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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It’s far more fun to learn how the language actually works than to revisit the same dreary complaints, year after year.

Jan Freeman


<October 2014>




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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 3:33 AM Pacific

  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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  06:16 PM

For Friday Fun, a word that's new to me (tho not a new word per se — in fact, it's from the 1800s). First: I really like the word retronym, which refers to a term that has to be amended due to a technological change. Thus before the invention of the electric guitar, there was no notion of an "acoustic" guitar; all guitars were acoustic. Likewise dial phones, analog clocks, Classic Coke, and so on. (List of retronyms)

The new word I just learned is semantically kinda-sorta in that camp. (Maybe it's kind of opposite-y.) The term is skeuomorph (Greek: "vessel-shape"), and it refers to a vestigial design feature that represents something that was once functional. A popular example is the buckles on shoes — originally used to, you know, buckle the shoe, now used just for looks. Other examples are faux wood or fabric patterns in plastic; light bulbs shaped like candle flames; fake shutters that people mount next to the windows of their house; fake spokes in a hubcap; the "wax" on a bottle of Maker's Mark bourbon; and (a famous example) the tiny and useless "handle" that's on virtually all bottles of maple syrup.

Digital things often involve skeuomorphic features, and a lot of digital UI is often deliberately designed to look like something real. As a trivial example, drop shadows on anything and everything are purely decorative, since of course there is no light source on electronic bits. If you design digital things, you have a choice of a wide variety of textures — wood, metal, etc. — that you can paint onto something to make it look real. Digital cameras often have a fake shutter sound when you take a picture. The icons for every music player (for play, stop, pause, etc.) all derive from those same physical functions in a tape player, where the Play arrow actually represented physically moving the tape. Obviously, the desktop metaphor for Windows (et al.) is skeuomorphic, along with "files" and "folders". Lexicographerix Erin McKean notes that online dictionaries display information in a format that's based on book-y layouts, even tho that format was originally dictated by the constraints of the printed medium that don't really apply to online stuff.

Skeuomorphic design elements are by no means inherently bad or silly. Sure, putting fake rivets on jeans seems a little unnecessarily quaint. And there's a rousing discussion in the UI design community about whether skeuomorphic design is ultimately a good idea for something like tablets. One blog post calls it "the tactile illusion." For an earful, search for "skeuomorphic user interfaces".

But the argument in favor is that a skeuomorphic design provides a familiar interface — a "material metaphor" — so that people can fit a new design pattern into their existing understanding of the world. For using a music player on a computer this is convenient, tho not essential; ditto for being able to "flip" "pages" in a "book" on an e-reader. If I were designing a jet plane, tho, I would think long and hard before I made any changes to the control panel, no matter how anachronistic it might be in the age of fly-by-wire to have physical control yokes. When we start seeing cars that are likewise controlled all digitally (and we're not far off), it will be a long time before we are weaned off steering wheels, brake pedals, and accelerators.

Update 17 Jan 2012: Cory Doctorow posted a piece (In praise of skeuomorphs) on skeuomorphs just today (17 Jan)! (h/t to Edward Banatt for the link)

Anyway, I'm happy to know this new word and to have been introduced to the whole idea of skeuomorphic design. Apparently the learn-new-words part of my brain remains, in fact, more than just a vestigial decoration.

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  09:02 AM

Once again I have heard someone refer to a speech pattern as "lazy." Of all the complaints about the way other people speak (and by golly, there are plenty), the one that makes the least sense to me is that people's speech is lazy. And yet:
... my pet peeves. They’re about pronunciation, rather than grammar and news people on television are doing this more every day:

1. Fill, instead of feel.
2. Pill, instead of peel.

To me, this “sims” just lazy. [source]
Plural forms are always going to be determined by what the majority is used to or comfortable with, with a tendency towards laziness. Very few people are going to bother with Priora when Priuses is perfectly functional. However, that doesn't mean that words adopted into English should use regular plural forms; it simply means that they are likely to. [source]
If I'm talking with friends or sending a text, I don't use "proper" English grammar, but I do recognize that my grammar is incorrect. I just don't care, and I know that my listener will understand me even if I'm lazy. [source]
A split infinitive can be a lazy way not to write a better sentence. [source]
When a speaker or writer uses incorrect subject/verb agreement, it tells the audience that he is either lazy or does not care. [source]
Using the singular 'they' means you're not trying, you don't know grammar rules, or you're lazy. [source]
There's also a Facebook page titled Poor Grammar is the sign of a lazy mind.

What doesn't make sense to me is that lazy means unwilling to put forth some sort of effort. But for a native speaker, emitting correct sentences is literally effortless. People don't say aks instead of ask or I could care less instead of the nominally correct version because they've expended all the effort they're going to put forth and simply refuse to go that extra mile (or syllable, or consonant cluster). People don't say readin' and writin' because using a velar -n (-ng) is harder to use than a dental one. People don't say Priuses because it's so hard to emit some made-up plural like Priora.

Try this. If people were truly being lazy in their speech, what you'd expect is that they'd just use less speech — shorter words and shorter sentences. Or maybe they'd just stop talking.

Or try this. Compare a "lazy" speaker with someone who actually is having difficulty speaking: someone who's drunk. You can easily tell the difference, and even the "laziest" speaker sounds different when inebriated.

Or try this. Listen to other people who speak the same dialect. They all sound the same, right? So are they all lazy? That would seem to go against the observation that laziness, like ambition, smarts, and good looks, is spread around about the same everywhere.

There are of course alternative readings for "lazy." Perhaps someone is trying to say that a speaker is "too lazy" to learn the correct forms of words. I think you can parse this as "This speaker has a different dialect, but should also acquire a standard dialect." That's an interesting sociological discussion about the place of non-standard dialects in a given culture.

It also raises the question of whether the accusers feel that they themselves have made extra effort to acquire the speech patterns that are used by the non-lazy. Did they, for example, rise at dawn to practice their pronunciation drills and stay after school to master tricky verbal forms like ask? Or did they in fact acquire their dialect the way everyone else does, with the difference that theirs happens to conform more closely to standard written English?

"Lazy" is basically a moral judgment. But there is no moral calculus for dialects. Sure, there are social consequences to how you speak, just like there for how you dress. Is someone who shows up at a wedding in jeans "too lazy" to dress properly? Or are they maybe just clueless, or tactless, or "born in a barn," or even rebellious?

Probably what an accusation of "lazy" speech really means is that those "lazy" speakers should speak like me, because I speak correctly. That, of course, is a common human sentiment. But let's not confuse our conviction about the correctness of our speech with laziness on the part of those who don't share that conviction.


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