Nov 27

Happy Holidays from the Gripes

For some reason, people love to create plurals by adding an apostrophe. Or should I say, “to create plural’s.” (The answer is no. No I should not. And neither should you.)

This is especially evident during the festive season, when most of us have some sort of holiday or other to celebrate, and we attempt to wish others well, from our family to theirs. But hardly any of us really know how to make a family–be it Smith, Jones, Lopez, Li, Giordano, Horowitz, or Komorovsky-Child–plural.

The short answer is “without ever using an apostrophe.” Apostrophes are for possession, as in “Mrs. Smith’s credit card debt,” “Davey Jones’s (or Jones’) locker,” “Mr. Lopez’s favorite song,” “The Lis’ front yard,” “The Giordanos’ pool party,” or “the Horozitzes’ golden retriever.”

This terrific reminder in Slate–note the text box suitable for printing, clipping, and affixing to the fridge or laptop screen–spells out the refreshingly minimal rules for making last names plural without inadvertently making them also possessive. Most will just take an “s,” like the Smiths, Lis, and Giordanos; ones that already end with a “s” or “z” sound will get an “-es” (like axes, messes, spritzes, boxes, and buses): Joneses, Lopezes, Horowitzes. And much as I would love to get a Christmas card from the Komorovsky-Children, I can only hope from one from all the the Komorovsky-Childs.

Jun 10

12 items or FEWER

Supermarket express check-outs used to have limits of “12 items” (or 10 or 8 or whatever) “or less.” It took grammar advocates years to persuade markets to change the signs to read “12 items or fewer,” which is correct. But many, many people still admit that they can’t keep less and fewer straight and don’t understand what the difference between them is.

They’re both obviously the opposite of more. Why are there two different words, and why aren’t they really interchangeable?

You can have more pie, or more cars. But while you can have less pie, you can only have fewer cars. Why? The answer is actually simple. If you can count it, you use fewer. If you can’t count it, you use less. So, as you can count cars, you would say this highway is now being used by fewer cars. But what about traffic? Traffic isn’t countable; you can’t have 10,000 traffic. You can have 10,000 cars. So fewer cars use this highway, but there is less traffic. Similarly with pie: You may eat less pie, but you would eat fewer pieces, because you can count pieces. (Or you can count pies: There are fewer pieces of pie, or fewer pies, but pie, as a substance, is not countable, and so you eat less.)

May 28

Not quite as slick as Commander Data

If you ever watched any of the “Next Generation” incarnation of the Star Trek franchise, you may remember that Data was an amazingly sophisticated  android who was always yearning to feel human emotions. Occasionally, he would be put in a situation where he would try really hard to tell jokes, be a parent, or have a girlfriend, and his struggles to understand the motions he was going through–and then interpret the reactions of actual humans–were by turns funny, interesting, and touching.

Well, AI isn’t quite there yet, you may be relieved (or disappointed) to discover. Research scientist Janelle Shane has a neural network and is doing what anyone would do with a neural network: encouraging it to generate superhero names and pickup lines.

The superhero names are wildly entertaining. Who wouldn’t want to see a Justice League made up of Mister Man, Sapgirl, and Red Fart? Supperman must have the power to revitalize leftovers, Superbore humanely puts his opponents to sleep, and Green Hooter II … must have an origin story that explains what happened to Green Hooter I. I think I’m most curious, though, about the superhero named Nana. I imagine her weapons are knitting needles and her superpower is disapproval.

The pickup lines are a more complicated assignment, though, and the results demonstrate how complicated English grammar is (some sound like the efforts of a nonnative learner or poor translator), and how delicate the task of using idiom and figurative language can be.

After a great deal of hard work programming in a vast library of real human pickup lines (“much more painful than I had expected,” and I hear that), Shane sat back and let the neural net come up with its own. Some are just nonsensical, but some are weirdly endearing:

Are you a candle? Because you’re so hot of the looks with you.

And my favorite, which I may have to use someday:

You look like a thing and I love you.

It’s going to be a long time before robots put writers, poets, comedians, or lounge lizards out of work.

May 03

Love your doggo? Here’s a new set of words to use, thanks to social media

The language is changing all the time, and while that’s annoying to purists and traditionalists (me, sometimes), it’s also tremendously entertaining and delightful to fans (me, the rest of the time). New coinages perfectly suited to a moment, situation, or social group may or may not stand the test of time (gag me with a spoon? not lately), but what the hell, they’re fun and clever.

Dog lovers generally have a great appreciation for the hilarious, quirky, filthy, irresistible acts committed by their canine buddies, and the world of internet memes has helped them connect to each other and squee and WHO’S A GOOD BOY at each other in whole new ways. Check out the sort of code they use to accompany the inevitable adorable photos. This is classic affinity group behavior; it’s no fun to be in a club unless you have your own special lexicon to share with each other. Very human, and if we’re lucky, some of the doggy words may make it into wider use, or maybe even into the dictionary!

Eventually. In a decade or so. How much is that in dog years?

Mar 27

WordPlay: Storytelling at Bricolage in downtown Pittsburgh

Stories are how we make sense of our own lives and of the world. Come hear my story, about my late mother, at @WordPlay on March 31 and April 1. If you’re a fan of Midnight Radio, you already know Bricolage; the WordPlay series lets you witness live storytelling set to a DJ soundtrack, on Bricolage”s downtown Pittsburgh stage. Tickets are on sale now!

Mar 18

“An exercise in high-stakes grammar pedantry that could cost … $10 million”

It’s all very well saying we live in a post-punctuation era, and archaic little speckles have no business cluttering up our brilliant prose when emoji can do that much more artfully, but unlike many writing jobs, punctuation can move real sums of money.

Proof? You want proof? How about this gripping yarn in The New York Times. I used to work in the newspaper biz, and I know a good lede (that is authentic newspaper jargon for “beginning”) when I see one:

A class-action lawsuit about overtime pay for truck drivers hinged entirely on a debate that has bitterly divided friends, family and foes: The dreaded—or totally unnecessary—Oxford comma, perhaps the most polarizing of punctuation marks.

(The Times tipped its hand in that paragraph about its own position in this debate. Well played, Daniel Victor, or whatever wag on the copy desk talked you into that.)

The Oxford comma, a/k/a the serial comma for its cross-country crime sprees, is the comma you do or do not put before the “and” and final item in a list of things. The controversy arises because, while there isn’t much difference between “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme” and “parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,” there is considerable difference between “I owe everything to my parents, Oprah Winfrey, and William Shakespeare” and “I owe everything to my parents, Oprah Winfrey and William Shakespeare.”

As the Times story explains, newspapers tend to follow Associated Press style, which discourages the Oxford comma as unnecessary, while book and academic publishers tend to follow the Chicago Manual of Style, which prescribes the Oxford comma in the name of infallible clarity. As a longtime newspaperwoman, I had a contempt for the Oxford comma beaten into me at an early age, but I have now been driven into the cold world of academic publishing and must enforce Chicago style. I think the controversy is somewhat overwrought. And I’m evidently not the only one.

Mar 04

Happy National Grammar Day!

On this National Grammar Day, try to throw into your conversation one excruciatingly correct usage that nobody ever uses, just to mess with people. Announce your presence by saying, “It is I!” Ask “to whom” you should send some paperwork. And smile! It’s like eating a burger off the good china just to remind yourself that it’s there, you have it, it’s beautiful, and nobody sees it often enough.

Feb 20

The best day of my life! I could be happier!

“I could care less,” when you mean that you care not at all and, thus, couldn’t actually care less, has been a wrinkle in my sock since I was a child. Here’s one of the best tutorials on how to stop saying this wrong, by a wonderful English comedian, Dave Mitchell. And as a bonus, you also get told off about holding down the fort, as if we’re going to tickle it.

Feb 13

What’s the story?

Storytelling is a basic human need and pleasure, and it’s available now in so many forms, from movies and video games to the more timeless venue of a person alone in a spotlight sharing a tale with an audience. I am delighted to announce that a story about my late mother that I penned and submitted to Wordplay at Bricolage theater in Pittsburgh has been accepted for the next show. The Wordplay shows feature people telling true stories with a score created by a local DJ; I’ve been to a number of them, and they’re always dramatic, funny, startling, heartbreaking, shocking, gross, horrifying, moving, or just delightfully authentic. Or all of the above. So I’m chuffed, as the Brits say, to have my first submission accepted, and I’m looking forward to working with the Wordplaymeister, Alan Olifson, to polish my delivery for two performances.

March 31 and April 1

Bricolage Production Company

937 Liberty Avenue, Pittsburgh

Feb 05

The power of proofreading

Using good (or at least audience-appropriate) grammar is a way of showing a baseline level of respect for the person or people you’re addressing. This is especially important in formal communications where you don’t know your audience personally, such as most business correspondence, including email, and early-stage online dating overtures. You wouldn’t post, in a public place, a picture of yourself in a ratty bathrobe, with spinach in your teeth and free-range hair. Even your friends don’t really want to see you that way.

Written communication has the same standards, or should. Just as you “proofread” your appearance before you go out in the world where people can see you–a quick look in the mirror to ensure that hair, face, teeth, clothes all reach a basic level of hygiene and maintenance–you shouldn’t release anything you’ve written into the world without reading it over, in its entirety, just to make sure you haven’t made some glaringly obvious gaffe. Especially online, where autocorrect is not always on your side.

A genuine mistake is embarrassing enough–when you’ve typed “Wednesday, May 17th” when May 17th turns out to be a Thursday–but realizing you’ve just invited your date to a concert on “Wendesday, May 17rd,” when you know perfectly well how to make that right, is a whole other level of ouch. Even worse is knowing that your date now either thinks you’re an idiot or knows that you couldn’t be bothered to take 0.08 seconds to read over your message before sending it. What does that carelessness say about you, and about how much respect you have for your date?

So always, always proofread. It takes hardly any time at all. You may not prevent every mistake, but the ones you catch will make the extra seconds or minutes sooooooo worthwhile.

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