I'd Like a Word with You

Comments on the use and misuse of the English language.

On the Use of "Velcro"

So the Velcro company just put out a video about not using the word velcro in a way that would weaken its trademark.

The video is clearly trying to be funny but the company appears to be serious about the dilution of their trademark. Well, I think they are way too late on trying to change public habits on this, but what is really strange is when they say, in the text description of the video:

So please, do not say “velcro shoes” (or “velcro wallet” or “velcro gloves”) - we repeat “velcro” is not a noun or a verb.

Um, guys, the word velcro is being used as an adjective in those examples! The company may be displeased with having the word in lowercase, but those examples are using the word in the form they actually want it used, as a modifier to a noun. The problem with these examples is actually that the clasp in question may not be an actual product of the Velcro comapny, not the part of speech.

It's a good rule of writing: if you don't know what you mean, your reader won't know, either.

I also notice that the people at Velcro, Inc., want us to write the word in all-caps: VELCRO (with a registered trademark symbol affixed). But Velcro is not an acronym, as explained right there on the Velcro web site. I know that companies are always fudging the rules of capitalization (and punctuation and everything else) in a bid to make themselves and their trademarks more noticeable, but there's no reason in the world for the rest of us to play along. These requests should be distributed among Velcro's own PR department staff and to overly-compliant news outlets. Putting this kind of content in front of the public is not a good look!

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Try to Remember Something

I'm reading that Dwight Freeney won't be re-signed by the Indianapolis Colts, and the following jumps out at me:

Freeney won battles on the line of scrimmage with his blazing speed and spin move, something teammates and opponents continue to try and emulate.

There are three problems in that sentence. The first one should have been an easy catch, either by the author or the editor. For some reason, in speaking, people sometimes say try and when of course they mean try to. The author doesn't mean that teammates and opponents both try and emulate, he means the emulation is something they try. While no one should feel ashamed for saying try and, no one should write it, either.

Problem two is not as easy to see. The world of computing is to blame for this problem, I think, because in computing, an emulator is a program that simulates the operation of another operating system or set of hardware. For example, you can get a Commodore 64 emulator for your PC and run all the old great C64 games (like Wizard, Lode Runner, etc.). But emulate actually means to try to meet or surpass. In other words, if you emulate a person, you are trying to do as well, or better, than that person did in a particular field. It makes no sense to try to emulate someone, because the word emulate already includes the idea that you are making an effort that might fail.

The third problem is something. This word is effectively some thing written as one word. If opponents and teammates are emulating Freeney's spin moves and speed, those are two things, not some thing.

Reading a sentence like that reminds me of a sad truth: writing well is hard work!


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Y'all Listen to This

Just a few quick tips for anyone who is trying to write a "Southern" character, about that most Southern of words, y'all. The first tip is that's how you spell it. Remember that an apostrophe, outside of being used in a possessive, indicates missing, unpronounced letters. Y'all is short for you all; the "ou" is what's missing. Some people, and I have to admit some of these people are Southerners themselves, write ya'll, probably from the influence of words like we'll.

The other tip is that y'all is a second person plural only; it's not some sort of blanket Southern replacement for you. It can only be used to refer to two or more people. I think some observers get confused because they see person A talking to person B, no one else in the conversation, and hear y'all. But in those cases, more than one person is being referred to, even if not present. Examples:

"Why don't y'all come over and watch the game with us?"

In this case, person A is inviting person B's entire family over.

"I hear y'all need to find a decent quarterback."

In this case, person A is referring to person B's chosen football team.

"Do y'all need anyone right now?"

Person A is asking if Person B's firm is hiring.

And so on. What you have to avoid is something like this:

"Y'all look good in that shirt."

"Y'all shouldn't have said that."

"I'm going to punch y'all in the mouth."

In these cases, Person B knows that Person A is some sort of impostor, and will alert the authorities as soon as possible.


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In Defense of "E-mail"

I'm talking here about the word, not the thing itself. Originally, mail sent electronically was known as e-mail. This form of the word has been steadily losing ground to email. I'm here to say that this is wrong.

I've read all of the arguments in favor of dropping the hyphen, and none of them are convincing. Usually, the hyphen-less form isn't so much argued for, as assumed, with a mumbled justification of "words change over time." Which indeed they do, but not every change is for the better.

The common argument for dropping the hyphen is that the hyphen is originally used to signal the connection between two words that have not been commonly seen together to that point. After sufficient time passes, the hyphen is no longer needed. Thus, to the use the Strunk & White example, bed chamber becomes bed-chamber becomes bedchamber.

Here's the problem, though. In other cases, dropping the hyphen is a way of simplifying the language, making the word look more like it is pronounced. That is not the situation with e-mail.

Why? Because in e-mail, the e is literally the letter e. It stands for the word electronic, of course, but it's not a shortened form of the word electronic, which starts with a short-e sound. To see the distinction, suppose that mail sent electronically had been originally called electro-mail. Dropping the hyphen in this case would cause no problem, as electro-mail and electromail would be pronounced the same. But email looks like a word that is pronounced uh-MAIL, not EE-mail.

An analogy would be G-Man, a slang term for an FBI agent. The G is literally the letter G, standing for government, but not a shortened form of the word government. Therefore it would look ridiculous to write Gman or Gmen.

Likewise, writing email for e-mail complicates rather than simplifies. Some would argue that everybody knows how to pronounce email already, so what difference does it make how it is spelled? But that road leads to madness. Why not spell it eml, or 3ma!1 or whatever kooky string of letters pops into our head?


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Regarding Titles

The rules regarding which words get capitalized in a title are few, but there is enough complexity that mistakes can easily be made when decisions are rushed. The basic rules, though, are pretty clear, or so I thought. Note that I'm not a purist about this; I guess I might want to be, but I've already crossed that threshold. My new book is going to be called Think Like a Programmer. As I told my editor, it really should be Think like a Programmer, because like here is a preposition. If it were a noun (Programmers and the Like) or a verb (I Like Programmers), it would be a different matter, but prepositions are not capitalized, unless, of course, they are the first word in the title or some other overriding rule.

But the publisher believes that although lowercase-l is correct, it looks wrong, and there's something to be said for that. And it's not as though they were capitalizing the a. I mean, no one would do that. Right?

Perhaps not. I read a lot of articles over at the A.V. Club. I have discovered many books, films, and music from the side, and I am grateful. The site does have some editorial quirks, though. Previously, I would've said the most annoying quirk is the requirement that film articles refer to characters using the name of the actor, not the name of the character (a fake example: "In a surprising twist, James Earl Jones tells Mark Hamill, 'I am your father.'"). For whatever reason, they drop the idea like a hot potato whenever they review an animated film.

But now another quirk, which frankly I hope is just some sort of automatic formatting rule gone awry or editorial laziness rather than an intentional choice, has overtaken the lead for most annoying quirk at the site.

Titles have every single word capitalized. E.g. "Zona: A Book About A Film About A Journey To A Room." (see). Man alive, does that look weird. At first, I thought this was an anomaly, but then I noticed it was near-universal and that I just hadn't been paying attention. I saw an article (in the series discussing Billboard Number 1 albums) about "Briefcase Full of Blues" by the Blues Brothers, and thought, okay, calm down, everything will be fine. But then, right in the first paragraph, we see: "In this installment, he covers Blues Brothers’ Briefcase Full Of Blues,'..."

Now I think they're just messing with me.

It's actually a recurring pattern. Occasionally, whoever edits the article titles rebels and actually gets the capitalization rules correct ("The Shins: Port of Morrow") but is unable to enlist the actual writer of the article into the confederacy ("The Shins: Port Of Morrow").

Again, I love the site, but I hope the editorial staff hasn't fallen into cahoots with a gang of language simplification zealots.


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A Small Victory for Proper Capitalization

So I see the following headline in the Birmingham News:

IPad Released Today

Ah, yes! That's the way. In the first place, I've never understood why newspapers and other print media feel obliged to follow the stylizations of a company logo. This subject was covered in detail, and with more authority, by Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh on his blog. While this sort of thing is bad enough, it's even worse when the logo style is followed even when it should be trumped by basic rules of grammar and composition. In this case, I imagine the pull to lowercase that initial I was strong. What would web people think of IPad? Are we giving up our street cred? After all, this is the same newspaper that has a regular feature that's nothing more than list of links to "interesting" web sites, even some that that the author of the piece himself admits no interest in. If that's not surrender, then I don't know what is.

So, a small round of applause for the News for letting common sense rule for one more day. If they really want to set things right, though, they should start writing I-pad.


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A Comic Strip That Will Live in Infamy

So I'm reading the comic strip "Frazz" today, and a teacher at the school where Frazz works is asking for the difference between famous and infamous. Right away, this seems a little odd, because the words aren't similar. It's like asking for the difference between heinous and popular. Frazz says he can demonstrate using a quote from George Carlin, and the teacher recoils, thinking, I guess, that the quote will use some salty language or something like that. Frazz says that's the point; the teacher knows who George Carlin is because Carlin is famous, but is worried about the quote, because Carlin is infamous.

Let's just set the record straight right here: George Carlin is not infamous, not by a country mile. Carlin was a comedian who sometimes created controversy with his act. That's all.

Other things that are not infamous:

  • the "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl with Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake
  • the Neil Young album Trans
  • George Lucas's decision to edit Star Wars so that Greedo shoots first

Infamy, properly used, is a very heavy label. To gain some perspective, remember the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor: "this is a day which will live in infamy." That's the standard. Infamy is not merely being famous in a controversial way. It's not properly applied to an act merely because it is famous for stupidity, silliness, bad taste, or offensiveness.

Of course, words like infamous are misused all the time in the haste of ordinary speech, and no great harm is caused. But is it too much to ask that Frazz take a little more care when directly asked for a definition?


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