Monthly Archives: October 2013

A Spelling Rule

I before e, except after c.


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Rihanna’s Grammar

English: Rihanna at the 2009 American Music Aw...

English: Rihanna at the 2009 American Music Award Red Carpet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today’s New York Times Magazine had a blurb about a school in São Paulo, Brazil that has a novel way of teaching English. Here’s the article in its entirety:


“Hi, @rihanna. I love your songs. My name is Carolina. I’m 11 years old,” began the tweet, which went on to correct Rihanna’s grammar. “It’s not to she, it’s to her,” Carolina wrote. Her tweet was part of an initiative at the Red Balloon School in São Paulo to teach English by correcting celebrities’ sloppy Twitterish. “So far no celeb has replied,” the school has said. “Hopefully they’re busy learning English.”

I could be a pedant and point out that the person who wrote that message for the school used “Hopefully” incorrectly. As written, it means that the celebrities are hopeful when, in fact, it is the school’s participants in this program who hope they will get a reply. But I have given up on this use of “hopefully”; common usage has emerged victorious.


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Be —wise Selectively

Speaking of locutions that make me cringe (we were, weren’t we?), the suffix “—wise” is near the top of my list. Limit it to a very few situations:

• Clockwise, counter clockwise

• Otherwise

• Lengthwise

Spare others from uses such as “healthwise,” “timewise,” “costumewise,” “stylewise.”

Instead of saying or writing, “Healthwise, I’ve had some problems with my elbow recently,” just drop that silly introductory word. It adds nothing.  Nor does “costumewise”:  “Costumewise, I’m going as Darth Vader as a schoolboy.” Just describe the getup you are planning on wearing to that Star Wars-themed Halloween party.

And so ends my word(s) to the wise.

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La-de-dah Language

Granted, my tolerance for substandard and iffy English is lower than most people’s, so bear with me.

Here is an example of a fancy-schmancy word that adds nothing to your message; this one you can throw away:

1. Gift—“My grandmother gifted me with her small gold locket.”  Why use “gifted” when we already have a perfectly good word that is understood in every instance?

The following words don’t need to be discarded, but remember to use alternatives every now and then.

2. Purchase—Realize a clear, everyday alternative exists.  As a fan of the “Antiques Roadshow,” I never, ever have heard anyone say they “bought” an object.

3. Prior to—Where, oh where, has “before” gone?  Again, “prior to” appears 97.2% of the time (my estimate).  It gets annoyingly repetitive.

4. Proceed—No one “goes” anywhere these days, but a whole lot of “proceeding” is taking place.  Is “go” too simple?  If you think so, tell me why. Do you think others might decide you are simple minded?  Will they think you are Einstein’s heir if you always “proceed”? 

5. Exit—I think it is perfectly fine to “leave” a building or a car or anything else you get out of. 


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25 Commonly Confused Phrases


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October 17, 2013 · 12:11 PM

More Food Expressions


Apple pie

Apple pie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cheesy and corny got me thinking about other food words we commonly use in expressions. Here are some I came up with. (Here are some up with which I came. See why it’s fine to end sentences with prepositions?)

Spill the beans

Full of piss and vinegar

Apple of my eye

Top banana

Toast of the town

Apple pie order

An apple a day keeps the doctor away (but so does a flu shot)

Brown as a berry (I have never seen a brown berry.)

Cool as a cucumber

Cut the mustard/cheese

Humble pie

Let them eat cake (thanks to Marie Antoinette)

Milk of human kindness

Not my cup of tea

Pie in the sky

 Salad days (thank you, Cleopatra, by way of Shakespeare)

Say cheese

Sour grapes

Bring home the bacon

One sandwich short of a picnic

Are you hungry yet?


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Cheesy and Corny

These two adjectives are used as pejoratives: cheesy meaning something cheap or cheaply made, and corny meaning trite or schmaltzy. (Schmaltz is chicken fat in Yiddish.  Go figure.)

Apparently, cheesy originated in the mid-19th century and alluded to the smell of overripe cheese. Perhaps that cheese was sold at a bargain rate, hence the adjective.

Corny arose when mail-order seed catalogs appeared in the early 1900s, and to fill out the spaces, seed companies would scatter the pages with cartoons and jokes. I imagine these were not of the highest level of sophistication, and the adjective corny became attached to them and their ilk.


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Eight Punctuation Marks No Longer in Use


Interrobang fcm

Interrobang fcm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My friend J.K. sent this article to me recently, and I did backflips when I read it. I love antiques, I love words, I love language—so this article was a trifecta for me:



Be aware that the examples come before the names of the punctuation marks.


Would you like to bring any of these back? Several do seem to serve a purpose. And how can you not love the word “Interrobang”?



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Alice Munro Wins Nobel Prize for Literature

Canadian author Alice Munro has been awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature—and a well deserved award this is. You say you don’t have time for long books?  Munro specializes in the short story, quiet unfoldings of (often) rural Canadian life that seem simple but excavate the deepest concerns of what being human entails.

Pick up any of her collections and you will be transported and changed. Now in her 80s, Munro says she has stopped writing, but you will have many of her collections to choose from. Find her online, at the library, or—if one still exists near you—in a bricks and mortar bookstore.

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Top 10 Spelling Peeves (from Grammarly)


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October 8, 2013 · 12:59 PM

Clichés in Shakespeare

It’s a good idea to avoid clichés in your writing. They are stale words and phrases that add nothing to your message except, perhaps, a “ho hum” from your readers.

You might be interested to know that many of today’s clichés were coined originally by Shakespeare in his plays. They were fresh at the time and seemed so apt that they became commonplace; over the centuries they evolved into the rank of clichés. Many more than these can be found in his writing, but here are a few to think about:

Lay it on with a trowelAs You Like It

Lie lowMuch Ado About Nothing (“Nothing” in Shakespeare’s time also meant “noting,” or eavesdropping, a common theme in this play.)

Like the DickensThe Merry Wives of Windsor  This usage has nothing to do with Charles Dickens, who lived long after Shakespeare. “Dickens” is a synonym for the devil.

Makes your hair stand on endHamlet

Milk of human kindnessMacbeth

Much ado about nothingMuch Ado About Nothing, obviously

Mum’s the wordHenry VI, pt. 2

Night owlRichard II and Twelfth Night

Neither a borrower nor a lender beHamlet

Off with his headHenry VI, pt. 3

Rhyme nor reasonComedy of Errors

Set one’s teeth on edgeHenry IV, pt. 1

Short shriftRichard III

Something is rotten in the state of DenmarkHamlet

Star-crossed loversRomeo and Juliet

Bowels of the earthHenry IV, pt. 1

Devil incarnateHenry V and Titus Andronicus (the latter being the bloodiest play you will ever read: the queen’s sons are served to her in a pie. Yum!)

Slings and arrows of outrageous fortuneHamlet

There’s method in my madnessHamlet

The short and long of itThe Merry Wives of Windsor  Notice that over the years we have switched the two nouns.

To be or not to be: that is the questionHamlet

To sleep, perchance to dreamHamlet

Too much of a good thingAs You Like It

Truth will outThe Merchant of Venice

Vanish into thin airOthello, The Tempest

Band of brothersHenry V

Wear your heart on your sleeveOthello

What a piece of work is manHamlet   When Shakespeare wrote this, he meant that humans were incomparable, the highest form of creature on earth. Today, when we call someone a “piece of work” we mean the opposite of what Shakespeare stated, a person who is at best incompetent and at worst malevolent.

What are today’s takeaways? Two things:

1. Read Shakespeare or see one of his plays. No one did it better.

2. Avoid clichés like the plague.

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Words and Phrases to Shut Down

Because the Federal government is shut down (and I will refrain from irate political comments, difficult as that is for me), I presume no one is at work at the US Dept. of Commerce. Years ago, when Malcolm Baldridge became its director, he banned many words and phrases from department writing. If an employee used one, the computer screen would flash “Don’t Use This Word.” Here is merely a partial list. See if you are inordinately fond of any of them:

I would hope, as I am sure you are aware, bottom line, delighted, enclosed herewith, finalize, great majority, hopefully, needless to say, parameter, prior to [I swear I never see “before” in corporate writing], prioritize, share, therein, to impact, untimely death, effectuated, utilize.

I do understand that various professions have their own lingo: lawyerese, educatorese, psychobabble, engineerese, medicalese, etc. The language these people use helps them communicate with others within the same profession.  I get that. My complaint is when they pollute the outside world, when that world already has perfectly fine words to to convey ideas. It’s a form of dumbing down the language.

Remember Woodsy Owl?  “Give a hoot!  Don’t pollute!”

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