Tag Archives: New York Times

Have You Checked Your Sexist Dictionary Lately?

Recently, the New York Times ran an article about the role of dictionaries: should the definitions be descriptive (conforming to the way in which words are currently used) or proscriptive (in essence, showing how words should be used, according to current standards)?

The esteemed Oxford Dictionaries, including the New Oxford American Dictionary that comes with every Apple device in North America, was outed as being surprisingly sexist in many of its definitions. Here are a few examples:

shrill |SHril|
noun [ in sing. ]
a shrill sound or cry: the rising shrill of women’s voices.

Why were “women’s voices” used as an example? Does nothing else make high-pitched and piercing sounds? Bird calls? Machinery? Brakes? Avoid stereotypes.

rabid |ˈrabəd, ˈrā-|
1 having or proceeding from an extreme or fanatical support of or belief in something: a rabid feminist.

In fact, more sports fans than feminists have been defined as rabid, according to linguistic studies. Have I cautioned you to avoid stereotypes?

psyche 1 |ˈsīkē|
the human soul, mind, or spirit: I will never really fathom the female psyche.

Do you see the smoke coming out of my ears? Observe: more smoke coming:

1 Janet became hysterical: overwrought, overemotional, out of control, frenzied, frantic, wild, feverish, crazed;

It’s always Janet, poor, crazy, unhinged Janet. Have you watched a political debate recently? Did you notice any males who could easily fit this description?

bossy 1 |ˈbôsē, ˈbäs-|
adjective (bossier, bossiest) informal
fond of giving people orders; domineering: she was headlong, bossy, scared of nobody, and full of vinegar.

Note the use of the feminine pronoun.

adjective informal
we’re hiding from his bossy sister: domineering, pushy, overbearing, imperious, officious, high-handed, authoritarian, dictatorial, controlling; informal high and mighty. ANTONYMS submissive.

The brother couldn’t possibly be bossy; but that sister! She is tyrannical.

And finally:

nag 1 |nag|
verb (nags, nagging, nagged) [ with obj. ]
annoy or irritate (a person) with persistent fault-finding or continuous urging: she constantly nags her daughter about getting married | [ with infinitive ] : she nagged him to do the housework

People, this is 2016. Who is editing the dictionary? And why am I haranguing you with this subject? I urge you to be diligent about checking your writing for inadvertent, stereotypical sexism.

If you wouldn’t mention that you saw a man lawyer last week, there is no reason to point out that you happened to see a woman lawyer (and NOT a “lady” lawyer—gentility is irrelevant). Both males and females graduate from law school and pass the bar. The same advice holds for all professions that used to be almost exclusively male but have not been for a very long time: medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, fire fighters, police officers, soldiers, etc. And the reverse holds true: men today commonly are nurses, secretaries and flight attendants.

If you wouldn’t mention your male co-worker’s hair color or his clothes, don’t point out your female co-worker by her red hair—or her blue sweater.

Check your pronouns to make sure they’re inclusive. One easy trick to help you avoid the awkward “his or her” or “he or she” is to make your subject plural and use a plural pronoun to refer to that subject, such as “they” or “their,” for example.

Dentists today do much more than fill their patients’ cavities

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A Few More Typos to Get You to the Weekend



From Just My Typo, compiled by Drummond Moir:

It is proposed to use this donation to purchase new wenches for our park as the present old ones are in a very dilapidated state.
(From the Carrolton Ohio Chronicle)

The Chicago investors put the land up for sale for $22 million in 2008, but got no takers. The Trust for Public Land made a deal with the group to buy it for close to $12, if it could come up with the money by this April.
(New York Times)

All work cheaply and nearly done.
(Perthshire Advertiser)

Save regularly in your bank. You’ll never reget it.

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Translating Corporate-Speak (aka Jargon)


Recently, Marilyn Katzman wrote an article in the New York Times about the difficulties she encountered when re-entering the workforce after having been “reorganized,” (you know, “let go”) from her previous position. Flooded with corporate jargon, she finally kept a list of the jargon words and their conversational equivalents. Asked if she was ready for her “bilateral” (I would have thought it referred to a mammogram), she ultimately deduced it meant attending a face-to-face meeting with her boss. Then she wondered if you can still say “boss.”

When asked if she had “bandwidth,” Katzman figured out that all it meant was time to work on a project. Well, of course. She soon realized that “strategy” and “strategic” were extremely useful, adding weight and gravitas to anything to which they were attached. “Strategic planning” was a biggie—but doesn’t all planning involve strategy? She also understood that she was thought to be more intelligent when she threw “transparency” into conversations and emails. Katzman learned that “decks” had nothing to do with levels in a parking garage but rather referred to PowerPoint presentations. You knew that, right? At meetings she would write down examples of this new-to-her corporate jargon: “deliverables” showed up with great frequency, as did “ramping up” and “drilling down.”

Before too long, a colleague informed her of an actual game, “B.S. Bingo,” consisting of cards ruled off into squares. Each square contained one of these supposedly important words, and at meetings people would X off a square when they heard the word in it. When a whole row was marked off, the attendee got to jump up and yell, “B.S!” When I taught in the corporate world, this game hadn’t be produced yet (why didn’t I think of it!), but I would tell my groups about another version of this game I had heard of: except my people were encouraged, when they completed a row, to yell, “Bullshit!” I’m still wondering if anyone ever did it.

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The Two Sides of Autocorrect


Some people love it, others detest it. I find it convenient, but always, always, always proofread before I send a message.

The New York Times recently ran an article about the perils of Autocorrect, highlighting a message an 83-year-old woman sent to her great-granddaughter. She signed it “Great Grandma.” Unfortunately, Autocorrect thought it knew better and changed her signature to “Great Grandmaster Flash,” a hip hop pioneer not within Great Grandma’s ken.

We’ve all had our embarrassments with Autocorrect. Years ago I wrote to a friend named Patricia, who ever since has been known to me as Patella.“Prosciutto” on a menu became “prostitute.” The investment firm Goldman Sachs became “Goddamn Sachs.” Naomi Campbell congratulated “Malaria” (Malala) on winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and Barrack Obama has been known as “Osama.”

It’s obvious to me that Autocorrect has advanced, if that is the correct word, to be sufficiently familiar with my vocabulary and tone that it substitutes words and phrases I use fairly often. It’s a little creepy.

Autocorrect is a feature you can disable if you want to avoid it. We all make enough mistakes without having our computers add to them. I’m not giving up Autocorrect (yet), but I urge you to proofread absolutely everything before you hit Send. Do it one word at a time and slowly. If you proofread at your normal reading speed, as I have mentioned numerous times, you will read what you think you wrote, not what you (or Autocorrect) actually wrote.


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Some More Email Tips

UnknownRecently, I gave you some tips on writing emails and asked for your input. Here are some suggestions from Loren L., with some additions from me, that I think you’ll find helpful.

1. Prompt response—Promptly responding/replying to an email directed to YOU is the appropriate thing to do.Reply when asked.

 2. Greetings and salutations—Common courtesy implies a greeting and salutation in any communication or interaction.  Greetings and salutations are appropriate for many emails.

3. Use names—Address the person and sign your name.  This is basic common courtesy.

4. Subject line is a summary of the message.  Keep your messages short and focused.  BLUF=Bottom Line Up Front

5. Use appropriately the TO: CC: BCC: FW: Reply: Reply All

TO—Identify the person or people intended to receive and to reply to the email message.  A prompt reply shows respect.  A short “Thank you” shows class.  Courtesy means if someone sends you a note, a reply is appropriate.

CC—Don’t use CC to copy your message to everyone, only to those who need to receive the message.  A CC message does NOT require a reply.

BCC—Use for sending “bulk” email.  It keeps private people’s email addresses.  A BCC does NOT require a reply.

FW—Should be used sparingly, not just to pass emails along.

Reply—Include the original email sent to you in your reply.

Reply All—Avoid use of this option. Use Reply instead. Using Reply All often fills others’ email accounts with information they neither want nor need.

6. Emails are never private. Never be unkind or hurtful. If you’re not willing to see your message on the front page of tomorrow’s New York Times, don’t put it in an email; it can be forwarded to multitudes in a second.  As a general rule, never put unkind words in writing.  Don’t send emails when you are upset.  No flaming.

7. Upper case should be used to HIGHLIGHTimportant words or phrases only. In general, make your words give the emphasis. Any highlighting, such as upper case, bold, italics or underlining, should be used very sparingly. If you emphasize everything, you end up emphasizing nothing.

8. Avoid email abuse. Don’t send unnecessary or uninvited material.

9. Build relationships.Use the phone or make a personal visit.  Email is not a substitute for personal contact.

10. Use “Out-Of-Office” toolsor Auto Reply if you’re going to be absent for a while.

Finally, always re-read your email before sending it—slowly and audibly so you can hear what you actually wrote, not what you think you wrote.

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How Not to Write

Last week I came across this article (partially reprinted here) in the New York Times. Immediately, I knew I was going to use it as an example of what not to do.

To begin, read the first paragraph and tell me you are not confused. The reporter included so much information that by the time you get to the topic, you forget what you had just read.

The second paragraph clearly tells what happened. With a few simple revisions, that should have been the lead.


In Mexico, an Embattled Governor Resigns


MEXICO CITY — The governor of the southern Mexico state where 43 college students have gone missing in a case that the authorities say has exposed the deep ties among local politicians, the police and organized crime stepped down on Thursday under pressure from his own party.

The governor, Ángel Aguirre of Guerrero State, agreed to leave his post after leaders of his party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution, publicly said they would otherwise try to push him out in order to quell growing civil unrest in the state.

Here’s what I would have written:

The governor of Guerrero State, Mexico, Ángel Aguirre, agreed to leave his post after leaders of his party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution, publicly said they would otherwise try to push him out in order to quell growing civil unrest in the state.

Recently, 43 college students have gone missing in a case that the authorities say has exposed the deep ties among local politicians, the police and organized crime.

The article then continues, but I didn’t want to read any more, primarily because of the hodge podge of information the reporter threw at me in the first paragraph.

I have noticed that, particularly in newspapers, you have an idea what an article is going to be about by reading the title; however, until you get to the meat of the article, you have to wade through a great deal of background detail. At times the crucial information is located many paragraphs later on a following page.

Take a lesson from this article when you are writing—whether for pleasure or work. Start with the most important information and then fill in the supporting details. Otherwise, you are seriously risking losing your readers.


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Non Sequiturs


Here’s a bit of Latin accepted in everyday English without translation. For the record, a non sequitur means “it does not follow.”

It shouldn’t have to be stated that one thought in your writing should logically follow the preceding idea (but I just stated that). However, we often are struck by words that raise our eyebrows and elicit a “Huh?”

Here’s an example from the New York Times:

“Slim, of medium height and with sharp features, Mr. Smith’s technical skills are combined with strong leadership qualities.”

Surely you are asking yourself what Smith’s technical skills and leadership qualities have to do with his physical description. This is a glaring example of a non sequitur and, as a bonus feature, it is also a misplaced, or dangling, modifier: a grammatical twofer. As the sentences are written, Smith’s technical skills and leadership qualities are slim, of medium height and possess sharp features. Huh?

When you begin a sentence with a description such as the one above, what follows immediately has to be the person or object that possesses those traits. Then your modifier will be undangled.

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Wondering and Guessing


Take a look at the following sentences:

1.  I wonder how long this meeting is going to take?

2. Guess how many jellybeans are in this jar?

Just this morning I saw errors such as the ones in those sentences in both the LA Times and the New York Times.

Did you just reread those sentences and decide neither one contained an error? I’m guessing most people would think that. But look what those sentences are doing:

The “wonder” sentence shows that the writer has a question about how long that dreaded meeting will take. But, in fact, that sentence merely states a fact, the fact that the writer does not know the length of the meeting. It is a simple declarative sentence.

The “guess” sentence is a command: “I am telling you to guess how many jellybeans are in the jar.” The people being addressed have a question in their minds, but the speaker/writer of that sentence is issuing an order, not a question.

When you need to write “wonder” or “guess,” do not automatically throw in a question mark. Only if those words are contained in an actual question (Do you wonder how Igor ever was hired as the chief lab manager? Can you guess how many jellybeans are in this jar?) should you use a question mark.


(That can be an abbreviated question, “Do you understand?” or a command, “You must understand.”  It’s the first; you knew that.)

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Amount vs. Number


I found this error in the NY Times in an informative article about an app that helps you with flights (Skyscanner).

“You can filter this list in a number of ways to find the flight with the best price,            the least amount of interim stops, and so on.” (Bold added by me.)

Here’s the rule: if you can count something, use “number.” If what you’re writing about is uncountable (e.g., milk, luggage, equipment), use “amount.”

Because you can count interim stops, the sentence should have read, “…the fewest/least number of interim stops.”

I shall stop now.



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Shouldn’t the New York Times Know Better?


English: Costa Concordia Polski: Statek pasaże...

English: Costa Concordia Polski: Statek pasażerski Costa Concordia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Operations began today to try to turn the wrecked Costa Concordia upright. In reporting this event, the New York Times published this sentence:


“On Monday, a salvage crew used pulleys, strand jacks and steel cables, placed on nine caissons attached to the left side of the ship, to slowly dislodge it from the two rocks where it has been laying.”


Where it has been laying? I thought the Concordia was a ship, not a hen. “To lay” means to put or place. “To lie” means to rest or recline. The Concordia has been lying on two rocks.  Arrrrrrgh!



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A Play on Words

Somewhere in yesterday’s New York Times, late at night, I read the following pun that made me laugh through my groan:

When Howard Carter made his amazing discovery in Egypt in 1922, among the magnificent artifacts in the tomb he found an extraordinary horn: in fact, it was a toot uncommon.

I do love words!

Howard Carter examines King Tut's mummy

Howard Carter examines King Tut’s mummy (Photo credit: ancientartpodcast.org)

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July 8, 2013 · 3:09 PM

And the groom looked lovely in his Ralph Lauren gown

I love misplaced modifiers.  You can’t beat them for the humor they lend to the English language.

In yesterday’s New York Times, the write-up of the featured wedding of the week contained this sentence:

“The bride wept as she walked toward the groom in a silver Ralph Lauren gown….”  Yet the photos showed the groom in a tuxedo.

Here’s the trick about modifiers:  you need to put them right before or after the word about which they are giving more information.  If this had said, “Wearing a silver Ralph Lauren gown, the bride wept as she walked toward the groom,” the laugh would have disappeared, but we’d be certain who was in the dress.  You could also write, “The bride, in a silver Ralph Lauren gown, walked toward the groom.”

As I said, I love misplaced modifiers.


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Eliminating Gender in Sweden

Here is the beginning of an article in today’s New York Times:

STOCKHOLM — At an ocher-color preschool along a lane in Stockholm’s Old Town, the teachers avoid the pronouns “him” and “her,” instead calling their 115 toddlers simply “friends.” Masculine and feminine references are taboo, often replaced by the pronoun “hen,” an artificial and genderless word that most Swedes avoid but is popular in some gay and feminist circles.

In the little library, with its throw pillows where children sit to be read to, there are few classic fairy tales, like “Cinderella” or “Snow White,” with their heavy male and female stereotypes, but there are many stories that deal with single parents, adopted children or same-sex couples.

Girls are not urged to play with toy kitchens, and wooden or Lego blocks are not considered toys for boys. And when boys hurt themselves, teachers are taught to give them every bit as much comforting as they would girls. Everyone gets to play with dolls; most are anatomically correct, and some are also black.

The article goes on to state that teachers were made aware that when boys fell down, they were consoled for a shorter time and sometimes told, in essence, to suck it up.  Girls got more cuddling and comfort.  Now the teachers are treating all the children as equally as possible.  Male teachers were also hired.

Does this attitude strike you as too extreme?  My take is that avoiding gender-specific pronouns is silly because it is unlikely even Swedish society is going to abandon them. Girls know they are girls and boys know they are boys in most cases. In addition, children are more influenced by their home environments than by their schools.  But I see nothing wrong with allowing all the “friends” to play with whatever appeals to them and for the teachers, male and female, to dole out love and comfort equally.

Tell me what you think.

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E-Mail Can Be Dangerous

The recent flap over the affair between Gen. David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell (even Dickens would be amused by her last name, not to mention the title of her biography of him, All In—but I digress) illustrates the potential danger of e-mail indiscretions.  Ms. Broadwell thought another woman was infringing on her territory, so she allegedly sent her threatening e-mails.  The other woman, a Ms. Kelley, went to the FBI to report those e-mails, and as a result the FBI uncovered evidence of the affair between Petraeus and Broadwell.

But the plot gets thicker:  Ms. Kelley was allegedly having an affair with another general, John Allen, and the FBI uncovered between 20,000 and 30,000 e-mails between those two.  Look at those numbers!  How did they have time even to brush their teeth? Meanwhile, four families are suffering pain and humiliation.

The moral of this story is, never put anything in an e-mail you would not be willing to see on the front page of tomorrow’s New York Times.  Deleted e-mails live on a server somewhere and can be recovered.

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