you can't make these up

Posted on November 30th, 2010 by Scraps.
Categories: Comedy, Editing, Pedantry, Words.

I am reading the whole Paris Review interview section, entire, from the 1950s to the present, which they have generously put up online. Right now I am reading the interview with Dorothy Parker. I wasn't familiar with the name Perle Mesta, so I looked her up.

Quoting Wikipedia: "Mesta was known as the 'hostess with the mostest [sic]'."

I guess they were worried about their knowledge of the English language.


the unpedant squeaks

Posted on March 28th, 2008 by Scraps.
Categories: Pedantry, Words.

If you object to the use of "literally" as a metaphor intensifier, shouldn't you object to "veritable" as well? And "absolutely"? And "truly"?

1 comment.

it's MIX tape, dammit

Posted on March 9th, 2008 by Scraps.
Categories: Pedantry, Words.

Not "mixed tape". Where did that come from, anyway? I only started seeing it recently, but now I'm seeing it more often. Maybe someone decided that "mix tape" was ungrammatical. But "mixed tape" is just silly. It is not a tape that has been mixed. It is a tape of a mix. Everyone says "mix tape", and everyone understands what it means; the idiomatic use goes back thirty years or more, and has survived into the cd and mp3 era. It's neat and natural and useful, and should not be replaced with something awkward and nonsensical. Stomp out "mixed tape"!


the unpedant squeaks

Posted on August 23rd, 2007 by Scraps.
Categories: Pedantry, Stock Phrases, Words.

I'm impatient with most online pedantry, for two reasons. First, I view most online discourse as conversation, and it's rude to interrupt conversation to correct people on the fine points of usage. Second, most online pedantry is wrong, in my goddamned opinion; people are constantly making "corrections" that are based on things they were told or read and have never themselves thought about, and many of those corrections are nothing more than prescriptivists insisting on how things ought to be versus how they are, and often enough have no firm grounding either in logic or in the history of the language.

I enjoy the mutability and diversity of the English language. I like jargon and slang, and figure that history will take care of which ones belong and which are transient, and I don't have much interest in disdaining those I don't care for, or in looking down my nose at other folks' language. I use what I like, and read what I like. I'm sorry about the loss of distinction between "imply" and "infer," or "compose" and "comprise," or "eager" and "anxious"; I strive to maintain those useful distinctions on my own writing, but I don't get exercised at people who don't. I have a few eccentricities along these lines -- I'll use "ravel" in preference to "unravel," for instance, because they mean the same thing and "ravel" is a pretty word, and I'm probably a little too eager to explain that "till" is a perfectly legitimate spelling and isn't a truncated form of "until."

And there is nothing, nothing at all, wrong with using "hopefully" to modify a clause, and hopefully you won't let anyone tell you otherwise.

However. Mangling of idiom and stock phrases bugs me, for some reason, more than the misuse or misspelling of individual words. Maybe because idiom is such an elegant development, the grace notes that give language its style, and hearing idiom misused makes my ears hurt and my nerves cringe. The big three misused phrases that bug me this minute:

  • Beg the question
    This one is probably misused nineteen times out of twenty. (ESPN is an especially frequent offender.) It does not mean "to raise (or urgently raise) a question"; if that's what you mean, just say, "This raises the question." "Beg the question" is a rhetorical term, meaning to assume the thing you are trying to prove; a form of circular reasoning. If you were to argue that democracy is the highest form of government because the will of the majority should rule, you would be begging the question.

    If you say "This begs the question," followed by a question, you're probably misusing the phrase.

  • Sour grapes
    Okay, this one really bothers me, because it has a specific, vivid application, and it's helpfully spelled out in the parable so anyone can remember it! "Sour grapes" is constantly used to signify simple jealousy or bitterness or petulance. "'Of course the Yankees win; they're the richest team in baseball.' 'Aw, that's just sour grapes.'" "She says he only got the promotion because he's Armenian, but I think that's just sour grapes."

    Sour Grapes means to devalue the thing you want but can't have. When you say, after not getting a job, "It probably sucked anyway," that's sour grapes.

  • Emperor's New Clothes
    Don't use this unless your intent is to call everyone else a liar. When you call something the Emperor's New Clothes, you are not saying you see more clearly than everyone else -- which is obnoxious enough -- you're saying you see the same thing everyone else does, but you're the only one willing to call it as it is. If that's really what you believe, it's probably the last thing you need to say in the conversation, or that anyone else needs to hear.


the anti-pedant squeaks

Posted on December 21st, 2002 by Scraps.
Categories: Pedantry, Words.

(pedantic moment)

Now, Martha, you can have one of the few things, or you can have the only thing, but you can't have one of the only things. What would be the other of your only things?

I see this one a lot, and I'm convinced it's yet another one of those bits of "usage" that folks read and don't consider for themselves.

Besides the fact that much idiom isn't literal -- see footnote -- there is nothing literally the matter with "one of the only." For example, is there anything wrong with saying, "The only people who came to the party were Marge, Homer, and Barney"? How else would you compactly say it? Could you not then by extension say "Marge was one of the only people to come to the party"?

Anyway, the implied meaning is different than saying "one of the few." If you don't hear that, I'm not sure how to explain it. "One of the only" more emphatically emphasizes the lack of people; "one of the few" says less about whether "few" is an abnormal state especially worthy of comment.

(Footnote: Have you noticed that people mock the meaningless of new idiom while mindlessly repeating the literally absurd idiom they grew up with? My favorite example, these days, is the folks who sneer at "it's all good." "It is not all good," they say. Well sure, but is it all right?)


  • Meat is visually compelling. Meat works. Meat works for America. Meat is like a diamond. It's the perfect metaphor for whatever you need. Do you need a new metaphor? We'll hook you up.
    - Vernon Chatman