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Posts Tagged ‘fowler’

Grumpy Grammarian

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Recently Terry Gross of WHYY Philadelphia interviewed an experienced copy editor about his new book. I heard him tell her that all editors have certain things that make their skin crawl, things that are not necessarily wrong but that just bug the individual editor.

For example, the author of Dreyer’s English, “Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer, is not a fan of the word ‘very.’

” ‘It’s not a dreadful word,’ he allows, but ‘it’s one of my little pet words to do without if you can possibly do without it.’

” ‘Very’ and its cousins ‘rather’ and ‘really’ are ‘wan intensifiers,’ Dreyer explains. In their place, he advises that writers look for a strong adjective that ‘just sits very nicely by itself’ on the page. For example, ‘very smart’ people can be ‘brilliant’ and ‘very hungry’ people can be ‘ravenous.’ ” (Or caterpillars, I suppose.)

On twitter, freelance editor @morinotsuma mentioned another usage that isn’t wrong but confuses many copy editors, myself included.  “A phrase I always misunderstand,” she says, is “ ‘the date got moved up.’ I always think it should mean that the date was changed to something nearer to the present but really it means it got pushed further into the future.”

Here’s a lost cause of my own: “beg the question.” My writer father’s favorite usage book, known simply as “Fowler,” says the phrase beg the question means asking a question with an embedded assumption like, “When did you stop beating your wife?” It doesn’t mean, “That leads to the question XYZ,” which is how everyone uses it now.

And how about “too big to fail”? In my view, that should be should be “too big to be allowed to fail.” I know my wording is clunkier, but nothing is too big to fail, you know, not even the dinosaurs.

And then, there’s the way “loved ones” is used when someone dies and family members are mourning. The usage feels backward to me. The family of the deceased may indeed be his loved ones, the people he loved, but what we actually mean is “the people who loved him.” If a memorial could say, “Our thoughts are with all who loved him,” my brain would feel less itchy. But since the whole world knows what is meant when someone says, “my prayers are with her loved ones,” I probably should go off into a corner with my itchy brain and just be quiet.

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Yesterday I tried Google Glass.

Summer interns where I work had been given a pair of the wearable computer glasses to program. For fun, they made the glasses present a data-visualization tool my boss created last year.

When I tried it out, I had to say first, “OK, Glass” to activate the program. A small computer screen appeared in front of my vision but a bit higher and to the right. Then I had to ask see a piece of the information I knew was available in the data-visualization tool. “Show me the population of Boston.”

Then the interns told me to scroll with my finger on the right side of the frame to see other data about Boston: characteristics of people in lower-income census tracts; characteristics of middle- and upper-income tracts. Finally, I asked to see other cities.

Until yesterday, I had no idea that you talk to the thing. It’s wildly expensive and, according to MIT Technology Review, sometimes subject to security dangers.

But what a fun toy!

(Hmmm. I can hear my father quoting Fowler’s dictionary: “Fun is a low-cant word.” And that man didn’t even know “fun” would someday be used as an adjective. Well, as the song goes, something’s lost but something’s gained in living every day.)

Photo: NBC producer Frank Thorp using Google Glass in Washington, DC, Aug. 2, 2013. 

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