Library Puts Me on the Shelf Next to My Hero

"Loose Meat" would make a good Stephen King title, eh?

“Loose Meat” would make a good Stephen King title, eh?

The first time I entered a library as a little kid it was love at first sight. I couldn’t believe they had all those books and I was allowed to check out and take home and READ as many of them as I could carry. Immediately I made a plan to read every book in the whole building, starting at the top of the first bookcase and working my way left to right.. Soon it was scaled back to just the science fiction section, and I have to admit, I’m still short of my goal.

But if that is your system for picking books to read, go ahead and read the latest from Stephen King (End of Watch). After that, move on to my novel, The Loose Meat Sandwich King of Hamtramck.

I was delighted to discover my book right up there on the shelf next to Stephen King’s (thanks to alphabetical order, which the New York Times Review of Books doesn’t seem to know about yet) at the Helen Plum Library in Lombard, Illinois.

The Plum Library recently created a Local Authors program as a way of connecting regular readers with book writers from Lombard as well as the Chicago area. Interesting books don’t have to come from New York or L.A. anymore. There are creative, talented writers everywhere, and now you can find their stories on the same shelves with Arthur Conan Doyle and Erma Bombeck.

If its' in the library, then it's got to be a real book!

If its’ in the library, then it’s got to be a real book!

So if you have a library card, you now have the opportunity to enjoy my books, or the work of other local authors. Except you might have to get in line. I was going to show you all my books on the shelf, but two of them were checked out already.

checked out

Don’t worry. You can always request a hold.

So my love affair with the library is still alive.

Of course, if you can’t wait for the book to be returned, you can get your own copy from at

Tony Kordyban at Amazon

English: Doorway to Confusion

The Grammar Police show no discretion.

The Grammar Police show no discretion.

English rules are so unfair.

Nobody at all is ever confused by the built-in contradiction between these two sentences:

The mail carrier came through the door to give me a package.

The Incredible Hulk came through the door to give me a pounding.

The first example evokes an image of a uniformed postal character walking through an open doorway carrying a cardboard box, possibly with the Amazon logo printed on the side.

The second example makes you immediately envision a shirtless, green bundle of muscles smashing through a closed door, splinters and hinges and knobs flying in all directions.

What is the contradiction that causes no confusion? We easily interpret these sentences so automatically that we don’t even see there is a problem. The potential for confusion is that these two examples use the word door in opposite and complementary ways. Door has two definition:

  1. an opening in a wall or barrier; more specifically, a doorway
  2. the movable panel that blocks the opening in a wall or barrier

We don’t get confused, because the concept of a door is actually bigger than either one of those definitions. It includes both of them, but what it really means to us is:

a place in a wall that can either be open to allow going through, or closed to stop somebody or something from going through.

A door is not just the hole in the wall, or just the wooden panel smashed by The Hulk. A door is the thing that allows the passageway to be open OR closed. Nobody is confused when we call an opening a door, and the very next minute we call a glass panel on hinges a door.

The English language is full of words that stand for a big concept that include their own opposites. Don’t rack your brain to think of them. It’s hard, because it is so basic to our natural ability for language that we don’t think about them consciously. Ponder these examples:

This restaurant serves soft-shelled crab.

The walnuts had to be shelled before adding them to the salad.

(For those who don’t cook, or maybe even don’t eat, the crabs are cooked with the shell ON and the walnuts are taken OUT of their shells. Both use the word shelled, even though they have opposite meanings.)

Another one that rhymes with shell, by coincidence, is:

Yuck! Your dog sure smells!

Hooray! Your dog smells pheasant from half a mile away. We’ll bag our limit this season.

You get it by now. One simple word covers the whole topic of emitting or detecting odors. The few times this is not clear by context, we get a pleasant joke out of it (see Monty Python’s “Killer Joke” sketch.

The Unfair Part

Everybody is used to the idea that one simple word can represent a complex concept that contains opposite meanings within it, the way a single penny can be both Heads and Tails. But the Grammar Police insist that there are also sets of words that are very closely related, and separated by only one or two letters in spelling, and may even have nearly the same pronunciation, and if we use the wrong one, we are penalized and branded as illiterate. Here is a famous example from the Grammar Police Code. Don’t mix them up or you will be smacked on the hand with a wooden ruler:


Each of these words has its own very specific definition. The problem is that they are opposite sides of the same concept, and they sound almost the same unless you exaggerate the sound of effect by adding a long-E at the beginning, and so nobody can really remember which one to use in a particular situation. Which one of these sentences is correct?

  1. The sudden appearance of The Hulk in my office affected my sense of well-being for the rest of the afternoon.
  2. The delivery of the package did not have nearly the same affect on my mood, even though I’d been waiting for it all morning.

Number 1 is correct and Number 2 is wrong. Affect mean to cause a change. Effect is the change itself. The effect The Hulk had was to affect my emotional state.

Confusing? I’m not surprised. It is more natural for our brains to think of the larger concept and not even need to have different words for each side of the coin. I have already used a word that has the same meaning as affect and effect and it incorporates the definitions of both of these supposedly different words: change. Change can be the cause of the differences, or it can be the difference itself.

  1. The Incredible Hulk changed the decor of the office to Early American Shambles.
  2.  It took me nearly forty-five minutes to get used to the changes, especially the fist-shaped windows.

See? No confusion, even though I used only one word for both meanings. The Grammar Police would insist the reason they slap us when we use the wrong word is that it causes confusion for the reader. My point is: No, it doesn’t. The confusion comes when our natural language skills come into conflict with the artificial rules of the Grammar Police. We know instinctively that these two words should really be only one word.

When I get to be in charge of the Grammar Police, effect and affect will be merged into the single word we already think they are. I’m open to suggestion as to how to spell it. When I’m done fixing all the problems with spelling I will worry about that one.

English: Any Patterns You See Are All in Your Head

crosswordIt started with a crossword puzzle.

The clue was DOWNPLAY. I already had the first four letters, so I knew it was SOFT—–.

My first inclination was SOFTSELL, which is the jargon for when the salesperson pretends to be your friend and wants to know all about your pets and your hobbies instead of demanding that you buy, buy, buy something right now. In contrast, the “buy now” seller is employing the HARD SELL.

But SOFTSELL did not fit, because the answer required nine letters, and SOFTSELL has only eight. But SOFTSELL made me think of the synonym SOFT PEDDLE, because peddling is the same thing as selling. But SOFTPEDDLE does not fit either, even without the space.

Eventually I got the answer by solving the cross-clues and was shocked to discover that I had been right the first time, except that I was also completely wrong. The answer was SOFTPEDAL. PEDAL like the part of the bicycle crank where you apply your foot.

I complained about this strange solution to my wife, who immediately agreed with the puzzle composer. “Oh,” she said, “Just like the SOFT PEDAL of a piano.”

piano pedalsSo I appealed this to the English Language Police. They immediately dismissed my case with prejudice, telling me that I was a dunce for not knowing the correct and only spelling and origin of this phrase. In their all-knowing eyes, SOFT PEDAL is based on the well-known concept that to soften a note on the piano, one depresses the SOFT PEDAL. Somehow through the fog of time this has come to have the general meaning of de-emphasizing or downplaying, as in;

The president SOFT PEDALED his new call for tax increases, labeling them as “reverse income enhancements.”

This makes no sense to me, even though the English Police have documentary evidence that SOFT PEDAL is how the phrase originated, and that only morons and uneducated twits spell it SOFT PEDDLE and think it is related to selling. I still have a hard time buying it, for two reasons:

  1. Less than 8% of the population knows how to play the piano. So that makes it hard for me to believe that the musical jargon “to soft pedal” came into popular usage. That is as logical as saying the phrase “black and white photography” actually had its origin with the piano, in reference to the colors of its keys.
  2. Even people who do play the piano and understand the operation of the three pedals (I always thought they were for the gas, brake and clutch) don’t say, “I’m going to SOFT PEDAL that measure.” They always say “I’m going to use SOFT PEDAL in that measure,” or “I will play that measure with SOFT PEDAL.” It is not common to use SOFT PEDAL as a verb, the way it is commonly used by everybody else when they want to sneak in something under the radar.

So, again, I am the object of scorn and ridicule in my use of the English language, not because I am stupid or poorly educated or lacking in reason, but precisely because I am smart. I used my knowledge of synonyms, my ability to recognize patterns, and logical deduction to arrive at exactly the wrong answer. That is why I call English stupid. The smarter you are, the more mistakes you are likely to make using it, because its patterns and rules make no sense.

Not convinced? How about some examples:

When I speak, I make a speech.

When the levee leaks, the water leaches through.

Beginning to see a pattern?

If the levee breaks, water will gush through the breach.

But if I blow my beak (as in nose), does it produce a beach?

If you sneak a peek, do you snitch a peach?

And when it begins to reek, does it make an awful reach? No, a stench, which might have come from a steenk, (or stink in the modern spelling.)

There does seem to be some kind of pattern, but it is not very useful. More often than not, if you rely on learned patterns to help you with English usage, they will lead you astray (notice nothing ever leads you ahome.) Like the animals you can see in puffy clouds, these patterns are all in your head.


Who Owns English?

googleTMIn 1989 the universally admired and reviled head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, Pat Riley, trademarked the term “Three-Peat.” He cannot be faulted for his optimism, given that at the time his team had not won even a single title. The term refers to a team winning the championship three times in a row. It was constructed by shortening “three repeat.” It is a mildly clever invention, probably arising from the cliched question and answer that happens when a team wins its first championship:

Reporter: “Congratulations on a successful end to your 10-month long season! Do you think you’ll be able to repeat as champions next year?”

Coach or Player: “Repeat? We’re going to THREE-PEAT!”

The term failed to catch on, at least to Riley’s benefit, because his teams never managed to win three times in a row. It took Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls to do that years later. It was linguistically ironic that, although the Bulls had earned the right to trumpet their Three-Peat, they legally could not use that word to describe their achievement, at least not without asking permission from the coach they had had to defeat three times along the way.

Does Pat Riley actually own the word Three-Peat?

Everyone, lawyers included, seems to think so. From time to time I get a memo from the legal department reminding us of all the legal restrictions on the things we can and can’t write in our publications. The memo reminds us not to use photos or artwork without getting permission from the copyright owner. The same thing goes with swiping long articles off news web sites and publishing them as our own work. Not cool and not legal. Then the memo makes a big deal out of always using the trademark symbol (™) when using a word or phrase that is a registered trademark, whether it is one of our own trademarks (READ FOR FUN is my trademark, but it is not registered. Why not? I actually WANT people to read for fun.) or anybody else’s trademark. So if I wrote:

I googled the most popular drink to go with jello, and it said Coke or Pepsi.

the legal department would want me to change it to:

I used the Google™ brand search engine to ask what the most popular brand of soda would be to accompany Jello™ brand gelatin, and the answer the search engine provided (without actually implying any preference of its own, but simply giving a statistically relevant comparison based on the taste of non-compensated users of the search engine) was either Coke™ brand high-fructose sweetened cola beverage (a registered trademark of Coca Cola, Inc.) or Pepsi™ brand gargle solution (a registered trademark of the American Dental Association™ (a registered trademark of Smiles2Go).)

They might even want me to have a large number of footnotes at the bottom of the page disclaiming any rights to use those terms, even though we just did.

The legal department is reinforcing the generally accepted myth that people and companies own the rights to certain words just because they have registered them as a trademark. During the boring parts of football games at the sports bar, I have often heard a remark like, “Gosh, I ought to trademark the phrase ‘Green Bay Really Cheeses Me Off!’ and every time somebody says it, they’d have to pay me a buck. I’d be a millionaire!”

This is a total myth. A trademark is not a government deed to a particular word or phrase. The trademark holder does not own that word and can’t stop anybody from using it. All the trademark means is that the trademark holder can use that word or phrase exclusively in the conduct of their business.

Xerox is the only company allowed to make and sell Xerox copiers. Only Kraft can sell gelatin mix under the name Jello.

But notice I did not put the little TM next to those words in the last paragraph. I don’t have to. I am not selling copiers or gelatin, I am offering an opinion in writing. Xerox and Jello are just words (and barely that), and words don’t belong to anybody.I can write about Lipton tea and Goodyear tires or Dell computers without even mentioning that they are registered trademarks. It is not my job to protect somebody else’s trademark. Sure, trademark holders are worried that if their trademark gets thrown around too much and becomes just a regular word, like Scotch tape or aspirin (former trademarks that lost their registration by becoming adopted into common usage). Trademark holders are the ones demanding everybody put the trademark symbol on everything. Big companies do it as a form of unwritten courtesy. (You protect my trademark and I’ll protect yours.) Newspapers and magazines (the guys who write the style guides most often cited as the authority for English usage) always respect trademarks, because trademark owners are either current or future advertisers. From my days in the newspaper business, I recall the motto “The advertiser is always right.”

My Fellow Writers, do not be intimidated by the little TM. English belongs to everybody.In your novels go ahead and let your characters eat Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes for breakfast. They can even shout, “They’re Gr-r-eat!” even though that catch phrase is a registered trademark, too. In your poems compare the curvature of your true love’s back bumper to that of a Cadillac Escalade. In your railroad bridge graffiti extol the excellent reception of your Verizon iPhone. You may someday receive a stern letter from the lawyers charged with protecting these trademarks, urging you in a very threatening way to properly annotate their trademarks in your future publications. They are required to ask you, by law, but, by law, you don’t have to do anything! Besides the thrill of sticking it to large corporations, you will have the knowledge that, at last, somebody read your work.

Just do not copy or reproduce the contents of this READ FOR FUN blog without express written permission from me or possibly Major League Baseball.

English: Spellable or Spellible?


It’s a classic, but did the word “convertible” really come from Latin?

I was taking the on-line spelling quiz on and was shocked to discover my kid had outscored me. It came down to the word indispensible. Except that it is really spelled INDISPENSABLE. I thought I had a pretty good ear for the difference between those two ways of spelling, but it turns out that I was right to be confused. I thought there was a rule that when the root word (dispense) ends with an e, the suffix is -ible. Not in this case. There is no good way to learn whether a word will end in -ible or -able. As with all other English practices, it makes no sense at all, and you just have to memorize all 1,285 of them.

Not that English apologists don’t try to give you some rules to follow anyway.

The idea is that -able words have the word able attached to the root, because that root is able to be done. Example:

When Luger Axehandle, the Texas architect, was asked whether the Houston baseball stadium could be enclosed back in the 1960s, he famously said, “Roof a stadium? That stadium is very roofable.” And the Astrodome was born.

The -ible words supposedly are derived from a very different source: the ending of the word possible is grafted onto a root word. Example:

It is totally possible to prank my baby sister. She is so gullible.

Except I’m not sure what the root word gull means in this context. (OK, says that gull means to trick somebody. They also say gullable is an acceptable spelling, so what are all these rules about? I’m not gulling you about this.)

Source: Dead Languages

I don’t get the distinction between able and possible. Maybe it has something to do with that weird distinction between may and can. To me they have the same meaning.

The Grammar Police try to justify keeping these two spellings that sound alike and have no difference in meaning by blaming it on the language of origin. They say -able words came from one source and -ible words came from another, so we are stuck with how the foreigners spelled them.

-able words came from French and Latin.

And in contrast, the -ible words came from (wait for it) French and Latin.

So French and Latin originally had this problem, and we just borrowed it from them without looking under the hood first. That’s what we get for borrowing so many words from Dead Languages.

French is a Dead Language? According to its obituary, French died on February 22, 1635, when the Académie française was established to officially regulate the French language. Their job is to set rules as to what words are French and which are not, as if language is invented and controlled by regulatory bodies instead of by the people who speak and write. As soon as French was taken away from the French people, it was killed and became a Dead Language like Latin. This is confirmed by the motto of the Academy, À l’immortalité (To immortality.”) Only the dead achieve immortality.

This origin story makes no sense as an excuse, or even a guide for how to get the spelling right. What else do the Grammar Police have that can help us?

If the stem (the main part of the word that comes before -able or -ible) is a complete word in itself, then the ending is nearly always -able. A simple test is to take away the suffix – does the word still exist as an English word?

That doesn’t help at all with:

response          responsible

digest               digestible

convert             convertible

The only thing that is reliable at all is statistics. About 70% of all the -able/-ible words end with -able. That gives us the cop-out guideline that suggests if we are desperate, always guess -able, and most of the time we will be correct. At least 70%, which in the high school I went to, will get you a solid D-minus.

To the Grammar Police who won’t fix our crazy language, and yet insist that it is based on learnible (learnable?) rules, I say, quoting Daffy Duck, “You’re despicable.”

A Pile of English: a Language Designed to Deceive Babies


The Big Boy Chair

One of the most useful and potentially amusing features of English is that the rules allow us to pile up words in an almost endless series, and it is impossible to know which word is modifying which. I say useful, because it allows the user to say one thing and mean another. Here is a perfect illustration.

We were having breakfast at our favorite Bacon ‘n’ Egg (note the careful use of apostrophes). A family with a grumpy toddler was being seated at the next table. “Brendan, don’t you want to sit in The Big Boy Chair?” the dad asked the toddler in his best condescending parental voice.

The toddler brightened up and allowed himself to be lifted into the wooden high chair, assuming that Dad’s name for it meant The Chair for Big Boys. And not, what we all know it to be, the Big Chair for (little) Boys (or Girls). Such is the beauty of ambiguous English. We can pile up words, and there is no way to tell which ones are connected together. When Dad says Big Boy Chair, is it a Chair for Big Boys, or a Big Chair? It means whatever you want it to mean.

Now you have a clue why legal documents, like the Terms of Service for Facebook,  are so darn complicated. The lawyers are trying to make English more specific by spelling out every little nuance of every little phrase. They don’t seem to notice that the more words they use, the more opportunities arise for them to be connected in ambiguous ways. It is hopeless, really, to be precise in English.

Suppose you see an ad for The Magic Carpet, described as:

an epic hair curling roller coaster.

Your first impression is that it is for an amusement park ride that is so thrilling it curls your hair.

But it turns out to be a special insulated mat, on which you can safely place the heated rollers you use for curling your hair, a coaster for hair rollers. Magic Carpet indeed.

I propose that we start using parentheses in English, the way we use them in math.

12 + 7 x 4 could be 76 or 40, depending on the order of operations. So if you want to always be clear you mean 40, you’d write

12 + (7 x 4) instead of (12 + 7) x 4

In a similar way we ought to group together words that are related with parentheses, so that we are certain which words modify which.

I am a stupid English blog writer.


I am a (stupid English) (blog writer).

That way you know I mean that English is stupid, and not my blog. Or perhaps the meaning you prefer would be stated

I am an English blog (stupid writer).

How Many Dashes Does One S- – – -d Language Need?

How many different kinds of hyphen keys are on your keyboard?

How many different kinds of hyphen keys are on your keyboard? (That top one is the underscore.)

When it comes to punctuation, the less the better. Period, comma, question mark, exclamation mark, quotation marks. That’s it. Semicolon? I never saw a sentence with a semicolon that wasn’t really just two sentences. Apostrophe? You know where I stand on those. Get rid of them. Colon? At the beginning of a list, OK. But does it really add anything? I think we could dump it and nobody would miss it.

How about the hyphen (what was called a dash when I was in school)? That one is still useful, although with word processing apps cleaning up our margins, we don’t need it so much for splitting words at the end of a line. The dash comes in handy for connecting words together that aren’t officially joined together in the dictionary yet, like: (do I really need this colon?)




I also like to use a dash to indicate an unfinished or interrupted sentence.

“Now I can reveal to all assembled here that the murderer’s name is – ” Mr. Stones said, just as a shot rang out.

The human brain – and I mean this in all seriousness – is not as necessary as you might think.

The dash and the hyphen are the same thing. But did you know that according to English style guides (such as The Chicago Manual of Style, or The AP Stylebook), that there are actually three different kinds of dash, and each one has its own unique usage and meaning?

dash: the shortest version of this little horizontal line. It is used for connecting compound words and for denoting the minus function in arithmetic

en dash: a little longer than the dash. It is the width of the letter “n” and that’s where it gets its odd name. This extra length is supposed to indicate that it stands for missing things in a series.

January-June means only the months of January and June and nothing in between.

January–June mean all six months. So If I live in Building 5, and I get a memo that says mail will be delivered to Buildings 4-7, I need to get out a ruler and measure the length of the dash to find out if I will be getting my mail. Really?

en dash is also used to connect compound words that don’t have dashes in the main body of the original word. I can’t even explain what that means except by showing this example:

Joey is a post–Iraq War veteran.

Iraq War is a compound word connected by a space, so when I add the prefix “post” to it I am supposed to use an en dash instead of a hyphen. This rule seems a little obscure to me.

em dash is a dash the size of the letter “m”. Depending on what font you like, the letter n and letter m can be exactly the same width, so that doesn’t necessarily help you figure out which size dash you have. Em dashes, according to the style books, are used for:

indicating the positions of missing letters in words, as in “F — — K ” when you want to be polite and not directly spell out “FINK”. Although it seems as if the underscore or asterisk has taken over this function in the last fifty years or so

showing a break in a sentence, as in “I’d better not get too close to the edge of this — !” The style books say in this situation you’re supposed to use two em dashes. Maybe they think nobody will be able to recognize the em dash by itself and not understand the sentence, so throw in a spare to get the true meaning across.

as a bullet in a bullet list. Again, there is no reason why you have to use a slightly longer dash to accomplish this.

When you put them side by side, you can probably tell the difference between the dash, the en dash and the em dash.

hyphen-dash              en–dash               em—dash

But when there is only one of them on the page, how do you know which one it is? It takes an expert typographer and a jeweler’s loupe to be sure. And in the long run, does it truly add any meaning to the words? There is no confusion when you see

PappaG is a master of the post–hip hop genre.

instead of

TJoe didn’t know there even was a post—hip hop genre, or what the word genre means.

The length of the dash doesn’t send you running to a dictionary or to Google Translate. It doesn’t even slow you down. The truth is we don’t need three kinds of dash. Pick one and use it for everything. Isn’t that why there is only one dash key on the keyboard?

It’s like having three kinds of question marks, each one progressively curlier than the first. The first one ends ordinary questions, the second is only for rhetorical questions, and the third only to indicate Upspeak. (Upspeak is the annoying speech pattern in which the speaker ends every sentence with a rising pitch, so that every one of them sounds like a question, but most often is not.)

It would be pointless and confusing to have three question marks. It is pointless and confusing to have three kinds of dashes, and to tell people they are idiots when they use the “wrong” one.

You got that, Stylebooks? Make English easier — — not harder for us to get right. (Maybe those double em dashes should have been a semicolon?)

English: for better or worser

best foot

Putting my best foot forward.

When everybody knows the rule, but nobody follows it, what good is it?

It’s still of use to somebody. Usually that somebody is the one who makes the rule. I’m thinking about the highway speed limit here in Illinois. The signs say 55 miles per hour, but everybody drives at least 70. The enforcement is practically nonexistent. Whenever some crusader proposes changing the limit to 70 miles per hour, the government balks. “Oh, horrors!” the governor cries, “It’s a safety issue. Think of the children, why don’t you?”

They like people to speed, so that when they do crack down and start writing tickets, they catch boatloads of drivers, who have grown used to the normal speed being 70. It fills shortfalls in the budget. If they enforced the speed limit regularly, nearly everyone would stick to it, and they would catch only a few fine-payers. So they let the rule slide, build up the population of speeders, and then just reel them in. It doesn’t make the roads any safer. It just makes offenders of us all.

Everybody knows the English grammar rule of Good, Better, Best. If you have three apples, and one has a bruise, and the second has a worm, the wormy apple is Good, the bruised apple is Better, and the good apple is Best.

If you have only two apples, one with five worms, and the other with only one worm in it, then the five-worm apple is Good, and the one-worm apple is Better. You don’t have a Best apple. The rule is that when comparing two things, one is better than the other, and neither one is best. To have a best, you have to compare three or more things.

If that is true, then how many efforts do you have to have saved up inside your gut so you can respond when the basketball coach says, “OK, team, give our fans your best effort!”

How many of your feet do you consider before putting your best foot forward?

Your Pop shows up at your apartment unexpectedly. You check the icebox for something to offer, but all you have is a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. When he makes a face when you show it to him, you say, “It’s the best I’ve got.”

We disregard the Rule of Three all the time. Even little kids know that they can be the best at something, if they are the only one doing it. That’s how I got the official designation of America’s Funniest Author of Books on Cooling Electronics. They couldn’t find any others.

We keep this silly rule in the English grammar books. Why? I’m betting that sooner or later English teachers will be given the authority to write us tickets for all these violations (as long as they give a generous cut to the government.) So far the worst (or best) we have to endure is their incessant “Tsk, tsk, tsk”-ing. Their rule is neither the best nor worst of silliness in the language. But it is not entirely harmless, because it encourages us to ignore all the rules, even the good ones, because it makes offenders of us all.

The Case of the Missing Pronoun

towels_theirsEnglish is full of delicious contradictions. It has more words than any other language, mostly because the rules are very lax about whether words from all other languages are counted as English words. (Are honcho and tsunami English words, or merely borrowed from Japan?) Yet, with all this embarrassment of verbal riches, English is conspicuously lacking one of the basic building blocks of language construction.

Which of these is grammatically correct?

1.  Someone forgot his octopus in the band practice room.

2.  A senator sent their condolences to the family of the survivors.

3.  My sibling can’t decide whether to wear his or her shoes.

The officially correct answer is 3. (Notwithstanding the suggestion that my brother can’t decide between brogues or stilettos.)

When I was a kid, I was taught that 1 was the correct construction. The subject Someone is singular (some – one, right?), so the possessive pronoun connected to it has to agree in number. We can’t use their (from Number 2) because it is plural. Our only choices for singular possessive pronoun are his, her or its. The problem is Someone is also of unspecified gender, so we don’t know which one to use. Its might seem like a good compromise, but the pronoun it is only used for an inanimate object, or maybe an animal like a snake or politician, and it is considered impolite and insulting to refer to any person as it. That seems dumb to me, basing a language rule on social etiquette alone.

By the same token, we can’t use her, because we can’t be sure Someone is female, and it is considered insulting to refer to a male with female terms. Back in the 20th Century, I was instructed to use his in these situations. He, him and his were understood to include the possibility of the unknown subject being female.

That sounded silly to me back then, and today, in the time of recognizing the equality of female humans, it has been pronounced officially silly, and also grammatically incorrect. The proper correct answer is Number 3. Yuck — his or her. We all know it is correct and we all hate to use it. The category for this type of language is AWKWARD.

So there it is — the missing pronoun. English needs a singular pronoun that has a non-specific gender, a word that could possibly mean a male or female person, but only one. Maybe there was one back in the Middle English days, but it has gotten lost in the couch cushions of time.

This pronoun gap is not exactly a big secret. Over the last few decades, lots of smart people have proposed new words to fill it. Here are a few of them:

hin          shis          shim

thon        co             xie

per          en             ne

nis           nir             hiser

Seriously? What language did they think they were coining for? I don’t even know how to pronounce the one starting with ‘x’. Where they just trying to boost their Scrabble scores?

What I don’t get is why the problem seems to be so difficult. The missing pronoun isn’t missing at all. It has been hiding in plain sight all this time. It’s just that the Grammar Police are too stuck on their rules to recognize it.

The solution to the missing pronoun is to use what everybody already uses: they, their, them.

Yes, They and their are plural. But is this the only rule in the English language that doesn’t have an exception? I think there is already an unwritten exception that is perfectly natural to everybody that uses English already. I call it the Exception of Intentional Vagueness.

When you start a sentence with “someone”, you are trying to be vague on purpose. You want to hide the person’s identitiy, by masking the name, the gender, and (this is very important) the exact number of people involved in this sentence.

When you say “someone” you don’t even want the listener to assume it/they was/were only one person, just a number of people greater than zero. Maybe it was one. Maybe two. Maybe a million. It’s your little secret.

In that case the use of his or her is not correct, because it is more specific you intend. His or her implies the exact number of people (one and only one), and that is spilling too many beans. This is what I mean by the Exception of Intentional Vagueness. The following sentence is a good example of its application:

Someone splattered their Velveeta nachos all over the kitchen during the night, and whichever kid or kids they are, they better clean it up before I figure out how many belts I’m going to have to get out of my closet.

Pronoun found. Case closed.

Furthering Farther Fairly

Does how you pronounce a word give it a new meaning?

Does pronouncing a word differently give it a new meaning?

Instead of arguing about something important, such as whether Michael Jordan’s first three-peat Chicago Bulls could beat the Babe Ruth / Lou Gehrig-era Yankees in a mixed martial arts tournament, the family was arguing about the “correct” way of pronouncing a word.

“We always said it EE-ther,” I said, “That’s how real Americans from the Great Lakes region talk.”

“Out West we say EYE-ther,” my wife said, “As in ‘EYE-ther you go to bed right this second, or you’ll end up with a black EYE.'”

We turned to Pops to cast the deciding vote. “My Scottish forebears taught me to say the word as AY-thair.”

Lucky for us the spelling of the word either has been frozen for a few hundred years. Otherwise somebody might conclude, based on our three regional pronunciations, that we were actually using three different words, with unique spellings and unique definitions. Maybe they would think:

Eyether: an adjective meaning a choice between two alternatives. “You can have eyether bacon or spam on your pizza.

Eether: an adjective meaning a choice among several (more than two) alternatives, as in, “Eether we go to Harvard, MIT, or the International House of Pancakes for breakfast.”

Aythere: an adjective meaning you don’t really have a choice. It is only used to indicate a threat or ultimatum, in which the alternative is left unspoken, because it is understood to be so horrifying that it is not really something anyone would pick. As in, “Aythere you pay up to Knuckles here, or, well, you know.”

 Naturally this is all silly. Almost every word has a whole range of pronunciation. We don’t split tomato and tom-ah-to into different words with new spellings and new definitions. We just write tomato. Because it has a standard spelling and definition, people can say it however they like and it doesn’t splinter into new words.

Yet, somehow our English teachers have latched onto the idea that further and farther are two separate words that have unique definitions. They will mark these sentences as incorrect:

Jimmy walked out further on the diving board.

He was dreaming farther into the future about winning the Cannonball Competition.

Farther is supposed to be used only for describing physical distances, such as swimming a mile farther from shore. Further is reserved for describing when things happen in time, as in “We will discuss the unfortunate swimming suit malfunction further at our meeting tomorrow.”

But people don’t usually make any distinction between the dimensions of physical distance and time when they talk. There is no confusion at all in this exchange, even though the word long implies physical distance:

“How long did you sleep?”

“About six hours. Is the meeting over?”

It’s obvious what happened. When dictionaries were being compiled for the first time way back when, one logophile collected the word farther, and another researcher collected the word further. Their differing spellings were based on varying regional pronunciations of the same word, which had the general meaning of “go some more”. Once established in the dictionary as two separate words, over time they acquired slightly divergent definitions, so that now, you can’t correctly say:

Bringing my pet tarantula to the office did not farther my chances for promotion.

It is about time to admit that the dictionaricrats blew it a long time ago. Further and farther are the same word and we should stop smacking kids down when they use them interchangeably. And to avoid confusion in the future, the new, unified form of these two words should be re-branded, with a new spelling, based on the classical Brooklyn form:  foither.

And while we’re at it, let’s stop harping on kids who confuse these supposedly different words:

sit and set

lay and lie

I’d bet a half dozen donuts that these words split off from common ancestors years ago, and despite what the dictionary insists, people continue to use them interchangeably. I know there are plenty of reasons why one needs to know the “correct” usage of each. But do these rules of correctness really add meaning to our language, or are they just more silliness?

I’m sure to write foither on the topic.