Grammar Corner

A thread to get your grammar questions answered. Ladies and Gentlemen, the host our show, Mitchell Dwyyyyy-eeerr!Our first question comes from Reid:

I’m not sure about the use of comma and quotes in the following sentence:

I would say yes, but with some exceptions

I want to put a comma after “say,” but that seems inappropriate. Also, in the past, I would have put “yes” in quotes, but at some point I started noticing that publications would drop the quotes (or maybe I’m remembering that wrong. My sense is that the quotes are optional now. Help me out, Dr. Grammar. (I’m only calling you that for this post, as it fits with the vibe.)

111 thoughts on “Grammar Corner

  1. Singular They

    I recall we talked about this before, but I can’t remember if you brought the following point: the singular “they” is equivalent to “he/she” or “s/he.” Would you agree with that? If so, I’m going to use the singular they a lot more. I’ve had two approaches–alternate between “he” and “she” (trying in the name of gender equality) or the “he/she” abomination. I obviously hate the latter, and the former is getting tiresome, and I like the gender neutral (or gender ambiguous) quality of the singular they.

    But are there times when the singular they is not appropriate? I liked the suggestions in this, although I haven’t opened up to “themself.”

  2. We’re in a period of transition, and it’s impossible to tell where we’re going to land. Young Americans are increasingly sensitive to even the he/she singular binary. I’m sure you know that some college professors are now asking their students what pronoun they prefer to be referred to as.

    When is it inappropriate to use singular they? I’d say when you’re writing for an audience who might judge you unfairly for using it.

    One of the websites (Buzzfeed?) surveyed copy editors at a conference, asking which one issue each of them wished people would take seriously, and “embrace the singular they” was among the popular responses.

    I don’t like it in my own writing, so I’m more likely to restructure the sentence if I get tired of “he or she” and “him or her.”

    I’m mildly surprised and encouraged by your distaste for “he/she.” We have something in common!

  3. I’m sure you know that some college professors are now asking their students what pronoun they prefer to be referred to as.

    No, I didn’t. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Merriam-Webster did talk about how the singular they would work for trans-gender people, and I think that’s kinda cool.

    I’d say when you’re writing for an audience who might judge you unfairly for using it.

    I don’t think the link mentions this one, but it’s a good point–at least if it matters to you if the audience judges you unfairly.

    I’m mildly surprised and encouraged by your distaste for “he/she.” We have something in common!

    It just got really tiresome, and the visual and aural clunkiness of it started to repulse me.

    By the way, no comment about my first question?

  4. Sorry; I missed that one.

    You still use quotation marks for direct quotes.
    : he said I couldn’t go
    : he said, “You can’t go.”

    So in your example sentence, it works with the quotes
    :he said, “yes.”

    or without
    :he said yes.

    because in this case, “yes” can be a direct quote or it can be a meaning for whatever he said.

    Notice that in my examples, there is a quote after “says” when it’s followed by a direct quote. Still a thing. 🙂

  5. addition:

    In less formal writing, I often discard the quotation marks even in a direct quote, for stylistic reasons. I do a lot of Q-A formatted writing, and I like to preserve the voice of the answerer as much as possible, especially if it’s a good voice. So in order not to interrupt the flow of that voice, I’ll often write something like:

    : I said I’m all tired from walking up that hill and she said you should really think about getting in shape because that hill isn’t getting less steep and you still have a job up there.

    It’s a signature of Cormac McCarthy’s style not to use quotation marks anywhere. I love the effect it has on the narrative voice.

  6. …or it can be a meaning for whatever he said.

    What do you mean by that, exactly? I ask, because I think this gets to the situation I’m really asking about. I know that how to punctuate a direct quote, but it’s the second situation…that I think you’re describing above.

    Here’s the type of situation I’m thinking of:

    Would you say QBs should have good footwork? I would say yes.

    In the second sentence, “yes” isn’t a direct quote, but I kinda confused by that. I mean “yes,” but I didn’t say the word “yes” out loud, so I assume that makes it not a direct quote–a direct quote being words or sentences someone says out loud. Does that make sense?

    By the way, I have a hard time thinking of different ways of writing the two sentences above–without using “yes” or “no.” Using words like “affirmative” or “negative” seem awkward, but I struggle to find another way of asking a yes or no question rhetorically and then providing an answer for it. Do you know what I’m saying?

  7. Me: Dad, can I go to the carnival with Samantha?
    Dad: I would be a tyrant to say no.

    Direct quote:

    Mom: What did your dad say when you asked him about the carnival?
    Me: He said, “I would be a tyrant to say no.”

    Meaning:

    Mom: What did your dad say when you asked him about the carnvial?
    Me: He said yes.

    See? He said, “Yes.” would be a direct quote. He said yes is yes as a meaning.

  8. Yeah, it’s totally clear, when you can see all the sentences side by side. For whatever reason, I become uncertain and insecure when I’m writing “yes” or “no” as a meaning.

    What about my other question, regarding following a rhetorical yes or no question with sentence other than something like, “I would say yes.”

    (Also, what about a comma before “yes.” Optional, right?)

    It’s a signature of Cormac McCarthy’s style not to use quotation marks anywhere. I love the effect it has on the narrative voice.

    I like this, too, but I don’t know if the effect on voice is the reason. I feel like the effect is more visual, creating a clean, spare visual effect, which seems totally apropos for McCarthy’s writing style.

  9. By the way, I have a hard time thinking of different ways of writing the two sentences above–without using “yes” or “no.” Using words like “affirmative” or “negative” seem awkward, but I struggle to find another way of asking a yes or no question rhetorically and then providing an answer for it. Do you know what I’m saying?

    I do. And there are lots of ways of saying the same thing without that construction. You could say “I would say so” or “I would say not.” You could say “It seems to me that _____” or “It would appear ______.”

    Alternately—and this is the way I would go—you could severely limit the frequency with which you use the device in question. I call it Interviewing Yourself. People in radio and TV interviews do it all the time. “Do I think we should have run the ball more? Yes. Is it my job to question the coaches? No. Will I get in trouble for mentioning this in public? We’ll see!”

    There was a time when this might have been effective, but the more I pay attention to the really good speakers and the really good writers, the more keenly aware I am that they don’t use this device. If you care about writing excellently, you might avoid the device entirely.

  10. Why do you think “interviewing yourself” device is something that good writers avoid? Are you saying that primarily because you don’t see writer you respect use that device? Or is there another reason?

    I think asking and then answering rhetorical questions can be effective–if you get a sense that the reader, at that specific moment in the piece, may have that exact question. A part of me feels like if most readers would have that question at that point, then asking that question rhetorically can be be an effective way not only to be clear, but to earn the reader’s trust. As a reader, I think that’s the effect it has on me.

    By the way, thanks for the suggestions.

  11. When I was teaching speech classes, I taught my students a list of captures (it was right out of the Speech 151 courses we all took at Manoa), the first of which was the rhetorical question. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s the easiest of the devices. Students would use it for every speech, and over time we all realized how tiresome and easy a device it is. Watch a few TV infomercials and you’ll see what I mean.

    After a couple of semesters, I still let them use it, but I would forbid it after their second speech assignments. Find a better way, one that doesn’t seem so easy, I told them. They did, and the speeches were much better.

    If I think the reader, at a specific moment, is asking a question, I just answer it without posing the question. Try it. It may be a little more challenging, but the overall composition is much better.

    Writers I admire do avoid the device, but that’s not how I came to my position. I just noticed compositions without rhetorical questions were better, and when I get the chance to critique others’ work, I always flag rhetorical questions, suggesting the writers try something else. When they do, the writing is almost always better.

    A better use of the device, and the reason I don’t tell people just not to use it at all (as opposed to the ellipsis, which I do tell writers not to use at all, or at a maximum three times in their entire lives) would be not to pose the question I think the reader is asking at that moment, but to pose the question I think the reader should ask at that moment. It’s a way of giving the reader the benefit of the doubt while also raising him or her up to where you think they should be, a different version of a conversational device I use where I say, “You’re already aware of X, but here’s Y.”

    You don’t have to agree with me, but I would encourage you to pay close attention to writing you think is good, and see if you don’t agree.

  12. Find a better way, one that doesn’t seem so easy, I told them.

    Asking a good question at the right moment isn’t always easy though,
    and I tend to think it’s closer to the opposite.

    I just noticed compositions without rhetorical questions were better, and when I get the chance to critique others’ work, I always flag rhetorical questions, suggesting the writers try something else.

    Would you say this is the case for writing that is highly abstract and conceptual–like philosophical writing? A part of me suspects that in this type of writing, a rhetorical question can be helpful–a place where readers can get their bearings. In writing like this, vague definitions and concepts can easily fly by. By asking a question–e.g., “What do we mean by ‘being’ in this context?”–the writer allows the reader to catch their breath, while also focusing their attention on a key concept. I think readers can also assume too much about their understanding, and asking a question can suggest that the reader should also be asking the same question at this point. It’s way of reminding them: “Hey, are you fully understanding everything I’m saying?” It can be also add a more concrete, straightforward flavor to the writing, which is a really good change of pace. Writing about philosophy or architecture can be incredibly abstract and abstruse in my experience, and rhetorical questions can really help make the writing more concrete, down to earth, even.

  13. I understand your feelings about this, but I just disagree. I think you can accomplish the same thing without asking those questions, which I (still) think is easier to write and frustrating to read. It’s okay. We can disagree on one or two things in our lives. 🙂

  14. For what it’s worth, I’ll try to pay attention to this more when I read,and I’ll try to consider this when I write, too.

    1. You might also like a YouTube channel called Hot for Words. Might not want to look at it on a work computer though. Despite appearances, the host presents some really good stuff, if she’s still at it.

  15. What do you think of the following sentence?

    Is it grammatically correct? Appropriate? It seems awkward to me, and I almost always avoid writing a sentence like this. Oh, I’m talking about the “my and Wittes’s” part. It would be nice to have this form available, though.

  16. It’s correct but it’s awkward. I avoid (always, not almost always) the construction as well. Because conventions of etiquette say to put yourself second, it would more politely be “Wittes’s and my latest piece,” but it’s just as easy and much less awkward to say “The latest piece by Wittes and me” or “The latest piece I wrote with Wittes.” If you can construct it with two sentences so that the second can just say “Critics of our piece, don’t think I don’t notice…”

  17. it’s just as easy and much less awkward to say “The latest piece by Wittes and me” or “The latest piece I wrote with Wittes.

    They’re less awkward, but they’re wordier and could be clunkier, depending on the rest of the sentence.

  18. Yes. It’s one of those rare situations where I recommend more words rather than fewer, since more words can make the communication clearer and more elegant.

  19. Calling the alternatives more elegant or even clearer seems to be pushing it. I can go with less awkward, though. In general, I think the alternatives can be frustrating as I try to write using the fewest words possible.

  20. Oh, you can definitely mess up using more words. I’m not saying you’re surely going to be more elegant or clearer. I’m saying if you can be more elegant and clearer using more words, it’s worth it to avoid the construction you give as an example. And you can.

  21. I just didn’t think the alternatives you gave were more elegant and clearer–and I don’t mean that as a criticism to you specifically. I think I feel the same about the alternatives I come up with as well.

  22. Oh, I wasn’t talking about this specific case. I could try to address that, but I was speaking generally.

  23. This isn’t related to grammar, but it’s kind of relevant to this space.

    I’ve been hearing “spitting image” so much lately and almost never hear the original idiom “spitting image” is a bastardization of: “spit and image.”

    The idiom comes from one of the Biblical creation stories: God formed Adam from his spit and mud, and created him in his own image.

    It’s been misused as “spitting image” so much now that if you use the original idiom, people don’t know what you’re saying or they assume you’ve got it wrong. In this case (as in many cases in our language), the wrong idiom has replaced the original idiom in usage AND meaning. If you say someone is the “spitting image” of someone else, everyone knows what you mean, but if you say “spit and image,” it’s a distraction because people are unused to hearing (or reading) it.

    This bothers me and I’m not sure what my position is anymore. I would correct writers on this all the time a few years ago. Now I might have to correct it in the other direction.

    1. What about the possibility that “spitting image” isn’t an error so much as a stickier idiom than “spit and image?” For example, someone may have just used “spitting image” and that one stuck and became more popular. If this is the case, would “spitting image” actually be wrong?

    2. The etymology doesn’t seem to support your suggestion, at least from my crude research. What would it mean?

      1. The meaning would derive from the original context. I assume “spit and image” referred to a close to exact copy of the original. (That’s what “spitting image” means, right? Or am I messing that up?) Then again, Adam isn’t an exact copy of God, so much as…I don’t know, the closest thing to God in all of creation?

        In any event, my sense is that idioms can evolve, creating a wide gap between the original meaning. I think words, phrases, and idioms can have a certain “vibe” that go beyond what the words actually mean. I don’t see any problem with this; it just seems like what happens in language (at least the English language).

        How would the etymology factor into this?

      2. What I meant by what would it mean, is how would “spitting image” possibly have come to mean what it means. There’s an etymology of “spit and image” that points to the Biblical creation story. Where would “spitting image” have come from, is the question?

        You’re saying what I’m saying about the changing of idiomatic language. The question I have is whether we should do anything to correct malapropisms. When people say “A and B are ‘one in the same'” instead of “one and the same,” does it even matter in the long run if it’s a malaprop? Who’s to say “one in the same” isn’t the “spitting image” of 100 years from now? When is it worth trying to help people understand that “oh mighty dollar” isn’t the idiom? Ever?

        1. What I meant by what would it mean, is how would “spitting image” possibly have come to mean what it means. There’s an etymology of “spit and image” that points to the Biblical creation story. Where would “spitting image” have come from, is the question?

          I thought it was a bastardization of “spit and image?” Or are you asking how “spit and image” morphed into “spitting image?” If this is what you mean, I think someone could have just said, “Spitting image” and that stuck. This is more of a phonetic or vibe thing versus something that is linked to the actual meaning of words. What I’m about to say isn’t a good example, but sometimes I’d say, “Man, I want to roast,” and what I mean is that I’m really want to eat. But “roast,” as a verb is an act of cooking in a certain way. I’m using as it as a synonym for eating or a type of eating. I realize that it doesn’t make sense to use “roast” this way, but it’s more of the vibe or sound.

          The question I have is whether we should do anything to correct malapropisms. When people say “A and B are ‘one in the same’” instead of “one and the same,” does it even matter in the long run if it’s a malaprop?

          I don’t have a good answer for this, but I would like at the nature of the idiom. For example, I tend to favor correcting something like, “I could care less” to “I couldn’t care less”–assuming the person meant I can’t care less then I already do. But even something like this, I don’t think there would be a desire to correct this.

          But “spitting image” seems different. It’s more like shorthand for something else, rather than a grammatically incorrect statement. This seems closely related to slang which either wouldn’t be used in formal writing, or may obtain enough acceptance that it could be.

  24. This isn’t a grammatical question, but I really want to know alternative words or phrases for “wise ass” and even a word or phrase for the state of being a wise ass, particularly in more formal writing. I do really like using this word, but “smart aleck” really doesn’t have the same umph. “Insolence” isn’t really a good replacement, either. “Jerk” is not specific enough.

    1. Snark and snarky work for me. I use sardonic as a less judgmental word. Acerbic? Acidic? Abrasive? M-W suggests scathing, scalding, smart-alecky, or smart-mouthed. Tart isn’t bad.

      1. Snark and snarky work for me

        I guess this does come pretty close to for an adjective. It doesn’t work as well as a noun, though. “Joe is basically a snark (wise ass).” A part of me likes “smart-mouthed,” but it doesn’t have enough bite. (It’s not acerbic enough.) I kinda wish there were a noun equivalent–i.e. “Joe is smart-mouth.” Nah, that doesn’t really sound good.

      2. You could try to find an elegant way to use the noun another way. I wasn’t thinking of “Joe is a snark,” which I don’t think works at all. Something like, “Joe is a constant source of snark,” or “Joe is a reliable source of snark.”

        1. These are solid suggestions. Thanks!

          By the way, on a related note, I tend to believe one doesn’t need to rely on crude or vulgar language to express one’s self, that there is always other options; and maybe these options might actually be more vivid and compelling. What’s your feeling about that?

          I do think there are some occasions where profanity might actually be the best option, but in general, I tend to think there are other options, and those options would lead to more effective communication.

          1. I thought of another alternative that I’m going to try–snark-jerk. I thought of snark-ass, as well, but I’m trying to get away from the word “ass.” Actually, snark-jerk is a slang, colloquial term. I’d like something that could be used in more formal writing. (I guess snark would have to do.)

  25. From Jim Mattis’s resignation letter came a word I had never seen in adjective form: malign.

    My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues.

    Did this jar anyone else? I thought immediately of the word’s opposite: benign. So “both malign actors” makes sense, but when someone’s biopsy results come back, we hear the tissue was either benign or malignant. We never hear “the tissue is benignant” or “the tissue is malign.”

    So I looked them up and not only is malign correct as an adjective the way Mattis uses it, but benignant is also a word, a synonym for benign just as malign is a synonym for malignant.

    Weird!

    1. I’ve seen “malign” paired up with “actors” quite a bit, so it wasn’t jarring for me.

      …but when someone’s biopsy results come back, we hear the tissue was either benign or malignant. We never hear “the tissue is benignant” or “the tissue is malign.”

      Yeah, I agree wit this. So, how do we know when to use “malign” or “malignant?”

  26. I would go for not capitalizing “the” for most bands. However, capitalizing “the” for one word bands, especially short words, seems appropriate. Let’s test this:

    I like retro bands like The Replacements, or
    I like retro bands like the Replacements.

    I really like a few songs from The Fixx or
    I really like a few songs from the Fixx.

    For some reason I get mix up The Scorpions and Judas Priest. (Capitalizing “the” doesn’t look right. I think it’s because “the” isn’t part of the name of the band–at least not in the way it is with “The Fixx.”)

    I don’t know.

    On a different note, I get really confused and frustrated writing about Atlantic magazine–I’m confused about their official title. They’re called, “Atlantic Monthy” or “The Atlantic”–I think. It just leads to moments of uncertainty when I refer to the magazine when I write. It’s annoying.

  27. It depends. The AP Style Guide and the BuzzFeed style guide say not to capitalize the THE. You wouldn’t capitalize THE in “the Scorpions” ever because that’s not the band’s name — it’s just Scorpions, so if you copied that example from somewhere the writer had the actual name of the band wrong.

    If you’re not writing according to one of the standards, just go with what feels right, but do get the name of the band right.

    1. Oh I just re-read what you wrote about the Scorpions name. Since most general-audience publications go with something close to AP, you’re probably safest never capitalizing THE when it’s part of the band’s name. And I wouldn’t use THE at all in front of the name of a band if it’s not part of the band’s name.

    2. The Atlantic is the publication’s official name. It was founded as The Atlantic Monthly. You can call it Atlantic Monthly if you want, but you should feel most comfortable calling it the Atlantic.

      I’ll add that AP style doesn’t put the titles of publications like this in italics or quotation marks. If you’re going to, as I would and as the MLA handbook suggests, I would (and do) capitalize The Atlantic because the Atlantic would be an incorrect title.

      1. I really dislike this–it’s confusing; the rules seem arbitrary.

        If you’re going to, as I would and as the MLA handbook suggests, I would (and do) capitalize The Atlantic because the Atlantic would be an incorrect title.

        But you didn’t capitalize it in the last sentence of your previous paragraph. Or do you only capitalize the “the” if you italicize “the Atlantic.”

        Why isn’t The Atlantic italicized or in bold? I thought titles of periodicals are italicized, underlined, or in bold?

        Writing “The Atlantic” can be awkward at times. For example, “I want to comment on an article I read from The Atlantic.” If I didn’t capitalize “the” it would seem less weird.

        Also, what if I want so say something like: “I want to comment on an Atlantic article?” Do I have to say: “I want to comment on The Atlantic article?” No, right? Or worse: “I want to comment on a The Atlantic article.” Ugh.

      2. But you didn’t capitalize it in the last sentence of your previous paragraph. Or do you only capitalize the “the” if you italicize “the Atlantic.”

        Crap, I’m sorry. I meant italicize, not capitalize. AP doesn’t italicize titles of magazines or newspapers. MLA does. So if I’m italicizing, I include THE if it’s in the official title and I capitalize.

        I know it sounds arbitrary, but if you think about why the different style guides prescribe what they do, it’s easier to be tolerant. It’s also easier to argue against certain usages according to your audience and purpose.

        In scientific writing (usually APA style), the passive voice is prescribed (see what I did there?) to minimize bias against (or in favor of) the researcher. It makes for HORRIBLE reading, but then my concerns as a reader are not their concerns as writers.

        In AP style, the primary concerns are concision (space is expensive) and accuracy. AP doesn’t use italics because when you copy and paste the text, often the format doesn’t go along when it’s pasted. Quotation marks do. I hate it because I like to distinguish between albums, plays, chapters, novels, and songs. MLA style makes each of those clear. But MLA prioritizes things differently from AP.

        As you can imagine, BuzzFeed has a largely different set of priorities.

        As I have said many times before, if you’re just writing for a general audience, MLA is really the best way to go. I say this because I’ve considered very carefully the different reasons for the differences in prescribed styles and the way most people use the written language. But most people just think whatever style they used most in college is the best.

        What’s arbitrary is usually the adherence to certain styles without really thinking about what those style consider important and why.

        1. So if I’m italicizing, I include THE if it’s in the official title and I capitalize.

          So for the sake of clarity, if you don’t italicize, you don’t capitalize “the?” Why is that? I think I’m pretty confused.

          I know it sounds arbitrary, but if you think about why the different style guides prescribe what they do, it’s easier to be tolerant. It’s also easier to argue against certain usages according to your audience and purpose.

          By “arbitrary,” I mean something that rules that are not objective or absolute. That is, grammatical rules can be changed or modified for more subjective reasons. Those reasons may sensible and purposeful, not capricious or random, but they’re not hard or rigid either.

          That’s the thing: learning grammar gave me the impression that the rules were clear cut, black and white. I think there are rules like that, and I also remember learning about rules that weren’t so clear cut or rigid. I think what’s thrown me off, and maybe lead to disagreements with you is the way you’ve spoken about what now seems to be more gray areas–areas where rules can be adjusted, depending on the context, and even just individual preference. With regard to the latter, I’m thinking house styles for certain magazines or newspapers. Some of the decisions seem to be a matter of preference and not meeting the needs of an audience.

          Getting angry over differences of opinion on these matters–saying vehemently that one way is “wrong!” while another is “right!”–doesn’t seem appropriate to me. Do you know what I mean?

          But most people just think whatever style they used most in college is the best.

          What’s arbitrary is usually the adherence to certain styles without really thinking about what those style consider important and why.

          Speaking for myself, I think my approach to grammar derives from confusion. There seem to be areas that are far more subjective and gray than clear cut. (Right now I’m feeling a little overwhelmed and bemused by it all.)

    3. So: “I mistake Scorpions for Judas Priest quite a lot?” That doesn’t sound right. Or what about: “I like Talking Heads quite a lot.”

      Is the name of the Beatles, “The Beatles?”

      1. I know what you mean about it sounding not quite right, but that’s what I would write. It doesn’t sound weird if instead of Scorpions you say Rush or Blur, right? Think of Scorpions not as a group of five guys, each who is one Scorpion. Think of it as a group of guys who named the band after some vicious animals. Do you think of the members of Thompson Twins each as a twin? That would be weird, since (originally) there were three of them. Calling them THE Thompson Twins would sound weird to you, wouldn’t it?

        Talking Heads is the name of the band, as stated in the name of one of their albums, The Name of the Band is Talking Heads.

        Smashing Pumpkins used to confuse me because that’s the name of the band — I thought it referred to an act: the act of destroying gourds. But it’s “smashing” as in “fantastic,” the way Brits use it. They’re Fantastic Pumpkins. No THE.

        One way to tell the name of a band is looking at what it says on the album covers. The Beatles were always “The Beatles.” Another way to tell is to see what they’re listed under in Wikipedia. Those dweebs tend to be anal about such details.

        1. What I’m trying to figure out is why saying Scorpions is so strange without the “the” before it. I have no idea. A part of me feels if they used the singular it would be less weird–e.g., “I mix up Scorpion and Judas Priest all the time.” I guess, it’s because I’m thinking of each member as an individual scorpion?

          Smashing Pumpkins used to confuse me because that’s the name of the band — I thought it referred to an act: the act of destroying gourds. But it’s “smashing” as in “fantastic,” the way Brits use it. They’re Fantastic Pumpkins. No THE.

          I don’t get this, either. If the name referred to the act of crushing pumpkins, would using “the” before it be appropriate?

          Maybe it’s just a matter of gaining clarity about the actual name of the band–the way they describe themselves. (If you’re right about Scorpions, they would say something like, “We’re Scorpions, and we’re hear to promote our new album,” versus “We’re the Scorpions….” Or, the announcer would say, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Scorpions!”

          Edit

          I just realized something else. If the band considers “the” part of the title, then wouldn’t it make sense to always capitalize it? I think that might clear up the confusion, although it might look awkward–e.g., “I really think The Beatles is far better than The Rolling Stones.” Or am I missing something?

  28. Reid said

    Maybe it’s just a matter of gaining clarity about the actual name of the band–the way they describe themselves. (If you’re right about Scorpions, they would say something like, “We’re Scorpions, and we’re hear to promote our new album,” versus “We’re the Scorpions….” Or, the announcer would say, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Scorpions!”

    Yeah. That’s how the band (usually) introduces itself. “Hi. This is Klaus Meine from Scorpions! And whenever I’m in town I listen to 98 Rock!” This was one of the promos you’d hear on that radio station once in a while. However, I’ve also heard Klaus introduce himself as “Klaus Meine from the Scorpions,” so maybe we care more about this detail than the artists do.

    I just realized something else. If the band considers “the” part of the title, then wouldn’t it make sense to always capitalize it? I think that might clear up the confusion, although it might look awkward–e.g., “I really think The Beatles is far better than The Rolling Stones.” Or am I missing something?

    Sure, it would make sense. And this is what publications do with movie titles all the time. You’d never see the NYT (which has its own style guide, by the way) say “…starred in the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” It’s the beginning of the title, so you capitalize it (but not those other THEs).

    I think it does go to whether the band’s name refers to individual members as being one of those things. David Byrne is not a Talking Head. He’s a member of Talking Heads. But George Harrison is a Beatle and a member of the Beatles.

    Indigo Girls, by the way, doesn’t use THE. So Amy Ray is not an Indigo Girl.

    For decades, David Letterman, when announcing who the musical guest would be at the beginning of a show, would often ask Paul Shaffer, “Is it THE Indigo Girls or just Indigo Girls?” or “Is it THE Smashing Pumpkins or just Smashing Pumpkins?”

    Then when The The was the musical guest, this of course inspired, “Paul, is it THE The The? Or just The The?” Brilliant. It was as if he’d set up that line 20 years in advance.

    Your question is further complicated by whether to treat a band’s name as a collective singular or as a plurality of members. Your sentence “I think The Beatles is far better than The Rolling Stones” treats the band names the way I prefer: as collective singulars. This is the standard in American English: Rush is touring North America in 2018 (Rush being the name of ONE band). In England, collective nouns are treated as plural: Rush are touring North America in 2018. We say “My family is very close.” They say “My family are very close.”

    If you capitalize THE in The Beatles, I say you’re using the name of a band: a collective singular. But yes, it’s a bit awkward to say The Beatles is touring North America. That’s because Ringo, George, Paul, and John are each one Beatle, so it’s just more elegant and just as correct to say “I hear the Beatles are touring North America.” I lower-case THE in this case because it’s just easier to refer to them as four Beatles than one band called The Beatles.

    I think you may be overthinking this. In general, bands whose names begin with THE do consider themselves each to be one of the things. So Mick Jagger is a Rolling Stone.

    I think you have to take it on a case-by-case basis and go with what works best but doesn’t misname the band. Jerry Rice is a Raider, but Hassan Whiteside isn’t a Heat. You just have to work the language so it goes best with whatever the real names are.

    So for the sake of clarity, if you don’t italicize, you don’t capitalize “the?” Why is that? I think I’m pretty confused.

    This is in reference to The Atlantic, by the way. Does it make more sense if I say that we often refer to things so that people know what we’re talking about but not necessarily by their formal names? If you say “I read it in the Atlantic,” you’re using a shorthand that people understand, like “I read it in the Star-Ad” or “I read it in the Freep.” Without italicizing, you’re not formalizing the name of the thing, so you can really call it whatever you want. Once you italicize it, you’re saying THIS IS THE TITLE OF A THING so (just for clarity’s sake if nothing else) I recommend capitalizing THE and including it in the italics too, because it is the name of the publication. “I read it in The Atlantic.”

    However, if I were bothering to italicize, I might still italicize the nicknames, depending on the level of formality my audience expected: “I read it in the Freep.” This is only my preference, though; I don’t think it’s formally stated in any of the style guides I’ve looked at.

    I don’t get this, either. If the name referred to the act of crushing pumpkins, would using “the” before it be appropriate?

    No, just the opposite. The Smashing Pumpkins in any English grammar wouldn’t connote the act at all, unless it was The Smashing of Pumpkins. Waiting for Godot is the act of Waiting for Godot. Smashing Pumpkins is the act of Smashing Pumpkins. Except in this case they chose not to use THE in their name and so it’s a confusing name. Because they’re not destroying gourds; they are a group of Charming Gourds.

    By “arbitrary,” I mean something that rules that are not objective or absolute. That is, grammatical rules can be changed or modified for more subjective reasons. Those reasons may sensible and purposeful, not capricious or random, but they’re not hard or rigid either.

    Well, what we’re talking about is style and not grammar. We can’t arbitrarily change grammar if we expect people to know what we mean. Your original question is really about how to format the written appearance of our language, something quite different from the rules of our language. The grammar’s not arbitrary and not as flexible. The style is (sometimes) arbitrary but far more flexible. Because of different audiences and purposes.

    That’s the thing: learning grammar gave me the impression that the rules were clear cut, black and white.

    You’ve been learning grammar since the day your parents spoke to you in words. In formalized grammar instruction, you were learning about standards, not necessarily rules, although there were certain rules in place. You were also learning about grammar (and style) in the context of formal education, whose purposes and audiences differ. We went to a college prep school, so even at the high-school level, certain audiences and purposes were in mind when we learned these things. Perhaps the rules were inflexible given the purpose of the instruction.

    I think there are rules like that, and I also remember learning about rules that weren’t so clear cut or rigid. I think what’s thrown me off, and maybe lead to disagreements with you is the way you’ve spoken about what now seems to be more gray areas–areas where rules can be adjusted, depending on the context, and even just individual preference.

    Our parents told us when we were kids always to cross in a crosswalk, even while we observed them not crossing in crosswalks. And we regularly saw them driving past the speed limit. And we each broke all kinds of rules all the time. Why would you be so confused by inconsistencies in rules of grammar but not these other things?

    You can put the object before the verb and the subject after the verb if you want. But, you know. I’d advise against it.

    With regard to the latter, I’m thinking house styles for certain magazines or newspapers. Some of the decisions seem to be a matter of preference and not meeting the needs of an audience.

    Absolutely, but remember that the communicator has needs as well. Is there a reason the NYT uses “Mr.” and “Ms.” in front of last names on second mention? Probably not one that directly serves the audience, but it might serve the paper in some way I haven’t really figured out (besides a kind of tradition). It is a style very specific to the Times, and maybe that’s it: when you read a NYT article, you pretty much know it just from the style.

    1. So much to respond to, and I feel a bit overwhelmed. Specifically, the sense of confusion I began with has only grown as the conversation has progressed! I say this chuckling, but being serious at the same time. One example:

      Well, what we’re talking about is style and not grammar.

      I don’t think I every aware of this distinction, not do I have a good understanding of the distinction now. I think I’ve been conflating the two for most of my life, and that is a little jarring, and contributes to confusion and frustration.

      We can’t arbitrarily change grammar if we expect people to know what we mean.

      What the use of the comma, e.g., the use the serial comma or not? Is that style issue or grammatical one? That seems based on house style or individual preference.

      Our parents told us when we were kids always to cross in a crosswalk, even while we observed them not crossing in crosswalks. And we regularly saw them driving past the speed limit. And we each broke all kinds of rules all the time. Why would you be so confused by inconsistencies in rules of grammar but not these other things?

      The issue isn’t inconsistencies (or hypocrisy). I think the confusion lies in treating certain rules as rigidly and categorically, when they’re actually not. For example, you can strongly disagree with certain rules that relate to style–rules that are flexible and even based on personal preference. But for these issues, there is no clear-cut right or wrong answer, like more rigid grammatical rules. To speak about these rules, and passionately advocate for a specific approach, without noting that there really isn’t a clear-cut right or wrong answer, is where the confusion lies….Actually, taking a passionate and definite stance on a stylistic rule is also confusing. How can you take such a strong stance on something that can be based on personal preference? Well, we do that all that time, but for rules and standards relating to language, there are actually rules that aren’t based on personal preference or a matter of style. For those rules it is appropriate to take a strong, definitive stance. Is this making sense? (I feel like I’m rambling.)

      Absolutely, but remember that the communicator has needs as well.

      You go on to convey that these needs are not always known. This creates the impression that these rules are arbitrary and maybe even capricious and idiosyncratic. If one were to object and get mad at some of these types of rules, this isn’t something general readers and writers should necessarily care about, should they? What I mean is, for these people, does it matter who is right? For example, if you think letters in abbreviations should be followed by periods (e.g., C.I.A.), but someone else things that’s dumb and strongly protests. The vast majority of people don’t need to know who is right or wrong. There really isn’t a right or wrong in that case. Right?

      By the way, going back to how I conflated style and grammar–how I was oblivious to this difference (and I’m kinda embarrassed to admit this)–I would look to follow certain rules from magazines (like the New Yorker [Oh boy, I’m confused again]) and think: “Well, if they’re doing it a certain, that must be the proper way of doing things.” What I’m learning is that this is not really the case. I could be just emulating rules relating to a house style, not so proper rule applied in all situations. Ugh.

    2. However, I’ve also heard Klaus introduce himself as “Klaus Meine from the Scorpions,” so maybe we care more about this detail than the artists do.

      Shaking my head (as in, this just makes things more confusing). It’s not about them us caring more than them, it’s about getting a sense of the appropriate way to write band names….Then again, I guess that might be caring more than them.

      You know what I’m trying to avoid? Those moments when I’m uncertain about the proper way to write something, and I care about looking like an idiot. Is this a situation where using the “the,” capitalizing, or italicizing it doesn’t really matter? Actually, I don’t think so. This seems like a situation where there are a lot of exceptions to any existing rules, as you mentioned. Translation: Learn to live with the uncertainty and do the best you can. ?

      If you’re up to it, how about a summary of how to handle writing about band names? (There are other specific points that I’m still confused about it, but I don’t want to go there.)

      Does it make more sense if I say that we often refer to things so that people know what we’re talking about but not necessarily by their formal names? If you say “I read it in the Atlantic,” you’re using a shorthand that people understand, like “I read it in the Star-Ad” or “I read it in the Freep.”

      I understand, but this adds to the confusion, too, because “The Atlantic” is the formal name, too. Right? (See, I can’t even remember.)

  29. At least Scorpions has been consistent on their album covers. It says “Scorpions” on every one. One of my favorite bands, the Seventy Sevens, has spelled their name on album covers The Seventy Sevens, the 77s, and just Seventy Sevens. It’s maddening for organizing my freaking iTunes library.

    1. The thing is, keeping track of the names of the bands–what they call themselves–is not really practical; at least not for me.

      As for the organizing of one’s music library, even if bands clearly designate “the” as part of their name, I do not, and will not, organize my library that way. Same for movies and books.

  30. I’m working on an essay about the meaning of the word balance, as it relates to football offenses, and I’m having a problem. The problem is hard to articulate, so I’m going to describe one specific section the problem arises.

    In this section, I’m claiming that balance is the ability for an offense to run or pass in predictable situations. An example of predictable running situation is protecting the lead at the end of a game. An example of a predictable passing situation is facing a big deficit in the 4th quarter.

    Now, I want to say that a balanced offense is one that can run or pass in these situations. But how do I say this in a way that is clear and not awkward?…

    …Maybe I’m not being clear…Here’s another way to describe the problem–is there a word I could use to refer to both running and passing at the same time, a word that is a broader category that the two things would fall under? A word like that might not exist, but if it did, that would help solve the problem.

  31. I think I get what you’re trying to do, and yeah, it’s a tough situation if you don’t want to sound all repetitive and stuff, or if you find it unwieldy to type out what you actually mean. If it’s not too long an essay, you can get away with just having a few synonyms at your disposal (the way I kind of alternate between “film” and “movie” with the occasional “picture” and “flick” thrown in for my film reviews). In this case you might say “put it in the air or keep it on the ground” or “hand it off or air it out” or something.

    My first thought is to establish early in the essay some alternate phrase, like “play selection,” and define it early the way you plan to use it.

    It would be a lot easier for me if you actually type out a few sentences as best you can explain what you’re trying to explain, and let me smooth it out for you. It’s one of my few talents.

    1. My first thought is to establish early in the essay some alternate phrase, like “play selection,” and define it early the way you plan to use it.

      I like the concept. I don’t really care for “play selection.” Is there no general classification for running and passing? How would you describe it? Two “aspects” of offense? Two “dimensions?” These labels are unsatisfying as well.

      It would be a lot easier for me if you actually type out a few sentences as best you can explain what you’re trying to explain, and let me smooth it out for you. It’s one of my few talents.

      OK, how about this:

      A defense that faces an offense with a balanced attack has to worry about defending both the run and pass. Neutralizing only one of these components far from guarantees success, especially if this leads to a huge vulnerability somewhere else. In contrast, a defense can shut down a one-dimensional offense by neutralizing the one component the offense is built upon. Think of an option offense like the wishbone, or a passing offense like the run-and-shoot. Shutting down the run or pass, respectively, means shutting down the entire offense.

      In the second sentence–“Neutralizing only one of these components far from guarantees success, especially if this leads to a huge vulnerability somewhere else.”–I’m OK with “Neutralizing only one of these components,” but I’m not happy with “somewhere else.” I could use “the other component,” but that sounds awkward as well.

      (I’m hoping you understand the what I’m trying to explain in the passage, but if not, let me know, and I’ll try to explain it.)

  32. OK, I need some help. Instead of articulating the specific question, I’m going to describe the problem first and then ask the question at the end. Please bear with me.

    In football, statistics are almost always approximations, proxies, or indicators for quality–the quality of players, teams, or different aspects of the team (e.g., the running game, etc.). This is very different from track and field. The time for a 100 meter sprinter is not just a proxy for the quality of the sprinter, the number actually represents the quality of the sprinter. I’ve tried to express this by saying that the time has a one-to-one correspondence with the quality of the sprinter. The number is the quality; the number is equivalent to the quality.

    I’m not very satisfied with the way I’m articulating this. Is there a better way to this. Even better, is there a word that means the opposite of “approximation” or “proxy?”

    1. I might go with indicator, a word you used. I might also get rid of “represents,” although there’s nothing wrong with it the way you use it. Just because “representation” is a synonym for these other words. Your case is stronger if you say “…the number is the quality of the sprinter.” Which you say later (twice, for some reason — I would also lose “the number is equivalent to the quality,” since it means the same as “the number is the quality” but in fewer words.

      So keep the three words you use in the first sentence, since it gives a good sense of what you’re reaching for. Then cut down the rest so the contrast stands out better.

      1. Oh. I thought you were saying that stats for a football player are MERELY indicators, not the actual quality, as they are for sprinters. That’s why I suggested what I suggested. I have to get ready for a meeting but I’ll look at it again in a bit.

        1. I am saying those things. What I’m looking for is a word or a phrase that I can use in contrast to a “mere indicator.” If something is not an approximation or proxy, but a perfect representation or whatever, what is the word for “perfect representation?”

        2. Oh. Then if you don’t just want to say the stat IS the quality of the athlete, you can maybe say it’s an equivalence. Sorta what you already had.

          1. Wait, I don’t believe stats are an equivalence to the quality of a football player. I’m saying stats are almost always approximations, proxies for quality.

            “Stats is the quality of an athlete” or “stats are an equivalence with quality”–these phrases sound awkward to me. I’m trying to find another way to saying this. (Do you think it sounds awkward, or is it just me?), or finding a way basically means “indicator that is complete, not partial; fully representative; equivalent.” I guess there isn’t a word like that.

    2. To me, “approximation,” “proxy,” or “indicator” are not strong enough. An indicator can indicate in varying degrees. The passing yards of a QB can be an indicator of how good they are, but passing yards doesn’t indicate the quality of a QB in the same way that a sprinter’s time indicates the quality of the sprinter. Do you know what I mean? I’m trying to find a word that means an indicator that is a perfect representation, something equivalent to quality. If a number or indicator is not an approximation, but the exact number or indicator, what do you call that?

      Here’s another example. Think of the how personal wealth is measured. If we count the amount of a money a person has (and we could estimate value of non-monetary assets) that amount is the person’s wealth. It’s not an approximation, proxy, or indicator, right?

  33. I was saying you can say stats are equivalent to the quality of the sprinter.

    OK, that makes sense now.

  34. . But the nonprofits set up by Andy Warhol, Joan Mitchell and Robert Rauschenberg, to name three, were created to launch after the artist’s death. Bradford, 57, founded Art + Practice for immediate impact. He provides as much of the organization’s $1 million annual budget as needed.

    Are “to name three” and “to launch” prepositional phrases? It’s not right? “Of the organization’s #1 million annual budget” is a prepositional phrase, but what about “as much” and “as needed?”

    1. “to name” and “to launch” are infinitives. I’m not sure what “to name” modifies, but “to launch” madifies “created,” so the latter is an adverb.

      I’m not sure about prepositions; I never have been. But “of the organizations…” modifies “budget” so in this case it’s an adjective. “As much” and “as needed” both modify budget so they are adjectives (limiting, according to the language you used on the phone last weekend). I don’t think either are prepositions.

  35. Mitchell, are you familiar with this?

    I had the same reaction as the person who tweeted this. Do some people think of tweets in the same way?

    1. I think there’s a difference between

      okay

      and

      okay.

      but this description takes it a little further than I would. Still, I’ve been conscious of the general trend toward this mood interpretation. Something I wouldn’t make a rule about, but something I keep in mind when I think about my audience. And no, I don’t think a tweet works the same way.

      A lot depends on your familiarity with the recipient. People who communicate with me in texts know I’m going to spell my words out and I am almost always going to punctuate according to standard usage. Sometimes I’ll capitalize things and sometimes I won’t. I pretty much never use abbreviations like LOL or IMO (most people won’t notice this, but I pretty much never say “in my opinion” anyway). So I think people who receive my txt msgs (okay, there are two I abbreviate on the reg) are less likely to read a period as stern or annoyed.

      Since you probably don’t text-communicate with very many twenty-somethings, I wouldn’t worry about it.

      1. edit: Look at how 30-somethings are punctuating

        ok boomer

        and you can see how the move away from certain punctuation does change the message a certain way. I’ve found my own use of commas in casual communication (and even some formal communication) on the decline for similar reasons.

        Not periods.

      2. The fact that this is a thing is not surprising in general–as I think texts and twitter are different media and they’re shaping the way we write, just as movable-type printing changed conventions of writing. I just never realized this specific shift with periods.

        Is there also some new meaning with ellipses?

  36. I’ve heard people use “stat” in the following way, and I wasn’t sure what it meant:

    Anyone who watched the Seahawks knows that they need pass-rushers, stat.

    I googled the word, and it seems like it means, “now” or “asap.” I’m not sure that’s correct, but what’s the origin of this expression?

    1. Primary used in hospitals to mean urgent, right? Well that’s what years of watching ER has taught me anyway.

      1. Yep. It means NOW with emphasis. Stuff I learned from M*A*S*H. And it’s a common crossword word clued this way. It’s short for statim, Latin for “immediately.”

    2. Oh OK. I don’t remember hearing this expression–ever–until now. Or I wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t watch ER, and I apparently I didn’t watch enough MASH.

      But when did this become more of a common expression? (Please don’t tell me this has always been common–I’ll really think I’m losing my mind.)

  37. I’m trying to think of a word that describes concise, clear writing. It’s not concise, and I don’t think it’s trenchant. It’s not succinct, either. The word means clear, maybe even insightful, more than concision. The word may not always be used in association with writing–it might also describing a person’s thinking. But I think it’s used to describe one’s writing. Any ideas?

    1. Shoot, no, that’s not it. It’s not…cogent! That’s the word I was thinking. I was confusing its definition with clear and concise. Ugh.

    1. I’m going to answer this the way I first learned it, which was in symbolic logic in high school math. Then look at the way it’s generally used (which is usually not the way I understand it, by definition).

      In logic, when you have a conditional statement like, “If I did my homework, then my parents are happy.”

      The converse of this statement is
      If my parents are happy, then I did my homework.

      The inverse of this statement is
      If I do not do my homework, my parents are not happy.

      The contrapositive of this statement is
      If my parents are not happy, then I did not do my homework.


      So my understanding has always been that the converse of a statement flips the elements in an if-then statement.

      Most of the time when I’ve heard people say “the converse is also true,” they’re really talking about the contrapositive or the inverse.


      Evidence: I did a Google news search for the exact phrase, “the converse is also true.” One of the results (the first result I clicked) is from an article in Time magazine:

      When schools shut down for more than a few weeks, early marriages increase, more children are recruited into militias, sexual exploitation of girls and young women rises, teenage pregnancies increase, and child labor rises. The converse is also true: education significantly improves not only the life prospects of individuals, but the stability and prosperity of whole societies.

      There are a few conditionals in this first sentence:
      When schools shut down, then early marriages increase.
      When schools shut down, then more children are recruited into militias.
      When school shut down, sexual exploitation of girls rises.
      When schools shut down, teenage pregnancies increase.
      When schools shut down, child labor rises.

      Then the writers (one of whom is Angelina Jolie) say the converse is true, which would be
      When early marriages increase, schools shut down.

      Which is not what they say. They say that when schools do not shut down, life is better (presumably in these specific ways they list). This is not a converse but an inverse.


      The second result I clicked was from the Washington Post.

      Maragakis said … “we are still in a position where the transmission of the virus depends heavily on our behaviors every day.”

      “People’s behavior is a dramatic determinant here,” said Christopher Murray, the director of IHME. “Look at what happened in Florida [after the spike in cases]. People got scared. They started wearing masks, they stopped going to bars.”

      But the converse is also true: If people stop being vigilant, the virus bounces back.

      The conditional statement: If we do certain behaviors, the transmission of the virus goes down. Yes, I had to parse this from the reading, but I think this is a fair breakdown.

      The converse would be if the transmission of the virus goes down, people stop being vigilant. Possibly true, but not what the writers (one of whom is Joel Achenbach, whom I super-admire) mean. They say if people stop being vigilant, the transmission of the virus goes up. That’s an inverse.

      M-W.com gives these definitions of converse in noun usage:

      a: a theorem formed by interchanging the hypothesis and conclusion of a given theorem

      b: a proposition obtained by interchange of the subject and predicate of a given proposition
      “No P is S ” is the converse of “no S is P. ”

      Which lines up with what I just wrote. So I guess the question I have for you is, are you asking what people mean when they say converse, or are you asking what the word means by definition?

    2. I’m asking what converse means when its used in writing. That is, the definition of converse in the context of writing, not in the context of logic or another context.

      1. Are you asking about a writing term, like what does “foreshadowing” mean in writing?

        Or just stuff people write, such as in Achenbach’s and Jolie’s articles?

        1. Sorry; let me rephrase my question.

          Are you asking me what writers mean when they write “converse?” Or are you asking me what writers do when they create a converse?

    3. Are you asking me what writers mean when they write “converse?” Or are you asking me what writers do when they create a converse?

      The latter (but wouldn’t that be the same as the former?).

      The writers, in the examples above, use “conversely” to mean “inversely,” and I think that’s how I generally used (meant) it as well. I’m not sure though.

      1. Writers mean “inverse” when they write “converse,” which is what I was getting at with my Google News examples, but I still don’t understand what you’re asking. “Converse” is taking the conclusion of a conditional statement and making it the hypothesis, and taking the hypothesis and making it the conclusion. Or, as defined in the second part of the M-W quote, interchanging the subject and predicate of a proposition, which looks to me like the same thing.

        Not the same question, but maybe this question will help me get what you’re asking me:

        Are you asking me what writers actually mean when they write the word “converse?” Or are you asking me what a converse actually is?

    4. Writers mean “inverse” when they write “converse,” which is what I was getting at with my Google News examples, but I still don’t understand what you’re asking.

      You answered the question I had with the first part of the sentence above. Does that clear things up?

      (The next time I’m thinking of using the word “converse” or “conversely,” I’ll try to check back in here.)

  38. From the thread on Posnaski’s book, regarding the misuse of “unique:”

    …and how writers, including sports writers like him, misuse the word, when they really mean “rare,” “special,” or “distinct.”

    (I didn’t want to derail the other thread, so I’m going to post my comment here.) I’m assuming you’re defining unique to mean “one and only one”–literally, “one of a kind.” I looked up the word, and I feel like the alternate definitions make the definition a little less rigid.

    In any event, I feel like there should be a word that means unique, but not literally one and only one. “Rare,” “special,” or “distinct” aren’t always adequate. I want a word that combines special and distinct–and maybe original–without the meaning the one and only one meaning.

    1. That’s fine. Keeping in mind one characteristic of language you often remind me of, language changes over time. The meanings of words change, often because people misuse them, and misuse them more, and misuse them more.

      Dictionaries serve dual purposes, as I often remind you. They are prescriptive, telling us how to use words. And they are descriptive, telling us how people use them. These alternate definitions are the result of repeated misuse of the word, so you’re not wrong to use the word this way. Just be aware and conscious of your decision.

    2. Given that the proper use of words partly depends on the way people use words, in addition to formal definitions and rules, the word “misuse,” in this discussion, seems inappropriate or inadequate.

      If I use “unique” to mean distinctive and special, but not “one and only one,” I might be technically misusing the word, but that’s based on a more rigid definition. As we’ve talked in the past, I feel like words and grammatical rules are not as rigid or absolute as you seem to me. To me, they’re dynamic, but there are limits to this dynamism and flexibility as well.

      Additionally, the use of “unique” above is not really far off from proper meaning. That is, using the word in this way is not egregious misuse (not to me anyway). Compare this to the way some people misuse “literally.”

      By the way, are you suggesting that the descriptive definitions listed in Merriam-Webster are improper? How do you know which definitions are improper (descriptive) versus proper (prescriptive)?

      1. Reid said:

        As we’ve talked in the past, I feel like words and grammatical rules are not as rigid or absolute as you seem to me. To me, they’re dynamic, but there are limits to this dynamism and flexibility as well.

        Yes, you keep saying this. I’ll dispute this not for argument’s sake, but maybe just as a reminder that as someone who writes for a living and once taught writing, I can reasonably have my approach and it would make sense if we differed, and maybe neither of is us right. “Rigid” has a negative connotation to me, though. Perhaps I’d use “academic” or “professional.”

        Listen: as a creative writer and someone who has written poetry, I’m all about dynamism and creativity in the use of language, which I have said maaaaaany times. So please don’t think I’m anti. I’m not. I’ve said before (and I guess I’m saying again) that when we use it creatively, it’s great. When we use it neglectfully, it’s harmful to clear communication, as with the watering down of the meaning of “unique.” There are so many other words that mean what people mean when they say unique. There are fewer to mean one of a kind.

        By the way, are you suggesting that the descriptive definitions listed in Merriam-Webster are improper? How do you know which definitions are improper (descriptive) versus proper (prescriptive)?

        Of course not. If someone wants to know what “unique” means, and they look it up in the dictionary and the descriptive meaning isn’t there, the dictionary is useless to that person.

        As far as how you know, you probably can’t know from just reading an MW entry. You’d have to go to the OED, which traces the uses and meanings of the words over time, which most of us can’t do. MW’s articles about words are useful that way, as THEY go to the OED (and other sources) to trace how long certain uses have been around. So, for example, using “literally” to mean “figuratively” (there’s an article on that) goes back a couple of hundred years, to include such canonized writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne (or someone like that). So perhaps demonizing people who say “I literally died laughing” is misguided, and these people should be cut some slack. I know I cut them the slack these days.

        Look at this definition of moot (https://www.m-w.com/dictionary/moot). The first definition isn’t AT ALL the way it’s used today. Somewhere along the line the meaning of the word flipped to its opposite (definition 2). It happens. When did the opposite meaning, the described meaning, replace the prescribed meaning? Impossible to say. PS: The little “did you know” further down the page is fascinating. Also, I think you know this one, but in case you don’t, look up the definition of nimrod. https://www.m-w.com/dictionary/Nimrod

    3. It’s not worth arguing about this our notions about words and grammar, but let me ask something I really want know: Given the M-W definitions, would you say “unique” doesn’t have to mean “one and only one?” To me, the other definitions suggest that the word need not be used in that absolute way.

      On a related note, what about this sentence:

      Shohei Ohtani’s considerable talent at pitching and hitting make him a unique MLB player.

      Is this an improper use of the word because Babe Ruth also had a similar ability?

  39. So, for example, using “literally” to mean “figuratively” (there’s an article on that) goes back a couple of hundred years, to include such canonized writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne (or someone like that). So perhaps demonizing people who say “I literally died laughing” is misguided, and these people should be cut some slack. I know I cut them the slack these days.

    I just saw an example of this, and I thought of this comment above. After eating something delicious, a yelp commentator said, “I was literally blown away.” She’s using “blown away” in a figurative way, but she doesn’t mean I was “figuratively blown away.”

    But what does she mean? I’m having trouble articulating it, but I want to try to do so here. She really wants to emphasize her positive reaction–as in, she wasn’t just blown away, she was really/totally/completely blown away. But “really/totally/completely” doesn’t really fit so well. (What would be other words she could have used?) When she says literally, I think she means “almost literally”–as in, “It was as if I was literally blown away, although I literally was not.” (The situation seems very close to the way people want to use “unique.”) Normally, saying, “blown away” is supposed convey this, but adding “literally” makes this more emphatic–as if it nudges the meaning to something closer to literally being blown away. It’s as if the person is “amping up” the figurative speech.

    If this is correct, I think the meaning she’s striving for is a legitimate one. How can you say something figurative and convey that it is close to a literal experience/meaning? I’m not sure if there is a better way than using “literally” in the way that she did.

    (Another thought: Maybe the problem here is cliched expressions like “blown away.” Also, “completely blown away” may have also lost it’s power as well. Is the solution finding other ways to express a strong, positive reaction?)

    1. You think she was almost picked up by the wind and carried away because a dining experience was so good? Is there some literal reading of “blow away” that I don’t know?

      I’m not sure which sense of “blown” the “blown away” phrase means. I think it’s different from “mind-blowing,” which I think is more like a blowing up, as with “blew my doors off.” Still, with either sense of “blown” I don’t think she means at all that she was close to actually being that.

      I don’t think she’s trying to indicate that she was almost picked up by the wind and carried away. I think she’s using “literally” to emphasize how strongly she was figuratively blown away, in which case her options might be “I was quite blown away,” “I was blown far, far away,” “I was blown away with an intensity previously unknown to humankind,” or even “I was uniquely blown away,” if she means she (or perhaps anyone) has never been blown away quite like this.

      The problem with language like this — and it’s true with literal phrases as well as figurative ones — is that if we use the phrases too much, we keep needing more and more glowing language to satisfy our need to communicate the more-ness of a situation. I haven’t learned a term for this, but I’ve tentatively named it myself: creeping superlatives.

      “I was blown away” probably would describe her impression just fine, but she (and we all) have used the phrase so much that we have to reach for something a level up, like when you’re judging a pie contest and just rate the first pie a 10. Then if the next one is better you have to rate it 10+ or something.

      1. Alternate take on what the reviewer meant. She’s using “literally” to say she’s being serious. She’s not kidding. She was THAT impressed, not being polite about it, not even exaggerating beyond the level of exaggeration “blown away” actually is.

        Something like: You know how it feels to be blown away? I’m not kidding — I was literally feeling that feeling.

        1. You think she was almost picked up by the wind and carried away because a dining experience was so good?

          No. I was thinking her feeling would be as intense as if she were literally picked up by the wind.

          I think she’s using “literally” to emphasize how strongly she was figuratively blown away,…

          Agreed.

          The problem with language like this — and it’s true with literal phrases as well as figurative ones — is that if we use the phrases too much, we keep needing more and more glowing language to satisfy our need to communicate the more-ness of a situation. I haven’t learned a term for this, but I’ve tentatively named it myself: creeping superlatives.

          I like that phrase. And I do think that’s an issue, but it would be an issue whatever words one uses, right?

          Alternate take on what the reviewer meant. She’s using “literally” to say she’s being serious. She’s not kidding. She was THAT impressed, not being polite about it, not even exaggerating beyond the level of exaggeration “blown away” actually is.

          Something like: You know how it feels to be blown away? I’m not kidding — I was literally feeling that feeling.

          Bingo. This resonates with me. It’s similar to saying,”People say ‘blown away’ a lot–carelessly–but I really mean it. This time really take what I’m saying to heart.”

  40. Reid said

    On a related note, what about this sentence:

    Shohei Ohtani’s considerable talent at pitching and hitting make him a unique MLB player.

    Is this an improper use of the word because Babe Ruth also had a similar ability?

    Without context or further explanation, I’d say this one’s iffy. If the person is simply saying that the ability to pitch and hit at the major league level makes him unique, then yes. It’s inappropriate. You don’t even have to go back to Babe Ruth. Rick Ankiel did it in the 90s. Madison Bumgarner kind of did it in last decade.

    What I hear more often about Ohtani is that the way he does it makes him unique. Or that he does it in combination with being an above-average fielder, an above-average outfield arm, and the best baserunner in the majors.

    The quote I used from Posnanski about Ichiro Suzuki being unique is part of a much longer exposition on the word unique, followed by a much longer explanation of why he’s unique. So the writer even knows how he has to explain himself, given the frequent misuse (or let’s say overuse) of the word.

    1. If the person is simply saying that the ability to pitch and hit at the major league level makes him unique, then yes. It’s inappropriate.

      What if the person meant Ohtani was exceptional at hitting and pitching. If one other player was also exceptional at both, would that make “unique” inappropriate? If so, there should be another word that means “almost unique.”

      So the writer even knows how he has to explain himself, given the frequent misuse (or let’s say overuse) of the word.

      I would not dispute the claim that “unique” is overused, for what that’s worth.

  41. I’m just going to say two things about the Yelp reviewer. She can express herself however she wants, and as I say I’m a lot more forbearing about literally vs figuratively than I once was. But understand that her meaning is STILL figurative, even with our interpretation. Broken down to its actual meaning, she’s saying, “I actually felt the way people feel when they figuratively say they were blown away. I’m using this language because usually when people say they were figuratively blown away, they don’t actually feel that way. I didn’t feel like I was being blown away, but I felt the way those people claim to feel when they say they feel that way.”

    It’s STILL figurative, because it’s a simile. Or something.

    Which brings me to the second thing I’ll say about all this. I’m trying to help people write well. I look the other way on “I was literally blown away” because Yelp is an informal situation, because we all know what she means, and because it doesn’t matter how we interpret the sentence. I think maybe I should try a different approach — the good enough approach. Tell people that what they have in mind is good enough.

    1. But understand that her meaning is STILL figurative, even with our interpretation.

      I actually the explanation you offered–i.e., she’s being serious–is the most likely meaning. And yes, what she says is still figurative.

      I’m trying to help people write well. I look the other way on “I was literally blown away” because Yelp is an informal situation,…

      It’s occurred to me that the difference in our views might stem from the fact that you’re a professional writer, and even before that, your mindset was more like a professional writer. I definitely think that the rules are more stringent and certainly more formal for writing meant to be published (and I’m excluding blogs).

      When I think about good writing, the context is mostly for blog posts, not for serious publication.

      I don’t know–I’m just suggesting this is a possible reason for our difference on this issue.

  42. Reid said,

    What if the person meant Ohtani was exceptional at hitting and pitching. If one other player was also exceptional at both, would that make “unique” inappropriate? If so, there should be another word that means “almost unique.”

    I think it would make unique inappropriate. Which is why Posnanski actually spends a few paragraphs explaining why he’s using the word in this case.

    There is another word: rare. Or you could say “nearly unique.” I don’t understand what’s wrong with either.

    I like that phrase. And I do think that’s an issue, but it would be an issue whatever words one uses, right?

    You were responding to my “creeping superlative” phrase. Yes, it would be an issue. We see it in other areas too, not merely in superlative language. Like swearing. But how do you handle it? I handle it by saving swear words for when I really need them. If I F this and F that all the Fing time, I need something even stronger when I really need it. So I pretty much don’t use that word unless I’m quoting something. For me it’s there when I need it, and check that out: I never need it. Because it’s over my line, lesser profanities and vulgarities do the trick.

    Similarly, if we try to be clearer and precise with words we use to describe the quality of something, we can say “terrific” (for example) with meaning, using “very good” or just “good” when they are the more appropriate judgments. Or avoid THOSE terms, too, and say what you really mean. Instead of “that meal was very good,” say “it filled me up” or “it was the right combination of acid and salt for this cut of meat.”

    It doesn’t do a thing for slowing creeping superlatives in general. But maybe if enough of us care to avoid it, we’ll contribute to a lessening of the trend. Wishful thinking, I know, but one does what one can. Especially when one is no longer an English teacher.

    1. There is another word: rare. Or you could say “nearly unique.” I don’t understand what’s wrong with either.

      In my view, “rare” is more generic, whereas “unique,” particularly in the Ohtani example, implies something positive in a special way.

      As for “nearly unique,” it sounds awkward don’t you think?It seems to unintentionally diminishes what is supposed to be lavish praise.

      We see it in other areas too, not merely in superlative language. Like swearing. But how do you handle it?

      Swearing seems a little different, though, at least for me. I don’t only limit my use of swearing because I don’t want to diminish its impact, but I just want to avoid it as much as possible as a matter of principle. For me, the latter is not in play with a superlative language such as unique.

      Similarly, if we try to be clearer and precise with words we use to describe the quality of something, we can say “terrific” (for example) with meaning, using “very good” or just “good” when they are the more appropriate judgments.

      Something that came to mind when I read this: Perhaps part of the problem involves the subject matter when I most frequently use “unique”–specifically, the arts. The line that demarcates uniqueness can be vague. For example, is the music on Remain in Light unique or not? Can we answer this definitively? If we can’t then knowing when using unique becomes unclear, right?

      Also, let’s try using the substitutes you suggested:

      The music on RiL, particularly its use of polyrhythms is rare/nearly unique in pop music.

      Using “rare” would be accurate, but not precise.

      “Nearly unique” sounds awkward and maybe confusing.

      Maybe “original” or “exceptionally original” might be a better descriptor. “Original” comes close in meaning to “unique.” Does “original” have that “one and only” meaning as well?

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