The War on Words – Jan. 2017

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

Media Watch

• Headline in The News Journal: “Taking a Counteroffer Is Never Cut and Dry.” The correct term is cut and dried. The term originated in reference to herbs in herbalists’ shops, as contrasted with growing herbs.
• From an online story on San Antonio Spurs Coach Greg Popovich’s comments on Donald Trump: “Not basically because the Republicans won or anything, but the disgusting tenure and tone and all of the comments . . .” The italicized word should be tenor, and we’re assuming it was the reporter’s fault, not the erudite Popovich’s. The same story also referred to “race bating.” That’s baiting. Bating is an obscure word that refers to a hawk’s wings as it attempts to escape the perch.
• From reader Larry Kerchner, of Wilmington: A CNN commentator, talking about the Oval Office meeting between Obama and Trump: “President Obama was the epiphany of class.” The word, of course, is epitome. Amazing.
• Ohio State Football Coach Urban Meyer: “The amount of teams that were worthy of this . . .” Meyer has the same problem as many Americans: they fail to recognize that plurals require the word “number.” It’s similar to less and fewer, in that less refers to amount, and fewer (which doesn’t seem to be in some people’s vocabulary) refers to number.
• And here, in a category all its own, is a random list of misused words and phrases by sports talk personalities—overheard in just one week of listening. Corrections in parentheses:
He was very laxadaisical during the game. (lackadaisical)
His peripheal vision is not good. (peripheral)
He has always been over-evaluated. (over-valued)
He should have ran the ball. (run)
I would have went the other say. (gone)
After that game, I had to go lay down. (lie)

Winner, Winner, Chicken (Steak, Seafood) Dinner

Wilmington lawyer John J. Klusman is the winner of our contest to find the sign, menu, flyer, etc., with the most errors. John was among the “2016 Legal Leaders” who received a notice from ALM Media, a company with offices in New York City, that contained at least nine errors. They ranged from misspellings, misplaced or missing punctuation, to incorrect time references. The winner will receive a gift certificate to a local restaurant. Our thanks to all who entered, and stay tuned for future contests.

Notes of All Sorts

From the bio of Matt Meyer, successful candidate for New Castle County Executive: “Wilmington Friends School Alumnae of the Year.” Really? Then Friends made a mistake. Alumnae is a group of female graduates. Alumnus is the term for a male graduate.
From reader Jane Buck, who found this in Auto, an online site offering advice and features of interest to travelers: “(Regarding arguments over reclining seats) I, as the flight attendant, have to put on my uncomfortable kindergarten-cop hat and try to diffuse and cajole the arguing passengers.” She meant defuse, which means mollify, soothe, resolve. Diffuse, on the other hand, means to spread or cause to spread over a wide area.
Question from daughter Danielle, prompted by her annoyance with Jim Gardner, Philadelphia 6ABC anchor, and his reference to people “waiting on line” at polling places on Nov. 8. “Should we retire this term, used only regionally,” she asks, “now that the Internet has given a whole new meaning to being ‘online,’ and go strictly with the more accurate ‘waiting in line’?” Having never used the term “waiting on line,” our answer is yes.

How Long, Oh Lord, How Long?

(In which we chronicle the continuing misuse of that most abused punctuation mark, the apostrophe.)
This proud Penn State alumnus was embarrassed to note, during ESPN’s coverage of fans displaying slogans and messages prior to the Nittany Lions’ victory over Wisconsin, a sign that read, “Saturday’s Belong to Penn State.”

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Word of the Month

Pronounced ahn-we, it’s a noun meaning a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement. Boredom.

Quotation of the Month

“Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”
—William Zinsser, On Writing Well