . . . along with the statement that voters in the slums are ignorant. It will not do for us. . . . Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.

But two-spacing is not that venerable a tradition.  As Manjoo points out, it was an accommodation to the peculiarities of a late-nineteenth-century invention that dominated the first half of the twentieth:  the manual typewriter.  Because typewriters used “monospaced” type, granting the same width of space — defined by a keyhead — to both fat and skinny letters, the spacing in a line looked spotty, and it was harder to tell where sentences ended.  Now that our computers automatically insert proportional spacing, as typesetters do, there is no need for two-spacing. The typewriter remains an object of some nostalgia — some living writers can only write on them (the persnickety pace and companionable clackety-clack suit their muse), some people even play music on them, and the funky font Courier pays tribute to them — but it is, on the face of it, odd that the custom of two-spacing should have a momentum that propels it beyond the technology that launched it.  Isn’t this just mental inertia?

I don’t think so.  Two spaces after a period or colon represents, to me, a pause to take a breath.  In a time when there seems to be less and less time, it is an insistence on a tiny space of time, if not around then within the high-pressure flow of information — a pinprick, a pore, just enough to keep an air-breathing animal from drowning in viscous data.  Two spaces give a stubbornly stately, unhurried rhythm to the succession of sentences and clauses, more like moseying musing than the jabber of a teenager on T-Mobile, more like a promenade or paseo than a bullet train.

Punctuation is part of the musical notation of language — something I learned, not from anyone of G.K. Chesterton’s vintage, but from the Beat poets.  They laid out their words like a musical score on the page, showing the reader where to rush ahead like rapids, where to hesitate tactfully, where to take a breath like a clarinetist so that the next arc of notes might be unbroken.  Of course a period or colon by itself means “take a longer pause,” but to us two-spacers there’s something pleasing about seeing that pause on the page, in a small way making a visual image of the rhythms of thought.

I have a hunch that the real reason two spaces are not just unnecessary, but to be damned, is that they trip up computers.  And computers are our masters now.  Especially your generation, Farhad.  God forbid you inconvenience a computer.  It might (gasp!) slow down.

July 9, 2010

Coining a Word (Well, Trying To)

Filed under: language evolving,new words,other languages,vocabulary — amba12 @ 6:13 pm

For those who missed it on Twitter, or who didn’t but can stand to think about it a little more, I asked if there was a word for someone who shares your exact birthday — day and year  (someone, that is, who’s not your actual twin) — and if not, whether we could come up with one.

Disclaimer:  of course, you can invent words till you’re blue in the face, but there is no guarantee that any of them has that effanineffable whatchamacallit that will make it catch on.  Catching on is also about context; there are vehicles — certain TV shows and movies; viral videos; disasters, scandals and gaffes — that have the mojo to drive their contents, both words and images, home into the end zone, the Zeitgeist and the vernacular, whether they merit such pawn-queening apotheosis or not.

Ann Althouse was born on the same exact day as Rush Limbaugh.  I was introduced to Jacques, indirectly, because of a guy who I learned only much later was my . . .

connascent, Chicken Little’s good coinage — probably the best so far; or

day-double — my Anglo-Saxon alternative, in turn inspired by Jason (the commenter’s)

birthdaygänger, as in Doppelgänger.

Other suggestions of varying seriousness:

soul sister what Ruth Anne’s father called his connascent, Audrey Hepburn, which made me think of


Mitgeburtstag, Chicken Little’s stab at what the Germans would call it, and

Zeitzwilling (time-twin), mine, ditto;

homonatal, my lame attempt at a temporal version of “homeboy”

star-crossed, star-linked, or star-siblings, from reader_iam, and in the same vein,

ZodiacXerox from the inimitable KngFish.

Co-incident and contemporary were suggested by reader and by @dustbury, respectively, but were deemed too nonspecific.

More suggestions?  I can imagine a compound using natal (conatal?  connatal?  sounds NSFW, somehow) or arrival, f’rinstance, but I can’t come up with one.  Co-arriviste would mean something quite different.

Have at it.  And tell whether you feel a bond with someone you discover was born your same day, or whether it seems like meaningless coincidence.  Also welcome:  examples of famous connascents (Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln!).  And then of course we need a companion word for people who die on the same day (John Adams and Thomas Jefferson).  Comorbid?  No, no.  Conatal and comortal?  Croakmates?  Crap, why is it easier to think of good words for death than birth?

June 11, 2010

Love the Tweeter, Hate the Tweet?

Filed under: language degenerating,language evolving,slang,vocabulary — amba12 @ 12:33 pm

Here’s your chance to do something about it.

Right from the start I felt ridiculous “tweeting” (not so much “twittering,” oddly) and felt it was infantilizing for adults to accept this lingo:  tweeps, twibbons, twibes . . . it’s as if we’ve all become a gene-spliced, lisping cartoon chimera of Elmer Fudd and Tweetie Bird.  According to the piece at the link, many people feel the same way about Facebook’s Botoxed “like” — forcing you to react with the verbal equivalent of a smiley face to, say, a powerfully despairing piece on the oil spill.  (It can be no coincidence that both Tweetie and the smiley face are my least favorite color, yellow.  And why do I hate yellow?  I’ll be Jewish and answer a question with a question*:  why was yellow the color the Nazis chose for the star of David they made the Jews wear?  Huh?)

However, these coinages have a despicable tenacity, like cockroaches in cracks.  They multiply and become ineradicable.  As Ann Althouse once admonished me when I bridled at accepting the word “vlog,” which sounded to me like a Soviet torture.

“Blog,” on the other hand, I adore.  Some people hate it.

The only hope is to coin better ones to begin with.  And in that respect, we’ll win some and lose some.

* Disciple:  Why does a Jew always answer a question with a question?

Rabbi:  And why should a Jew not answer a question with a question?

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