Monthly Archives: December 2019

What’s an Initialism?

Initialism is a word I had not seen nor heard before today’s blogpost at, written by the brilliant and hilarious Patricia T. O’Conner, she of Woe Is I fame (among her many other linguistic accomplishments).

Her post was about using or omitting apostrophes in abbreviations. A reader asked Pat which plural was correct: PJs, PJ’s, pjs pj’s, P.J.’s. The answer is that you can find support for just about every variant, but the most commonly accepted seems to be plain old PJs. That is, unless your PJ’s pants (possessive) have a hole in the seat.

Did you know that PJs is an initialism? Neither did I. It means an abbreviation pronounced by saying each letter separately : PJs, USA, ATM, TV, RPMs, IRS, DOJ, UCLA, NYU, OMG, for example.

When you pronounce an abbreviation as a word, that is an acronym. (I’ve discussed this before in my blog.) An acronym is an abbreviation, but not all abbreviations are acronyms. Here are some acronyms: NASA, scuba (so common it’s lost its caps), radar (ditto), fubar (look it up), RAM, AWOL, POTUS, SCOTUS, FLOTUS.

This post is my holiday gift to you. What? You were expecting jewelry, candy, money? I’ll see what I can come up with, ASAP. Until then, enjoy the day.

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Merriam-Webster’s 2019 Word-of-the Year

It’s THEY. Why would that have been chosen as the WOTY? Everyone knows what they means, don’t they? Look at that last sentence I wrote: Everyone is singular and they is a plural pronoun. Not so long ago, that would have been considered a grammatical error. However, it’s very common for people to use that “incorrect” construction, the singular they, in speech and in everyday informal writing.

But Merriam-Webster is calling attention to this use of they for a serious reason. The LGBTQ community has been advocating for an inclusive pronoun that does not refer to any specific gender. Trans people are troubled by the use of he and him or she and her; Jamie may have been assigned one gender at birth but later transitioned to another gender. Do we refer to Jamie as she or as he? Or is Jamie gender-fluid? Sometimes, Jamie may even be referred to by the de-humanizing pronoun it.

To be respectful of the variety of human identity and sexual orientations, they has been adopted to represent everyone. If you don’t know what pronoun a person prefers, my thinking is that they would welcome you asking them.

Language changes. All languages change. Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Emily Dickinson all used they/them/their in their writing when referring to one person. But then The Grammarians (you know, people like me) insisted on strict pronoun agreement: singular with a singular referent, plural with plural. I no longer do. If a person is comfortable using they as their pronoun, I respect that. I hope you’ll think about what making this small gesture might mean to that person.

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Double Ownership

This post is about apostrophes. What do you do when more than one person shares ownership in something?

Donna’s pets are Shetland Sheepdogs. Donna is the sole owner, so you just add ‘s to her name.

But Donna has a husband, Frank. The dogs belong to both of them. Donna and Frank’s pets are Shetland Sheepdogs. What happened to Donna’s apostrophe? Here’s the deal: When two or more people share ownership, only the person closest to the item owned gets an apostrophe.

Which of the following two examples is wrong?

Ryan and Thad’s wives

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

If you think Ryan and Thad share wives, then neither example is incorrect. But chances are Ryan and Thad each has his own wife, so Ryan needs an apostrophe too.

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Idioms, not Idiots

Idioms are words that when combined differ in meaning from each individual word. A little bird told me has nothing to do with birds. If you have some information and don’t want to divulge how you know it, that’s the sentence for you. An apple a day keeps the doctor away doesn’t mean you have to literally eat an apple every day; all healthy foods are good for you.

Here are some idioms, courtesy of http://Word GeniusWord Genius, from countries other than the U.S. Some are pretty funny:

Pulling water from my own rice paddy

我田引水 (ga den in sui) is a Japanese idiom that means to do or say something for your own benefit. You’re giving yourself advice, even though you’re the only one who needs it.

To walk around hot porridge

Chodit kolem horké kaše is a Czech phrase similar to the English idiom beat around the bush. If you’re walking around hot porridge, you’re avoiding the topic and making up distractions so you don’t have to discuss it.

He who doesn’t have a dog hunts with a cat

Quem não tem cão, caça com gato is a Portuguese saying meaning you use what’s available and make the best of it. To be fair, cats are pretty good hunters, even if they won’t listen to you.

The carrots are cooked

Les carottes sont cuites comes from French, and it means you can’t change the situation. It’s too late, and you probably have mushy carrots.

Drawing a snake with feet

If you’re drawing a snake with feet, you’re giving it unnecessary body parts and putting way more effort into that drawing than you need to. 画蛇添足 (Huà shé tiān zú) is a Chinese idiom that means to tell a story with unnecessary information.

To talk a dog out of a bush

If you can actually talk a dog out of a bush, you’re probably some kind of dog whisperer. ń Hond uit ń bos gesels means to have a great conversation (with people) in Afrikaans. Being a good conversationalist is just as valuable a skill as talking to dogs.

Not my circus, not my monkeys

Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy is a Polish idiom that you’ve probably heard spoken in English, too. If the circus and monkeys aren’t yours, then it’s not your problem.

He sold him for an onion peel

بايعها بقشرة بصلة (baa’hu beqishra basala) is the Arabic equivalent of the “he’d sell me out for one corn chip” meme. It means to throw away a relationship for nothing. Personally, we’d take a corn chip over an onion peel.

To not have hairs on your tongue

No tener pelos en la lengua is a Spanish phrase that means to speak your mind straightforwardly. And we’d like to avoid hairballs.

Train go, sorry

Even sign language has idioms. This one means, “Sorry, I won’t repeat what I said.” Kind of like when people say, “You missed the boat on that one.” You’re out of luck.

To hurl a cap

टोपी उछालना (toh-pee uh-chhahl-nah) is a Hindi idiom that means to criticize someone. Why stop at just hurling insults?


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