Friday, September 20, 2013

At Least My Shoes Are Oxfords

In what I can only assume was an exaggerated-for-comic-effect piece on Slate, David Haglund bemoans the lack of an Oxford comma, a.k.a. serial comma, in Earth, Wind & Fire and Crosby, Stills and Nash and the like.

With a straighter face, he asserts that "right-thinking usage nerds everywhere" dutifully use that comma. Red, white, and blue, not red, white and blue. Well, I'm as right-thinking a usage nerd as you'll meet, if I do say so myself, and although I'll concede I'm in the minority, I just don't care much about serial commas one way or the other. Neither do my right-thinking-usage-nerd friends Merrill Perlman and John McIntyre.

I've spent my career in newspapers, which generally omit the serial comma, and perhaps that's why I lean slightly in that direction even when I'm off the clock.

Fans of the serial comma will point to comical examples such as "my parents, Ayn Rand and God" to demonstrate how its absence can create ambiguity. But, as many before me have pointed out, you can just as easily come up with an example of the comma's presence creating ambiguity. Think of "my mother, Ayn Rand, and God."

Fans of the serial comma will say "Crosby, Stills and Nash" inappropriately pairs Stills with Nash while leaving Crosby isolated, as if he's in prison or something. I would counter that "Crosby, Stills, and Nash played last night" carries a whiff of Nash alone playing. I'm mentioning Crosby for some reason, I'm mentioning Stills for some reason, and then, in an unrelated matter, I'm informing you that Nash played last night.

Yes, I'm reaching. But so are the Oxfordian serialists and their divine libertarian parents.

Oh, and there is an asterisk. There's always an asterisk. Even the anti-serial-comma Associated Press Stylebook uses serial commas in series that contain at least one embedded conjunction. You should, too. She worked for the departments of State, Labor, and Health and Human Services. AP also reserves the right to use a serial comma when sentences get complex, and that's also a good idea. If each clause in a series could stand alone as its own sentence, use that comma: I've worked at this place for 20 years now, I'm tired of it, and I'm going to quit.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Uniquely, Qualified

One of the kind readers who e-mailed me after my article about the figurative literally appeared in the Washington Post’s Outlook section was complimentary but added that I had misused the word uniquely.

Now, I know the drill on unique. It means one-of-a-kind, and so it’s absolute: More unique and less unique and very unique bring to mind a little bit pregnant. That reality tends to be translated into a copy-editing “rule” along the lines of “Never precede unique with a modifier.”

As with many of the so-called rules that we copy editors love, it’s a good idea to learn the rest of the story. Yes, I am the Paul Harvey of copy editing.

More and less unique are out, all right, but how about truly unique? Or unquestionably unique? In both cases, the adverbs refer not to degrees of uniqueness but rather to whether it is accurate to apply unique at all. Absolutely no problem there. Not all modifiers are literally modifying.

And if unique is one-of-a-kind, why can't one thing that's two- or three-of-a-kind be almost unique or nearly unique or virtually unique? Again, the sanctity of unique is preserved. Such a thing isn't unique at all, but there's nothing wrong with talking about how it approaches uniqueness.

When I was too young to drink malt liquor, Colt 45 was "a completely unique experience." As opposed to partially unique? That sounds dodgier, but an experience can be partially unique, can't it, if four out of five of its elements are one-of-a-kind?

I would even be open to look the other way at preceding unique with those Upper-Class Twit of the Year hmph-modifiers that don’t really mean anything: most unique, quite unique. Maybe. It might depend on my mood at the time.

So, with all this in mind, I went back and looked at what I had written about literally. Had I slipped? Did I miss an editor’s misguided insertion? Here’s what I saw:
However persuasive the historical and linguistic justifications, there’s something uniquely absurd about using the one word that most clearly means “I am not making this up” when you are, in fact, making something up.
That seems straightforward enough: I’m asserting that the figurative literally occupies a unique place in the language. I could be wrong about literally, but I am using unique correctly.

I wondered, then, whether the reader’s observation was an example of the “impact” effect, to use a term I just made up. In an extreme version of ignoring my Paul Harvey caution, some people, many of them copy editors, decide that any word with any disputed senses must be avoided altogether. If it makes sense to avoid the biz-speak-y “The economy impacted sales,” one must also avoid “The economy had an impact on sales”! Perhaps there are those who think that if very unique is bad, unique must always be bad.

That’s literally, if not uniquely wrong-headed.

Remember: There’s usually the rest of the story. Good-day?

Monday, July 01, 2013

See Me, Hear Me

Radio interviews are now, for all intents and purposes, TV interviews as well. So you can watch as well as listen to my recent appearance on WOSU's "All Sides With Ann Fisher." I had a lot of fun; the hour went too fast.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Publication Day

Finally, the book is out! Look for it at one of the dwindling number of bookstores near you, or follow the links in this sentence to get me a few referral pennies from or or an indie bookstore. (There are also Kindle and Nook versions, of course.)

If you've somehow missed the media blitz (the Kardashians' tweets alone probably have you sick of me by now), this is a book in which I defend the petting of peeves but caution the sticklers that they're not always as right as they think they are. (And much, much more.)

Will there be a tour? Why, yes! Or at least a little one. The following reading/signings and radio interviews are scheduled:

  • Monday, June 24: At 11 a.m., I'll be on WOSU in Columbus on "All Sides With Ann Fisher."

    At 6 p.m., I'll be at an invitation-only $10,000-a-plate dinner at a friend's house in Bexley, Ohio, just outside Columbus. If you'd like an invitation, just ask. (I'm kidding about the $10,000 dinner. It's actually way more expensive. And there's no dinner.)

  • Tuesday, June 25: At 6 p.m., I'll be at the Book Loft in the lovely German Village section of Columbus, reading and signing.

  • Thursday, June 27: At 7 p.m., I'll be at Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor, Mich., reading and signing.

  • Monday, July 1: At 7 p.m., I'll be at Politics & Prose, the premier bookstore in Washington, D.C., reading and signing. I have fond memories of my appearance there for "The Elephants of Style."

  • Friday, July 5: At 5:15 p.m. Eastern time (4:15 p.m. Central time), I'll be on Wisconsin Public Radio's "Central Time."

  • Wednesday, May 22, 2013

    A U-Turn

    With "Yes, I Could Care Less" coming out June 18, I expected to be doing some interviews and getting some attention round about now. And while there have been a few early reviews, some kinder than others, the Bill Walsh project that seems to have taken the world by storm is not my year-or-so-in-the-making, 256-page book, but rather 18 seconds of video captured by the camera that I affixed to my helmet when I was blogging for Bicycling magazine and have kept using while commuting by bike because, well, why not?

    Last Thursday, which happened to be the day before the official Bike to Work Day, I was in the bike lane that bisects Pennsylvania Avenue, about halfway to work, when, as happens more often than it should, a cabbie (it's usually a cabbie) decided to make a U-turn across that bike lane. Which is dangerous and illegal. And so I shouted "Illegal!" (I've shouted worse.) And he looked at me and thought about it and ... made the U-turn anyway. And, instantly, I heard a siren. Yes, right behind that cabbie was a police car, and he was being pulled over. It was the FBI Police, as it happens (the District of Columbia has a lot of police forces you've never heard of), but that'll do.

    I thought the instant karma was mildly amusing, and so I edited my video and put it on YouTube.

    I had no idea. Quickly there were licensing and partnership offers. (I hope I did a good job accepting and declining.) There was coverage. I made Reddit, then Washington City Paper and DCist and Greater Greater Washington and Romenesko and the Orlando Sentinel. Even Kenneth in the 212. And a TV show! Before long there were a million views. A million.

    This is just wacky. If a million people know my book exists, I'll be pretty darn lucky.

    Friday, April 19, 2013

    A Suspect Word

    Because cops use the word suspect to mean, essentially, subject, and because too many journalists are parrots who just repeat what cops say, too many ordinary people have lost sight of the word's very simple and rather obvious meaning: As a noun in reference to a crime, a suspect is a person suspected of committing that crime. Keep that in mind, write what you know and attribute what you don't, and you'll be fine.

    Some examples:

    Police are searching for the suspects who robbed an East Side man Friday night. They have no suspects in the case.

    Sometimes the parrots make things easy. If there are no suspects, of course, there are no suspects. But the first sentence would be flawed even without the second. Police are searching for the robbers. Or you could say they're searching for suspects in the case. And even if the phrase "the suspects" made sense -- if the police had actually identified suspects in the case but were still searching for them -- you don't know that the suspects are, in fact, the robbers. To write about "the suspects who robbed" would not only violate my "write what you know" guideline but also put you at risk of a libel judgment.

    Surveillance video shows two suspects ransacking the store.

    The video shows burglars or thieves. Again, if the police don't know who the burglars/thieves are, there are no suspects. If they think they know, you don't know whether they're right. Some reporters and editors shy away from burglar and thief and other perp-nouns because they think they're being super-duper cautious about libel. This is misguided not only epistemologically but also legally: If you go around saying that "suspects" committed crimes, where does that leave you when the word actually means something, when a name is attached? It leaves you as the reporter or editor who may have libeled the person behind that name, that's where.

    The Boston Marathon case is interesting and perhaps counterintuitive. Because the photos and video clips released did not conclusively show a crime being committed, the word suspect actually was appropriate for a change in reference to the unnamed and then named men being sought by police. And even if the videos had definitely shown bombers, it would have been inappropriate to use that word to describe the actual men with actual names whom police identified as being the men depicted. Maybe they aren't the same people. So you'd have to use bombers in describing that hypothetical photographic evidence but suspects in describing the named men suspected of being those bombers. Write what you know.

    The suspect was described as a white man in his 50s.

    Such a sentence would make sense if the police had a specific person in mind and were instructing people to help them find him. Usually, though, there is no suspect -- the killer or rapist or robber or whatever is being described.

    Police are confident all the suspects have been arrested.

    The problem with this one is a little more subtle. Again, it's about that definite article. If there are, say, three suspects, the police don't need to speculate about their confidence; they know whether all of them have been arrested. The more likely meaning of such a sentence is that the crime was committed by a previously unknown number of people but the police are pretty sure the three guys they hauled in are the three and only three responsible. Police are confident no [insert perp-noun]s in the case remain at large. Police do not think they will be making any more arrests in the case.

    Police are seeking a person of interest.

    Person of interest. Possible suspect. I've even heard of police suspecting that somebody's a suspect. While it is important to attribute allegations and avoid putting words in authorities' mouths, there will be times when a news outlet has to go beyond weasel words and tell it like it is. Don't say police described someone as a suspect in a case if they didn't, but it might occasionally be appropriate, when the search for a so-called person of interest is clearly a criminal manhunt, to call a suspect a suspect in a lead paragraph or a headline. It's not a legal term. (Though you may want to run my advice by your lawyers; libel could be a concern.)

    The confessed killer is scheduled to appear in court Monday.

    If you saw the confession yourself, that's probably fine. If not, beware. Don't believe everything the cops tell you. In cases with possible confessions or seemingly obvious guilt, the news media are in a tough spot. You don't want to look foolish treating James Holmes as a random dude picked up by the police on a hunch, but you also don't want to set a precedent of pre-judging criminal cases. Hence, James Holmes remained a "suspect" long after it was obvious he opened fire in that movie theater.

    You can read more about the problem of parrots in my new book, "Yes, I Could Care Less," which comes out June 18.

    Tuesday, April 09, 2013

    When It Pays to Be Pedantic

    People write "Illinois senator" when they mean a U.S. senator from Illinois, and I change it, because there are also Illinois senators as in members of the Illinois Senate.

    People write "last January" when they mean the last January to have occurred, and I change it, because there's also last January as in January of last year.

    People write "Kansas City" when they mean the one in Missouri, and I change it, because there's also the one in Kansas. They write "Fairfax" when they mean giant Fairfax County, Va., and I change it, because there's also tiny Fairfax City, Va., which by a quirk of Virginia law is not part of the county that surrounds it.

    I change these things over and over, and every once in a while I wonder why. And it never fails: The minute I'm about to give in, somebody writes "Illinois senator" in reference to a member of the Illinois Senate. Or "last January" in a reference to two Januarys ago. Or "Kansas City" in a reference to Kansas. Or "Fairfax" in a reference to Fairfax City.

    And I smile a little smile and wonder what I was thinking and continue being a big, fat pickypants.

    I "leave room," a concept I explain further in "Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk," coming June 18 to a bookstore near you.

    Monday, March 04, 2013

    More Stupid (if Not More-Stupid) Truncations

    In "Lapsing Into a Comma," I hmphed about what I called illegal clipping, the too-common habit of oddly and sometimes misleadingly truncating a proper noun. USA Today becomes "USA," Consumer Reports becomes "Consumers," Mount Vernon Square becomes "Mount Vernon." (Oddly, I started my rant with the use of "Van Dorn" to refer to the Van Dorn Street station on the D.C. area's Metro system, which in retrospect doesn't seem that odd at all -- and isn't misleading the way "Mount Vernon" is.)

    The list keeps growing. I've been biting my tongue for 15 years while my co-workers referred to Lotus Notes as "Lotus." (If anything, the e-mail program originally produced by Lotus Software is "Notes," the way Microsoft Word is "Word" and not "Microsoft.") Thankfully, the Post just switched from Lotus to Microsoft -- I mean, from Notes to Outlook.

    And I was rather surprised to learn that everyone but me refers to the restaurant chain Noodles & Company as "Noodles."

    Then there was the cellphone conversation I overheard today, in which a woman was telling her kid's father or nanny or babysitter that it was almost time for "Sesame." Not "Sesame Street" or "The Street" -- "Sesame." Maybe she can get together with the "Noodles" people and do some Chinese cooking.

    Wednesday, February 27, 2013

    Order Now!

    My third book, "Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk," is now available for pre-order on Place your order now to ensure it's dispatched to you as soon as the clock strikes June 18 (and also to maybe get that Amazon sales rank above 1,776,740).