The War on Words – Feb. 2017

A monthly column in which we attempt, however futilely, to defend the English language against misuse and abuse

Media Watch

• From the Philadelphia Inquirer: “But a claim that only Democratic lawmakers were targeted does underscore the need for future attorney generals to administer justice without fear or favor.” The correct term is attorneys general.
• A letter to the Wilmington News Journal from “an alumna of Middletown H.S.” was signed “Joshua.” We are assuming, then, that he is an alumnus of Middletown High. An alumna is a female graduate, an alumnus is a male.
• The News Journal’s story on the annual New Year’s Day Hummers Parade in Middletown noted that one float was “a rift on two events.” That would be riff, meaning a witty comment or part of a comic performance. The same story also referred to the “Philadelphia Eagle’s season.” Reads as if it’s referring to just one Eagle.
• An obituary is a final commentary on the life of the deceased, and as such it should be treated with care and reverence. Unfortunately, these brief biographies are usually a collaboration between the deceased’s family and the funeral home, and this sometimes produces misspellings, bad syntax and misused or misplaced words. The notice is printed by most papers (including the News Journal) with little or no editing. As a result, even common obituary terminology is sometimes mangled. Recent examples, with corrections in parentheses:
— Readers were invited to send online “condolances” (condolences).
— The deceased was described as being “formally (formerly) of Newark.”
— “He will be gratefully (greatly) missed.”

Readers Write

A reader sent us a notice she received about an event featuring a presentation on “The Importance of Reigning in Your Operating Expenses.” Reigning (to govern or rule over) is often confused with reining—the correct term here—which means to hold back, as with the reins on a horse.
Another reader, noting our recent item on incorrect movie titles, submits The Secret Life of Pets. She asks: “Should this not be The Secret Lives of Pets?” Yes, it should.
Yet another says that her pet peeves include the misuse of the verbs lie and lay and sit and set. The two sets of words present similar problems for some speakers and writers. Here’s a brief tutorial:
• “To lie” means “to be at rest.” “To lay” means “to place or put somewhere.” An object must always follow this verb.
So, you lie on the bed, or you tell the dog, “go lie down.” And you lay the book (the object) on the table. The usual mistake is to use lay where lie is needed: If you say, “I’m going to lay down,” I might ask you: “What are you going to lay down?”
• “To sit” means “to occupy a seat.” “To set” means “to put in place,” and, like lay, it must be followed by an object. You sit in the chair and you set a dish on the table. Again, the most common mistake is to substitute set for sit, as in the command “set down.”

Department of Redundancies Dept.

• Gary Kubiak, Denver Broncos coach: “It’s our job to do our job and stop them.”
• On The Dan Patrick Show, I heard these comments: “empty out the bowl,” and “they listed off the reasons . . .”

Random Notes

I wrote the phrase “have rung” in an email, and my system (Outlook) “corrected” it to have rang. Amazing. The system could double as a sports radio talk show host.
Speaking of radio, I heard a venerable WDEL personality utter this sentence: “Did I over-exaggerate that?” Shades of swimmer Ryan Lochte, who, in his Rio Olympics debacle, said he “over-exaggerated” a story about a robbery.
The word of can be problematic. It is unnecessary in such phrases as “not too big of a deal.” On the other hand, it needs to be inserted in such phrases as “a couple (of) teams are in contention.”

Word of the Month:

Pronounced kak-i-STOK-ruh-see, it’s a noun meaning government by the least qualified or worst persons. Use it as you see fit.

Follow me on Twitter: @thewaronwords

Need a speaker for your organization?
Contact me for a fun PowerPoint presentation on grammar:

Buy The War on Words paperback at Ninth Street Books,
the Hockessin Book Shelf, on Amazon, or by calling 302-655-6483.