Le cul entre les deux chaises

An American Spaniard in France or: How I Learned to Make an Ass of Myself in Three Cultures

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Arguing over “over”

This is related to my post for this coming Tuesday, but it’s a good read on its own (if you’re into this kind of thing). A sample: “If you have good reason to think that a significant number of your readers care about a certain point of usage and that the value of pleasing them outweighs the risk of vexing other readers who might care differently plus the cost in time of making the needed changes, then go ahead and stick to that rule. Otherwise, do what you like.”

Stroppy Editor

I’ve been ignoring the American civil war, even though it broke out just down the corridor from where I was sitting two weeks ago.

In short: the AP Stylebook announced a change to its guidance: “over, as well as more than, is acceptable to indicate greater numerical value”. So AP now approves of statements such as “I slept for over an hour” and will no longer insist on “I slept for more than an hour”.

According to Peter Sokolowski, who was in that very room, AP cited “overwhelming evidence” that this usage was common and commonly accepted, and said that it was “futile to fight the tide”.

War then broke out.

Apparently, this is a big thing among US logophiles. Lots of people immediately jumped up (literally and virtually) to cheer or damn the decision. Peter has more detail.

I, like my country as a whole, have…

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My current English language pet peeves

Most of my experience with English these days comes from the Internet, either written or podcast. This means that I’m exposed to the same relatively limited sources repeatedly, with little variation. It also means that when any of these couple dozen people have an oral or written tic that annoys me, I can’t escape it. Here are some which are bothering me these days:

Bringing up something you’re not ready to discuss

I find this both slightly passive-aggressive and distracting narratively. On one podcast, the host frequently says, “We’ll get to there.” If the point’s been raised, seems to me that you’re already there, so you should just address it.

On a website that I’ve stopped reading precisely because of this, several reviews feature phrases like “More on that later.” Well, why’d you mention it now? If your sentence / paragraph / thesis isn’t structured in such a way as to allow for the discussion of this point, re-work it or address your concern later in a way that flows naturally.

Explicate and unpack

I’ve really gotten to hate both of these terms. To my recollection, they came into vogue around the time of INCEPTION. The film has a nested narrative structure (stories within stories) and in order to discuss the plot(s), most of my podcasts started using these terms.

My dictionary defines explicate as, “1. analyze and develop (an idea or principle) in detail. 2. analyze (a literary work) in order to reveal its meaning.” Unpack’s third definition is “analyze (something) into its component elements.”

I’m not against either idea, though I am biased against any unpacking that doesn’t involve boxes or suitcases, but it seems like people latched on to both words and won’t let go. Not every episode of TV needs to be “unpacked.” How ’bout you just discuss the story and how it was constructed? Not everything is a riddle or a matryoshka. You don’t need to “unpack [your] feelings” about a fictional entertainment. I don’t want to hear about your baggage, just tell me your reaction. Leave the packing to professionals.

Continued misuse of there / their / they’re and it’s /its

"Shortcomings" you say?

“Shortcomings” you say?

Look, we all make mistakes, me included. But I don’t work for a website / news organization which employs editors. (I know many online content editors aren’t paid, but that’s not an excuse for not doing the job correctly.) One of the most basic reasons to have someone look over your work before you send it / publish it / print it is because someone without a relationship to the text can see it in a fresh light. These things should not be happening with the frequency I see. It’s just not acceptable.

As an aside, none of my Spanish ESL students had issues with mixing these up, even the kids. Because they’d learned the grammar (and had a good teacher), they were never confused (beyond the spelling of “their” which is weird-looking).

Finally, if these two puppets can figure it out, adults who only speak English should be able to grasp the concepts too.


Last Tuesday was something called National Grammar Day. Since I don’t live in the US, I can claim both ignorance and my usual I-schedule-a-week-in-advance excuse as reasons why I didn’t commemorate it here. There were some pretty great appreciations for clear and concise communication on the web, but I’m only going to share two.

The first is opening lines from novels, diagrammed, just like you had to in school.

The second is a post called “How the Grinch Stole Grammar!” Here’s an excerpt:

He hated a lot! As he harshly explained:
“In matters linguistic, you’re hopelessly trained.
Allow me to show you some AWFUL mistakes
That I fear almost every last one of you makes!
Each time you use ‘they’ to refer to one person
Your standards of speech irreversibly worsen
And when you pair ‘none’ not with ‘is’ but with ‘are’
You inflict upon English a hideous scar.
Whenever you make an infinitive split
You make yourself look a definitive twit!
One common misdeed that extremely disturbs
Is when verbs become nouns or when nouns become verbs.
Another thing – which, I assure you, is banned –
Is when you begin a new sentence with ‘and’!
What’s worse, without showing a speck of contrition,
You’ll end the next one with a foul PREPOSITION!
‘Between you and I’,
‘Different than’,
Even ‘ain’t’
Are giving your language a horrible taint.
I could go on all day, listing errors syntactical
But there are so many… it wouldn’t be practical.”

For the record

I’m no longer so prescriptive that I object to ending sentences with prepositions. For that matter, in informal writing, like this here blog, I also don’t see a problem with beginning a sentence with either “and” or “but.”

Just for the hell of it

This pisses me off too

Thanks for pissing me off, Slate. Won’t be reading you again.


Stick and stones and Harry Potter

Coming across people freaking out about Tom Molvolo Riddle’s name in the French version of the Harry Potter books reminded me that baguette was one of my early bête noires. (Though in French, it would be bêtes noires and now I don’t know which to use.)

I’d warn for spoilers here, but if you don’t already know the reveal about Tom Riddle from the second Harry Potter story, you don’t care.

Harry Potter French Voldemort

As to baguettes, they are lots of things, primarily thin and flexible sticks. This means that their English counterparts include wands, batons, chopsticks, drumsticks (musical), architectural molding detail and the long, thin bread typically peeking out of grocery bags in every TV show since the mid-80s.

Potter’s been in the news this week (at least the stuff I read) since author JK Rowling “admitted” that, in retrospect, she would have had different characters end up together. This led to a flurry of posts and stories about how Frizzy Hair and Dumb As Rocks were the best couple in the history of books or how she should have ended up with World’s Most Petulant Prat. (There’s a genuinely good defense here.) You can tell that in the annals of things about which I care not at all, this is right up there.

Things about which I care a great deal however, include the proper use of the English language and recognition of homophones. “To sow” is to plant seed by scattering; “to sew” is to connect things by stitching. 

Harry Potter sewing fail

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Word Mystery: eat / comer / manger

Neon_sign_EatEvery Wednesday, I explore the linguistic origins of one word in different languages I speak.

I’ve done almost 70 Word Mysteries and have a list of nearly 130 waiting to be researched on my computer but this week’s entry doesn’t appear on it because I am an idiot. No other possibilities exist.

EN → eat — put food into the mouth and chew and swallow it. ORIGIN Dutch eten [food, eat] and German essen [eat].

ES → comerMasticar y desmenuzar el alimento en la boca y pasarlo al estómago. [Act of chewing and making smaller of food in the mouth and passing it to the stomach.] ORIGIN Latin comedĕre [consume, devour].

FR → mangerAbsorber un aliment, par opposition à boire. [Absorb food through means other than drinking.] ORIGIN Latin manducare [chew, masticate].

French note #1: the second definition for manger is the one you’d expect (it includes chewing) but the example provided is “to chew one’s nails,” which is not what I think about when eating. (Nail chewing is totally disgusting, on par with people who clip their nails in public. What makes anyone think that’s okay? That is *not* okay.)

French note #2: I took enough science classes to understand that food is actually absorbed by the body during the process of digestion, but I still feel like the French is suggesting that osmosis is a viable way to take in calories.

Today’s Winner: I’m going to go with English as that definition is the only one that didn’t make my stomach turn.

Just for funzies

"Dear God, what is that thing?" = nauseous

“Dear God, what is that thing?” = nauseous

Nauseous — causing nausea.

Nauseated — affected with nausea.

Both come from the Latin nauseosus [seasickness] but the difference in usage is one that’s important (to pedants like me, at least).

I am nauseous = I make people vomit.
I am nauseated = I am going to vomit.

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Language peeve

I was always kind of a language Nazi as a kid, since expressing oneself well (and correctly) was highly valued and stressed in my family. In the fourth grade, my teacher told us one day that we had to hand our papers to a classmate for proofing and this kid Carl, with whom I did not get along, handed me his and said, “Edit, butt-face.” Despite our personal differences, he recognized that I was the best person in the class to check his homework.

So, while I do kind of get off on correcting or improving bad writing, I don’t actually like to read it when there’s no chance of fixing it.

In recent years, possibly due to hyper-awareness occasioned by teaching English, I have found glaringly egregious writing all over the place. When I read badly constructed sentences in a place like the New York Times, I die a little inside and I mourn the loss of an art form as well as the basic ability to run a spelling/grammar checker. (Seriously, you can set it as a default, so I really see no excuse.) On other sites I love, like the AV Club, it makes me sad because I worry that no one else even notices, which means that people are losing basic communication skills.

Today, I read something that just drove me up. the. fricking. wall. An article whose first two sentences don’t make any god damn sense. To wit:

When I first got into “Community”, I had serious misgivings about the Britta Perry as a character. There’s so few lefty feminist characters on TV to begin with, and it initially seemed that they were going to ride the worst stereotypes about feminists: that they’re shrill, stupid, and humorless.

The kicker is that this story was edited by someone who went to YALE. As an added aggravation, the excerpt features something I’ve noticed increasingly in written and spoken English which really pisses me off: saying “there’s” when the correct form is plural (“there are”). Madness I tell you.