Dave's Writing Guide

Typos, style-o's, capitalization-o's, and everything-else-and-in-between-o's.

Category: Fluency

An-aphylactic Shock

Problem(s)

An euphoric end to a bittersweet Olympics (AP)

Solution(s)

A euphoric end to a bittersweet Olympics (AP)

Explanation

No, no, no, no, no, no, NO!

Ack! You have got to be kidding me! This is an actual headline (hence the lack of punctuation) from the Associated Press—and to prove it, here’s a screenshot:

An terribly horrible headline.

Ahem. So. Let us start by reviewing the appropriate way to use the English indefinite article—again.

In English, words that begin with a consonant sound are preceded by the “a” variant of the indefinite article. Words that begin with a vowel sound, on the other hand, are preceded by “an”. It’s that simple.

Turning our attention to this problem sentence, the word “euphoric” begins with a vowel letter, but does not begin with a vowel sound. The distinction is crucial. As such, it should be “a euphoric”, just as one would say “a yellow banana” and not “an yellow banana”.

But this is no simple typo. No indeed: I know the secret behind this error.

Returning to a previous error, stuffshirts and blowhards think it sounds hoity-toity to say “an historic” instead of “a historic”. It’s wrong, of course (just as wrong as it would be to say “an hoity-toity idiot”), but they think it’s “proper”, and so they go about making asses of themselves by saying “an historic event”.

Now let’s look at our problem sentence. The context is the conclusion of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. In summing it up, one simply had to pay tribute to the memory of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili who died tragically in a freak accident during a training run literally hours before the opening ceremonies. As such, the article needed a bit of solemnity, even in discussing the national high experienced by Canada after the Canadians’ victory over Team USA for the gold medal in hockey.

When dealing with solemn or serious matters, all writers have a tendency to “write up”—that is, to try to use more formal language than they would ordinarily. Knowing that writing something like “an historic” has a kind of solemn and prestigious air, this writer (David Crary, in case you’re curious), no doubt, looked at the similarity between the words “historic” and “euphoric” (both trisyllabic, both end in “-oric”…) and thought, “Gee, you know what? If it’s formal to say ‘an historic’, I’ll bet it’s formal to say ‘an euphoric’, too!”

And that’s how we got the headline quoted above.

If David Crary ever happens to read this, I offer this advice: Trust your gut. Your first reaction (hopefully to write “a euphoric”) is often the correct reaction when it comes to usage. Don’t let that internal editor confuse and bamboozle you. Chances are he’s had one too many and is up to no good.

(And no, in case you were wondering, I will not consider seriously the possibility that we’re intended to pronounce “euphoric” as the Greeks do. “Euphoric” is now an English word, and we’re not giving it back!)

Powerful Stench?

Problem(s)

The permanent closure of my local ice cream parlor caused me to wreck havoc on the city.

The permanent closure of my local ice cream parlor caused me to reek havoc on the city.

Solution(s)

The permanent closure of my local ice cream parlor caused me to wreak havoc on the city.

Explanation

One letter can make a world of difference. Take our first problem sentence above. If we want to be technical, what that sentence actually conveys is something like the following: In my town, there was a local ice cream parlor that was closed. Its closure made me so upset, that I located havoc—the entity, here apparently anthropomorphized—and I beat the living tar out of it. Furthermore, I did this while standing on top of the city. (Oh, though if we wanted to change the text style and capitalization, what I could be wrecking is the new hit TV show Havoc on the City!)

If we then take a look at problem sentence number two, we’re in for even more fun. In this scenario, the ice cream parlor’s closure made me so upset that I decided to utilize my mighty stink glands to stink up havoc (again, the allegorical entity), and I did so while standing on top of the city. (I should note, though, that even this interpretation is problematic, as it would force us to accept a new variant of “reek”: a transitive verb meaning “to cause to reek”.)

The specific errors here differ, but the source is the same. Both “wreck” and “reek” are common words. “Wreak”, on the other hand, is far, far from common. In fact, I’m pretty sure the word “wreak” only occurs in the phrase “wreak havoc” (this expression, by the way, is a fun one since “havoc” is pretty rare itself, unless you’re a fan of the X-Men [though even there, his name is properly spelled “Havok”]). As a result, if you’ve heard it for the first time, or have never seen it in print, it seems reasonable to infer that the word “wreak” is either actually “reek”, used in some odd way you haven’t encountered previously, or that you misheard, and the word is actually “wreck”.

This latter interpretation is ingenious, in my opinion, because it plays on the context in which the word “wreak” is used. If a speaker uses the phrase “wreak havoc”, the context is probably negative (defined in the simplest way, to “wreak havoc” is to do something bad). Similarly, the verb “wreck”, defined simply, is to do something bad to something else. Since the semantic domain of both words is the same, and since the phonological forms are similar, it’s perfectly logical (or, perhaps, analogical) to assume that “wreak havoc” is actually “wreck havoc”, and that the meaning of “wreck” has been extended metaphorically to cover a situation that focuses on the act of wrecking something. The syntax of the verb, of course, has to be modified to allow for a direct object that itself isn’t “wrecked” (unless “wreak havoc” is interpreted as a phrase similar to “kick the bucket”), but given that words are used in such bizarre ways in English already, no English speaker can be blamed for making such an assumption.

Back to real world English, the status of this error, though, is that it is an error, and it’s not accepted even in non-standard writing. It will happen from time to time, of course, but just as we can’t get away with writing “for all intensive purposes”, so are we unable to get away with writing “wreck havoc”. As with other expressions, this is simply one to memorize, just as one must memorize that the word for “duck” is “duck” and not “cordoofle”.

But in This Ever-Changing…

Problem(s)

The world in which we live in is full of ice cream.

Solution(s)

The world in which we live is full of ice cream.

The world we live in is full of ice cream.

Explanation

I think what’s happening in the problem sentence above is a kind of garden path effect. Specifically, the writer is in the process of writing the sentence, writes “in which”, and then by the time s/he gets to the end of “we live”, working memory fails, and another “in” is inserted. Oops!

Since English allows us to use prepositions either as post-verbal particles (or adverbs) or as true prepositions, we have two options when we create a relative clause. The first solution sentence gives us one option: a preposed preposition with a relative pronoun; and the second solution sentence gives us the other option: no relative pronoun of any kind, and the preposition “in” used adverbially. If a writer forgets (working memory, remember) which strategy they’ve chosen, though, problems like this can occur. It happens to everyone every now and again, so try to anticipate troublesome errors like this one.

Like a Bunny

Problem(s)

I ate that ice cream cone as quick as I possibly could.

Solution(s)

I ate that ice cream cone as quickly as I possibly could.

Explanation

Is this an error? Yes. Should you feel bad about it? No. Why? I’ll explain.

Language, like all other living entities (doubt you that language lives? It is born, grows, produces offspring, adapts, reacts to external influences, and ultimately dies. It’s as alive as alive gets, if you ask me), evolves. As it evolves, it teeters between two ideals: maximum intelligibility and ease of use. The easiest language to use is one with only one word—let’s say, “blork”—but using such a language is rather difficult, since it’d be nearly impossible for anyone to figure out what the heck you meant when you said, “Blork!” On the other end of the spectrum is a language that is maximally transparent semantically. In this language, each entity would have a different word, and there would be ways to express every possible tense (one second before now; two seconds before now; three seconds before now, etc.). It’d be impossible for a human to compose even a single sentence in such a language, let alone use the language on a day-to-day basis. How, then, do we achieve the delicate balance we’ve achieved with natural human languages? Simple: we compromise.

In this great linguistic compromise we call natural language, as is the case with any compromise, each side gives something and gets something. The languages we use (English, Spanish, Tagalog, etc.) are not very easy to use, and are not semantically transparent. In fact, at times, they’re rather difficult, and downright ambiguous. When a language gets too difficult to use, it’s usually simplified; when it becomes too ambiguous, complexity is introduced into the system to clear up the confusion.

So, back to the above problem sentence. In order for a language to be maximally transparent, every word should be marked in some way to let the user know what role each word is playing in the sentence. As such, if you have an adverb, it should be marked as an adverb. In English, we have the handy -ly prefix to take care of the job. What’s it accomplish for us? Basically, we can tell the difference between the sentences “I make it happy” (I cause some entity to be happy) and “I make it happily” (I create some entity and do so happily). If we had no -ly, both sentences would be “I make it happy”, and the hearer might be confused as to what the intended meaning is supposed to be. Thus, we’ve defeated ambiguity. Hurrah!

Now take a look at the problem sentence above, and ask yourself: Is there any possible reading that allows for “quick” to be interpreted as an adjective? What would be quick? The ice cream cone? I? Even if it were “I”, pronouns usually aren’t modified by adjectives in this way. No matter which way you slice it, whether it’s “quick” or “quickly”, that word has to be an adverb. Has to; there’s no way around it. So, leaving transparency aside, since this is not an ambiguous sentence, let’s return to ease of use. What’s easier: a sentence where an adverb is “marked” by its position in the sentence and by a special suffix, or a sentence where an adverb is “marked” merely by its position in the sentence? Unless my arithmetic is off, one thing is simpler than two things, so a sentence with only one thing is easier to use. In fact, a sentence with double marking can be called by an even uglier name than “ambiguous” that hasn’t been mentioned yet: redundant!

As languages change, the fight between transparency and ease of use causes redundancies to be added to languages where there were none prior, and old redundancies to be removed. I have a feeling that the -ly suffix may be on its way out in English (and sticklers out there, don’t blame the youth: blame “hard”. Think about it). So if you find yourself in speech or in writing accidentally leaving that -ly off a word like “quick” in a context like “X verbed Y as Z as…”, don’t feel bad. After all, it’s just redundant morphology. When it comes to paper writing, though, you should try to keep old Uncle Ly around, because you know them sticklers: they’re ignorant, hateful, joyless beings who sustain themselves by belittling others. Don’t feed the sticklers! We have other ways of dealing with their kind.

Expletive Lost

Problem(s)

Is the tightrope walker that stole my ice cream!

Solution(s)

It’s the tightrope walker that stole my ice cream!

Explanation

(Let’s pretend I’ve already been writing for awhile.)

…and to make matters worse, “it’s” even kind of sounds like “is”, if you devoice the “s” in “is”! I mean, what is one to do?!

For those learning English as a second (or third or fourth) language, you may find something like the solution sentence above—something which comes so naturally to a native English speaker—to be rather perplexing. Allow me to reassure you: it is, indeed, bizarre. Here’s the story.

Linguists (wrongly) assumed for many years that all well-formed sentences in all languages required subjects. In a sentence like, “Estoy ocupado”, Spanish for “I’m busy”, then, there is an implied subject. Never mind that “Yo estoy ocupado” doesn’t mean the same thing as “Estoy ocupado”: the linguists always know what’s best. Why? Because (and this was especially true in the 1950s and 1960s) linguists reasoned that there was a magical thing in our heads called Universal Grammar (important enough to be capitalized). This magical device, identical in all human beings, is what we use to comprehend and produce language. As a result, the actual languages we encounter (Spanish, English, French, Tamil, Georgian, Moro, etc.) are mere manifestations of the underlying mechanism known as Universal Grammar.

Here’s what that has to do with anything (this response presupposes a specific question I hope you asked yourself). If (get ready for this) all humans possess Universal Grammar, and all languages are mere manifestations of it, then the goal of the linguist is to describe Universal Grammar. How do you do that? Well, since it’s all the same, you can just study one language thoroughly, and you should get there. The result? Linguists pretty much just studied English. It’s the fanciest argument I have ever heard for being lazy. And though this attitude no longer prevails, we’re left with its remnants.

So here’s one of the major reasons linguists thought all sentences in all languages need subjects (this was the question I was supposed to be answering, right?). In English, all sentences need subjects. (Except for those that don’t, but those need not concern us presently.) Seems sensible. Or does it?!

  • It’s so good of you to drop by.
  • There’s room for you here.
  • It’s cold outside.
  • It’s raining.

What the hell is raining?! The sky?! Unbelievable!

So, what is this subject doing? Nothing. What does it mean? Nothing. What is the pronoun standing in for? Nothing. This thing is devoid of semantics. Linguists have a word for it: expletive. The “it” in those sentences up there is an expletive (a strange word to use, considering how we use the word in normal speech). In English, we need that “it”. Why? I don’t know. To hold the tense? Consider that the verb in English, impoverished though it may be, must agree with its subject in number in the present tense (and certain verbs in the past). If there’s no subject, what does it agree with? You have to have something there to tell it what to do, or it’s lost! And since “it” does so much anyway (cf. “About my going to your grandmother’s surprise party, it’s something I just can’t do” [it = going to your grandmother’s surprise party]), might as well have it explete, right? (No, that’s not a real word.)

So here’s what to keep in mind:

  1. All English sentences need a subject.
  2. If you don’t have one, you’ll need an expletive subject.
  3. If you devoice the s in “is”, the first word of a sentence that starts with “is” instead of “it’s” sounds an awful lot like the Spanish word es. Consider the Spanish translation of our problem sentence: Es el funámbulo que me robó el helado. (Yes, I created the above problem sentence just so I could use the word funámbulo.)

If you’re learning English (and especially if you have a language like Spanish, whose verbs are mighty, as your first language), you’ll want to watch out for this. It won’t prevent anyone from understanding your writing (as I mentioned above, these expletives are contentless), but it will make you sound like a non-native speaker. If this is something you wish to avoid, then start getting down with expletives. It’s just good clean fun.