Readers of my blog sometimes wonder about whether to capitalize certain words. For the next few entries, I’ll go over some of the trickier uses of capital letters.
What about geographical areas vs. directions? Look at these two sentences:
- Despite my New York accent, I was born in the South.
- To get to San Diego, I drove south on the dreaded 405 for over two hours.
If it’s a geographical area (the East Coast, the far North, Southern California, the Mid-Atlantic states), you do capitalize. If it’s a general direction, use lower case.
I’ve got a lot of hair, but at the rate I keep hearing a particular verbal atrocity, I may be bald by the weekend. My friend Cami in Miami heard this from the mouth of a supposedly literate and sophisticated lecturer and reacted as badly as I do when I hear it. I’m just surprised I haven’t written about this before.
Here goes: DO NOT SAY, “My wife (or anyone else) and I’s (fill in noun).” “My friend and I’s lunch date had to be canceled.”
No such possessive “word” as “I’s” exists. I think this problem arises because so many people think I is a classier pronoun than me or my. It’s not. If you need a subject pronoun, use I. For an object pronoun, it’s going to be me or my. My wife’s and my apartment was painted last week. My friend’s and my lunch date had to be canceled.
The good news is that I have never seen anyone write this horror. You can use the search box on my blog to get more info about “I vs. me.”
When someone near you sneezes, what do you say? In Josh Katz’s book, Speaking American, he explains regional differences. Approximately 73% of Americans respond with some form of “Bless you.” God may or may not be invoked. But in the upper Midwest, gesundheit, meaning health, is popular because many German-and Yiddish-speaking immigrants moved to that region over 100 years ago. Approximately 6% of people near a sneezer say nothing, with twice as many men as women not responding. (When I’m near a sneezer, I tend to hold my breath, hoping not to catch what the sneezer has. So I’m also likely not to say anything because I’m too busy not breathing.)
Euphemisms are generally used to change something icky into something more palatable. As George Carlin said, “Sometime in my life—no one asked me about this—toilet paper became bathroom tissue. The dump became the landfill. And partly cloudy became partly sunny.”
I was in a medical center the other day, where an information station was set up under an umbrella. Emblazoned on the umbrella were the words SERVICE AMBASSADOR. I find nothing distasteful about the word INFORMATION, but I am entertained by the thought of a group meeting to find a supposedly better (and definitely more pompous) description of the services offered under that umbrella. SERVICE AMBASSADOR: Do you suppose the, ahem, ambassadors who staff that desk need congressional confirmation?
Keep it simple. Not everything needs to be prettied up. In most cases, your readers aren’t fooled.
I had no idea. Of course, I knew the phrase “the whole shebang,” meaning the totality of an entity. But I never knew a shebang was a specific thing until the other night when I was watching a documentary about a group of archeologists excavating the Civil War site of Ft. Lawton, in Georgia. Those archeologists had to spend some nights on the site and set up their individual shebangs (small and uncomfortable). A shebang is a rustic shelter or primitive hut. Did you know that? Neither did I until I watched this somewhat tedious documentary. But I learned something because I watched the whole shebang.
Have you noticed that some everyday words look like plurals and can be plurals but are also used as singular nouns? Here are a few:
Pants Those brown pants George is wearing are very baggy. George is wearing only one pair of pants, but grammatically they appear to be plural: pants are
Trousers Some people call pants “trousers.” George is wearing baggy brown trousers today.
Scissors Where did I put those scissors I was just using to cut this fabric? Chances are, the writer wasn’t using more than one pair of scissors to cut the fabric.
On my recent trip to Central Europe, I marveled at little children chatting away in Hungarian, Polish, German, Slovakian, and Czech. I couldn’t understand anything. But I’m sure speakers of those languages are amazed that English speakers learn all the idiosyncrasies of that language, even as small children. For the most part, by kindergarten age, they get it right. Pretty amazing, isn’t it? When you think about examples such as those above, you have to wonder how. I’m calling it learning by osmosis.