Editor at Large Spoken English Written English

Fiancé, Fiancée: How Do You Pronounce Them?

My friends have fallen prey to an engagement epidemic. And when you’re the first to know, you want to tell everyone else you know, too.

But spreading the news that your two best buds are affianced can be tricky.

You can look up both spellings to make sure you get the mass mailing right. I was stymied, however, when it came to regular, real-time conversation.

Different on Paper, Same in Speech

If your engaged guy friend is a fiancé, and your engaged girl friend is a fiancée, wouldn’t you expect to preserve that difference when talking to people? At the very least, it would help your grandfather understand exactly what’s going on with your best friend Lindsay Lohan:

Her fiancé’s name is Sam Ronson, you say? Well isn’t that nice, dear.”

Get your grandfather an e-mail address, because without some serious pronoun work on your part, he would understand more by reading about the engagement than he would by hearing it in conversation.

While there are three acceptable American English pronunciations for these French terms, the word sounds exactly the same whether it’s fiancé or fiancée.

So How Do I Say It?

For the record, Webster’s offers a male voice intoning fee-ahn-SAY as the proper pronunciation for fiancé and fiancée. I prefer fee-AHN-say, which Bartleby also deems acceptable.

You’ll just have to use context to get the word out to your friends. That, or cue cards.

Editor at Large German Translation Policy Politics Written English

Translation Lesson: Sometimes an Enabling Act is just an Enabling Act

Even when it seems like the silliest term you’ve ever heard.

The Enabling Act (Ermächtigungsgesetz in German) was passed by the Reichstag (Germany‘s parliament) on March 23, 1933 and signed by President Paul von Hindenburg the same day. It was the second major step, after the Reichstag Fire Decree through which Adolf Hitler obtained plenary powers using legal means. The Act granted the Cabinet of Germany the authority to enact laws without the participation of the Reichstag for four years.

And I thought this choice was far too simple to be the right one…good thing I made it anyway.

Editor at Large Spoken English Written English

How Do You Keep Your Eyes Wide Shut?

I’m working on a very large and very urgent translation project this month. While being so busy has its drawbacks for updates, the job I’m doing does provide a lot of inspiration for posts.

For example, I could swear that the only time I’ve ever heard the expression “eyes wide shut” was in reference to the Kubrick film. Yet I had a hunch that it would be the perfect translation for a German expression I came across in my work today.

But how could I find a definition when the Google results are crammed so full of Cruise-Kidman speculation and middling movie reviews? I ended up searching for

“eyes wide shut” definition -kubrick -film

This still didn’t generate any of the obvious, easy reference sites that I can usually count on finding in the search results.

It turned out, however, that the context was enough. Look at the titles on these results, and you can probably guess the meaning of the phrase already:

Internet, you are a translator’s best friend.

Even when that translator has to work a little harder to make you useful.

Booklist Editor at Large Written English

Raise Your Hand If You Hate Emoticons

Emoticons: to use or not to use?

I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile– some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question.

Vladimir Nabokov, 1969

Emoticons, those smiling/frowning/Homer Simpson faces that come out of the punctuation marks on your keyboard, are a different sort of written communication. They can add warmth to a chilly business e-mail, or liven up a chat in a more dignified fashion than that abominable LOL.

However much I disapprove of out-loud LOLs and OMGs, I did always love how ROTFLMAO reverberated in my brain after I would read it on screen. Something about it reminds me of Animal from the Muppets:


Emoticons and Impropriety
Just like this blog, emoticons tread a fine line between informality and professionalism. They give you more power over how your words will be interpreted. But when is it appropriate to insert one into electronic communication? Is their use ever required? What do they say about the writer? It’s been over ten years since e-mail came into common use: are there any hard-and-fast rules on when it’s okay to put a smiley face on that “nice to meet you?”

SEND, a 2007 book on e-mail by two publishing veterans, has some great suggestions. At the time of publication, the New Yorker even said they had “put themselves forward as the genre’s Strunk and White” (and you know how I feel about Strunk and White).

For David Shipley, deputy editorial page editor and Op-Ed page editor of The New York Times, and Will Schwalbe, former editor-in-chief of Hyperion Books, clarity goes hand-in-hand with e-mail etiquette.

If you don’t consciously insert tone into an email, a kind of universal default tone won’t automatically be conveyed. Instead, the message written without regard to tone becomes a blank screen onto which the reader projects his own fears, prejudices, and anxieties.

Ergo, emoticons.

How Far Should You Emote?
Sometimes that insertion of tone is awkward, especially if it implies that your own words aren’t good enough to communicate your meaning. I agree with Shipley and Schwalbe, however, that a little awkwardness can be necessary. It’s certainly preferable to offending or otherwise alienating your reader. Indeed, after reading that Talk of the Town piece on their book, I started using far more exclamation points in my own e-mails, as they recommend, to illustrate enthusiasm for a project or emphasize my receptiveness to new ideas.

But I stopped short of using a Homer Simpson face ( ~(_8^(|) to soften up my blunders. Although Shipley and Schwalbe rubber-stamp their use, I am still chary with emoticons. You never know what your addressee might think.

When my boyfriend and I first courted over e-mail, I sent him long and literary letters lacking any parenthetical faces. Could I have been trying to keep him on his toes during those uncertain months of long distance? Or were we just doing our best to inject some old-fashioned epistolary romance into an electronic age?

Perhaps I just guessed early what I learned today: he hates emoticons.

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

I’m So Disorientated!

As far as I’m concerned, the title of this post is completely inappropriate in the United States. I have always considered adding that extra syllable to the already unwieldy “disoriented” to be a grammar mistake up there with irregardless and could care less. But guess what?

It’s in the dictionary!

And this one’s no April Fool, I’m afraid. There’s an entry for orientate, as well.

So what gives? How can these obviously made-up words be in the dictionary? Why is a solid reference body like Merriam-Webster fomenting such erroneous pronunciation (and why don’t they pay me for mentioning them so often, already)?

Knowing what we do about English differences across the Atlantic, let’s first see if any of our pals in the UK can get us orientated. And how better to that than to consult the BNC? Good thing I already did, in March:

All those times I’ve seen “orientated” used in the English press, and been supremely freaked out by it, were ameliorated by the results I got when I compared it to “oriented” on the Corpus: “orientated” showed up half as much.

Half as much, however, is still more than we see it in the United States, where the “ate” in “disorientate” is so rare that we most definitely consider it an error.

If you follow that entry for orientate, up above, you’ll see that M-W defines it as “facing to the east” – the Latin root orient – and that there is no trace of the figurative meaning we’re more familiar with, the one that’s synonymous with discombobulated, confused.

This is a tough one. Could the U.S. have fixated on the figurative meaning, while the UK has retained both terms? Could it be that this is not a new error at all, but rather one that goes back centuries, to the first reference for disorientate in the eighteenth century?

Here’s hoping I can tell you tomorrow.

Editor at Large Spoken English Written English

Is It Internet or Is It Oral?

Disclaimer: Dear readers, this entry contains examples of a virulent and suggestive Internet meme. Several, in fact. Viewers who scroll down will find pictorial innuendo and thinly abbreviated expletives. Discretion is advised.

Do ppl rly say OMG IRL?

I’m serious (srsly). Do people really say O-M-G in real life? Do girls in middle school mouth it to one another when their sportcoated history teacher goes off on a liberal tirade? Do teenage rock stars use it in interviews? Will it be Hillary’s next gambit (“We should have a government blogging team!”) to connect with the young people?

I live in Germany, so I don’t get to sample much impromptu U.S. English. I get dribs and drabs from American Idol, but the closest spelled-out IRL abbreviation I’ve heard used there was Danny Noriega’s amusing attempt to coin a new catchphrase out of T-M-T-H (Too Much To Handle).

When I see “omg” somewhere, or when I use it here to make a point, the deadpan reader voice in my head says something along the lines of “ohm’god,” emphasis on the first syllable, same rhythm as “Gossip Girl.”

Coincidentally, I guess the Gossip Girl PR team didn’t hear it quite like I did:


That’s a long, drawn out Oh. My. F@$*&#$g. God.

But what if it’s actually an O-M-F-G?

I really want to know! Especially since even before I came across this poster, I heard “O-M-G” used in a celebrity news report I lost one minute and thirty seconds of my life on last week. Don’t let that time be in vain!

The network airing “Gossip Girl” in the United States has claimed that their ad campaign

speaks directly to our adult 18-34 viewers using expressions that are part of their lexicon.

But would that lexicon be spoken or written? What do you say when you read the thing out loud?

Tell me: is O-M-G just what the anchors on Extra are saying to sound like those kooky MySpace kids? Or is it really appearing in the vernacular? This is one incidence where the recency illusion won’t come into play: I’ll be hornswoggled if OMG has been around one minute longer than AOL.

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

Do You Beaver?

After two and a half months blogging, I am approaching the all-important 40th post. Today’s is number 39. My nose has been so close to the grindstone, however, that I’ve barely noticed. I’ve got new projects to complete, old bills to write, a daily blog to keep up…in short, I’ve been beavering away.

Have you heard beaver used in this way before? It was new to me when I first heard it at Cambridge.

I’ll let Simon J. James give another example:

One morning last week, I was sitting at my desk, beavering away (building a small dam out of gnawed down pencils)

I found Simon through my BlogRush widget near the bottom of this blog and his extended metaphor was just too adorable to leave out. I also have a sneaking suspicion he’s British, for the following reasons:

  • he spells it self aggrandisement and standardise
  • he reports a colleague’s utterance of “whilst” in a telephone conversation
  • he uses single quotes to explain in an extended riff why his colleague’s use of ‘bye now’ in said conversation was rude

‘Bye now’ suggests immediacy to me, a flagrant disregard for all others in the conversation; it’s the verbal equivalent of hanging up. And also you can’t say, ‘bye earlier’ can you really?

So London Simon (I checked) uses “beavering away.” But what about my U.S. and Canadian readers? Have you used this expression before, or would you call yourself as busy as a bee, instead?

Here’s another explanation from a UK website:

The beaver is remarkable for its industry (and skill) in constructing its habitation and creating dams to preserve its water supply. This gave rise to the verb beaver away for someone who works very hard and to the faintly derogatory eager beaver for a person who is keen to succeed.

The expression is certainly evocative. I wouldn’t dare use it around my American friends, but Simon’s usage is guileless, down to the cute little pencil dam image—or perhaps he’s done that to avoid confusion with that other meaning for beaver:

OK, stop tittering. In British English, to beaver away is to work busily. However, these days you’d have difficulty saying it without a chorus of sniggers from the peanut gallery, as we also all know the American definition. It’s the sort of thing your grandmother might say at Christmas dinner that would make the younger generations choke on their soup.

That one’s from the English-to-American Dictionary. And though apple-pie M-W does define beaver as a verb (dating back to 1946), I think this is one expression best left to the British.

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

See No Evil, Hear No Evil: The Out-Group Illusion

This final post in the Language Log terminology trilogy will introduce you to another linguistic illusion to watch for on language blogs: the out-group illusion.

One of the myriad ways we can jump to linguistic conclusions, the out-group illusion refers to a belief that a certain language quirk or habit occurs only among a specific group of speakers that does not include you or anyone you would deign to speak to. As Arnold Zwicky puts it,

Things you view as novel, or simply bad, are characteristic of groups
you don’t see yourself as belonging to.

Take as an example the posts on this blog that deal with the US/UK language divide. My post on obliged vs. obligated has received more hits to date than any other piece of writing on this site. I even got a link on LEO, my first destination for German-English word look-ups on the Internet.

Who’s to say, however, that my explanation of British English speakers’ behavior, based on a few hours of web research, wasn’t tainted by my status as a U.S.-born observer? There could be plenty of native Californians for whom “obligated” grates like the Wu Tang Clan at two in the morning (turn it down, you crazy kids!). Perhaps there are Kansans I’ve never met (and that would be all of them) who favor obliged in everyday usage.

If you encounter anyone who fits into one of these categories, do let me know. You’d be free to write me up for an out-group infraction–and I’d be obligated to write about it here.

Editor at Large Punctuated Written English

Vampire Weekend – Oxford Comma

This song is against most of the things I stand for on this blog. And I love it.

You may need some context for this one: the “Oxford comma” is more likely to ring a bell under its other name, the “serial comma.” Both terms refer to the final comma in a series, the one that comes immediately before the “and”:

While the Oxford comma is not required, some believe that to leave it out is a silly, arbitrary, and unnecessary choice.

The song hasn’t been released as a single yet, but the grammarian elites have already started talking about it. Follow both links. They’re brilliant.

Full disclosure: I agree with the band (at least, their first line) on this one. I’m not made of stone, people.

Editor at Large Written English

A Curmudgeon’s Guide to Style

Today I found a stylish and informative reference site on writing from Jack Lynch at Rutgers. One of my favorite bits, on that versus which:

Many grammarians insist on a distinction without any historical justification. Many of the best writers in the language couldn’t tell you the difference between them, while many of the worst think they know. If the subtle difference between the two confuses you, use whatever sounds right. Other matters are more worthy of your attention.

And here’s Lynch on Microsoft Word:

MS Word, in its many versions, is now the most common word processor on both the PC and the Macintosh. It’s so widespread, and so meddlesome, that it deserves a special note. The “AutoCorrect” feature, in particular, is a damned nuisance. It was designed by and for people who like high-tech toys, not by and for people who write.

The “Track Changes” feature, however, is absolutely indispensable. I only fully appreciated it after working with the horrendous editing features of Adobe Acrobat Professional, which made me want to throw my tablet stylus across the room. I agree that “AutoCorrect” is a waste of code. But “Track Changes” is how I make my living! Too bad there’s no entry from Lynch on that.

By the way, I successfully upgraded my site to WordPress 2.5 today! I am so proud of myself!