NYT makes a grammatical error

February 5, 2023 • 2:00 pm

Here’s a tweet I found from the NYT:

Here is the full headline. What is wrong with the top three lines? This is what I’d call a really stupid mistake!

Words and phrases I detest

August 16, 2022 • 11:00 am

I’m suffering from severe sleep deprivation again, and it’s aggravated because after a night or two, the anxiety that causes insomnia is worsened by the fear you won’t get to sleep when you do wake up (anxiety is a prime cause of insomnia). So it goes, and I have no explanation for why this came on again.  One thing insomnia teaches you—or at least taught me—is how great you feel after a good night’s rest. And when I get such a night lately, I work like a demon the next day to make up for lassitude.

Sadly, today is not one of those days.  You’ll simply have to do with a small post on some of the words and phrases I dislike (yes, some are proper usages), and I can’t even guarantee that I’ve not posted some of these before. But here we go. As always, I’ll take my examples from HuffPost if I can: the examplar of “with it” usage.

1.)  At first blush. 

This phrase is way outmoded. It’s supposed to mean “at first glance” or the like, but if you’re a language originalist, the meaning arose this way (from The Free Dictionary):

Without prior knowledge; at first glance. The earliest use of this expression dates from the sixteenth century, when blush meant not a reddening of the cheeks with embarrassment but “glimpse.” Thus, “Able at the first blushe to discearne truth from falsehood,” wrote Philip Stubbes (The Anatomie of Abuses, 2:7) in 1583.
However, even if you use it without referring to the earliest meaning, the phrase meaningless to someone today. If you ask someone who said it, “what do you mean by blush?”, they won’t be able to answer. In other words, it’s a fancy but shopworn phrase that doesn’t convey anything tangible to modern speakers. “At first glance” or “at first sight” actually means something to people.  An example from HuffPost (click to go to article):

2.) “Dropped”, meaning “came out”, as in “Rihanna’s new album just dropped.”

This is purely “with-it” jargon, meant to show that you speak use the argot of the cool kids.  But when I hear it I always envision a vinyl record falling on the ground and breaking. To me, using it means the speaker is unconsciously seeking approbation through conformity, like saying “fam” for “family.”

From HuffPost, a really cool headline because it mentions not only “drops”, but also Beyoncé (overrated, in my view) and, of course, Twitter. If it weren’t for Twitter, HuffPost would have nothing to write about.

3.) “Bright line” means a hard and fast line that divide things into (usually) two classes without confusion.

The OED’s first meaning, however, is in physics:

 1. Physics and Astronomy. A line of relative brightness in the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation coming from a given source, due to the presence of a particular element or molecule in the source; = emission linen. at emission n. Additions.

The second meaning is the one we, unfortunately, have to hear:

 2. Chiefly U.S. A clear distinction or boundary. Frequently in to draw a bright line and variants. Often used in legal contexts;

Now this is perfectly acceptable usage, but it grates on my ears, perhaps because I think that most people use it without knowing what it means. Further, the adjective “bright” doesn’t mean “hard and fast” or “uncrossable”, making the usage confusing, like “sea change”.

It’s even worse when it’s used below, for there is a mixed metaphor here. “Bright line” is a line of division between objects or ideas, while “line in the sand” means “a line that cannot be crossed.” You can make a sentence that uses this phrase properly, but HuffPost does not, for the headline below refers to Obama’s refusal to back off the Obamacare program. It has nothing to do with a “bright’ line. “Line in the sand” is sufficient.

Now I know that usage changes, and that these phrases aren’t improper usage. They’re here because they grate on me, and if someone uses them in conversation, the laws of physics may compel me to say something like “at first what?”  So don’t bother to comment me that usage changes and the like.

And, of course, you’re invited to add your own choice of the phrases that burn your onions.

Word and phrases I despise

April 7, 2022 • 1:45 pm

I believe all of these words or phrases are new, but since I don’t keep track I can’t be positive. At any rate, here are the latest four entries in my list of words and phrases I cannot stand. I offer these, of course, expecting readers to respond with their own linguistic bêtes noires.  I will use examples from the HuffPost when I find them, as that’s the epicenter of despiséd words and phrases.

1.)Perfect storm“.  This comes from a “nor’easter” turned hurricane off New England in 1991; it killed 13 and caused millions of dollars in damage. The Perfect Storm resulted from a concatenation of unusual meteorological conditions, and now is used by chowderheads to mean “a bad situation caused by the co-occurrence of several contributing factors.” It’s perhaps better known as the title of a 2000 movie about the storm.

There are two problems here. The first is that the phrase is shopworn, a cliché that is no longer especially cute or especially evocative. Second, it’s often used just to mean “concatenation”, even of good things, as in this HuffPost article (click all screenshots to read):

When someone uses this phrase, I consider them grammatically lazy. Because it can mean either good or bad stuff, it’s lost its original meaning. And there are simpler and less cutesy phrases that can substitute, like “bad outcome of many causes”  As Orwell said, avoid shopworn phrases.

2.)Deep dive.” Doesn’t this sound erudite and official? Well, guess what, there’s nothing it says that the phrase “close look” or “closer look” doesn’t say as well. Those who use it”deep dive” are grammatical sheep, employing the phrase because everybody else is. Let’s take a “deep dive into empathy,” meaning “discussing empathy in detail”:

Don’t brand yourself a linguistic ovid by emitting this odious phrase.

3.) “Sammie” “or “sammy” for “sandwich”. This is one of those attempts to be cute that fails badly. In fact, used in the singular, you save no syllables by saying “sammie” for “sandwich.” Further, when I hear the word, I think of Jews, often nicknamed “Sammy” if their real name is Samuel. (I had an uncle Sammy.)

Here’s a comestible that’s been doubly debased by that name:

There are many people who don’t like their own names shortened this way. Matthew Cobb goes by “Matthew”, not “Matt” or “Matty”; Richard Dawkins is “Richard,” not “Dick.” We respect their choices. Please respect the tasty sandwich by not calling it a “sammie”! This is one of those words that I may even correct if I hear someone say it. For example, if someone says to me, “Would you like a sammie?”, I may reply politely, feigning ignorance, “Do you mean a sandwich?”

4.) “Firestorm”, meaning “big kerfuffle” or “brouhaha”.  And we’re very close to #1 again, because many of the benighted use “firestorm” in the same way they’d use “perfect storm”.

In fact, a firestorm is what happens when fire and wind meet in a particularly dangerous conflagration. If it’s just a ruckus or kerfuffle or controversy, call it that. Don’t be like this HuffPost slacker, reaching for the nearest metaphor to describe Hillary’s emails:

Again, I’m with Orwell, who opposed stale metaphors, and this one has all the appeal of a week-old slice of Wonder Bread left out on the counter. Best to make up your own metaphors, if possible, and if not, well then avoid trying to be au courant.

Your turn. And get off my lawn!

McWhorter on “cultural language appropriation”

May 29, 2021 • 11:00 am

John McWhorter has two qualifications that make him able to judge whether it’s okay for white people to use black argot: he’s black and he’s a linguist. In his latest column on his Substack site (click on screenshot), Mcwhorter argues that it’s not only fine, but a form of flattery for members of one race to use the language of another, so long as it’s not used disparagingly. Click on the screenshot to read:

The “Elvis” simile comes from the claim, which may be justified, that Elvis used a black style of singing in his early music, but never gave credit to his influences. (McWhorter believes, as I do, that the black originators actually produced better music.) But he also argues that the comparison doesn’t hold water.

First, some of the language that white people are said to “steal” from blacks:

A little while ago, a Saturday Night Live skit depicted a multiracial group of teens communicating in what was depicted as “Gen Z slang,” with the doctor they were talking with having to “translate” his thoughts into it to communicate with them.

A lot of people didn’t like it, because the slang in question was mostly of Black English origin. The complaint is that the skit was denying the black roots of these terms, and instead ascribing them to Americans in general – i.e. (shudder) white persons. As in, yes – the problem was cultural appropriation.

. . . The SNL skit included, among others, yobestievibesfeels for feelings, salty for irritated, bro / bruh and no cap for “I’m not kidding” (as in, these are actual whole gold teeth, not golden caps on teeth).

McWhorter considers two arguments, and numerous sub-arguments, that terms like that should not be restricted to blacks.

1) Is there a historical precedent where people interact richly but keep their speech varieties completely separate?

He knows of no such cases.

2) Is there a case that even if this is the way it has been, that it would be a moral advancement if we tried to put a stop to it now?

McWhorter considers several arguments for the “moral cessation”, including the parallel with “music theft”, and says that the counterarguments are stronger, including the enrichment of art and language of every group by this kind of appropriation:

But overall, who among us wishes white people had never taken up ragtime, jazz, rhythm and blues, or rock and roll? I assume there are some who could really wish there had never been Benny Goodman, Buddy Holly, the Rolling Stones, or Eminem and I mean that. But this would be a radical proposition held ever by only a sliver.

Black jazz, is, to my mind, still the best by far, but it was taken and changed into different forms by others, and some of those white artists, like Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman and Stan Getz, brought something new to the genre. As far as I know, they did no harm to blacks or black culture. Goodman, in fact, was the first major white bandleader to integrate his groups, taking on people like Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton. “White” jazz is the most common form of cultural appropriation—a form of borrowing that does nobody any harm, but enriches everyone but the Pecksniffs.

McWhorter also points out that whites have been taking language from African Americans forever, even in the antebellum South, and, of course, this form of linguistic borrowing is good for everyone: it enriches our communication.

Take another oppressed group (well, at least they were once considered oppressed): the Jews. I know of no Jewish person who is insulted, including me, when we hear a non-Jewish person use Yiddish argot like “chutzpah”, “oy vey”, “schlemiel”, and “kvetch.” Indeed, I’m pleased and flattered to hear it! It means that those words were useful, and are considered not insulting but a tribute to the colorful language that is Yiddish. I can’t really see any difference between that kind of “cultural appropriation” and words like “bestie and “vibes” (in truth, I thought these were Millennial words!).

McWhorter thinks we should give up trying to police the racial borders of language for two reasons. First, it never works. Second, and most important, appropriating words and phrases from another culture is a form of flattery, and we all know this. Trying to keep the borders distinct is a futile exercise in tribalism. To quote the expert here:

In light of the above, I suggest we return to intuition here. Yes, even on race, sometimes intuition makes sense, and not just the intuition that white people are racist.

Namely, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Whites talk increasingly more like black people in America as a sign that whites and blacks are more comfortable together socially than they once were.

Yes, racism still exists. But getting past it will happen in increments. What is the progress in insisting that the increments, when they reveal themselves, don’t matter?

And whatever your other discomforts are with “Gen Z” using some black slang, your question must be whether it should be socially proscribed in light of what I have noted above as issues that cannot be waved away. Is the discomfort something you could honestly back with a confident pox on linguistic sharing amidst the broader context of what we are actually seeing?

Words and phrases I detest

April 30, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Yes, it’s that time again, and what better time than Petulant Friday to bring up the words and phrases that we most dislike? I’ve managed to collect a few, and, as usual, at lest half come from HuffPost, that bastion of Wokeness and “look at us; we’re young and cool” language.

Here are a few words and phrases I dislike, with the source. The object, of course, is to stimulate readers to bring forth their own pet peeves.

Today I have four:

1.) “Bright line” or “bright line in the sand”.  Now I can understand “line in the sand”, as a line over which you’re not supposed to step lest you suffer dire consequences. But “bright” line? What is a “bright” line? According to Wikipedia, “bright line” is a term of law:

In United States constitutional law, a bright-line rule (or bright-line test) is a clearly defined rule or standard, composed of objective factors, which leaves little or no room for varying interpretation. The purpose of a bright-line rule is to produce predictable and consistent results in its application. The term “bright-line” in this sense generally occurs in a legal context.

Bright-line rules are usually standards established by courts in legal precedent or by legislatures in statutory provisions. The US Supreme Court often contrasts bright-line rules with their opposite: balancing tests (or “fine line testing”), where a result depends on weighing several factors—which could lead to inconsistent application of law or reduce objectivity.

But a “line in the sand” means pretty much the same thing in common language: a line that is not to be crossed without consequences.  Ergo, “bright line in the sand” is completely redundant, as well as a mixed metaphor. But that hasn’t stopped HuffPost—and many others—from using it (click on screenshots if you must read them):

2.) “Vacay” for “vacation”.  This irks me the same way that “fam”, short for “family”, and “sesh”, short for “session”, irk me. (I believe even Andrew Sullivan used “sesh” in last week’s column!) It’s close in sound to “vacate”, and could even be mistaken for it in conversation. “Vacation” is good enough for me, for I dislike these “aren’t I cool?” truncated neologisms. Why not say “conflay” for “conflation”? Here’s one from HuffPost:


3.) “Impactful” for “consequential” “influential” or “important”.  This is one of those words that sounds so juvenile that it instantly grates on me. Here’s an example from the New York Times, for crying out loud:

The quote:

It was awkward. Even Beyoncé’s recognition for “Black Parade” — a good song, sure, but hardly among her best or most impactful work — felt strangely conciliatory, a mea culpa for not giving “Lemonade” its proper due several years ago.

You can be more specific here, using words like “influential” or “important” (in a critical sense), but in this context it’s unclear who or what is being “impacted.”

4.) “On social” for “on social media”.  I haven’t seen this on HuffPost, which, after all, IS social media rather than journalism, but I hear it on the television news all the time when the anchors say, at the end of the show, “Follow us on social.” Is it too much to ask them to add the word “media” so we know what they’re talking about? Most people use it correctly, but there are those “too cool for my shirt” miscreants who haven’t learned that “social” is not a noun but an adjective. Like this site:

Your turn! Tell us all what words or phrases get your knickers in a twist.


April 8, 2021 • 10:10 am

Here’s a photo I just took at the Austin airport.

Isn’t the word “water” enough here? What does “hydration” convey that “water” doesn’t? Is the rhyme between “hydration” and “station” the motivation?

And what about people who don’t speak English well? They might know what “water” is, but “hydration”?

Words and phrases I detest

January 22, 2021 • 2:30 pm

Yep, it’s time for another edition of the Curmudgeon Gazette: a list of words and phrases that rankle me. As usual, most of them come from HuffPost, and, as usual, people will tell me that some of these phrases are fine. “Language evolves,” say the Excusers. Great, but I still don’t like these phrases.

On this cold but sunny Chicago afternoon, I have three for you. (Click on screenshots to see article.)

1.) “I’m all about X.” This one really burns my onions (see the subtitle below). First of all, nobody is all about anything—every human is multifaceted and has multiple interests and concerns. The phrase is simply gross exaggeration, and could easily be replaced by phrases (as in the sub-headline below) like, “This month, we focus on. . . ” or some equivalent.

You will never hear this phrase pass my lips.


2.) “All the feels”. I’m pretty sure that I’ve used this one before, but I keep seeing it, and it never ceases to irritate me, as in the HuffPost article below:

The word is “FEELINGS”, chowderheads! And even that is hyperbole. No movie moments give you the totality of human emotions, which run the gamut from despair to horror to complacency, to anxiety, to elation—and many more.  Can’t these peabrains just say “13 Emotional Movie Moments”? My “feel” when I read headlines like this one is disgust.


3.) “The thing is. . . is that. . ” Now this one baffles me. Why can you just say “The thing is X” instead of “The thing is. . . is X”?  For example, “The thing is, is that he’s been a real jerk to me for a long time” can be replaced by “The thing is that he’s been a real jerk for me for a long time.” Better yet, deep-six “the thing is” part, which adds little, or replace it with “The important thing is.”

Here’s a discussion from the website Language Rules:

From that site:

It may be much more clear to see when sentences are rearranged. One of the above examples [JAC: the grammatically correct sentence”How correct this is is clear to see”] can be arranged as follows:

    • How correct this is is clear to see.
    • It is clear to see how correct this is.

In this instance, we can immediately tell that “how correct this is” in this case is a complete noun phrase able to stand on its own. When we try to reconstruct an example of an incorrect sentence using “The thing is is…” in exactly the same way, we get this:

    • The thing is is that this is incorrect.
    • It is that this is incorrect the thing is.

Most folks should be able to tell that the second sentence is totally jacked, which immediately tells us that the first sentence, merely a rearrangement of the words, must be incorrect as well, even though it sounds slightly better.

You know the drill: it’s time to be petulant and put your bête noire phrases below.

California passes law to test prospective cops for both explicit and implicit bias: a poorly written article in The Washington Post

October 29, 2020 • 10:45 am

This law sounds good in principle, but seems impossible to use as a way of detecting racism in potential hires. The law and its problems are described in a long and poorly-written article in the Washington Post; I’ll have more to say about the writing later.

Click on the screenshot to read:

Here’s the skinny, and I’ve condensed an article whose published version is at least three times longer than it need be:

An ambitious new law in California taking aim at potential biases of prospective officers has raised questions and concerns among police officers and experts who fear that if implemented inadequately, the law could undermine its own mission to change policing and the culture of law enforcement.

The law, which was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on Sept. 30, will expand the present screening requirements by mandating all law enforcement agencies conduct mental evaluations of peace officer candidates to identify both implicit and explicit biases against race, ethnicity, gender, religion and sexual orientation to exclude unfit recruits.

Experts, police unions and lawmakers agree on the value of identifying whether those who aspire to become officers carry considerable degrees of biases, yet it is the lack of clarity on what tools and measures will be used to look for implicit biases that is raising concerns and prompting questions.

“If police departments start to reject applicants because they have implicit biases there will be no one left to hire,” said Lorie Fridell, professor of criminology at the University of South Florida and founder of the Fair and Impartial Policing program, one of the most popular implicit-bias awareness trainings in the country.

That’s one problem with the implicit bias test: it shows that nearly everyone has implicit bias (the article mentions that 88% of whites and 48% of blacks have an implicit bias for white people (when I took the test, it showed I was “race neutral”: the optimal outcome). Not only that, but the IAT (Implicit Association Test) has been widely criticized on many grounds, not the least that it doesn’t seem to translate into measurable behavior, which is the reason you measure it. You can see The Replicability Index‘s useful summary of all the analyses by clicking on the screenshot below:

From the article’s conclusions:

An unbiased assessment of the evidence shows no compelling evidence that the race IAT is a valid measure of implicit racial bias; and without a valid measure of implicit racial bias it is impossible to make scientific statements about implicit racial bias. I think the general public deserves to know this. Unfortunately, there is no need for scientific evidence that prejudice and discrimination still exists. Ideally, psychologists will spend more effort in developing valid measures of racism that can provide trustworthy information about variation across individuals, geographic regions, groups, and time. Many people believe that psychologists are already doing it, but this review of the literature shows that this is not the case. It is high time to actually do what the general public expects from us.

(See also this article from the British Psychological Society’s “Research Digest.”) Based on the widespread criticism of these tests, it’s simply not valid to claim that everyone has implicit bias.

Now onto the writing quality of the article. It’s long, tedious, and the prose is convoluted and abysmal. There are also some errors. I’ll give a few examples:

The law comes amid a moment of social upheaval where police departments across the country are facing scrutiny. . . .

WRONG. A moment is a period of time, and so it should be “when police departments” rather than “where police departments”. This is a common mistake, but an editor should have caught it.

None of the experts interviewed by The Washington Post claimed to know of law enforcement agencies that screen for unconscious biases — those that people are unwilling or unable to identify — as a hiring standard.

This is awkward. Although the antecedent to “those that people are unwilling or unable to identify” should be “unconscious biases”, it could also be “law enforcement agencies that screen for unconscious biases.” The awkward sentence could easily be fixed to “None of the experts interviewed claimed to know of law enforcement agencies that hire using screenings for unconscious biases—those biases that people are unwilling or unable to identify.”

. . . . he is skeptical of taking implicit bias evaluations like IATs, as benchmarks of deep-seeded beliefs that would lead to discrimination.

IT IS NOT “DEEP-SEEDED” but “DEEP-SEATED”. Everybody should know this, but the mistake is common. But that doesn’t excuse it from appearing in a major newspaper.

These screenings vary agency to agency and often include review of social media postings for sexist or racist comments, interviews with acquaintances, past employers, family members and thorough mental evaluations.

That’s another awkward sentence implying that the review of social media posts includes “thorough mental evaluations”. This could have been solved by putting “thorough mental evaluations” before “review of social media postings.”
A shared concern among scholars is on the use of tools such as implicit association tests (IATs) — sometimes used in bias training — as a hiring tool or screening device due to the unreliability of its findings.
The bit after the second hyphen is confusing and hard to read. It would be easy to fix: “Because implicit association tests (IATs) have been found to be unreliable, scholars are concerned about their use to screen or hire applicants, or in bias training.” Further, the construction “a shared concern . . .on” is awkward and should be “Many scholars are concerned about. . . ” or some other construction.

Yes, these errors may seem minor, but don’t newspapers like the Washington Post employ line editors any more? What’s just as bad, or worse, is the painfully awkward prose, with long sentences, that pervades the entire article. Like this:

Kang said implicit bias tests provide useful, yet inexact information, which he compared to weather forecasts, about a person’s beliefs and stereotypes at a certain moment, but they ought to be used as road maps to help law enforcement agencies develop better methods and procedures, rather than as individual hiring tools.

UG-LEE! But examples are easy to find. One more and I’ll leave you:

Catafi said POST will be working with psychologists and law enforcement experts to incorporate these new required items to the current psychological screening manual, and they have until January 2022 to complete the process.

That one has a bad error as well: it’s incorporate INTO, not “incorporate to”.

But where are the editors? There ought to be editors. Well, maybe next year.

h/t: Luana