Friday, December 31, 2010

Verbing the nouns, nouning the verbs

I try to be quite open-minded and not have an attitude written-in-stone about our ever-changing language. Perhaps, as in raising your children, it makes sense to pick your fights. There are some battles you're not going to win, I say sadly, as I reflect on the lovely Jill Barber's new book of lullabies which is based on her song, Lay Down.

We know where I stand on the verb, "to lie," and we won't go there again although there's something very discouraging about singing something so wrong to a tiny baby! (Unless, of course, she were singing, "Lay down your burden . . ." — which she isn't.)

There are other changes to the language that I'm much more willing to tolerate even though I'm pretty sure they're changes I'll never employ myself.

My headline is the hint. Changing nouns into verbs has been around for awhile now and I'm not going to concentrate on that end of the headline. Think "impact" and "contact" for two of the most common culprits. Even more commonly used as a verb is the word "parent." These words are now so entrenched in the language that I have given up fighting them but I'm still not willing to use them — as verbs.

The newer phenomenon goes the other way: that is, using what have always been verbs as nouns.

One that came to mind right away when I started to write this was "fail." As in, "That's a fail," or quite commonly on social media sites, "an epic fail."

During the discussion about a new convention centre for downtown Halifax, I first noticed the use of "ask" as a noun. It came when reporters were awaiting news of what the province wanted from the municipality. "We're waiting to hear the province's ask."

Same time, same subject: "It's just about time for the big reveal."

And have you heard anyone say, referring to the new employee, "Who's the new hire?"

As I began to write about this, I assumed it was a pretty new thing to change verbs into nouns. Then I thought of "read" — as in, "That was a good read." I thought of "party" — not, "Are you going to a party?" but "Are you going to party?"

Both have been around for many years and are well-accepted and well-used. In the end, I guess it's just a matter of time.

I'm publishing this on New Year's Eve so whether you're going to stay home and have a good read or whether you're going to party your brains out: Happy New Year and see you in 2011!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Little things mean a lot

Twice a year, I'm forced through hair-tearing-out frustration as I listen to and read the reminders that it's time to change the clocks. It's that time of year again: over the weekend, we were reminded to fall back into Standard Time from Daylight Saving Time. Did you get that? Daylight Saving Time. Not Savings.

There are savings accounts and savings banks and life's savings. But there is no Daylight Savings Time. That's wrong and I wish people would stop using it.

It seems such a small thing and you may wonder why I mind. I don't know. Everyone has her own small points of irritation and this is one of mine.

Another one of mine – and this follows in the wake of the Russell Williams judicial proceedings – is the use of the word "horrific." I was prepared to come to this blog and register my complaint on the basis that it is not even a word: like, what are you trying to convey? Something that's horrible or something that's terrific? I know what people mean when they say "horrific" and yet, I dislike its impreciseness.

Well, I looked in all the dictionaries – including real dictionaries that I could hold in my hands – and it seems that "horrific" is, indeed, a genuine word. I guess when I think about it, it's close to the word "horrify" and its meaning, in that sense, is understandable.

Okay, so it's a word. I grant you that. But I don't have to like it.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Lead me not into . . .

I can guarantee that before the end of this week – and it's almost here – I will, once again, see some variation on this: "He lead her down the garden path to show her the newly planted marigolds."

You're right. It should be, "He led her down . . ."

It seems so easy and yet it's such a commonly made error. Perhaps it's understandable.

"Led" is the past tense of the verb "to lead" – pronounced "leed." "Lead" is a heavy metal, pronounced "led." Confused yet?

Look at the cousin of "to lead" (pronounced leed) – "to read" (pronounced reed). In this case, we're going to say, "She read [pronounced red] him his rights and led [not lead] him off to jail."

It's an odd little mistake because people often know it's a mistake, even as they're writing it. I have very recently seen, in informal writing, "I know I'm going to be lead in the wrong direction – hey, is that right or should it be 'led'?"

Another mistake in the same general ballpark – and of this one, I'm not nearly so forgiving – is: "Don't loose hope. Everything will be fine."

Never mind. If you can keep your head while all about you are loosing theirs . . .

Got it? Lose? Loose? They're not spelled or pronounced alike! No excuse!

Thus endeth the lesson.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Overuse it and . . . lose it

There are some words which are used incorrectly just because there's a poor understanding of how they're supposed to be used. "Irony" is an example. "Literally" and "figuratively" are examples. I'm sure you can come up with many examples of your own.

Then there are words that are used not-quite-correctly – but exactly as the user intends. In many cases, they fall into frequent, almost-constant, usage. Overused, for sure. "Fantastic" has been used this way for so many years now that no one would consider using it in its real literal meaning. "Fantastic," by the dictionary, means: Quaint or strange in form, conception, or appearance; Unrestrainedly fanciful; Bizarre, as in form or appearance; Based on or existing only in fantasy; unreal.

I have one friend who dismisses the possibility of ever respecting a person who uses the word "fantastic" as a simple superlative. "What a fantastic day." "That's fantastic pasta."

It's almost become a clich̩ to complain about the overuse of "awesome." This has moved from young people Рwhere the trend really started Рand is now ubiquitous. I confess, I don't always hate hearing something described as "awesome," even when it's not. And I sometimes like it when I hear the noun form used by an otherwise articulate teen: "I was blown away by the awesomeness of this book."

And then there's "icon" and "iconic." In the past little while, I've seen a young woman (in her 30s) described as a feminist icon, an Olympic swimmer as a swimming icon and really, any number of people as musical icons. I've seen a French cheese described as iconic.

Come on, you people. Enough with the icons.

My last irksome entry for today is one I haven't seen anyone else complain about but it's becoming increasingly commonly used. It is "passion." I have heard people say they have a passion for food ... a passion for gardening ... a passion for bird-watching. Isn't that a little over-the-top? I will accept it if you have a passion for Bach. Or Shakespeare. Or for your spouse. But it's getting tiresome to see "passion" so devalued which, I'm afraid, happens when you use it to describe how you feel about your cat.

Fantastic, iconic, awesome, passion – they're grand words but I fear they're gone for good and it's too late to save them. What do you think?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Are we language snobs?

One of the dilemmas that print journalists often struggle with is how much to modify people's speech within a direct quote – or whether to modify it at all.

I have been thinking about this for two reasons: it seems to me that I'm seeing more and more stories in print that include direct quotes in which the speaker uses poor grammar and/or awkward and incorrect use of words. The second reason has to do with the comments that follow most news stories and opinion pieces on-line. My goodness, many people really do write badly – and I'm not talking about their often-despicable attitudes.

It takes me back to newsrooms and to the kind of debate that used to happen between editors and reporters. I've had discussions with reporters when I could tell that they had amended some of their quotations and not others. I think there's a tendency to want to clean up the language if someone is saying something you want to hear and to leave it as is – complete with grammatical errors and misuse of words – if you want to punish someone for what they're saying.

That one is easy: if you're going to make appropriate corrections for the mayor/premier/prime minister, you have to make them for others whom you're quoting in the story.

But should you be changing anyone's actual words? If you're interviewing someone whose house has just burned down and he says, "I seen the smoke and me and the wife both ran into the house to get the kids and the dogs. Her and me talked about it later – we was both out of breath – and all that matters is that everyone is okay."

Those sentences would require a lot of changing – not just a word or two. Should they be changed? "I saw the smoke and my wife and I both ran into the house to get the kids and the dogs. She and I talked about it later – we were both out of breath – and all that matters is that everyone is okay."

Does it change the tone of the occasion? Does the loss of the home seem more – or less – significant depending on how the protagonist speaks? Would a reader assume that the first speaker lost a mobile home in a trailer park and the second lost a nice house in the suburbs – and is there one that seems the greater loss?

Whether I like it or not, the way an opinion is expressed in the comment section makes a difference in how seriously I accept the commenter's viewpoint. I can only conclude that I assimilate the quotes in a news story in the same way.

The Canadian Press says its policy is to "quote people verbatim and in standard English." It says it "corrects slips of grammar that are obvious slips and that would be needlessly embarrassing."

And then there are accents and dialects, a whole other subject.

Where do you stand on the idea of "cleaning up" direct quotations?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Oops. Did I say that?

When you self-identify as the Grammar Queen, there's a lot of pressure every time you put pen to paper or open your mouth. You see, I know that even in that sentence, I should have said, "When one self-identifies as the Grammar Queen, there's a lot of pressure every time one puts pen to paper ... "

Using the word "one" instead of "you" in that sentence sounds formal and impersonal. Like you, for ease of speaking, I prefer a more familiar and casual style. (Did you catch that one? I said, "Like you, I prefer ..." I should, more correctly, have said, "As you do, I prefer ...")

More correctly. Am I even allowed to say that? Isn't "correct" like "unique" – an absolute that doesn't accept a comparison modifier?

I hasten to assure you that I don't skulk about with a discreet notebook, jotting down every mistake I hear and I don't openly correct anyone in conversation. (Well, maybe lovingly, now and then, in the privacy of home.)

There are degrees of difficulty in the rules of word use and some are much more easily ignored and forgiven than others.

Which brings me to the beautiful verb, "to lie," with all its lovely forms: lie, lay, laid, lain ... I admit, it's one of the more difficult ones. But a few days ago, when a friend of mine twittered, "But for now we are young; Let us lay in the sun; And count every beautiful thing we can see," I couldn't ignore it. I responded to her tweet: "Let us lie in the sun!"

She's an editor too and she knew it was wrong but, said she, "I love the song!"

In this case, I'm not forgiving at all. As I told her, I can sometimes accept a glaring grammatical error if it's for rhyming or scanning purposes. In this case, it could so easily have been changed and the song would not have suffered.

I'm afraid learning to love this song is a musical experience I'll have to forego.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A matter of degree

When my son read the previous entry, he assured me that it's possible to write in the language of text and use proper grammar simultaneously. I was happy to accept his word on this. Just because I have shown some open-mindedness on the subject of alternative communication doesn't mean that I'm ready to relax my high standards on the proper use – spelling, punctuation, grammar – of language.

It no longer startles me to see frequent errors in the daily newspapers, anything ranging from simple typos to glaring grammatical crimes. I'm more taken aback when I see them in magazines and, I confess, I'm left almost speechless when I see them in reputably published books.

But there are places where I'm taken even more by surprise. Not very long ago, I was stashing a package of toilet tissue into the cupboard when a mis-spelled word jumped right off the wrapping at me. I didn't save it (I regret that) but I'm pretty sure the word was "irresistible" – spelled, of course, "irresistable," one of the regulars on any editorial list of most-often mis-spelled words.

It's odd though that a mistake showing up on a manufacturer's wrapping of a household product should seem more unlikely than if it had appeared in a hard-covered tome on the best-sellers list.

Most recently, it's a television commercial that has come along to test my tolerance level. Even as I complain about this, I wonder why the wrapping on a package of toilet tissue and a TV ad for Tim Hortons should be at the top of my list of unexpected settings for the sins of syntax?

The TV ad is for a sandwich. As the family – in a car, I think – chows down, the father says, "This calls for some soft rock." He turns on the music and it plays Hungry Eyes.

With these hungry eyes
One look at you and I can't disguise
I've got hungry eyes
I feel the magic between you and I ...

Well, excuse me. I've lost my appetite. No sandwich for me, thanks.

That'll show 'em.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

gr8 2 c u @ twr

Last week, my 15-year-old son was asked by his grandmother how he’s doing in school.

“I’m doing … ” He stopped and though
t it over. Then, with a tiny smile in my direction, said, “I’m doing well.”

I was glad that he got it right but I was more impressed by the fact that he seemed to care that he got it right.

In most of his waking hours, his texting fingers fly over the miniature keyboard that is his phone. His messages – the average monthly number for a guy his age is 2,900 – are written, to our grown-up editorial eyes, in a barely decipherable language that seems to have been picked up by osmosis and certainly required no help from Berlitz.

Recently, I was talking to an old friend – an editor and language enforcer from the old strict school. “I’m going to say something that will really shock you,” he said. He went on to say that it was unlikely that we’d be able to somehow stem the tide of texting or reverse its widespread use and influence among the young. “We may have to learn to live with it,” he said.

I was way ahead of him. Our son has now reached high school, in French immersion since he was five years old. Each year, we’ve been told that adding a second language to his repertoire takes nothing away from his understanding and expansion of his first language but rather, adds another dimension and another level of comprehension to his communication skills.

If that’s the case (and I’ve always believed it to be so), why would the addition of a third language – the language of text – be something we lament and fear rather than something we support and embrace?

Communication is at the very top of the list of what we need to enhance our human relationships. Learning a new language while acknowledging the importance of clarity and correctness in our society’s dominant language can only be seen as a positive in our editorial world.