A Mixed Bag

Here is a giggle (or a groan) to start your week:

In Sunday’s LA Times I saw an ad for free lunch and information meetings put on by the Neptune Society. In case you don’t know about that company, it performs cremations. I noticed that one of their sessions is being held in a Sizzler restaurant. Say no more.

I’d like you to look at the following link. It contains good advice about how to conduct yourself in the workplace, both in speech and posture, so that you are not diminishing yourself without realizing you are doing so. To this list, I would also add the ubiquitous use of “like” and starting sentences with “So” when it adds no information but is merely a dull and repetitive filler.

http://www.refinery29.com/2013/10/55289/uptalk-communication-mistakes#page-

And to end with a laugh, by now you probably have seen the Al Yankovic video about “Word Crimes.” Many, many people sent it to me this past week, knowing it was something I would love. It seems to have gone viral, but if you haven’t seen it, here is the link:

http://radio.com/2014/07/15/weird-al-word-crimes-music-video-blurred-lines-grammar-nazi-prince/

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About BCC:

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Have you ever received an email from an unfamiliar name but with a subject line you recognized? Chances are someone sent out an email to a lot of people, including you, but instead of addressing it using BCC (which is a blind copy), that person used either TO or CC. Some other recipient of that email wanted to respond to the sender, but instead of clicking on Reply clicked on Reply All. Because of that, every person on that list got an email that very likely they cared nothing about. We all get far too much email, and these annoying responses  that do not concern us only add to the problem.

The other problem with using TO or CC instead of BCC  is that it reveals your email address to many people, some of whom you might not want to have it. Unless every person receiving this email needs to see who else is getting it, do your readers a big favor and use BCC.

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Sea Change

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Surely you have noticed that “changes” exist no longer. Every change has been transformed into a “sea change.” Here is the first noted use of the phrase (it has since lost its hyphen) from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest (1611):

Full fathom five thy father lies,

        Of his bones are coral made:

       Those are pearls that were his eyes:

        Nothing of him that doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.

As you can see, that segment describes a major transformation, which is, indeed, what “sea change” means. Switching your brand of toothpaste is not a sea change, nor is taking your vacation in August rather than in June, as you have done until now.

“Sea change” has become a buzzword, particularly common in politics and advertising. Because of its frequent use, it will likely become the go-to phrase to indicate any change, no matter how trivial. You may be OK with that; I’m not. Not yet.

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Can or May?

UnknownChances are we all had teachers embed in our crania that CAN should be used for something you are able to do and MAY is for what is permissible.

Many seemingly inviolate rules of English are giving way to expediency. If you ask someone if you can get her something from the coffee shop, everyone understands what you mean. Of course you are able to get her the coffee. May you? Are you allowed to? Is it permitted?

These are silly distinctions, in my opinion. If your meaning is not open to interpretation—whether you use can or may—be my guest and use whichever word is natural for you. No one will deride you for continuing to make the distinction, but neither should they tsk tsk at you for ignoring the old rule.

We have to recognize that the English language changes. All languages change over time. If you are not comfortable with prevailing usage, stick with what you are comfortable using. Sometimes there is no clear “right” or “wrong.”

Feel free to disagree.

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Assure, Insure, Ensure

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I guarantee you these three words are easy to differentiate; in fact, I can assure you of that.

ASSURE means to give others information that will erase any doubts they might have had:

UCLA assured me the math section of the Graduate Record Exam would not count on my admission to the English Department Master’s program.” (This is true. I called twice to make certain. That’s how good I am in math.)

ASSURE also means to make something sure to happen:

Samantha assured her passing the DMV written test by assiduously studying the boring rule book and by passing all the practice tests.”

Use INSURE when you are dealing with money:

You insure a package at the post office, you insure your car against theft and liability, you insure your home against fire, theft and earthquakes.”

ENSURE means a guarantee that something will be done:

“Harry ensured the principal that he would stop feeding his homework to the dog.”

You see that ASSURE and ENSURE can often be used interchangeably, but keep INSURE for when money is involved.

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More Than You Think

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A plethora/spate of rubber duckies.

 We frequently use two words to indicate a large amount or number: “plethora” and “spate.” However, “plethora” doesn’t mean only a lot, it means an overabundance of whatever you have: gray hairs, gophers in your garden, zucchini that won’t stop increasing and multiplying. Similarly, “spate” doesn’t indicate a few or even many: it means a flood of whatever you have: endless summer houseguests, offers on your underpriced house, February blizzards in Vermont.

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So What?

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I think I may have ranted about this fairly recently, but I’d like you to consciously listen to people around you today or—if you can stomach it—this week and become aware of how many sentences are being started with the word “So.”

I am now seeing this fairly often in writing as well, which makes me not happy at all. “So” legitimately means “as a result”: “Benjamin failed his driving test twice, so he is very nervous he won’t pass on his final chance to take it again.”

That, however, is not how the word is flooding discourse these days. It’s being used as the very casual, conversational beginning of sentences:

So did I tell you about the new manager in Human Resources?

So a new series is starting on HBO tonight.

So I’m wondering when my niece is going to finish college.

So the new plan is to limit department meetings to 30 minutes.

In each of those sentences, the word does no work. You can erase it and no meaning is lost, no confusion ensues. Pay attention in the next few days. Good chance you even will catch yourself saying “So” when it is extraneous. If it carried meaning, I would have no problem with it. However, it’s just deadwood. Chop it out.

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