In Journalism, Grammar Is Everything

Paul Brians is right; if people are turned off by nonstandard usage, that is not akin to racism.

But I have a turn-off of my own: a widespread inattention to the vocabulary of usage terms. Look at this from The Wall Street Journal article Paul links to:
The date flopped for a couple of reasons, but bad grammar bothers Mr. Cohen. Learning a potential mate doesn’t know the difference between “there,” “they’re” and “their” is like discovering she loves cats, he says. Mr. Cohen is allergic to cats. “It’s like learning I’m going to sneeze every time I see her,” he says.
Does it jump out at you, too? It says that "bad grammar" bothers the gentleman, but then lists the confusion of the homonyms "there," they're," and "their" as the example that is off-putting to Mr. Cohen.

I don't know if this is the fault of the author of the piece (Georgia Wells), Mr. Cohen, or an inattentive copy editor, but this is not an example of bad grammar; it is an example of bad spelling. This is how grammar gets a bad name; it is used as a catch-all expression for any usage error. I call upon Stan Carey, contributor to Visual Thesaurus to make my point:
It would be useful to keep the other categories separate, but lists of "common grammar mistakes" rarely stray beyond gripes in just these areas. They recast grammar as style, usage and even spelling. They collapse and confuse the principles governing language use, leading insecure readers to feel bound by linguistic rules that often don't apply to them or to anyone.
I've written about this before, but somehow that has not stopped The Wall Street Journal or anyone else from writing about all usage errors as if they were "grammar mistakes." They are not. For good measure, let's have a look at what a dictionary has to say about it:
a :  the study of the classes of words, their inflections, and their functions and relations in the sentence
b :  a study of what is to be preferred and what avoided in inflection and syntax

a :  the characteristic system of inflections and syntax of a language
b :  a system of rules that defines the grammatical structure of a language

a :  a grammar textbook
b :  speech or writing evaluated according to its conformity to grammatical rules

:  the principles or rules of an art, science, or technique
See? It's about structure, not spelling, capitalization, or the rest of the hodgepodge The Wall Street Journal discusses in this article.

On Dating Sites, Good Writing Matters

An article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal by Georgia Wells (“What’s Really Hot on Dating Sites? Proper Grammar”) reinforces what many people have suggested for some time: that on dating sites nonstandard usage can handicap men wanting to get acquainted with women. There is a lot of evidence for this, not all of it merely anecdotal.

The obvious lesson for suitors would be: work on your writing and improve your chances.

But the article also contains a predictably disparaging comment from a linguist:
“Grammar snobbery is one of the last permissible prejudices,” says John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia University. “The energy that used to go into open classism and racism now goes into disparaging people’s grammar.”
So the women involved need to ease up and give sloppy writers a chance? Not going to happen.

Scholars like McWhorter frequently compare those who judge other people by their writing to racists.


There are huge differences.

 It's almost impossible to change your race. It’s quite possible to learn how to compose a sentence that won't annoy most readers. If you’re not too embarrassed to share your amorous prose you could ask someone with better writing skills to proofread your work and make suggestions.

Not knowing the difference between “their” and “there” is not an innate characteristic like skin color. It displays at the very least an indifference to polished writing.

“Classism” of course is a very different matter from racism. If you think the folks in the run-down trailer park must be worthless simply because of where they live you may be depriving yourself of valuable experiences, but social attitudes against class prejudice are nowhere near as widespread and powerful as those against racism.

Note the slippery way McWhorter manages to associate “grammar snobbery” with racism by saying both are products of the same “energy.”

What other characteristics in a man’s writing might arouse the same antagonistic “energy” in some women?

• The man talks only about himself and doesn’t ask any questions of the woman.
• The man is interested only in sports.
• The man loves guns.
• The man is focused only on sex.

Women on dating sites are usually overwhelmed with far more potential suitors than they want or need, and it’s only natural that many of them ignore those with what they consider to be substandard writing skills.

It may be “politically correct” to disparage women with a preference for grammatical correctness, but it’s out of line to compare them to racists.


Unhip Ranker Rankles

I just saw on FaceBook one of those annoying click-bait surveys asking "How Hippie Are You?" in which one of the result comments used the misspelling "tie die."

If you can't spell "tie-dye" you're not hip enough to write a survey about hippieness. Everybody knows "tie die" is what happens when you get strangled by your neckwear.

At least it didn't use the misspelling “hippy” (see p. 143 of Common Errors in English Usage),


Life and Death on the Farm

Reading this Crankshaft strip this morning I was reminded that I've been meaning to look up the origin of the phrase “bought the farm” meaning “be killed.” It certainly isn’t obvious.

The Random House Dictionary of American Slang offers this rather strained explanation:
orig. US Air Force use. Jet pilots say that when a jet crashes on a farm the farmer usually sues the government for damage done to his farm by the crash, and the amount demanded is always more than enough to pay off the mortgage and then buy the farm outright. Since this type of crash (i.e. in a jet fighter) is nearly always fatal to the pilot, the pilot pays for the farm with his life.
How common could such crashes be? Unless farm buildings were hit, it seems as if most farms would recover fairly easily from a plane crash.

In this instance I like the explanation by Barbara Mikkelson on Snopes.com better:
This term has been part of the English lexicon since at least 1955, but its origins are unclear. Some theorize that an American soldier’s G.I. insurance was sufficient to enable his family to settle the mortgage back home, thus a death in battle was succinctly described as “He bought the farm.”
The problem with this etymology is that it has yet to prove out. Though “buying the farm” did become a way of saying “he died” (in battle or otherwise, soldier or anyone else), the connection between G.I.s’ death benefits and swarms of families paying off mortgages with those sadly-gained funds is tenuous at best. 
Others postulate the term derived from wistful statements uttered by aviators who later met the Grim Reaper in dogfights; each making a statement to the effect that after the war was over, he’d like to settle down and buy a farm. “He bought the farm” thus became a way of saying “His war is now over.” 
Another theory leaves out soldiers entirely: according to it, farmers whose buildings were hit by crashing fighter planes would sue the government for damages, and those damages were often enough to pay off all outstanding mortgages on the property. Since very few pilots would survive such a crash, the pilot was said to have “bought the farm” with his life. 
These are charming tales filled with imagery and romance, but nothing other than our desire to believe supports any of them. Moreover, “to buy it” (meaning “to die”) existed in the language long before “to buy the farm” did. It’s more reasonable to suppose the one is an extension of the other, with “the farm” substituting for (the often unstated) “it.” The Oxford English Dictionary offers this definition of “buy”:
To suffer some mishap or reverse, specifically to be wounded; to get killed, to die; (of an airman) to be shot down.
The earliest use of “buy” in this sense dates to 1825, more than a century before the earliest appearance of “buy the farm.”
Lexicographer Dave Wilton concludes “the farm” is a slang reference to a burial plot (i.e., a piece of ground). “Buy a plot” appeared around the time of “buy the farm” (both mean the same thing), but it’s a particular snippet of World War I slang that ties it all together: “Become a landowner” thus means “to inhabit a cemetery plot.”
This expression reminds me of the popular culture trope whereby parents lie about the death of a family pet by telling their kids that the animal has gone to live “on a nice farm upstate.”

The reference to “upstate” would point to a New York origin, but I would love to know how and when this notion was first popularized. I have been unable to trace how far back this expression goes, but it pops up frequently.

References to this supposed practice rarely if ever refer to the actual death of a pet or to literal death. There has recently been a spate of uses of the expression referring to changes on various talk shows.

Here is a sample headline about the change of hosts on The Tonight Show
Jimmy Fallon Will Send Jay Leno To Live On A Farm Upstate. 
The same expression was used of Stephen Colbert leaving his show on the Comedy Network:
a few weeks before Colbert was sent to live on a farm upstate (sorry, kids) 
Another reference is used in connection with the disposal of the David Letterman Late Show set:
This is what it felt like when your mother, bereft because your father had left for cigarettes and disappeared for 40 years, told you your pet squirrel had gone to live on a farm upstate, and then you walked in on her cuddling with Sgt. Squirms, only for her to insist this wasn't the same squirrel.
Another writer uses this trope to refer to dismissing an idea for a blog post:
I’m starting to write a post here on Palestra Back (a post which has been sent off to live on a farm upstate with other mediocre post ideas).
I began this blog post with reference to the deaths of pilots. Let’s put this discussion out to pasture with this instance in which “pilot” has a different meaning:
On a list of failed shows where Peter Boyle plays a talking police dog, Poochinski owns the number one spot. And it’s not for lack of trying either. Poochinski earned the position by undershooting even the lowest aspirations of its premise with a cascade of exhausting jokes, arduous exposition, and animatronics straight from the nightmare dog park of the uncanny valley. Then it does us one better. Remove the whole “dog can talk and operate stereo equipment” vehicle, and Poochinski is still a confusing, toneless mess. The show’s bizarre place in network television history — coupled with its equally bizarre spot in four writers’ “good idea” book — makes Poochinski one of the worst pilots to ever go live on a farm upstate somewhere.


A Passage to Bainbridge Island

When I tell people we live on Bainbridge Island, they often assume we have to take a ferry to get anywhere on the mainland. It’s true that we often take the ferry to Seattle, but since 1950 there has been a bridge spanning Agate Passage at the Island’s northern tip.

I have long puzzled over the fact that the locals usually refer to this as the “Agate Pass bridge.” Indeed, according to Google Maps the Agate Pass Bridge crosses over Agate Passage.

The term “pass” has historically more often designated a passable way through mountains or other obstacles. In former times it could be used to designated a crossing over a body of water, or even a bridge (the Oxford English Dictionary calls this usage “now rare”).

In modern usage, this is the most common OED definition of “pass” in its geographical sense:
A way through or across an area where passage is limited by natural impediments, such as trees, marshes, or hills. Chiefly spec.: a route over or through a mountainous region; a narrow passage between mountains. 
But a pass can also be a channel within a body of water:
A navigable channel, esp. at a river's mouth or in a delta; spec. one in the Mississippi delta.
But it a pass is usually not the name for the narrow body of water separating two land masses—a strait. So why do most neighbors of Agate Passage refer to it as “Agate Pass”?

Is it just a handy abbreviation? Maybe, but we also have Rich Passage to the west, and nobody ever calls it ”Rich Pass.”

But on Agate Point we have an “Agate Pass Road.”

In the wider area, there’s the wonderful Agate Pass Cafe in Suquamish, Agate Pass Crossfit in Poulsbo, and Fabrik Agate Pass Stoneware made in Seattle by Jim McBride in the 70s and 80s.

On the other hand, we have right here Agate Passage Psychological Services. In this era of personal “journeys” it makes sense that a psychotherapy clinic would choose “passage” over “pass.” Similarly, local Quakers have formed the “Agate Passage Friends Meeting.”

By now you may wondering: are there agates in Agate Passage? Not so far as I know. Surely if there any existed, genuine Agate Passage agates would be choice souvenirs in the many local shops serving tourists.

In fact the name has nothing to do with the gemstone.

In 1841 Captain Charles Wilkes was leading a US Navy expedition to scout  navigable waters to the west, including Puget Sound. He was the first explorer of European descent to discover that Bainbridge was indeed an island, when he found the strait separating what is now called “Agate Point” from the Kitsap Peninsula. He named it “Agate’s Passage” after the expedition’s distinguished artist, Alfred Thomas Agate (1812–1846)—a significant fact in that although the Island is poor in agates it now abounds in artists.

Agate created the first known depiction of nearby Mount Rainier, where there are many agates.

Agate Island in Fiji was also named in Alfred Agate’s honor because of the usefulness of his drawings he made in that area years earlier.

As for “Bainbridge,” that was a considerably more arbitrary name assigned to the Island by Capt. Wilkes in honor of American Naval hero William Bainbridge, captain of the USS Constitution in a string of victories of which the Navy was extremely proud.

Finally, why do residents capitalize “Island” when referring to their home land mass, even when the word  is not preceded by “Bainbridge”?

They just do. “Bainbridge” is understood.


Slippery Discs

In my entry on “disc/disk” (p. 85) I mention that the inventors of the compact disc chose the “C” spelling, so it makes sense to follow them. The invention was developed by Philips and Sony, and the logo they designed has appeared on millions of recordings. Its frequent appearance in this form made publications which adhered to the “disk” spelling seem arbitrarily stodgy.

The New York Times used “compact disk” for decades, but finally caved in. I noticed in a recent issue of The New Yorker that the magazine, famous for its adherence to older traditions in spelling and punctuation, is still using the spelling “disk.”

Discussions of the SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc) format often refer to its having become obsolete with the decline in its use, but those of us who still collect classical music on European labels know better. There are many recording companies using the format for new releases, and a few release all their recordings as SACDs.

For a while CD player manufacturers failed to support the format, but the higher-end ones have now realized that SACD is very much alive. I bought my current Oppo player partly because it plays SACDs in full high-resolution surround-sound mode.

The manufacturers of high-resolution video discs chose the awkward spelling “Blu-ray Disc” with “ray” treated as if it were part of a hyphenated word instead of the second word in a hyphenated phrase: with a lower-case “r.” The official abbreviation for this format is “BD” but I’ve never heard that form in speech.

Some predict the premature death of BDs because high-def streaming over the Internet is now available from sources like Netflix and Amazon, but for critical viewers with high-end equipment, Blu-ray delivers noticeably superior image quality. It can also deliver true surround sound, which streamed recordings often do not. However some studios have begun pressing special Blu-rays for the rental market which lack surround sound and some of the extras one gets on a direct-to-consumer discs. Very annoying.

Truly cutting-edge videophiles are looking forward to the arrival of super high-definition 4K Blu-ray Discs. Even experts debate whether the improvement provided is truly visible; but whether or not the new format catches on you can be sure the recordings will still be “discs,” not “disks.”