Thursday, August 8, 2013

Mr. Language Person

Time for another installment of Mr. Language Person, the feature whose title was stolen from Dave Barry since he's not using it anymore, and whose previous and only appearance in "The Fies Files" was in 2009.

Today's inspiration was an article I just read that used the phrase "diffuse the situation." Twice. Unless the professional journalist who wrote the article meant that the situation slowly faded away, the word they wanted was "defuse," as in removing the fuse from a bomb. The problem here is that "diffuse" almost works in this context, but lacks the urgency and danger of "defuse." I am now tempted to come up with a sentence in which "diffuse the situation" is precisely correct just to tick off people like me.

I do a lot of editing in my science-writing day job, and have concluded that if I could strike any two-word phrase from the language it would be "in order." It is never necessary. "We followed the yellow brick road in order to see the Wizard"; "We followed the yellow brick road to see the Wizard." Skip right to the verb, no one will mind.

Three paragraphs in, and I can already tell that this Mr. Language Person post isn't as good as the last one.

However, after four paragraphs, it seems to be picking up a little. Here, this will help:

Much better.

I don't enjoy the company of Language Nazis, although I have one living inside my head. I believe (and for the rest of this sentence I'm being totally sincere) that clear writing indicates clear thinking, and sloppy writing indicates sloppy thinking. Ask a person who's written a confusing sentence to explain what it means, and half the time they'll answer, "I don't know." The other half, they'll reply with the sentence they should've written in the first place.

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” If you already knew that Mark Twain wrote that, you might have a Language Nazi living inside your head as well.

Your/you're, its/it's, then/than, yeah yeah yeah. Tell me another one, grandpa. And yet it matters. It has to matter, doesn't it? At least sometimes?

For example, if it's on your chest forever (from here).

The difference between "imply" and "infer" is the difference between pitching and catching. "Implying" is transmitting, "inferring" is receiving. I imply that you're a filthy degenerate; you infer that I'm an excellent judge of character.

Assure/Ensure/Insure: this one's tricky and gray, and also depends on whether you're speaking U.S. English or the other sorts. To be on the safe side, limit "insure" to times you're talking about actual insurance policies. "Assure" is to make another person confident of something (think of "reassure"), while "ensure" is to make certain something gets done.

I almost didn't include that paragraph because in my mind it's a fine point that's hard to explain. But what the heck. Mr. Language Person likes living on the edge.

Like starting a sentence with "but," which there is absolutely nothing wrong with.

With which there is absolutely nothing wrong.

I have a unique problem in that I wrote a book whose title includes a question mark: Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? Try working that into a sentence.

"I loved Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?" Well, did you or didn't you?

"Does your store carry Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow??" Why are you shouting at me??

Just to avoid confusion I usually omit the question mark and, should I have the opportunity to publish more books in the future, will not make that mistake again.

Do you, like me, deliberately mispronounce some words because you know no one else pronounces them correctly and you'll just end up explaining yourself anyway? My best example is "forte," the French-derived word meaning something you're very good at. "Drawing cartoon spacemen is my forte." Everyone says "for-tay," it's actually pronounced "fort," and if you say it right everyone thinks you're talking about a frontier stockade built from pointy logs. So you say "for-tay" and 99 times out of 100 it works fine, until you meet that Language Nazi 1% who corrects you and you have to explain, "yes, I know," but they don't believe you and you walk away hating each other. It's a fair trade.

Wanna start a bar fight? Bring up the Oxford (or serial) comma and watch passions flare. The Oxford comma is the last one in this sentence: "I ate ham, bacon, and eggs." When I was a cub reporter, the Associated Press Stylebook taught me to omit the final comma in a series: "I ate ham, bacon and eggs." I infer (see there?) that one reason was to save one character space on a packed page of newsprint. I was also told that the commas take the place of the implied word "and" (ham and bacon and eggs), and since the final "and" is still there you don't need a comma. Oxford defenders return fire with some good counter-examples: "I'd like to thank my parents, Oprah and Jesus" really needs another comma. As with so much else in writing, clarity > economy. The Oxford comma looks clunky to me and I tend to omit it out of habit, but always keep an eye on whether it's needed.

(above music video is apropos but contains one naughty
word that begins with an "f." You have been warned.)

Lost Causes
Language evolves. Only a fool would try to hold back the tide. English in particular is a raucous riot of adaptation, appropriation, and mutilation (Oxford comma). As I mentioned in the previous Mr. Language Person post, Ben Franklin grumped to Noah Webster about the fashionable use of the new verbs "notice," "advocate" and "progress," which up to his time had been only nouns. Complain all you want, English is moving on and leaving you behind.

I knew a great teacher and journalist who raged at the misuse of "decimate," which most folks mean to destroy completely but properly means to reduce by one-tenth, which is considerably less than completely. He lost. English moved on.

After working me over for several years, my friend Mike Peterson--journalist, editor, writer, scholar--brought me around on "alright" as a valid alternative to "all right," arguing that it had a different clear meaning, filled a need, and had historical precedent. I still can't bring myself to use it but no longer cast a stink-eye at those who do.

Those who do include The Who.
Bob may have been all right, if not alright. Pastis.
Mike also champions the plural "their" in place of the singular-but-clumsy "his/her" when the subject's sex is unknown or irrelevant. "Each astronaut must bag their waste." Until very recently this would've been avoided by "his," which was understood to apply to both male and female, but that's extinct and probably for the better. The singular "their" shows up in Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, Shakespeare, Chaucer and the Bible, which is a better pedigree than most of our mongrel language can claim. Still, I worry that Mike's flying his hippy rebel flag on this one, and while I'm with him in spirit I try to avoid the singular "their" when I can, usually by shifting to plural: "All astronauts must bag their waste."

"Hopefully" is a lost cause and I'm glad. The word should only be used as an adverb describing someone acting with hope: "They waited hopefully for rescue." It should only modify a verb ("waited"). However, these days it takes the place of "I hope" and doesn't modify anything at all: "Hopefully, the rescuers will arrive soon." That's wrong but I'm all right (alright?) with it. English needed a word that performed that function so we took "hopefully" into the back alley, beat it up, put a different suit on it, and shoved it back onto the sidewalk.

I don't think that metaphor works but I so enjoyed writing it that it stays.

I recently reread Strunk and White's Elements of Style, a classic guide I pull off the shelf every few years and have given to a few young budding writers, none of whom seemed to appreciate the significance of having Excalibur bestowed upon them by a battle-scarred knight. Ungrateful punks. But I digress. I actually find myself arguing with Strunk and White more than I used to, but I think it's always an argument worth having and still recommend the book.

Stephen King's On Writing may be the best book on writing I've read. Thank goodness, because if it were on neurosurgery it would be wildly deceptive. Also recommended.

Forty-five states no longer require their schools to teach cursive writing. I think learning cursive is important but I can't explain why.

Go ahead. Disagree with me.

EDITED TO ADD: In the comments, Jonas pointed out the Onion piece "4 Copy Editors Killed in Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence." Beautiful! And it even mentions the Oxford comma.


Anonymous said...

Brian Fies, once more you show your true colors. You are actually a secret English professor and my soul mate. I love this post. But you didn't talk about these obsessions of mine: The Anderson's (when it is the house sign for some people named Anderson); "to better serve" (aargh: spit infinitive) or "to better understand"; and the final one, "I am pursuing a graduate degree." Why, is it running away from you?
From your secret admirer and soul mate.

Linda Wilhelm said...

I'm a big fan of Stephan King's On Writing. I especially love his war on adverbs. If you need to modify the verb, then pick a better verb.

I have to admit that I am intimidated responding to a post such as this. I have double checked my comment to ensure that it is alright.

Brian Fies said...

Anon, my secret soul mate, will you still love me after I confess I can't reciprocate your feelings about split infinitives? "To boldly go" cannot be improved. However, as someone whose last names ends in "es," I'm entirely aboard your proper plural possessive train. I hope that's enough to keep the flames of our passion alive.

Linda, I like King on adverbs, too--I think Twain wrote something similar--but apply it more as a guideline than a rule. Sometimes you just need an adverb, I said hopefully.

Brian Fies said...

Here we go: Mark Twain on adverbs:

"I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me. To misplace an adverb is a thing which I am able to do with frozen indifference; it can never give me a pang."


"If you see an adverb, kill it."

Brian Fies said...

And yeah, the obvious hazard of writing something like this is that a joyless pedant will come along and circle all your errors. Let me try to head that off now: if you do that I'm not impressed, I don't like you, and you should read some other blog. Bleh!

Jonas said...

My favorite example of the need for commas is the magazine headline: "Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog."

Also check out the hilarious Onion story from earlier this year about rival gangs fighting over grammar usage, with the headline: "4 Copy Editors Killed in Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence." It's at:,30806/

Brian Fies said...

I don't know...are you sure that Rachel Ray headline isn't accurate as is? She's got a look in her eyes....

I saw that Onion piece! It's funny because it's true (I hate those Chicago Manual guys). Thanks, Jonas.

Walter Underwood said...

Strunk and White is smug when it isn't wrong, and it is mostly prescriptive. Useless for teaching writers. Bleah.

I prefer the more detailed and constructive "Style: Toward Clarity and Grace" by Joseph M. Williams. That will tell you when passive is preferred, rather than slandering one voice without evidence.

"Hopefully" is a far more complicated case than you might think. The "evaluative 'hopefully'" serves a good purpose in English and has for quite a while.

As this Language Log article says (and you should be reading Language Log), "And if you give up a useful word because a few ignorant people will tut-tut you, the crazies win."

Karen said...

What a wonderful post. I hate myself for not being able to let these things go by, but I try not to be a humorless pedant about it (that's just about me--I'm not implying that YOU were, nor should you infer that).

But the two that drive me craziest, because they appear to have been embraced by advertising copywriters and television screenwriters, are:
1) less vs fewer (You'll stop less times for gasoline with our new efficient engine), and
2) overcorrecting to "you and I" when referring to the object rather than the subject: "like you and I," "between you and I," "for you and I."

I have to confess these are like nails on a blackboard for me.

Brian Fies said...

Walter, I like your closing quote very much. Thanks.

Karen, I fear the "less/fewer" fight is on its way to the Hall of Lost Causes, though I'm still doing my part when I can. "You and I" is a sad case in which I think people have been so browbeaten into believing that "you and me" is wrong they're afraid to use it even when it's right. And how about the surge of "myself" when a modest little "me" would do just fine? I confess that day to day it's probably the simple pronouns that trip me up the most. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Jim O'Kane said...

My language tic begins and ends with "utilize," the hobgoblin of the Business School set. How many technical reports and requirements definition papers are littered with "utilize" on every page? Why is "use" gathering dust while "utilize" blankets the business-sphere?

I must pause. "Utilize" gives me a Herbert-Lom-in-Pink-Panther-movies twitch.

Brian Fies said...

Me too, Jim. Me too.

Sherwood Harrington said...

I, for one, deeply appreciate the question mark at the end of your second book's title. Otherwise, I'd have three things I like dearly whose titles give me a tic (the other two are "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit.)

Sherwood Harrington said...

... and I sincerely apologize for the modestly aggravating adverbs in that last comment.

Dave said...

Two words: Orientate :: Bleh!

Odd that I would choose this post on which to comment, from the dozens I've read to date. I believe you've found a button.

Now, I will go buy a copy of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? Or, will I?

Dave said...

Hey, what a sec .... I just noticed ...

Shouldn't that have been "What Ever" instead of "Whatever"?

Brian Fies said...

Sherwood: It does seem like a question should end with a question mark, doesn't it? But they're so intrusive!

Dave: "Whatever" is a word! Now you're filling my head with confusion and doubt. If necessary I'll blame Editor Charlie, who thought of the title.

Dave said...

Whatever word or words you want to use, whether it is "whatever" or "what ever" - whenever you want to - is your prerogative as the creator, author, (Oxford) and illustrator of the book; to whichever you prefer to be referred.

But, reliable internet sources say that "whatever" means "no matter what", and "what ever" is used to express a question about a period of time (e.g. "What ever happened?").

Whatever …

I think I will still buy your book.

And, no, I will not cut the cover up to put an additional space in the title. Or will I?

Brian Fies said...

It's my editor's fault.

Dave said...

Or, is it? ;-)

Actually, Brian, it is all in good fun. I cannot remember when I first stumbled upon your blog, but it must be a few years ago, now. I feel we are kindred spirits with common interests ... illustration and space being at the top of the list.

I love reading about your adventures with your daughters on the USS Hornet. I have been intrigued by the subject matter of W(E)HTTWOT and I would be thrilled to get a signed copy. I was at the 1964/5 World's Fair in New York, and I retain special memories only as small vignetted pictures culled from my four-to-five year old mind's eye. I have driven hundreds of miles to see a museum exhibit called "Yesterday's Tomorrows". The idea of what the future used to be never gets old to me.

I, too, have experienced the loss of my mother due to cancer. This, too, was many years ago, so the joyful memories have long since returned to overshadow the ones that are less so. I recommended "Mom's Cancer" to a friend who recently underwent treatment. She was very appreciative. So, thank you.

I have had plans for many years to write my own educational books for children about space and science. I enjoy your insights on how you design your characters. I expect I will be referring to your writings again and again. I will admit that although I have come up with original character designs, I do have trouble giving them stories. You might say that I would be better off approaching things in the reverse order - story first, characters second - and I would probably agree that it may lead to better success. But, what is a visually motivated person to do? Perhaps you have some of your own insights to share on this subject, as well.

I look forward to enjoying future posts on this site ... and, yes, to reading your creation of story and art, as well.

Brian Fies said...

Dave, what a nice note. Thanks, and I'm sorry to hear about your mother. I'm like you in that, as time passes, almost all of my memories of Mom are the good ones.

I don't really have any copies of the book sitting around to sell to people, but I'd be very happy to mail you a signed bookplate for yours, if you do buy it. E-mail me your address at and I'll get it in the mail ASAP.

Your last question about character vs. story is a big one I'm not sure I'm qualified to answer. It's more than I can bite off in a post comment but I think it'd be a good post. If I think I have something to say, I'll write it up in the next day or two. Meanwhile, I can only encourage you to tell your story however you can, and get it out into the world.

The best part of writing is connecting with "kindred spirits" who get what you're trying to do. I'm really glad you found my work, thanks again.