I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 30 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifled their pockets for new vocabulary.

James D. Nicoll (#)


<December 2014>




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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 6:54 AM Pacific

  04:09 AM

We English speakers can occasionally have some hiccups sorting out the singular or plural nature of nouns, especially when the nouns represents represent a collection of individuals.

Basically speaking, in American English, a mass noun tends to be treated as a singular:

Apple has announced a new version of the iPhone.
Microsoft releases a new update every week.

In British English, these tend to be treated as plural:

Apple have announced a new version of the iPhone.
Microsoft release a new update every week.

Not long ago, an FB friend of mine was posting about an upcoming tour by the rock back The Who. He wrote:

The Who is (are?) coming.

Following the general rule, this is The Who is coming in American English, and The Who are coming in British English.

But consider mass nouns of this type when the noun itself is marked for plural:

The Rolling Stones are going on tour.[1]

Not even Americans will treat this as singular.

I ran across another angle on this issue today when I saw a headline about Marshawn Lynch, who plays football for the Seattle Seahawks. Behold:

As with sports teams generally, the name is plural. And as with the Rolling Stones, even in American English, we'll treat this name—which is trademarked—as plural, since it's marked that way: The Seahawks have won the game.

But the writer here got in a bind: if the Seahawks™ are a team, and even if we think of them as a (plural) collection of individual, how do you refer to any one member?

I suspect that in informal settings, people will mostly use the singular: Marshawn Lynch will be a Seahawk. Perhaps an overly attentive editor got concerned about using a trademarked name incorrectly. But the result in this case comes out sounding very odd.

[1] Not that I know of.


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  09:02 PM

I was reading some employee policy documents recently when I ran across this:
It is still preferred that complaints are handled internally.
There are some interesting things here to contemplate. Let's start with It is [still] preferred that.... A more active way to phrase this is We still prefer that .... The construct that starts with It is is not technically passive—there's no subject-object inversion (as in "The man was bitten by the dog.") But the it is used in an impersonal way here, which has a passive feel, and it seems clear (<-- haha) that whoever wrote this was intent on not stating who was doing the preferring.

Then there's ... complaints are handled internally. This actually looks like a real passive ([someone] handles complaints becomes complaints are handled.) Again it seems that there's an intent to avoid stating a subject for handle.

But an odder thing is that complaints are is an example that might be cited when people talk about how the subjunctive is disappearing in English. Many people would rewrite the sentence as ... preferred that the complaints be handled internally, which is a fine use of subjunctive ("be") to indicate a statement that represents "opinion, belief, purpose, intention, or desire." Consider:

They insist that he is there.
They insist that he be there.

The sentences mean different things, and the latter uses be to mark a subjunctive that indicates the aforementioned intention, desire, etc.

Gabe Doyle has a writeup on the what's invariably referred to as the "death" of the subjunctive, and one of his examples (3a and 3b) shows the same conflation between subjunctive be and indicative is.

Anyway, it's a lot of grammatical food for thought in one sentence, don't you think?



  10:51 AM

I’m not sure whether this is an eggcorn or just a homonym mistake whose tense logic amused me. I was reading an article and ran across the following (picture here in case they edit the text later):

(The text of interest says “the diatribe was entirely representative of the reality, which is bared out not only by the aforementioned Pew poll, but another Pew poll”)

The author intended to bear out, meaning to “substantiate, confirm” (see definition 30). One reason to suspect that this is an eggcorn is that, as with eggcorns generally, the word substitution sort of makes sense: to bare out could mean, perhaps with a little squinting, something along the lines of “to make bare,” hence perhaps to make obvious.

And as I say, I liked the logic of the past tense. The past of bear out is born out or borne out. Thus this sentence was intended to read “… which is born(e) out not only by …”. But if you substitute bare, you’ve got a regular verb in terms of past tense, so it is inevitably bared out.

Eggcorns are interesting because they offer a tiny peek into how speakers parse and interpret things they hear. (And they are primarily based in sound, not reading.) Chris Waigl maintains a great database of eggcorns that’s fascinating to browse through for just this reason.

You don’t find eggcorns—or whatever this mistake is—in formal articles, not nearly as often as you do in blog posts or other unedited material. So this is, I think, a real find. :-)



  03:05 PM

One of the delights of my job has always been the chance to work with people from all over, and I mean, like, from all over the globe. A nice side effect is that people bring their unique brands of English with them, affording endless opportunities to listen to, read, and think about the vast dialectal variations in our language.

One of our developers has the task of sending out a biweekly email with tips and tricks about using our tools. He happens to be from Sri Lanka, so his English is primarily informed by British usage, and the subject line of his email read “Tip of the Fortnight.” Apparently having second thoughts after the email went out, he popped into my office and asked “Will people understand the term fortnight?”

I think it’s safe to say that literate Americans understand fortnight just fine. But it’s not a term that many Americans produce, I think. I lived in England for a couple of years, and I got very used to expressions like a fortnight’s holiday, but even with this exposure, the term never entered my active vocabulary.

His question, tho, sent me on a bit of a quest to try to determine what the, you know, isogloss is for fortnight. Right across the hall from me is a Canadian, so I asked him. Nope, he said, they don’t use it. My wife has cousins in Australia, so I sent a query off to one of them. Oh, yes, they use it all the time, she said. In fact, she asked, what do you say in the States when you're referring to something on a two-weekly basis? Good question, which underscored why fortnight is such a handy word. I mean, really: how do you phrase "Tip of the Fortnight" in American English?

The word has a long history—according to the OED, it goes back to Old English (first cite 1000), and if I read their note right, Tacitus referred to a Germanic way of reckoning time by nights. (Interestingly, the most recent cite in the OED is for 1879, not that they really needed a cite more recent than that for a term that is in everyday use in Britain.)

I looked in a couple of dictionaries, but neither of them indicated anything along the lines of “chiefly Br.”, as they occasionally will with a regional term. The two usage guides I have handy, Garner and the MWDEU, are both silent on the term. (I slightly expected Garner to comment on the term’s use in, say, legal writing, but nope.)

But I’ll stick to my now-anecdotally based theory that fortnight is just not used much in North American English. Still, I don’t think my colleague had much to worry about regarding the subject line of his email. As I say, I’m pretty sure that my American and Canadian colleagues recognize the term. And of course, many others come from places where it’s a perfectly normal word, and like the cousin, they might wonder why we don't adopt such an obviously useful term.


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  11:15 AM

Let's start with bump. Among its definitions is "raise" or "rise," along these lines:There is some subtlety here to the definition; there's connotation of a non-linear increase, as a bump might appear on a graph.

Anyway, by this definition, if something increases in speed, that would be a … speed bump, right? That's how the author of an article in Ars Technica intended it:
The Web is going to get faster in the very near future. And sadly, this is rare enough to be news.

The speed bump won't be because our devices are getting faster, but they are. It won't be because some giant company created something great, though they probably have. […]
Except ... not. A speed bump performs precisely the opposite: it's a device designed specifically to reduce speed. (On a recent trip to Costa Rica, we learned that a speed bump there is referred to as a reductor de velocidad, an admirably straightforward term.)

Obviously, if you back up and read the sentence again, you get the intent. And perhaps the term speed bump in its traffic-calming sense isn't known as widely as I imagine, and therefore would not cause many people to, um, slow down. But a simple edit—e.g., "The bump in speed"—would have fixed this small ambiguity.

It never hurts to have someone else read through your text. You never know when their slightly different understanding of the world will send them off in the wrong direction based on what you've written.

And now, back to actually reading the article, which is actually quite fascinating.



  11:02 PM

One kind of writing error (I am tempted to put that into quotation marks) that editors catch is the so-called dangling modifier. In this construction, a modifying phrase appears, on close inspection, to have no antecedent. Here's an example:
Walking up the driveway, the flowers looked beautiful.
The dangling aspect is this: who is it that's walking up the driveway? IOW, what does "Walking up the driveway" actually modify? It sure isn't the flowers.

Once you're attuned to dangling modifiers, you'll find them everywhere. For example, I hear them in radio ads all the time. Not long ago, I found this example on a poster in our bus station that was advertising Montana tourism:

(In case you can't read it, it says "As a kid the Mission Mountains were my backyard.")

And that's just the thing: dangling modifiers are quite common. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage has a whole slew of examples that go back to the 17th century. Under most circumstances, listeners or readers seem to have no trouble mentally filling in the missing antecedent from context. Indeed, MWDEU observes that "... they may hardly be noticeable except to the practicing rhetorician or usage expert." That's certainly been my experience as an editor—I've not only had to point our dangling modifiers to writers, but I've often had to go through the exercise of explaining why they're (nominally) wrong, as I've done here.

But sometimes opening modifiers do sow confusion. I was reading a movie review by David Denby in The New Yorker today and was taken aback by a dangler. The movie concerns two men (Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon) who are touring around Italy in a car. Here's the sentence that struck me:
Ogling the scenery in "The Trip to Italy," you wonder if the men's small car—a Mini Cooper—will drive off the edge of a cliff, or if, when they board a yacht in the Golfo dei Poeti, someone will fall overboard and drown.
Who exactly is doing the ogling here? The nearest noun (well, pronoun) is "you." Am I doing the ogling? The next available noun is "the men's car," which is not likely to be ogling. Is it maybe "the men" (only making a brief appearance in the genitive) or maybe just "they" (which does appear as a subject in one of the clauses) who are ogling?

Perhaps I'm making too much of this, and Denby really does mean me-the-viewer. But the whole sentence—or the opening modifier, anyway—threw me enough that I had to stop and think about it for a considerable time. And another editorial rule suggests that if your readers have to stop and think, the sentence isn't working.


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  09:50 AM

As has been discussed at great length over the years, English has no gender-neutral way to use a pronoun for a singular and sexed thing:

Everyone should bring [his|his or her] own lunch.

In previous eras, people didn't really blink at using the masculine generically:

To each his own.

... and some still maintain that this is fine, although the insistence that his in such contexts is gender-neutral is easily shown to be questionable:

A nurse is expected to provide his own stethoscope.

Anyway, vernacular English has solved this problem for centuries (like, at least as far back as Shakespeare) by using so-called singular they:

Everyone should bring their own lunch.

Still, as widely used as singular they has been, proscriptions on it have been strong for formal writing. Garner doesn't like it, tho he allows that they is sometimes the "most convenient solution" and that using the singular in some cases can result in "deranged" sentences. Seemingly falling for the Recency Illusion, Garner says that "they has increasingly moved toward singular senses," and "nothing that a grammarian says will change [these developments]."[1]

Chicago 16 is pretty clear: "Although they and their have become common in informal usage [Recency Illusion again?--M], neither is considered acceptable in formal writing." Our own style guide at work: "Avoid using they or them to refer to a singular noun of indeterminate sex. You can usually accomplish this by changing the noun to a plural. In other cases, you can rewrite a sentence to avoid the need for a pronoun altogether."

This last indicates to me how strong the proscription is—rather than take the chance of using a vernacular usage, you write around the need for a pronoun altogether.

Anyway, all of this came to my mind again when I saw an article today about poets, a group known to consist of both male- and female-type people. Observe this interesting struggle by the author:
If you’ve ever been to a poetry reading, the following scene will be familiar. After being introduced, a poet steps onstage and engages the audience with some light social speech. Maybe they* talk about their forthcoming book, [...]
Take note of the asterisk, which leads to the following footnote:
* I'm using "they" as the singular gender-neutral pronoun here to avoid suggesting that "Poet Voice" is a gendered thing (it's not), and also to avoid the clunkiness of "his or her."
This strikes me as an interesting development. Garner often labels entries in his usage guide using the following index:

Stage 1: New form/innovation used by a small number of users.
Stage 2: Vernacular for speech, not acceptable in standard usage.
Stage 3: Commonplace but avoided in careful usage.
Stage 4: Virtually universally used but still decried by SNOOTs.
Stage 5: Universal.

The article seems like evidence that singular they is hovering somewhere between stages 2 and 3.

The question is how many people would really notice the use of they here if the author had not gone to such pains to point it out. Are we really at Stage 3 or 3-1/2? John McIntyre, who knows a thing or two about copyediting, advises singular they, to which one of his commenters says "A year or two ago I gave in and started using 'they' in the singular. What a relief! It's easy to use and only occasionally sounds awkward. There's no going back for me now."

[1] The use of singular they is often ascribed to a sensitivity to sexism in language, but I doubt that Shakespeare or Austen was much concerned about that.


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  09:25 AM

I get so distracted by things I hear in meetings that I sometimes wonder how I manage to get anything work-related out of them at all. (Perhaps my boss wonders that too, hmm.) Anyway, the other day someone said that we should put a work item on a "dogs not barking" list.

I pondered this while the other participants continued their conversation. I was pretty sure this was new to me. I thought of a possible meaning or two, but didn't feel confident that I had it.

Fortunately, the guy who'd uttered the phrase is friendly enough, so I popped into his office and just asked him outright. "Oh," he said, and kind of laughed. "It's a phrase I picked up around here from management."

He went on to explain that "dogs not barking" refers to looking out for what's not obvious. It's kind of the opposite of the squeaky wheel, was his (anti-?) analogy — in this context, a squeaky wheel is the customer who's complaining loudly about something they need. But what's out there that customers need but we're not hearing about?

His theory was that it derived from a situation where you'd expect dogs to be barking — at a burglar, say — but they're not. There are times, goes the theory, that you should be hearing dogs bark but you're not, and that means trouble.

Anyone else know this phrase?


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  10:42 AM

The legitimacy of try and in the sense of try to has been debated for a long time, but it's an established usage in informal English:

I'm going to try and be there at five o'clock.
Please try and understand my point of view.

(For a good summary, including OED cites, N-gram stats, corpus search results, and a blessing from Fowler, see the blog The Writing Resource.)

Objections to try and sometimes seem a little forced; for example, Grammar Girl posits an argument from logic: "If you use and, you are separating trying and calling. You're describing two things: trying and calling." She goes on to say that try-and versus try-to may be more of a pet peeve with her.

And yet. I ran across an interesting example today of try and where I had to read the sentence a number of times before I got it:
If you try and lose then it isn't your fault. But if you don't try and we lose, then it's all your fault.
This is from Orson Scott Card's book Ender's Game.

The intent, as I eventually deduced, was "If you try and [you] lose ...". For my first several attempts to read the sentence, I kept parsing it as "If you try to lose ...", which didn't completely make sense. But first readings are stubborn. In other words, the intent is per Grammar Girl's logical parsing (two actions), but I was not reading it that way.

I think some punctuation here might have helped — a comma after try. Or an extra you inserted after try and.

Speaking of try and lose, here's The Most Interesting Man in the World on this topic:

[source: memegenerator]

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  10:53 PM

For Friday Fun this week, I asked around about what corporate employees use as their nickname. For example, I work at Microsoft; we call each other Microsofties. I have it on excellent authority that people who work at Amazon call each other Amazonians, and so on.

For help, I asked my Facebook Friends, who are mostly folks in high-tech. I also enlisted the aid of naming expert and well-connected word person Nancy Friedman, who took the question with success to various lists of which she is a member.

Here are some preliminary responses. Note that these are all self-reported names, so I can't vouch for their accuracy in every case.

6 March 2012 Update! Added several that folks have sent me.A couple of responses I got sounded a bit, dunno, corporate, tho I'm assured that these are in fact the right names:
  • Disney: Cast Members
  • Starbucks: Partners
There are some companies that I really wanted to get names for, but so far no luck:
  • Adobe (based on Aldusian — a company absorbed by Adobe — I thought at least some contigent in that company might call themselves Adobians)
  • Apple
  • Boeing (two Boeing people told me they're unaware of any such nickname)
  • Nordstrom See above!
6 March 2012 Update I asked someone today who works at Tully's if they have a name like this. Not that she knows of, she said.

I'd be delighted to expand this list, should anyone be aware of more. (There must be hundreds, I imagine.)

Then there is the question of what we might call a nickname like this. A name based on a place is a toponym. A name for people from a city or region is a demonym. I solicited some ideas for this, too. We threw around corporanym and employeeonym. Someone suggested "idionym, which should mean roughly 'your own name'."

The most interesting suggestion was from Colleague Clay, who knows his way around a number of languages. He suggested ergazomenonym ("from modern Greek εργαζόμενου= employee"). I like it tons, although I'd need some coaching, perhaps, in how to pronounce it properly.

Another interesting exercise, which I have not delved into, is to try to deduce what sorts of rules might be at play in how these names are formed. When Nancy Friedman wrote about demonyms a little while ago, she referenced some rules that I won't repeat here but that go into some detail about the phonological basis for some of the names, and the various additional factors that obtain. I have no doubt that a similar (and similarly complex) set of rules could be deduced for the creation of these ... uh, ergazomenonyms.

So. Your thots?

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