Editor at Large Spoken English

dahl-eye LAH-mah and mah-MOOD ah-BAH-SS: Saying It Right at Voice of America

Here in the United States, there are many recognizable accents. Just ask a native of the Peach state about the former President and he may well tell you about “JIH-mih KAH-tuh” from “JAW-juh. “

That’s Jim Tedder of Voice of America (VOA), the U.S.-funded broadcasting service which merits mention on this blog for its use of Special English alone.

Today, however, the focus is on Tedder’s VOA Pronunciation Guide, a handy little index of over 5,000 place and person names which could give an English speaker difficulty. Wondering about what to call the Dalai Lama and Mahmoud Abbas? Check the title of this post, and then click on over to the Pronunciation Guide where you can download actual mp3s of every name, sometimes even recorded by the name’s very—er—namesake.

Did you notice how I used that awkward construction in the last sentence so I wouldn’t have to say his or her? Yeah, I went there.

Editor at Large Spoken English U.S. vs. U.K. Written English

Expect a New Post Momentarily

The title above has two meanings, but only one of them is universally accepted. Which are you thinking of?

From Merriam-Webster (American):
1: for a moment (was momentarily delayed)
2 archaic : instantly
3: at any moment : in a moment (will be leaving momentarily)

I make one new blog post every weekday: each day of the Western business week running Monday to Friday. One moment of each day, I post a new entry to this page.

If I updated according to the uncontroversial usage for momentarily, you wouldn’t see any of them for long: they’d be online for just that one moment, and no longer!

Of course, you probably thought from the title that I would be making a new post very soon. The question is, did you think I had made a grammatical error?

A Questionable Coinage for an Established Word
You can see that Merriam-Webster does not; the “incorrect” usage of momentarily to mean “almost immediately” is present and accounted for. But just as prescriptivists and descriptivists have been sparring over hopefully for four decades, people can get crabby about the proper use of momentarily.

The prescriptivists are sick of the word being shoehorned into waiting rooms and voicemail queues:

The doctor will be with you momentarily.
Your call will be answered momentarily.
You will receive a grammatically incorrect response momentarily.

The descriptivists, on the other hand, see speakers creating a practical new definition that ends a sentence more conveniently than the three-word “in a moment” and more precisely than the hazy “shortly.” While we may not be able to measure the length of a moment, it is at least a countable noun: we know that “a few moments” would be longer than just one.

But Should You Use It?
This abbreviation of “in a moment” is here to stay, at least in the United States. What M-W cites as the third definition for momentarily, Princeton’s WordNet cites as the first. The usage would not pop up in so many places if it did not fulfill a lexical need. Be careful, though: I don’t think the need for momentarily has permeated the entire English-speaking population to the level that you can use it with the impunity afforded to a word like hopefully, a formerly controversial usage that takes the place of the mouthful “it is to be hoped.” The British seem particularly irked by the iffy use of momentarily, so watch out if you’re submitting something to the Financial Times.

In any case, this all means that my pragmatic prescriptivism still gets activated when a writer I’m editing promises to prove her point “momentarily” in a paper.

It also means that I make use of hopefully all the time–but that’s a post for another moment.

Editor at Large Spoken English Written English

Expat Vocab Hour: Anglophone and Anglophile

Do you know what both of these A-words mean?

I was only familiar with one of them until I moved to Barcelona and the other suddenly became paramount.

An Anglophile is easy enough to figure out: just as a logophile is a lover of words, an Anglophile loves the English, and often their language as well.

My boyfriend is English, and I blog about words: pretty easy to paste an Anglophile label on me.

But the root -phone is trickier, because analogous forms such as homophone and microphone don’t exactly offer a trail of breadcrumbs.

A Brief Digression: Linguistic Battles in Barcelona

Stay with me here, it’s relevant.

Barcelona, Spain has two official languages–Spanish and Catalan. Almost everyone there can speak Spanish, but most public signage and state services are in Catalan. The predominance of one language over another is a frequent topic of discussion on television chat programs and in the newspaper. Although I can speak both languages fluently now, when I first arrived my Catalan skills were much weaker than my Spanish. But I soldiered on, insisting on speaking only Catalan with my Catalan friends, debating the merits of having two languages share one city. They would make reference to catalanòfons (say cat-ah-la-NO-phones), and I would nod vaguely–si, si–having no idea what they meant.

Finally it dawned on me. Catalano-PHONES. Catalan speakers.

End Digression

Anglo-phones. Speakers of English!

We took this word straight from the French, and if you Google it you’ll see that many of the results relate to the Anglophone-Francophone distinction in France.

We can speak of Anglophone countries, such as Ghana and Belize. We can also choose whether or not to capitalize the word; as a capitalization-happy American, I prefer the big letters.

Expat Bonus
Expat is short for expatriate. You knew that. But did you know that the full word is frequently misspelled as ex-patriot?

An ex-patriot who isn’t an expatriate might get his compatriots down; an expatriate who’s been repatriated is probably a dead patriot.

Bonus Bonus
The only spelling I’m ever unsure about is how to spell misspelled.

Bon weekend, my Anglophiles…

Spoken English U.S. vs. U.K. Written English

On Posting Regularly: Obliged or Obligated?

Apologies for the tardiness of this entry: I’m about three hours later than usual. Then again, this blog has only been up for two weeks, so I’m trusting my eight regular readers (That includes you, my two loyal feed subscribers! Thanks!) to forgive the later update.

See, I grew up in California. I’ve got a little bit of that Protestant work ethic in me (or maybe just Jewish guilt) that makes me feel obligated to write regular daily posts, just as I feel obligated to market my word business to ensure that potential customers know who I am.

But as this is a word-obsessed blog, I have to ask, dear readers: does my use of obligated grate on your nerves? Is your lip curling as you read this at work? Are you cursing me under your breath for adding two extra syllables to the perfectly serviceable obliged?

Take a deep breath. You’re probably English.

Obligated passes the Merriam-Webster test: in U.S. English the word means legally or morally bound, and I find it makes an excellent description for the commitment I have made to put a new post up here every day.

Of course, good old M-W has a similar definition for oblige:

1: to constrain by physical, moral, or legal force or by the exigencies of circumstance <obliged to find a job>
2 a: to put in one’s debt by a favor or service <we are much obliged for your help>
b: to do a favor for <always ready to oblige a friend>

Here’s the thing: I’m a huge word nerd. When I was eleven, I got laughed out of after-school detention for using the word “procedure.” My copy of Roget’s Thesaurus is one of my most prized possessions. My multifarious vocabulary has won me large amounts of money.

And I don’t think I have ever uttered the word obliged.

My English friends, however, use it all the time. As a matter of fact, they use it in every single instance that I would use the word obligated. So is this all another tempest in a teapot?

Looks like. In my decidedly unscientific survey of the interwebs, I found that most posters who had problems with “obligated” were indeed English. And “John” at Pain in the English knows why:

From Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage page 675
“obligated” remains in Scottish and American use, but has dropped out of British English. Both “obliged” and “obligated” mean “being constrained legally or morally”. When the constraint is applied by physical force or circumstances, “obliged” is used. “obligated” is also used to been “indebted for a service or favour”.

John’s right. I checked Google Books and the entry for obligated came up on exactly the page he said it would. There’s an even better explanation, too:

Part of the diffidence toward obligated that is to be found in usage books may come from its having dropped out of use in British English while remaining in Scottish and American use. British commentators and commentators born in areas of British speech are hostile to obligated …Bremner 1980 quotes with obvious satisfaction the fun George Bernard Shaw made of [U.S. President] Woodrow Wilson’s use of the word.

I think that about wraps up today’s U.S.-U.K. debate. But here’s some more amusing evidence that obligated really has dropped out of English English:

And finally:

I was once a legal proofreader/ copy editor in the US. We snagged the word “obliged” (in a multimillion-dollar legal contract) where it should have been “obligated.” We were thanked profusely by the attorneys involved, who said it saved their hides.

Booklist Spoken English Written English

How I Supercharged My Vocabulary with a Picture Book

I confess: I had never heard the word “eristic” before I wrote yesterday’s post. But its meaning was easy for me to guess.

Even though it has probably been twenty years since I read them, the first four letters are ingrained in my memory.

Eris, the goddess of strife. Eris, who threw an apple inscribed “for the fairest” among three Greek goddesses just to watch the sparks fly. Eris, whose fiendish whim brought on the Trojan War.

Guessed yet? The word “eristic” describes argument for argument’s sake.

It’s all in here:

(pic links to Amazon)

The legends in this book and the graphic illustrations–Argos and his hundred eyes, Cronus eating babies–have stuck in my brain and made language come alive for me. Here’s what it could do for you:


  1. Pour cereal
  2. Pour milk
  3. Eat cereal, dread work, contemplate sick day


  1. Pour cereal
  2. OMG CEREAL, that must come from CERES, goddess of the harvest and Persephone’s mom! And mean Hades in the underworld with all the dead people kidnapped Persephone and then her mom Ceres was so sad without Persephone that she wouldn’t let any plants grow!
  3. And then Hades would have let Persephone go but Persephone ate some pomegranate seeds so Hades only let her go half the year. So when Persephone’s down in the underworld away from her mom Ceres gets so sad that she won’t let anything grow again and that’s why we have fall and winter!
  4. Quit work, use Persephone’s story as inspiration for next novel.

Rinse and repeat for words like narcissistic, mercurial, arachnid, bacchanal, saturnine, aphrodisiac…well, you get the point.

If you don’t have D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths already, YOU NEED IT.

I was reading this book long before I had any inkling of how to pronounce the last names of its authors (dee-awl-YAIR? dull air?). Coming across words like “eristic” so many years later, and feeling the stories flood back, has reminded me of how much one book can make a difference when it comes to good writing. That’s why I’m going to be posting more of the ones that I consider to have had a direct impact on my skills today.

This is the first post in an occasional series of book recommendations to improve your writing, your style, your vocabulary or a combination of all three. All posts will be tagged as “booklist,” in case you want to blitz through and start your library with more than one. I’ve also signed up as an Amazon Associate, so not only will you be doing yourself a favor if you click through the image and make a purchase, you’ll also be helping me to keep this blog going.

Now get offline and get reading!

Editor at Large Spoken English Written English

Posting On By Accident

Celebrity gossip sites are often gold mines for grammatical errors. Writers may be hired more for their snark than their smarts, although some, happily, have both.

Today’s offender does not.

A certain starlet, writes a certain gossipmonger, did not get pregnant “on accident.”

On accident? ON ACCIDENT?! This is a mistake that teenagers make, not grown-up blogslaves! This is not just bad grammar, it’s inexcusable in a writer who has grown up writing English. How often do accidents happen? How many times a week are we exposed to the correct usage of “by accident” on the 10 o’clock news?

There are so many less painful ways to get across this information. The starlet’s pregnancy was no accident sounds particularly succinct to my ear. Or we can do Strunk & White a favor, dispense with the negatives and simply say that the pregnancy happened on purpose.

In researching this blog entry, I shuddered to find that the use of “on accident” instead of “by accident” is becoming more prevalent. Grammar Girl has a particularly clear-eyed (i.e., unmarred by prescriptivist paranoia) take on the whole thing. But I’m not the only one who finds “on accident” to be the grammatical equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer uses “on accident” to humorously great effect in the voice of his non-native English narrator in Everything Is Illuminated (Google Books link).

Maybe in fifty years this expression will have become a normal alternative, but it still causes far too much controversy to be an acceptable usage right now. If “on accident” showed up in your writing, I’d correct it.