Tag Archives: usage

Hanged vs. Hung

 

Hanged and hung are both past tenses of the verb to hang. You want to display some photographs on the wall. Which will it be? Would you say you hanged them or you hung them? I hope you hung them. Hanged is used to indicate death by suspension: The criminal was hanged at dawn. All other uses call for hung: you hung up the phone, you hung laundry out to dry, you hung out with your friends, you hung loose during the quarantine. Even to describe, ahem, male endowment, you’d use well hung.

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Does “Proper” English Matter?

I am asking you this question seriously. An article appeared in the Wall Street Journal asking the question about whether “proper English” matters. It was written by Oliver Kamm, an editor and columnist for the Times of London.

Kamm acknowledges errors in grammar, spelling and punctuation but states that if “everyone” is doing it, it’s OK. He says, “…that is what the language is.” To a certain extent, I agree. All languages change because of common usage. In Shakespeare’s day, the word “girl” could refer to a young child, either female or male. That meaning no longer applies, strictly because of common usage. And look at the evolution of the word “gay” in the last 50 years.

But Kamm has no problem with “between you and I.” I do. He would call my attitude snobbish and say I am a pedant. Yet isn’t he being pedantic when stating his views on language?

Some rules of English language are holdovers from Latin syntax. That is why ending sentences with prepositions is still considered a no-no by many. I have no problem with saying or writing, “Who was the person I saw you with?” The alternative is to say, “With whom was that person I saw you?” I doubt many will go for that stuffy option. Splitting infinitives is another so-called error, yet the world’s most famous split infinitive, “to boldly go,” poses no problem. If it sounds all right and makes sense, I am fine with splitting infinitives (the “to —” form of verbs).

We all use different forms of English for different occasions. A formal letter of complaint, a quick email to a friend, a letter to your ancient great-aunt—all will contain a different style of English. If your work involves a field that uses particular lingo, by all means use it among your colleagues. But don’t let that language spill out into the wider world; most people outside your area won’t understand what you mean. And clear communication is the purpose of language, isn’t it? Also realize that spoken English is rarely held to the same standards as is written English. Sometimes the result can be painful to the ears, but casual speech usually seems normal and often even entertaining.

Here’s a big question: do people judge us by the way we use English? I fear they do. It might not be fair, and it is only one way we are judged daily: by our speech and writing, by our clothing, by our hair and makeup, by the car we drive, by our taste in music and movies—the list is endless. Not fair, but endless.

I have two graduate degrees in English. One class required a very complicated and difficult study of transformational grammar (don’t ask), but it did give me the knowledge and confidence to devote over 20 years to teaching business writing seminars in the corporate world. If “proper” English doesn’t matter, why was I ever hired?

I think the dumbing down of language standards fits in with today’s grade inflation and trophies for everyone on the sports team. In the 1970s, an “anything goes” educational model arose to make the student feel good at all costs. A young cousin of mine learned to read in school by using phonetic books; she also learned to write by using phonetic spelling. At some point in later elementary school she had to dich fonetik speling and lurn the mor convenshunl wun. Perhaps some of you were taught the same way.

Daily we are faced with language distortion in politics and advertising. (I urge you to read George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.” You can find it online. Well worth your time.)

Since the purpose of language is communication, being precise is of great importance. The rules we learn throughout our lives, particularly in classes, ensure the greatest clarity; we encounter fewer opportunities for misunderstanding.

My questions to you are the following: is it racist or classist to expect people to write using the standards of “proper” English? If people don’t use standard English, will they be considered less intelligent? Will use of substandard English hold people back?

I would love to get your feedback on this topic.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

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How to Write Good

Sent to me by my friend Marilyn, another language maven. Enjoy.

50 Rules for Writing Good

One of the more popular items that circulate through the network of folk faxology is a perverse set of rules along the lines of Thimk, We Never Make Mistakes and (this one runs off the page) PlanAhe…. These injunctions call attention to the very mistakes they seek to enjoin. English teachers, students, scientists and (scientific) writers have been circulating a list of self-contradictory rules of usage for more than a century, and have been collecting and creating them for almost half of one. Whatever you think of these slightly cracked nuggets of rhetorical wisdom, just remember that all generalizations are bad.

  1. Each pronoun should agree with their antecedent.
  2. Between you and I, case is important.
  3. A writer must be sure to avoid using sexist pronouns in his writing.
  4. Verbs has to agree with their subjects.
  5. Don’t be a person whom people realize confuses who and whom.
  6. Never use no double negatives.
  7. Never use a preposition to end a sentence with. That is something up with which your readers will not put.
  8. When writing, participles must not be dangled.
  9. Be careful to never, under any circumstances, split infinitives.
  10. Hopefully, you won’t float your adverbs.
  11. A writer must not shift your point of view.
  12. Lay down and die before using a transitive verb without an object.
  13. Join clauses good, like a conjunction should.
  14. The passive voice should be avoided.
  15. About sentence fragments.
  16. Don’t verb nouns.
  17. In letters themes reports and ads use commas to separate items in a series.
  18. Don’t use commas, that aren’t necessary.
  19. “Don’t overuse ‘quotation marks.’ “
  20. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (if the truth be told) superfluous.
  21. Contractions won’t, don’t and can’t help your writing voice.
  22. Don’t write run-on sentences they are hard to read.
  23. Don’t forget to use end punctuation
  24. Its important to use apostrophe’s in the right places.
  25. Don’t abbrev.
  26. Don’t overuse exclamation marks!!!
  27. Resist Unnecessary Capitalization.
  28. Avoid mispellings.
  29. Check to see if you any words out.
  30. One word sentences? Eliminate.
  31. Avoid annoying, affected, and awkward alliterations, always.
  32. Never, ever use repetitive redundancies.
  33. The bottom line is to bag trendy locutions that sound flaky.
  34. By observing the distinctions between adjectives and adverbs, you will treat your readers real good.
  35. Parallel structure will help you in writing more effective sentences and to express yourself more gracefully.
  36. In my own personal opinion at this point of time, I think that authors, when they are writing, should not get into the habit of making use of too many unnecessary words that they don’t really need.
  37. Foreign words and phrases are the reader’s bete noire and are not apropos.
  38. Who needs rhetorical questions?
  39. Always go in search for the correct idiom.
  40. Do not cast statements in the negative form.

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Discreet vs. Discrete

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Will she be discreet?

These two words are pronounced identically and are commonly mistaken for each other.

DISCREET means circumspect, prudent, careful. If you are discreet, you will avoid gossiping or criticizing others. You try to avoid embarrassing others. Roger promised he would be discreet after his best friend told him he was thinking of divorcing his fourth wife.

DISCRETE means singular, unconnected, separate. Academy Awards are given in multiple discrete categories.

 

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Commas With Names

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To my consternation, I have noticed that many people and advertising companies, perhaps the majority, omit a comma when a person’s or team’s name is in the sentence. I’ll add an X where commas belong in the sentences below. Pay particular attention to sentences that directly address a person.

Good for youX Henry!

NoX Sam, you are wrong about who started the argument.

GoX Dodgers!

HiX Darrell.

Good morningX everyone.

SurpriseX Marlena!

In the last example, if you use the comma you are springing a surprise on Marlena. Without the comma, you are ordering someone to surprise Marlena as opposed to surprising someone else.

 

 

 

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Cold or Allergy?

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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.)

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Adverbs as Time Wasters

Adverbs are having their celebrity moment. The problem is that they are usually time and space wasters. How many times have you seen (or written) sentences containing the following?

Clearly

Actually

Basically

Virtually

Personally

Simply

Arguably

Absolutely

Instead, use a verb that carries precise meaning; then you’ll have no need to add a superfluous adverb. If a television is blaring, no need to say that it’s blaring loudly. When someone shouts, it won’t be done quietly.

A friend’s young granddaughter was fond of starting most sentences with “actually.” When her grandma asked her what “actually” meant, Nicole gave it serious thought and finally answered, “Actually, I don’t know.”

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What’s a Shebang?

images  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.

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What Is Business Writing?

© Judi Birnberg

 

Somewhere, somehow, people in the business world got the idea that using everyday English for their written communications was just not professional. The simplest sentence turned into a Pronouncement From On High. It was taboo to write As we discussed yesterday. Writing As per our previous conversation/dialog yesterday…. was suddenly seen as elegant and professional. The Latin phrase and redundancy made it even weightier. Bravo for you, middle manager!

I spent over 20 years in the corporate world leading business writing seminars in which participants came to see this stilted and pretentious style of writing as an impediment to communication. I urged them to write as if they were speaking to the recipient sitting across their desk. No one speaks in that bureaucratic manner, so why write that way? Obviously, the corporations that hired me knew what I was teaching and wanted their employees to lose the jargon. I did my little part, but I am quite sure the pompous style still lives at many companies. Simple, straightforward, everyday English ensures that all recipients will understand the message. It saves time and money. Questions about intent are no longer necessary. Say what you mean, just as if you were talking to your audience face to face. Business writing is clear, direct, and concise. That’s all it takes.

 

 

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Trite Expressions

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TRITE—Overused, worn out, lacking in originality

Just about anything can be trite: art, music, dance, food (think kale salads). But this blog is concerned with language, so that’s what we’ll focus on today. Read through these trite expressions and then vow to avoid them whenever possible. It will always be possible; just think of straightforward alternatives. You can do it.

  • No sooner said than done
  • By hook or by crook
  • Busy as a bee
  • A bolt from the blue
  • Few and far between
  • In this day and age
  • Words fail me
  • By leaps and bounds
  • Better late than never
  • A good time was had by all
  • Breathed a sigh of relief
  • From the ridiculous to the sublime
  • It’s a small world
  • Life and limb
  • Sticks out like a sore thumb
  • To all intents and purposes
  • In the final analysis

In the final analysis, I hope you can see why it’s better to avoid these expressions.

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Not Exactly Synonyms

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All words have explicit dictionary meanings—denotations—as well as associated meanings—connotations. Often these connotations are cultural. For example, a color, such as white, may connote purity in one culture and yet be the color of death in another.

It’s important to be certain what connotations words carry. Words you may see as synonyms may have either positive or negative connotations, depending on the context and the culture. For example, the word odor may be seen as positive, negative, or neutral. But if you’re looking for synonyms, check this list and see if some of them might not work for you. When in doubt, look up words in the dictionary to see if a word might have a connotation you weren’t aware of and don’t want. When writing a poem to your love and seeking to focus on how wonderful that person smells, it might be better to stick away from stench and reek.

Odor
Smell
Scent
Tang
Pungency
Whiff
Musk
Stench
Stink
Must
Reek
Aroma
Bouquet
Perfume
Essence
Sachet
Redolence
Spice

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The Order of Adjectives

unknownMark Forsyth wrote a book called The Elements of Eloquence, which includes this unspoken and largely unwritten rule we all follow but were never taught:

“Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.”

Try moving just one of those adjectives to a different spot and you’ll see and hear how weird the sentence sounds. I find it fascinating that we all pick up the intricacies of our native languages before we even start school, without being taught the grammar. I call it linguistic osmosis.

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What to Call Half the Population

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ICK!

Are they females or women? In most cases, female is the adjective and woman is the noun. Referring to women lawyers is unnecessary; we don’t refer to men lawyers. In vocations that were until quite recently male, it may be necessary to write, for example,  female soldiers.

If you want to use female as a noun, reserve it for the following situations: for animals; when you don’t know if the person in question is a girl or a woman; and when describing a gathering that includes both girls and women.

It’s common for women to describe their close female friends as their girlfriends. It would be a very good idea for males to avoid calling women girls. And it grates on my ear when I hear women refer to their female friends as gals. Ick. But that’s just me.

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Redundancies: Don’t Say It Again, Sam

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VIN=Vehicle Identification Number, so just use VIN, not VIN number.
Same idea with PIN.
ATM machine? ATM says it all.
HIV virus? The V tells us it’s a virus.
No need to say something is blue in color, square in shape, absolutely complete, a total disaster or a true fact.
Unless it’s by John Phillip Sousa, no need to say the month of March.
Nine a.m. in the morning? Choose a.m. or morning, not both.

This is my final conclusion.

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For Your Entertainment

1. The fattest knight at King Arthur’s round table was Sir Cumference. He acquired his size from too much pi.
2. I thought I saw an eye doctor on an Alaskan island, but it turned out to be an optical Aleutian.
3. She was only a whisky maker, but he loved her still.
4. A rubber band pistol was confiscated from an algebra class, because it was a weapon of math disruption.
5. No matter how much you push the envelope, it’ll still be stationery.
6. A dog gave birth to puppies near the road and was cited for littering.
7. A grenade thrown into a kitchen in France would result in Linoleum Blownapart.
8. Two silk worms had a race. They ended up in a tie.
9. A hole has been found in the nudist camp wall. The police are looking into it.
10. Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
11. Atheism is a non-prophet organization.
12. Two hats were hanging on a hat rack in the hallway. One hat said to the other: “You stay here; I’ll go on a head.”
13. I wondered why the baseball kept getting bigger. Then it hit me.
14. A sign on the lawn at a drug rehab center said, “Keep off the Grass.”
15. The midget fortune teller who escaped from prison was a small medium at large.
16. The soldier who survived mustard gas and pepper spray is now a seasoned veteran.
17. A backward poet writes inverse.
18. In a democracy, it’s your vote that counts. In feudalism, it’s your count that votes.
19. When cannibals ate a missionary, they got a taste of religion.
20. If you jumped off the bridge in Paris, you’d be in Seine.
21. A vulture carrying two dead raccoons boards an airplane. The stewardess looks at him and says, “I’m sorry, sir, only one carrion allowed per passenger.”
22. Two fish swim into a concrete wall. One turns to the other and says, “Dam!”
23. Two Eskimos sitting in a kayak were chilly, so they lit a fire in the craft. Unsurprisingly, it sank, proving once again that you can’t have your kayak and heat it too.
24. Two hydrogen atoms meet. One says, “I’ve lost my electron.” The other says, “Are you sure?” The first replies, “Yes, I’m positive.”
25. Did you hear about the Buddhist who refused Novocain during a root canal? His goal: transcend dental medication.
26. A person sent ten puns to friends with the hope that at least one of the puns would make them laugh. No pun in ten did.

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Dept. of “Hmmm”

 

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You may be aware that a few nights ago Donald Trump and Mitt Romney dined together at Jean Georges, a three-star Michelin restaurant in Trump Tower in New York City. It could have been an awkward situation, since during the presidential campaign Romney called Trump a fraud and a liar, in addition to other damning epithets.

However, according to the New York Times, “Despite their rocky past, Trump and Romney didn’t show any animosity whatsoever between each other, as servers dressed in neckties and vests carried out their duties.”

I don’t know about you, but I cannot unsee those servers wearing only neckties and vests. Did Jean Georges allow his waiters to forgo pants? That sentence certainly implies the waiters’ outfits were on the scanty side. Imagine the conversation between a thrice-married womanizer and a long-married Mormon—if you can. I can’t.

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Immigrate or Emigrate?

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You often hear and see these two words used interchangeably, but there is a subtle difference in their meanings. It depends on whether you are leaving or arriving.

IMMIGRATE is the word to use when referring to people entering a new country: Canada has experienced great interest from people wanting to immigrate to that country from the United States.

EMIGRATE is used to refer to people leaving a country to take up residence elsewhere: Many people are considering emigrating from the United States to Canada .

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Welcome Aboard

 

images We were in Florida over Thanksgiving week, visiting our daughter and her family and celebrating our granddaughter’s 16th birthday. Sixteen? How can this be?

I have always been fascinated with “airline speak,” and Delta did not disappoint me on this trip. Airlines take what could be a simple sentence and puff it up, using more and fancier words than necessary to get the same message across.

My theory is that because most people have some degree of fear when flying, airlines believe that by sounding more “professional,” you won’t think so much about being seven miles up, going five-hundred miles an hour in a metal tube, and having zero control over what happens. Turbulence? Almost a given. Another plane in the area? How close is that plane I see out the window, anyway? Did a terrorist get through security? Does the constantly coughing person next to me have tuberculosis? Flying is a joy, right?

Therefore, we hear things like, “In the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure,” which really means, as George Carlin explained, “Broken plane!” “If your ticket is still in your possession” translates to, “If you have your ticket.” “This is Captain Parker” made Carlin wonder,”Who made this man a captain? Did I sleep through a military swearing in?” “Welcome to Los Angeles, where the local time is 10 p.m.” Of course it’s the local time. I know we didn’t fly to Laos. “Be certain to retrieve all your personal possessions.” “What else would I have with me?” wondered Carlin. “A fountain I stole from the park?”

Bon voyage!

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Trump’s Use of Language

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Full disclaimer: I am not and never was a supporter of Donald Trump. As much as I abhorred his style of campaigning and saw him as a misogynistic, racist, and cruel candidate (I cannot shake the image of him imitating a disabled reporter), I was always fascinated by his use of language. He usually spoke in very short sentences with a severely limited vocabulary, often in fragments, and repeated words and phrases many times in a row. He was far from a polished speaker, but I have no doubt his conversational style struck a chord with his audiences: he showed he was not above them, that he was at their level. He made them comfortable. Many poor, jobless, undereducated and uneducated people were able to relate to a New York City billionaire who attended an Ivy League school. Go figure.

The following items are far from a full analysis of his favorite words, just some that have stuck with me.

CLASSY: I built the Grand Hyatt right next to Grand Central Station —beautiful, classy job— but then the city denied my request to have the top 10 floors illuminated with my face at night. Can you believe that?

TERRIFIC: (About Obamacare): Repeal and replace with something terrific. (But no details were given.)

TREMENDOUS: I am worth a tremendous amount of money. I have had tremendous success.
(on Islam) There’s something there…there’s a tremendous hatred there.

HUGE (pronounced YUGE): It’s gonna be huge!

AMAZING: Yesterday was amazing—5 victories.

DANGEROUS: (on protesters at Trump speeches) They are really dangerous and they get in there and start hitting people.

TOUGH: Mike Tyson endorsed me. You know, all the tough guys endorse me. I like that. OK?

SMART: I’m, like, a really smart person.

MORON: (on Nelson Mandela’s funeral) What a sad thing that the memory of Nelson Mandela will be stained by the phony sign language moron who is in every picture at [the] funeral!

WE: (This indicates solidarity with his audiences. He is telling them what they believe and that he agrees with them.) We need to build a wall on the Mexican border. We are going to make Mexico pay for it.
We are going to make great trade deals.
We are going to bring back our jobs.
We will totally dismantle Iran’s global terror network.

THEY: (This word indicates “the other,” those who are in opposition.)  (on immigrants) They’re pouring in. They are bringing drugs, they are bringing crime.
The Mexican government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.
(on poor people who become politicians) And I said to myself, if they can stay so poor for so many generations, maybe this isn’t the kind of person we want to be electing to higher office. How smart can they be? They’re morons.

LOSER: (on John McCain) I supported him, he lost, he let us down. But you know, he lost, so I’ve never liked him as much after that, because I don’t like losers…. He’s not a war hero…. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.

STUPID: I went to an Ivy League school. I’m highly educated. I know words. I have the best words, I have the best, but there is no better word than stupid. Right?

WINNING: We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning. Believe me. You’ll never get bored with winning. You’ll never get bored!

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What Kind of Graduate Are You?

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Latin lesson coming up:

If you are a female graduate, you are an alumna. Plural female graduates are alumnae.

If you’re a male graduate, you are an alumnus. Plural male graduates are alumni. Plural graduates of males and females are also alumni. Sexist, I know.

I must admit it bothers me when I see license plate frames reading UC BERKELEY ALUMNI. Why not make plates with the female and male words for graduates? I am not a plural male graduate from Cal. I am, however, a member of the Cal Alumni Association, a large mixed group, men and women. Go, Bears!

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Beside or Besides?

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When you’re angry or frustrated, are you beside yourself or besides yourself? Here’s the difference:

BESIDES means in addition to.
Besides me, only three people showed up at the meeting.

BESIDE means next to, alongside.
At the meeting, I sat beside a woman I had never met before.

However, the expression beside myself (with frustration, for example) strikes me as odd. Obviously, it’s idiomatic; you can’t physically get next to yourself, no matter how hard you try. But if you are sufficiently frustrated, you might feel as if you have been torn into two people. I’m just guessing here.

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Who’s Murgatroyd? Or Betsy, Flynn or Riley?

All languages change through common usage. English is no exception. Do you remember any of these once often-used words and expressions?

Heavens to Murgatroyd
Heavens to Betsy
Jalopy
Hunky Dory
Don’t touch that dial
Carbon copy
Broken record
Hung out to dry (before clothes dryers, I’m guessing)
Gee willikers
Jumping Jehoshaphat
Holy moley
In like Flynn (again, who’s he?)
Living the life of Riley (another unknown person)
Not for all the tea in China
Spats, knickers, poodle skirts, fedoras, saddle shoes, pedal pushers
Pageboy, beehive and DA hairdos
Kilroy was here
I’ll be a monkey’s uncle
A fine kettle of fish
Pshaw!
Knee high to a grasshopper
Fiddlesticks
Don’t take any wooden nickels

And fifty years from now, many of today’s common expressions will be looked at as quaint and archaic.

See ya later, alligator! After a while, crocodile!

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Incredible or Incredulous?

 

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Steve’s looking incredulous.

These two words are often confused.

INCREDIBLE means difficult to believe:
Jumping from a plane at 25,000 feet without using supplementary oxygen and landing alive seems like an incredible feat; yet a man did this not too long ago.

INCREDULOUS means unable or unwilling to believe something:
If I had not seen the video myself, I would have been incredulous if someone had told me a person had jumped from a plane at 25,000 feet and lived.

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Clever Thoughts for Clever People

This is from my friend Janet. I love it when my readers suggest topics or send me goodies like this one. The English language is so malleable!

1. ARBITRATOR: A cook that leaves Arby’s to work at McDonald’s

2. BERNADETTE: The act of torching a mortgage 
3. BURGLARIZE: What a crook sees with
  

4. AVOIDABLE: What a bullfighter tries to  do

 

5. COUNTERFEITER: Worker who assembles kitchen cabinets

6. LEFT BANK: What the bank robber did when his bag was full of money
  
7. HEROES: What a man in a boat does

8. PARASITES: What you see from the Eiffel Tower 

9. PARADOX: Two physicians

10. PHARMACIST: A helper on a farm 

11. RELIEF: What trees do in the spring

12. RUBBERNECK: What you do to relax your wife

13. SELFISH: What the owners of a seafood store do

14. SUDAFED: Brought litigation against a government official

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The Lie vs. Lay Dilemma

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I’m guessing that within ten years the distinctions between these two words will have disappeared. But until September 2026, you might consider sticking to the following rules.

LIE (we’re not going to deal with the situation in which the truth is ignored) means to lie down, to rest or recline. Every day after lunch, I lie down. I don’t lay down. I lay something down.

LAY means to put or place: Every day when I lie down, I lay my head on my pillow.

That covers the present tense of both verbs. It gets a little sticky when you go into past tenses:

LIE in the past tense is (wait for it) LAY. Yesterday after lunch, I lay down. OMG, in the present tense you lie down, but in the past tense you lay down! Remember, I don’t make these rules up; I just teach them.

It gets even worse: in the past perfect tense, when has, had or have is part of your verb, you need LAIN. (I bet you’ve never written that word in your life—but it’s not too late to start.) Every day after lunch, I always have lain down.

As for the past tenses of LAY, here is what you want: Yesterday I laid my head on my pillow. I always have laid my head on my pillow.

If your head is aching, perhaps you’d like to lay your head on your pillow.

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Simplifying Legalese

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Here is the writing on a T-shirt I bought for my husband, a lawyer. It’s labeled “The Layman’s Glossary of Legal Terms”:

ACQUIT: To wimp out
APPELLATE: Hamster food
ARRAIGN: Stormy weather
ATTORNEY: Major sporting event
BAR ASSOCIATION: Drinking buddies
BONA FIDE: Dog treat
CRIMINAL LAWYER: Redundant
COURT OF APPEALS: Justice for bananas
CRIME OF PASSION: Sloppy kisses
DEBTOR: Less alive
DECEIT: A place to sit down
DISCOVERY: Cable TV channel
EXTRADITION: More math homework
GRACE PERIOD: Just before the meal
HUNG JURY: Overreaction to verdict
IN TOTO: Where Dorothy places trust
INNOCENCE: Fragrant when burned
LEGAL BRIEFS: Always boxers
LEGAL SECRETARY: Old enough to party
LIEN: Not overweight
MIRANDA RULE: Wear fruit on head
ORDER IN THE COURT: A call for takeout
PRO BONO: Cher before the divorce
ROE V. WADE: Tough choice at river
SUPREME COURT: Where Diana Ross plays tennis
TRIAL DATE: More fun than dinner and a movie

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Did Dickens Consider This?

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September 16, 2016 · 3:26 PM

Who’s Joe?

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I’ve been wondering how the word joe came to be used in a slang sense for coffee. I consulted Evan Morris’ book The Word Detective to see what his theories are.

In fact, no one seems to know for certain. It may be that joe is somehow associated with the island of Java, since java is another synonym for coffee. In the 19th century, the Indonesian island of Java was a major source of the world’s coffee.

Joe is often used to refer to the average man, the common man (his female equivalent is Jill), and has been especially associated with the military (we all know GI Joe,  slang for the common soldier long before he hit the toy store shelves). Because coffee is said to fuel the military, an association between common soldiers and their drink of choice is fixed.

Maybe.

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Paraprosdokians (huh?)

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Would you like a smoothie?

A paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence is unexpected and often humorous. My friend Jill sent these to me. Enjoy them.

• If I had a dollar for every girl who found me unattractive, they’d eventually find me attractive.

• I find it ironic that the colors red, white, and blue stand for freedom, until they’re flashing behind you.

• Today a man knocked on my door and asked for a small donation towards the local swimming pool, so I gave him a glass of water.

• Artificial intelligence is no match for natural stupidity.

• If tomatoes are technically a fruit, is ketchup a smoothie?

• I’m great at multi-tasking: I can waste time, be unproductive, and procrastinate all at once.

• If you can smile when things go wrong, you have someone in mind to blame.

• Take my advice — I’m not using it.

• Hospitality is the art of making guests feel like they’re at home when you wish they were.

• Behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes.

• Ever stop to think and forget to start again?

• Women spend more time wondering what men are thinking than men spend thinking.

• He who laughs last thinks slowest.

• Is it wrong that only one company makes the game Monopoly?

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What in the World is a Mondegreen?

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Have you ever discovered lyrics that were not what you originally thought you heard? You misinterpret a phrase that sounds very similar to the real deal, but your interpretation gives it a new meaning, one that may raise eyebrows. That, dear readers, is a Mondegreen.

The name was coined in 1954 by author Sylvia Wright, who misheard the lyrics of an old Scottish ballad; she thought these were the words:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

In fact, the last line is And laid him on the green.

Here are some other Mondegreens:

the girl with colitis goes by (the girl with kaleidoscope eyes, from “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”)

There’s a bathroom on the right (There’s a bad moon on the rise, from “Bad Moon Rising”)

Surely, good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life. A more common reading of the 23rd Psalm includes the line, Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.

When I was very young, a popular singer named Patti Page recorded a song called “Cross Over the Bridge.” It contains the line, Leave your fickle past behind you, and true romance will find you…. I was just discovering love songs on the radio and had no idea what “fickle” meant. To my ears, Patti Page was singing, Leave your pickle pats behind you….

I still wonder what pickle pats had to do with true romance. And what are pickle pats, anyway? Send me your own Mondegreens. I bet you all have at least one.

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Whatever Happened to These Words?

© Judi Birnberg

“Two Ruly Birds”         ©Judi Birnberg

Many words once in common use are rarely seen today, but prefixes and suffixes have kept the root alive:

COUTH meant known, familiar. So UNCOUTH is bad-mannered, strange.

RUTH meant to rue, to feel compassion for. If you’re RUTHLESS, that compassion is gone.

HAP meant lucky. Now HAPLESS means unlucky or incompetent.

KEMPT meant combed, tidy. UNKEMPT implies a person is sloppy or messy.

FECK meant effective, strong, so FECKLESS is weak or ineffective.

GRUNTLE meant to complain . DISGRUNTLE, however, isn’t an opposite; it’s an intensifier.

WIELDY meant agile. (You saw all those wieldy athletes at the Olympics, right?) UNWIELDY is clumsy, awkward.

RULY meant well behaved, obeying the rules. UNRULY behavior is rarely tolerated.

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A Letter No Longer in the English Alphabet

And here it is: 220px-Latin_alphabet_Þþ.svg

Those are upper- and lowercase thorns. In Old English it had the sound of th, as in the. As Old English morphed into Middle English, the thorn was dropped as a letter and y was substituted, which is why you see cutesy names for tearooms and other shops using Ye for The.

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I don’t know about you, but I love trivia about language (and just about everything else).

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Really? Literally?

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I admit it: I’m addicted to “The Antiques Roadshow,” both the British and the American versions. The other night, an American appraiser was so excited to be seeing an item that he, with uncontrolled excitement, practically shouted,“When I saw you come in with this, I literally was blown across the room!”

I can’t even remember what the item was because I was so fascinated by the image of him taking one look at the piece and then flying across the room, arms a-flappin, a look of amazement on his face. Did he actually fly across the room? Obviously not. Maybe he virtually flew. Or maybe he just got really excited and felt his heart pound. However he reacted, one thing is certain: he was not literally blown across the room. That would have meant it had really happened.

Incidentally, if you watch the show, you likely have noticed that almost every American who receives an good appraisal responds with, “Wow!” For years the Brits have been far more reserved, politely smiling and nodding or saying something along the lines of “Lovely.” Very understated. But recently I have noticed that Wow! has now made it to the British Isles although it is uttered, as you might expect, with great poise and restraint.

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Words to Persuade With

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(To those of you moaning about my ending a sentence with a preposition, I ask if you’d rather read Words With Which to Persuade. It truly is fine to stick a preposition at the end of your sentence if it sounds more natural.)

To persuade your audience, here is a list of words that will entice your readers to your side: youyes, free, guarantee, easy, save, new, safety, benefits, discovery, health, now, sale, proven, money, results, love.

Please be sure when you use these words that you are not blowing smoke. If you are offering benefits, guarantees, or health, mean what you say. If you cannot back up your promises, you will lose all credibility.

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Voila, Wallah, or Viola?

I’ve been busy with visiting children and grandchildren, but I was inspired by this morning’s email from the Grammarphobia blog (so worth your while). The author, Patricia O’Conner, covered the topic you see in my subject line. A reader had contacted her, saying he often saw wallah in print to mean voila. Apparently, no dictionary gives it as an alternative spelling.

Voila is French and essentially means, “There you have it!” It’s pronounced vwaLA. Note the V sound. Wallah is a Hindi word used in India to mean a person concerned with a specific business, such as a chai wallah, one who sells tea. It also can signify a person from a particular place, such as a Mumbai wallah.

I not infrequently see people write Viola! when meaning to write Voila! I guess those people are music lovers.

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How Does This Issue Impact You?

So many issues to contemplate and solve. Issue after issue. Issues are issuing forth from radio, television and every segment of media all day and all night. We are bombarded with issues.

We are constantly being asked how these issues impact us. So many impacts. Impacts here, impacts there, impacts, impacts everywhere.

What I want to know is what happened to problems affecting people. I’m guessing impact has replaced affect, at least in writing, because so many people are unsure whether to use affect or effect.

Either of those can be used instead of impact:

  1. How does this problem affect you? (Affect is a verb.)
  2. What will be the effect of this problem? (Effect is a noun.)

It’s true that affect can be a noun: The patient had a flat affect (no facial expression).

Effect can also be a verb: Every new president hopes to effect changes (meaning bring about). 

However, you can see how rarely each of those words is used in those ways. Try memorizing the overwhelmingly more common uses of affect and effect (see sentences 1 and 2 above) and take them out for a spin every now and then. Don’t get stuck in the Issue and Impact Rut.

 

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You Guys

 

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I’m wondering how you feel about the ubiquitous phrase you guys. We went to brunch today with another couple: two women and two men. The server repeatedly referred to us as you guys: Are you guys ready to order? Do you guys want any coffee? Is there anything else I can get you guys?

I’m not sure what the female equivalent of guys is. Gals? (I hate that word.) Girls? I’m long past my girlhood. Dolls, as in the great Broadway show? (But ick.)

It’s not as if people don’t recognize two sexes at the table. But if a female-denoting word were habitually to be used to address a mixed-gender group, I’m guessing the males would stifle that immediately. Are women ready to announce they are not guys? Or do we let it roll over us and fuggedaboudit?

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Can You Do These Things?

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Glued to the TV

Can you do your level best? Can you throw a fit? How about throwing someone under the bus? Or throwing a birthday party? Can you crack a smile, float a trial balloon, pose a question, bear the brunt, beat a hasty retreat, grab a nap, or cause someone’s words to fall on deaf ears? Are you glued to the conventions? Can you drive a hard bargain and nail down an argument?

If you can do these acts, it might be better if you didn’t. They’re all clichés, and everyone knows clichés should be avoided like the plague.

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About Capitalization

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Food Fight   ©Judi Birnberg

If you’d like a list of rules governing when to capitalize a letter, use the search box and put in Capitalization Rules. I posted the list a little over a year ago.

I just want to add that although a word may have special significance for you, your response won’t be universal: Exercise will fill you with Joy and Energy. When you finish your 75 pushups, you may be elated and buzzing with verve. Nevertheless, joy and energy are nothing more than ordinary, common nouns. They aren’t official names of anything (proper nouns) and should not be capitalized.

As I wrote in my previous post about capital letters,

Be very sparing in using capitalization for emphasis. Let your words show the emphasis. As with any form of calling attention to your message (e.g., bold, italics, underlining), when you emphasize everything you end up emphasizing nothing.

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Dribble or Drivel?

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Lately, I’ve been hearing and reading the word dribble used to mean “nonsense,” as in So much of political discourse today is dribble.

Dribble is what basketball players do with a ball and what babies do with just about everything that goes into their mouths. If you substitute drivel in the example sentence in the first paragraph, you’ll be using the word correctly.

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Do You Pronounce the T in Often?

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I was recently asked why we sometimes pronounce the T in often but not in listen. I wasn’t sure, so I consulted the grammar guru who writes the invaluable blog  Grammarphobia, Pat O’Conner. She wrote the equally invaluable (and funny) book Woe Is I. You can subscribe to Grammarphobia and get her frequent posts on English language oddities. I highly recommend it.

This is blog post of hers that addressed the meandering T:

<<Q: I just discovered your site and I plan to return often. Oh, that reminds me – it makes me crazy to hear people pronounce the “t” in “often.”

A: The word “often” can be pronounced with a silent “t” (the more common pronunciation) or with an audible “t.” Both are correct, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.). Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says the version with the audible “t” occurs in educated speech but is considered unacceptable by some.

American Heritage has an interesting usage note after its entry for “often.” During the 15th century, it seems, English speakers stopped pronouncing some sounds within consonant clusters, making the language easier to articulate. Examples include the “d” in “handsome” and “handkerchief,” the “p” in “consumption” and “raspberry,” and the “t” in “chestnut” and “often.”

With the rise of public education and people’s awareness of spelling in the 19th century, according to the dictionary, sounds that had become silent were sometimes restored. This is what happened with the “t” in “often.”

You might be interested in knowing that “often” was originally just “oft,” and “oft” was commonly used as a prefix in word combinations that are archaic and unrecognizable today. Even a word like ‘oftentimes,” which appears in modern dictionaries, seems dated and has musty, quaint overtones. It’s also a term that drives people crazy because of its apparent redundancy. But in fact, the words “oftentime,” “oftentimes,” and “oftime” date back to the early 1400s, and “ofttimes” was first recorded in the 1300s, so they have a venerable history.>>

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A.Word.A.Day

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Are you familiar with this website in the title? I recommend it highly: It’s free, fun and useful.

If you subscribe, every day your inbox will greet you with a new word, some of them quite unusual. Occasionally the words are a miscellaneous collection, but often they come from a common theme. This week’s words all begin with silent letters, and I’m not talking about especially common words like knife and write.

You get the etymology, pronunciation (both written and spoken), notes, and use in a sentence. Does this sound stuffy and boring? It’s not. Give it a try.

Here’s the link: www.wordsmith.org

 

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Virtually

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“Virtually” means “almost” or “in effect.” Therefore, virtual reality is not quite the real thing. It looks like reality, it may fool some people, but in fact it is a simulation of reality.

This word is often confused with “practically.” Don’t use “practically” in place of “almost.” If I say I “practically won the tennis match,” let’s face it: I lost.

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Common Language

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Linguists recently announced that “Huh?” or a similar word seems to be a universal way of confirming that another speaker is understood. They studied 10 languages on five continents, including Dutch, Icelandic, Mandarin Chinese, the West African Siwu and the Australian aboriginal Murrinh-Patha. These languages have very different grammatical structures, but all contain a syllable people use to make sure they are understanding what is being said. The variants sound like “huh?,” hah?,” “eh?” and other closely related sounds, and all end with a questioning intonation. I’m wondering if the questioning tone is like the American “Really?” meaning, “I get it.”

Others had proposed that “mama” and “dada” might be universal sounds, but “huh” is much more widely distributed. This came as a surprise to me.

For what it’s worth, when I taught college ESL classes, my students showed me how widespread our word “chocolate” is. The accent may be slightly different but you would instantly recognize the word as “chocolate.” So no matter where you are in the world, you will always be able to get your fix without someone saying, “Huh?” to you.

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Have a Seat

 

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I remember many years ago first hearing chair used as a verb and thinking it was odd. But with all language, usage makes the strange familiar. In the olden days, the person heading the committee was a chairman, no matter that person’s sex. Now chairman is used to indicate a male, chair is used for either sex, and chairwoman is frowned upon. Dianne Feinstein is the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, even when she stands up.

Theodore Bernstein, author of The Careful Writer and Dos, Don’ts and Maybes of English Usage, thought chair (v.) was a fad and spoofed its use by inventing some parallel words: He imagined people elevatoring themselves to their penthouses, getting dinner-jacketed and going theatering. Fortunately, none of those atrocities caught on, but today you can sit on a chair or guide a committee.

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More Spring Cleaning

© Judi Birnberg Time to Clean

© Judi Birnberg
Time to Clean

Last week I suggested you do some spring cleaning and rid your writing of redundant jargon and clichés. I heard from several of you who added additional suggestions, such as 7 a.m. Monday morning and the month of March. (I used to tell my classes, if it wasn’t by John Phillip Sousa it had to be the month.)

Jeff Wright, a very smart man I was lucky enough to have in one of my seminars, sent me a list he has compiled of his, ahem, favorites. With thanks to Jeff, I present the following:

Completely unique
Ask a question
Emergency situation
Cameo appearance
Filled to capacity
Tough dilemma
Close proximity
Shower activity
Storm system
False pretense
Added bonus
Very critical
Kneel down
Tuna fish
Heat up

I can also add these:

Any qualifier with unique (very, most, really, truly)
True fact
Surrounded on all sides
Exactly identical
New innovation
Disappear from view
Repeat again
Final conclusion
Purple in color
Completely free
Circled around

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Be Precise

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© Judi Birnberg    A Confusing Web of Thoughts

When you write, aim for precision. Vague writing can leave your readers confused or bored—or both:

John’s father said he couldn’t go to the concert Saturday night.

Who can’t go, John or his father?

Instead of writing  The long vacation was scheduled for a warm location, try They booked a two-week vacation in Tahiti.

Before you write, think carefully about your message. Then write it succinctly and specifically. Anticipate what questions your reader might have and then answer those questions in your message. Your goal is to avoid follow-up messages: Who can’t go to the Saturday night concert? Where are they going for their vacation? How long will they be away? 

 

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Last Signs From Japan

I can’t say I’ve saved the best for last, but these are the only two remaining funny signs I haven’t yet posted. So say “Sayonara” to people’s attempts to master English—with perhaps not quite possessing a full understanding of that language. Whatever they have done, it’s better than any attempt at Japanese on my part would have been.

I think the backwards R is a nice touch:

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And here is a bit of trilingualism: native Japanese speakers creating a sign using both French and English. A for effort:

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Three More Japanese Signs

Sadly, this hotel looked neither grand nor fine.IMG_1839.jpg

This was the name of the restaurant in our hotel in Hiroshima. I kept waiting for the plates and bowls to get into formation and march snappily out the door.IMG_2043.jpg

Here was a breakfast choice in Dish Parade. Both objects look very similar, although the one on the right might be the flitter. I think it’s the common Asian mistake of substituting an L sound for an R. But neither looks like any pizza or fritter I’ve ever seen. Not a clue.IMG_2224.jpg

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A Quick Return to Japan

Here are two more Japanese signs I saw that made me ponder:

The only thing that goes through my head when I see this is a song. “Imagine you and me, so happy together….” Do you have any idea what the business might be? A dating site?

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This is one of my favorites. When you see this store, you must think ONLY about a suit. NOTHING more. What if I dare to think about a necktie? Or a pair of shoes?

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