Descriptive linguistics FTW!

Last night after a Board meeting, I was talking with friends and one expressed shock bordering on horror that I text using abbreviations and conventions created and commonly accepted within that linguistic space.

“I’m rather surprised to find out you’re an LOL and OMG and emoticon person.”

Well, I’m a linguistically adaptable person, actually. I don’t use those conventions outside texts and social media, in which characters are constrained and, generally, keyboarding is limited. I don’t say “LOL” in conversation, nor when using a keyboard. I do, though, use LOL where it is a standard part of the lexicon, because I’m speaking in a colloquial language and don’t feel the need, surrounded by LOLers, to destroy my reputation and thumbs with “oh, wow, that is truly funny.”  Recall David Foster Wallace’s review of Bryan Gardner’s Modern American Usage (which review appears in the nonfiction essay collection Consider the Lobster, and which review reiterated the annoying grammatical tic in which Wallace uses “which” in ways that make me itch ), in which Wallace explains that, when talking with Midwestern friends he uses expressions like “where you at?” because conditional, situational lexical conformity performs significant social functions including masking an erudite prescriptivist snobbery amongst those who disdain such ridiculousness. You know the type…for instance, the raised eyebrow of disdain arched toward a friend who fully embraces emoticons in text messages.

My friend last night seemed to believe that my using LOL and winky emoticons made me shockingly deviant in my linguistic standards. But am I actually failing the language because I OMG when I reply to a text about how awful I am at karaoke? Of course not. (I am, however, failing both George Michael and Rick Springfield when I belt their songs in a key somewhere between those singers’ ranges and my own. Said performances deserved several horrified OMGs.)

The older I get, the more I tend toward descriptivist linguistics. I have been out of academia long enough to know we can’t stem the tide of language shifts, texting enough that I appreciate the culture’s willingness to embrace an abbreviated language parallel to government employees’ acronym dialect, and old enough to know that my pedantic “kids these days are ruining the language” tendencies unveil a knowledge that kids these days are actually going to rule the world. And I, for one, I don’t want to be railing against their language from my rocking chair, cane aloft, countering every miscast objective who with “it’s whom, you linguistic hoodlums!”

Okay, yes, I do.

But I am in my old age moving toward the point of linguistic early adoption, at least within technological theaters.  I gleefully read the Atlantic’s piece about the new preposition, used in online English. Though I was late to OMG and LOL and LMAO, I have jumped on the prepositional-because trend, thanks to my social-media bestie, Twitter.

I love Twitter. I don’t read my feed as much as I used to, for in the land of “may your days be merry and bright starting next week with a rare Thanksgivukkah,” I don’t have time to get my Twitter fix. But I’m quite fond of the prepositional-because.

I do plan, however, on shaking my cane from my rocking chair and bellowing, “it’s not a ‘because-noun!’ Because grammatical naming conventions!”

Go check out the article, whether you find my texts irritatingly colloquial or not. The Atlantic has posted as pleasant a read on descriptive-linguistic developments as possible, and that’s saying a lot.

Which language deviances do you commit in limited settings? Do you eschew LOL unless you’re actually laughing out loud? Will you text a “K” to avoid all those messy characters in “okay”? Do you reject all emoticons or employ them with reckless abandon? Have you crossed into “srsly” and “pls” to save characters or do you share Steve Martin’s insistence on proper spelling in Tweets?

And the winner is…

The spammer who composed this beauty:

“I was reading something else about this on another blog. Interesting. Your linear perspective on it is diametrically contradicted to what I read earlier. I am still contemplating over the various points of view, but I’m tipped to a great extent toward yours. And regardless, that’s what is so great about modern democracy and the marketplace of thoughts on-line.”

Why, nameless, faceless salesperson of all things godawful, you almost make sense. Most of the other spam is barely intelligible and so I celebrate you. This is b-lls-t, in part because I’ve never had a linear perspective in my life, and because things cannot be “diametrically contradicted to” something else (they are “diametrically opposed to” or “directly contradict”), and because modern democracy allows many fewer opinions than, say, Grecian democracy, and because since the late ’90s the Wired style guide assured us it was time to take the hyphen out of the word online (a trend followed fewer than two years later by most major dictionaries.)

Also, your fake comment has nothing at all to do with the post to which you appended it, and is the most blatant of attempts to fake your way through the assignment. I’ve seen that before, buddy. I teach English to those who believe they don’t need it.

Though your attempt is head and shoulders above the rest of the spam I get (and, honestly, better than the compositions of 75% of college freshman), it’s still schlock.

So. For your efforts: A. For your dirth of knowledge and annoying posing: F.

Still. Amusing. You win. Your prize is that I won’t post your spam in my comments because it’s still spam and obviously crap; but I will take your pathetic words and use them to amuse myself for the three minutes or so it took to deride you in public.

Yay for you, spam dude.

This week in mass confusion

Peanut: Mommy, I’m making duds. Do you know what a “dud” is?
Me: Something that doesn’t work?
P: No. Something that works really well. Not “dud.” “Duds.”


P: Mommy, do you know what “mashed” means?
M: Smushed?
P: No. Something that is really working. Mashed. Really working well.


P: I’m doing a mash.
M: Oh. Does that still mean you’re doing something well?
P: Yup. It’s so mashed it’s not going to be terribled.

Oh my heavens, I think my many careers in words and wordsmithing might be over. Clearly I don’t understand words as well as I think I do.

You’re right. 2000s were worthless.

Op-ed piece crossed my ‘pooter just as I was thinking this, too…what a crappy decade.

[My semi-unrelated two cents? Please, in this week’s retrospectives, let’s all try to behave responsibly toward apostrophes in decade references. They were the 2000s. Or the ’00s. This is 2009’s final hour. For advanced punctuators, the ’00s’ last hurrah. No apostrophe for plurals, yes apostrophes for possessive. Please.]

Grammar nerds unite!

In a book review on, Laura Miller dips a toe in the prescriptive vs. descriptive linguistic debate, one in which some of us (no names) stomp around furiously when people use the phrase “where are you at?” and others (no names, but doubtless their mailboxes have unnecessary apostrophes scratched out) notice that everyone understands what it means, whether or not it is technically correct grammar.

Now, I heart Miller because she hearts David Foster Wallace, and that’s all I really need to know about a person. I believe, however, that she’s a bit too lenient with the descriptivists. She mentions her own pet peeve of dangling participles. Otherwise, she’s pretty laid back about the whole fall of civilization as we know it, at the hands of the business jargon creators, the advertising grammar bastardizers, and the genuinely lazy. (Please. I taught college English. I know some of it is laziness and “I have better things to do” -ism and “why bother” defeatism. But that most of it is really bad education in the early years wherein something like 50% of students are getting As.)

Ladies and gentlemen, would it kill us all to learn the proper use of “whom?”

I would like to announce, in light of this discussion, the production of my new album, Grammatically Corrected Songs. The playlist of final tracks:
I Can’t Get Any Satisfaction
Lie, Lady. Lie.
I Have Spurs That Jingle Jangle Jingle
You Are Nothing but a Hound Dog
Lie Down, Sally
Isn’t It Coincidental (and Generally Annoying but Not Ironic)?
and a medley of every song that should have “I Want You So Badly” rather than “so bad” but barring those that actually mean “I want you when you are bad,” regardless of their connotation for bad.

Send additional track suggestions to my producer. I’ll get to work on them when my band reconvenes next month.

Marketing 101

Dear Mr. Axelrod,
When you have an important message on a key policy issue from the leader of your political party, the email should not be titled “Got a few minutes?”

Aside from being grammatically incorrect (it should be “Have a few minutes?”) you almost guarantee having your email deleted before it’s been read. The answer to “got a few minutes” is always “no.” The answer to “To Whom It May Concern” is a universal, “not me; check for someone else while you’re in the trash can.”

If you’re sending out a short, compelling video about health care reform, maybe use the subject lines:
Four Minutes to Health Care Reform
Health Care Reform in Just Four Minutes
Health Care Reform in a Few Minutes
A Few Minutes to Health Care Reform.

This is just Advertising 101, people. Your only chance to be read is the headline. You have one second. “Got a minute?” doesn’t cut it. (Have vs. Got is Grammar 1A.)

(You can see the video on the White House site, but I’m not linking because I don’t reward poor grammar.)

Things we learned today

I’m working on those other requests, but today I have the following highlights for you:

The rookie human in our family learned that if you fill your pockets with rocks at the beginning of a hike for the mid-point lake rock throwing, you will spend much of the hike yanking up your drawers.
Caveat: true if you’re built like Spouse; no guarantees made if you’re built like post-weaning me.

The rookie mom of our family learned that if your small human fills his pockets with rocks, the action of walking 3 miles (no joke…I bribed him with two lollipops and a fistful of licorice, but he walked—without whining—3 miles. Did I mention that after the pockets were empty he walked another half mile? Uphill? A steep one? Kid is built like Spouse on the outside and like me on the inside.)
Anyway, if a pocket full of rocks is emptied of said rocks after 3 miles, two things are true: 1)rocks will have shed approximately 1/4 cup of dirt, all of which will go into the bed at naptime (you vets know to take them off first; I am a rookie); and 2) a standard cotton pocket will act as a fine sieve and a good portion of the dirt will filter through onto underdrawers and thighs, the result of which is impossible to shake out before nap. Believe me. After I found my mistake I shook that kid like…just kidding shaking is not funny. Except that it is.

I also learned that if you’re really crave making a whole pot of cream of potato ssoup just so you can pour it all over a casserole dish of your home-baked mac-n-cheese and eat it all with a soup spoon, maybe, just maybe, you need some sodium. But probably not that much.

And to cap it off, I swear, this is exactly the sixth step in a recipe for cream of potato soup.
“Add flour and create a rue.”
How would I create a rue? Burn the meal six steps in? Or get to the sixth step and realize I’m still eighteen steps from some damned soup?


My kid just yelled at the TV, despite his 104 degree fever, because the song informed him that “You and me; solve a mystery…”

He bellowed, “No! ‘You and I’!”

That’s my boy! You tell ’em, Peanut. In fact, let’s grab some Magic Markers and go to town on your books. There’s a lot of passive voice in “Pete’s a Pizza.”

Have I taught you people nothing?!

This morning’s blog stats note that someone found Naptime Writing by Googling “crutches make me nauseous.”

People, people, people. Or, really, person, person, person. Nauseous means making others sick. The smell of vomit is nauseous. When you smell it, you are nauseated. Or it nauseates you. Saying crutches make you nauseous means that using crutches makes you look so disgusting that people retch when they see you.

Is that true? Damn, I thought I looked a bit schlumpy on crutches, but I didn’t worry that people were hurling the contents of their stomachs into trashcans and gutters just watching me crutch by. That’s some serious problem you’vt there, Google reader.

Also, please read all my other grammatical posts. I’m guessing you put apostrophes all over the f—ing place.And you need help.

You know you do.

(btw, don’t turn to Strunk or White. Those f—ers don’t know their that from their which…love this piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education by linguist Geoffrey Pullum.)

Bookworm raises my hackles

Today was the first day in four years that I played bookworm. I won’t link to it here because it’s addictive and I don’t want to be a pusher.

But here’s the thing. That game has more made up words than any round of Scrabble from my childhood. And I know…we used to spend our turns at grandma’s reading the entire dictionary for the letters we had. I learned “xat” and “firn” while reading the unabridged. Our turns took so long that we all played Rummy as a side game while the other cheaters “thought” about their letters with a dictionary.

Anyway, I play bookworm to win, despite the fact that no matter how many points you get they pretend you’re the king of all lexicography, making up titles to stroke the ego of even the lest compitent player. After my thesis was submitted I played a marathon game that netted more than a million points and I went online to find out how awesome I was in the bookworm geek community. Turns out there’s no hierarchy or bragging rights because every point you get earns you a new title. And all of the six or seven people who cared were all bragging about a couple hundred thousand points. Pedestrian.

Tonight, in hour three of play, I worked my way to the word “Tuesday.” Took a lot of playing just the right side of the board, because I had to wait and wait and wait for a “y”. Well, bookworm says Tuesday is not a word. It, does, however, accept the following:
jee (come on, seriously, it’s gee.)
shott (come on, seriously, even chott is pushing it)
lang (seriously? I get the whole British thing, but not the ancient Scots)

but it won’t accept Tuesday (or shrove. Or Narnia or Jedi, but I get those. Purists. I gotcha.)

Look, it took me almost an hour to get Tuesday. I took a lot of sucky four letter words along that right three columns just to get that word. I wish I could say I’m totally boycotting your game, you maker-up-ers of words.

Unfortunately, I have to go. I got “baroque” last round, and I’m working on hellion just to see if you accept it.

Little Lord Fauntleroy

Someone found my blog by googling “how to change toddler clothes for nap.”

Several things. First: boy, did you find the wrong blog. I’m lucky if my kid wears clothes. When he does, they’re usually stained clothes because we don’t care, at all, and do laundry thusly: take clothes, throw in washing machine, add soap, wash, and leave for two days until you remember to dry them. Seriously. We don’t separate for color or size or fabric or any of the nonsense that other people seem to separate for. We don’t pretreat or chemically treat or trick or treat. We just freaking wash.

(Little secret: you know why we’re totally cavalier about laundry? ‘Cuz I don’t do it. Spouse does. And he could rub them in acid and douse them with lye and I would wear them with a smile on my face because it’s the one freaking thing around here I don’t have to do. Other than compost. So it’s the first of two things I don’t have to do. Yay me, yay Spouse, yay stains.)

But asking how to change toddler’s clothes for nap begs two rather obvious, if facetious, questions: what the hell is your kid wearing that it needs to be changed for nap; and how did you manage to get the one toddler in the world who tolerates costume changes? I have a kid who would rather sit in his jammies at home, running in small circles than actually don outside clothes to do his running in the sunlight. (Never stops moving, this one, so it’s a shock when he offers to stay in just to wear jammies.)

It’s not like our kid’s outside clothes are binding or rough or chosen by anyone but him. He just doesn’t like changing clothes. And he likes control. And I’ve just described 99% of toddlers, so who the hell is this googler parenting? How does his or her kid dress willingly in whatever breeches and bowtie Little Lord Fauntleroy costume they’re making him wear, AND willingly change again? (Notice how I pretended there was even one iota of a chance that the google dude is a guy? Please. What guy would even think to change clothes for nap? There are some awesome dads out there, but they attend to emotional, physical, and mental needs. Not weirdass bullshit. This is one of those moms who scrapbooks and crafts and bakes and sews curtains and makes furniture and color coordinates. All before dawn.) Does this jammies-then-clothes-then-jammies kid get to wear his jammies, then, for the rest of the day? Or do they (see, I did it again) change him a third time, and again for nighttime?

I’m all confused. I mean, it takes everything I have to be allegedly responsible and change my kid into clothes in the morning. I sleep in whatever I wear, and I often wear it again the next day (much to my mother’s try-to-keep-it-under-control-but-really-abject-and-borderline-screaming horror). So I’m pretty proud that I’m trying to be all socially acceptable and force my child from one comfy outfit into whatever creative combo he chooses in the morning (or afternoon or ten minutes before dinner when “Mommy, I HAVE to go outside”).

Now that I think about it, and just to make the world a bit more balanced after crazy google lady revealed her tidy little secret to the world via my 60-hit-a-day blog, maybe I’ll start letting my kid wear jammies all the time.

Wait, something just occured to me…are you one of those people who has a toddler in party dresses most days? Combed hair? Barrettes that match her shoes? You know what? It’s the holiday season, so I won’t judge. But I totally just lost 97% of my respect for you, oh random person who googled about changing a toddler’s clothes for nap, and forgot the possessive apostrophe and ess. So needless to say, there wasn’t a whole lot of respect left to lose. But you just wiped it all out, in one frilly crinoline and satin flourish.

Now I’m totally making tomorrow jammies day.

It’s too easy to screw up contemporary English, so now you’re butchering Shakespearean English, too?

Sign painted on outdoor shopping mall of upscale shops: Feel not shame for thou (sic) love of shoes.

Thou love? No, you dunderheaded idiots. (I know, I know. I taught critical thinking. If you insult the party to whom you’re talking, you generally have no point. But this is a collection of stores who would sell me (if I had that kind of money or cared what I looked like) a $150 sweater and $200 pair of shoes while befouling my sensibilities and dainty editor’s eyes. Shit like that makes our retinas BLEED, y’all.)

Who is hiring these writers, and who is hiring these advertisers?

Thou is a pronoun. It’s Elizabethan “you.”  Thy is a possessive pronoun. Sixteenth century “your.”

So your big marketing push this holiday season reads: “Do not be ashamed of you (sic)  love of shoes.” Take it from me: you meant “thy” love of shoes.

And you painted it on the wall. Like your nudge-nudge-wink-wink lame attempt at a joke is supposed to get me to swerve off the road and into your dank, dimly lit parking garage in the unholiest of all consumerist greed-fests: December. You think classing up being elbow-deep in polyester and perfume-reeking humanity makes shopping somehow more appealing? Well, you’re entitled to your opinion. But you’re not entitled to your own version of Elizabethan English. Use a dictionary when you’re writing. Or an editor. Or stop letting the boneheads in the strategy department write your advertising.


On an upbeat note, I’m pleased as always to congratulate Trader Joe’s for being one of the few stores in the nation to have a sign reading, “12 items or fewer.” Kudos. Your “unique grocery store” image remains credible to the educated but underpaid masses who traipse into your store for an affordable selection of organic, sugary, and obscure. Thank you for having hatch green chili bread, organic egg nog, and Jack Daniel’s all ready for me, btw, so that my trip down the twelve-or-fewer aisle is particularly sparkly this holiday season.

Please, hire an editor or proofreader.

I cannot, can’t, will not, won’t go to a coffee chain whose napkins proclaim that their efforts will leave the world with “less napkins.” What, in the name of all that is holy, did David Foster Wallace not explain to us in his review of Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage but that structural linguistics, as descriptive yet still highly judgmental are a farce. Written and standard English need flexible but firm prescriptive rules. The descriptive tack is a ruse, allowing in errors in the name of colloquial usage, yet ignoring other, legitimate alternate usages based in judgment and priorities that hide nothing less than a political agenda.

In other words, just because some people say it incorrectly doesn’t make it correct. Or cute. Think differently.

Please, advertising companies, hire professional editors. You can’t say “less napkins” just because enough people don’t know the rule. It’s “fewer napkins.” You can count napkins. Therefore you can know just how many fewer napkins there are. Just because supermarkets get away with the egregious Ten Items or Less (sic) rather than opting for the correct Ten Items of Fewer; and just because advertising companies get away with the chalkboard-forkdragging of “Where Are You At?” rather than the simpler, more elegant, and freaking correct “Where Are You?” does not mean that you can claim frequent American usage and refuse to proofread your freaking napkins. Written language is standard as used by educated writers. And it’s fewer napkins. You can’t count sugar. So there you get to use “less sugar.” You can count cars. Fewer cars. You can’t count traffic. Less traffic. Fewer napkins, less sugar, fewer cars, less traffic. Less pollution, for that matter. And apparently, far, far fewer writers who actually know the language.

Sign of the apocalypse.

Holiday cards: public service announcement

I got this note from a neighbor, who is a raving, foaming-at-the-mouth English professor. She patted my hand as she turned it over, reassuring me that, of course, she knows I know everything in the letter. It’s for other people. Of course. Not me. But just to be thorough, she’s handing them out to everyone on the block.

“Dear friends,

I know this is a busy time of year for you. From the looks of last year’s holiday card, you start around now with the drafting of your family’s newsletter and photo-taking. I do love the updates. And the pictures. Whew! I can’t believe it’s been another year, but there’s the proof: pictures of kids I’ve never met and never agreed to be friends with, and not so much as the hint of your presence anywhere in your own family. Keep ‘em coming!

Anyway, here’s the reason I’m writing: I can tell from the obvious time and energy that goes into your holiday extravaganza of correspondence that you send cards to a lot of people. And in so doing, you’re perpetuating a bit of a linguistic problem. So many look up to you that I’m hoping you can help me turn the tide back in favor of correct and precise language.

The thing is, your name and your family’s name fall into a certain category of words–those that take an “s” to become plural. And they take an apostrophe-ess when the singular becomes possessive. But, and here’s the kicker, when the plural of your name becomes a possessive, it takes an ess-apostrophe. I know that sounds like silly book-learnin’ talk, so let me break it down for you. I won’t use those pesky Smiths as an example. We’ve all had enough of them. They are just trying to keep up with the Joneses. But that’s another letter.

If your name, for the sake of argument, were Harkin, then you would be Sally Harkin. You know that, I know. Here’s where it gets trickier. If you owned a pencil, it would be Sally Harkin’s pencil. If, let’s be bold here, you had a family tailing behind you at some or most occasions, they would be Sally Harkin’s family. But if we’re talking about the whole family, you are The Harkins. And if your whole family has something tailing behind you at some or most occasions, like maybe a dog or a car or a genuinely wrong-headed political view, it would be the Harkins’ dog, Harkins’ car, and Harkins’ political ignorance.

So your holiday cards should not say The Harkin’s. Or From the Harkins’. They should say The Harkins. From The Harkins. Apostrophes are just not necessary. In fact, they’re kind of out of place in a family as full as yours. You have enough creatures roaming around within the confines of your family home that you don’t need extra apostrophes cluttering things up.

Now, don’t get me wrong. This isn’t as egregious as “10 items or fewer,” which none of the markets in my area seems to choose, favoring instead the “10 items or less” that is ruining our society. No, no. Your extra apostrophe is only problematic because, as I mentioned before, so many look up to you as an example. They, to be more like you, are adding apostrophes to their names, too. It’s similar to the phenomenon where someone, somewhere, saw CDs and DVDs and thought they looked too bare without punctuation. So every company and catalog starts listing CD’s and DVD’s, neither of which is really what they mean. Unless they are speaking of the CD’s songs and the DVD’s menus. Then, sure, bring on the apostrophe. But a spindle of CDs and a collection of DVDs? Plain, please, without the apostrophe a la mode.

Please forgive my trespass on this one. But if you don’t mind, please, let your friends the Traxes know about that whole superfluous and really rather appallingly incorrect apostrophe thing, too. Because Annie Trax thinks that when her family gets together they are The Trax’s. And I just know I can’t send her this letter. She’s not as evolved as you. She couldn’t bear to know that The Traxes’ winter mailings are taxing our circle’s good nature. For that matter, she couldn’t bear to know that her family’s good qualities, fine china, and dreadful children, should be labeled Traxes’. I’m sure you can convey it, with your usual wit and charm. Maybe something in your massive December 1 mailing?

Have a great week, dearie. I’ll let you go, for I’m sure you have to pick out your Thanksgiving decor AND start making the New Year’s favors this month. All my best!

Your friend,

Millicent Fussbudget”