Monthly Archives: January 2016

American Dialect Society’s 2015 Word of the Year

The American Dialect Society chose as its 2015 Word of the Year—THEY.

Are you wondering what is behind their choice? This linguistic society has chosen “they” to be a singular, gender-neutral pronoun, as in “They and Mary went to the movies.” It is used when a person does not identify as either male or female or when the gender of a person is unknown.

Schools today are dealing with a somewhat new situation. College application forms used to ask students to identify as either male or female. However, “gender fluidity,” in which some people do not identify solely as one gender or the other but may move between them, has prompted colleges to offer far more choices. Traditionally all-female Smith College has now admitted transgender students. The word “cisgender” has been used to mean chromosomally male or chromosomally female. My spellcheck software just underlined that word as I typed it, but it won’t be long before it is recognized as a “real” word.

Surely, 2015 raised people’s awareness of gender variety, including Bruce, now Caitlyn, Jenner’s transformation, and the wonderful (in my opinion) series on Amazon, “Transparent.” Facebook now offers 50 different choices for gender identity. Fifty.

Obviously, this new awareness has reached the corporate world as well. I imagine human resource departments are scrambling to accommodate the panoply of forms that human beings inhabit.

©Judi Birnberg

©Judi Birnberg

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A Few More Thoughts About Hyphens

The topic of hyphens can be confusing because different styles prevail for business, news, scientific and academic writing. If your employer uses a stylebook, follow that. Otherwise, the rules I gave last week should see you through. The rules are not always hard and fast. Here are a few more situations you might encounter:

1. If omitting the hyphen could cause confusion, be sure to use it: a small-business owner (without that hyphen, the reader might think the owner is on the short side).

2. When you have a proper noun (such as a person’s name) of two or more words being used as a compound adjective, hyphenate it: a Louis CK-like situation.

3. When two or more hyphenated words modify the same noun, one hyphen can do for both: a publicly-owned and –operated corporation; a Tony- and Grammy-award-winning performance.

I hope all of you, particularly my readers on the East Coast, are safe and warm. Be careful, please.

© Judi Birnberg "There Must Be a Hyphen in There Someplace"

© Judi Birnberg
“There Must Be a Hyphen in There Someplace”

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Adopt or Adapt?

These two words are frequently confused, but the distinction is easy:

ADOPT means to take as one’s own. You adopt a child or take something as it is. You’ve probably also heard the phrase “early adopter”; that’s a person who uses new technology as soon as it is released. That may be you.

ADAPT means to change something to suit your needs. You adapt yourself to living in Boston after having moved there from Australia.

© Judi Birnberg

© Judi Birnberg

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A Common Use of Hyphens

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Without hyphens, what would you make of the following sentences?

1. I saw a man-eating shark.
2. At the conference were 40-odd men and women.
3. Ancient history tells us about gift-bearing Greeks.
4. The college had to limit all-night discussions in the dorms.

Without those hyphens, you would have seen a male person eating a shark. You could very well see a man eating a serving of shark, but eating a shark gives you an entirely different picture.

You may have already attended a conference or two with 40 weird people, but the sentence above tells you there were approximately 40 people there. We do not know if they were all odd.

Gift-bearing Greeks is quite different than a gift bearing Greeks. That would be the Trojan horse.

Finally, the college is not limiting every discussion that takes place in the dorms at night, only discussions that last all night.

When you have one or more words that modify the noun that follows them, use a hyphen between those words that serve as adjectives if without the hyphens the meaning could be misconstrued. However, when the adjectives follow the noun, do not use hyphens. Therefore, you’d have celebrities who are hard to please or hard-to-please celebrities. Your choice.

Again, I don’t make up these rules; I just teach them.

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Book Recommendation: Bird by Bird

If you’re not familiar with the author Anne Lamott, I am here to tell you that I love her writing. She is serious and hilarious simultaneously, not an easy trick to pull off. Of all her books, I love Bird by Bird the most. The subtitle is Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

This is the best book on writing I know. If you’ve ever considered writing for publication or enjoy writing for your own pleasure, this is the book for you. Lamott knows all the obstacles and excuses you are carrying around in your head, and she dispenses with them in her own inimitable manner. At the same time, the book is philosophical—but not in a ponderous, off-putting way. Again, you will laugh.

If you’re curious about the title, when Lamott was a child her younger brother had a book report on birds due the next day and was agonizing about getting it written. Their father, who was himself a writer, patted his son on the head and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” Not a bad approach for a book report or for any other task before you that seems formidable. Bird by bird.

© Judi Birnberg

© Judi Birnberg

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I Before E

Except when you reign over the heist of a feisty neighbor’s weird, beige, foreign sleigh. Or when that neighbor’s eight heirs forfeit their heifers and seize freight.

I am amazed that we are even minimally proficient at English spelling, much less those of us who are not native English speakers. Many years ago, George Bernard Shaw, appalled by ridiculous spelling conventions, proposed that each letter have only one sound (such as in Spanish). Given the way English is spelled, he wrote that FISH should be spelled as GHOTI:

1. Take the GH sound in ENOUGH.
2. Then use the O sound in WOMEN.
3. Finally, take the TI sound in NATION.

And you have just made FISH.

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A Few Friday Smiles

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From Drummond Moir’s book Just My Typo, some unfortunate errors on CVs:

1. I have a graduate degree in unclear physics.

2. I am a rabid typist.

3. I worked for six years as an uninformed security guard.

4. As part of the city’s maintenance crew, I repaired bad roads and defective brides.

5. I have had sex jobs so far.

Enjoy the weekend!

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