Policy Politics Written English

Hillary and Obama: The Importance of Being Illiterate?

From Andrew Romano’s blog for Newsweek, Stumper:

There’s always that risk, particularly in America–the suspicion that if something looks good, it can’t possibly work. If someone’s really beautiful, they can’t be smart.

If beauty works against us generally, does the same hold for beautiful words? And if so, is Obama’s erudition hurting his electoral appeal?

Hillary: Small Words Yield Big Gains

The speech in Hillary Clinton’s latest television spot is not exactly sophisticated (key point: “something’s happening in the world”), but the fear-mongering is masterful. In a paternal and slightly threatening voiceover, Clinton’s campaign argues that she is someone who “already knows the world’s leaders” and is “tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world.” The unspoken assumption here is that the articulate Obama is not.

The commercial aired last weekend, and lo and behold, Clinton won every state she needed to stay in the race with her dignity intact.

Was the groundswell for Clinton a repudiation of Obama’s slick sloganeering? Or could this comeback mean that Americans are still as motivated by fear as the Bush White House presumes us to be?

Obama: Entrapped by his own Eloquence?

The three Clinton wins last night do not negate Obama’s 11-state string of victories. But commentators over the past few weeks have latched on to whether the junior senator’s literary talent could become a liability. David Brooks of the NYT noticed early on, in April of 2007, that

You have to ask him every question twice, the first time to allow him to talk about how he would talk about the subject, and the second time so you can pin him down to the practical issues at hand.

When Brooks finally gets a direct answer on foreign policy, the columnist notes presciently that Obama’s response is “either profound or vacuous, depending on your point of view.

Monitoring the Message

I’ll keep an eye on the public reception to each candidate’s campaign rhetoric as the nomination fight continues. It will be interesting to see which tactic–diction or drama–wins out.

Editor at Large Policy Written English

Bonus Post for National Grammar Day: Censor This!

Grammar is important on certain levels, because proper word choice can help the world avoid misleading headlines like this one:

Mar 4, 2008, 12:24 GMT: Western nations drop plan for IAEA resolution censoring Iran

Whew! The Europeans certainly dodged a bullet with that one. Imagine if those enlightened secular governments had actually censored Ahmadinejad in the Western press? There would be no more rambunctious debates at NYU! No more SNL Digital Shorts with Jake Gyllenhaal cameos! And, most importantly, the IAEA representatives would be stifling open, democratic debate, one of the most ballyhooed elements of the international governance system.

Obviously, Western nations aren’t really that hypocritical. Or that stupid—censoring Iran would play right into the hands of a government which holds state-sponsored symposiums for Holocaust deniers just to highlight the European limits on freedom of speech.

I’m happy to digress into politics on this blog whenever I get the chance, so thank you today to Monsters and Critics for giving me a reason to explain this completely inexcusable typo. In the words of a blogger we linked to yesterday:

Attention, everyone: C E N S O R ≠ C E N S U R E

A censure is a formal rebuke, often carried out by an institution. A censor will redact portions of your text without mercy, often in service of an overt or covert political agenda. A censure is a public action; censorship is often done behind closed doors. Get the point?

Check out this BBC link for a more well-informed and well-written report of what really went down at the International Atomic Energy Agency.

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!

Policy Written English

Death of a Logophile: William F. Buckley, Jr.

I do not share William F. Buckley’s political opinions. But I still celebrate his idiosyncratic respect for the written and spoken word and his superhuman facility for the English language. His vocabulary seemed ripped straight from the OED, and when I read his columns I think not of his 21st-century torchbearers in the Reaganite conservative movement but of Vladimir Nabokov, a writer who shared Buckley’s linguistic fortitude.

Both men took on the role of commentator and critic rather than of firebrand revolutionary. Neither shied away from controversial topics for the sake of decency (pedophilia for Nabokov, as the entire world knows, and racism for Buckley, as survivors of the ’60s will remember).

The difference is that Nabokov disavowed the unsavoriness of his characters. His fictional academics and chess champions were his creation, and it was his right to distance his own views—on literature, politics, or entomology—from theirs. He gently insisted upon this authorial privilege.

Buckley, on the other hand, hewed to eccentric erudition in every debate and column. He built a new conservatism while playing a character, and never owned up to being anything different. It is this flawless portrayal for which many grieve today: an American dandy with the untroubled affect befitting an East Coast oilman’s son, outclassing his detractors with “a piquant blend of British intonation and Southern drawl.”

Had William F. Buckley not written his way into the public eye through the National Review, he might well have found his way there in a Nabokov novel.

I’ll leave you with a link to an essay from Buckley, in which he compares his use of highfalutin words in composition to the choice by a musician to use a more complicated chord. As a jazz singer myself, I can particularly appreciate this analogy.

I Am Lapidary But Not Eristic When I Use Big Words,” by William F. Buckley, Jr.

Editor at Large Mad CAPS U.S. vs. U.K. Written English

Capitalizing on Halitosis

Pop quiz: What country is this label from?

Label with border
Camouflaged by Paint.NET and liberal use of the “Clone” stamp

Let’s take a look at the first line of the copy to find the answer:

kills germs

Hmm. The use of a capital letter for the first word and lower-case on the rest probably indicates British English headline style. If this were a title in the United States, we would see almost every word capitalized–just take a quick glance at my blog to see what I mean. Then again, the capital “K” in “kills” could also just be the beginning of any US or UK English descriptive sentence. We’ll have to keep on reading.

But on the second line, the copy starts to get weird:

bad breath

When did bad breath become a Capital Condition? Even scary, life-changing diseases–breast cancer, hepatitis, bird flu–don’t merit capitalization in run-of-the-mill body text. But plaque gets upper-case treatment too, so could this be some sort of American English title, with only the “important” words in caps?

Not with what’s been done in the lower-case third line.

kills germs bad breath gum disease

Definite article “the” never takes a capital letter, unless it’s the first word in a title. But what about gum disease, the terrifying tooth destroyer? If a social hindrance like bad breath qualifies for capitals, surely a condition that could land you in dentures deserves some highlighting here. After all, gingivitis gets the capital treatment in the last line of the label.

So why did this company choose such inconsistent capitalization? It could be an effort to convince the reader in a hurry that this product Kills Bad Breath Plaque & Gingivitis, de-emphasizing connecting words such as “that” and “cause.” If this were true, however, killing [G]erms would probably be just as big of a draw to potential buyers. If this had been my job, I would have recommended the strategic use of bold or a larger font to highlight the advantages of this U.S.-made product (brand is behind the link).

At least the manufacturer is calling it Bad Breath [sic] these days, not the pseudoscientific diagnosis that this company first popularized through a massively successful ad campaign in the early 1920s.

Bonus link: Consumerist noticed another label oddity from the same source in December.

Editor at Large Policy Written English

Yea and Yay Mean More than you Think

The L.A. Times is pushing a new debate feature called “Dust-Ups,” in which two sides of an issue are presented in a neutral forum. But the choice of spelling in the headline for this week’s dust-up could leave readers prejudiced from the outset.

The dust-up is entitled, Nanotechnology: Yay or Nay?” One hopes that the headline is an in-joke on the traditional voting method still used in the U.S. Congress and the Canadian House of Commons: an up-down survey of “yea” (from 12th century Middle English, meaning yes) or “nay” (similarly dated, meaning no).

The value difference in opting for the enthusiastic interjection “yay” over the vote-specific “yes,” however, might here indicate an editorial slant against nanotechnology. In a column that is supposed to display both sides in a neutral forum, the title could already prejudice the reader: either you’re absolutely over the moon for these tiny innovations, or you’re not. It’s much easier to choose a noncommittal “nay” than an ecstatic yay, the literary equivalent of jumping up and down.

But “yea” is a tricky creature, and has been perplexing American English speakers since at least the mid-twentieth century. Was this just a copy editor’s error, then? Was the use of “yay” a conscious choice at all, in these times when the older variant sees so little use outside of government? A Google search of “yea or nay” versus “yay or nay” brings up far more results for the more recent coinage–a difference of over 280,000. If this was a deliberate choice by L.A. Times editors, perhaps they did so out of fear that readers would not recognize the older term.

Depends which readers they’re targeting. I have a clear memory of dancing behind Morgan Webb in my junior high school production of Once Upon A Mattress, singing along with a loud cast of twelve-to-fourteen-year-olds as they cheered on her tomboy princess Winifred:

With an F and an R and an E and a D and an F-R-E-D Fred, YEAH !

The lyrics, written in 1959, read Y E A.

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.

Punctuated Written English

A Pop-Culture Moment for the Semicolon?

The New York Times tried to bury the story in its N.Y./Region section. But by early this morning, it was the paper’s most frequently e-mailed article.

Was it a commentary on hometown girl Lindsay Lohan’s nude photo shoot? An elegy for former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani and his presidential aspirations? Hardly! The Times took a moment yesterday to recognize the semicolon; readers echoed the encomium around the web.

The punctuational love-fest came from Times reporter Sam Roberts’ account of the positive reception afforded to an NYC Transit anti-litter poster on the subway:

“Please put it in a trash can,” riders are reminded. After which Neil Neches, an erudite writer in the transit agency’s marketing and service information department, inserted a semicolon. The rest of the sentence reads, “that’s good news for everyone.”

Roberts retains an appropriate air of neutrality throughout the piece, writing that “in literature and journalism, not to mention in advertising, the semicolon has been largely jettisoned as a pretentious anachronism,” and that “Americans, in particular, prefer shorter sentences without [the semicolon].”

Oh yeah? Tell that to the thousands of readers with whom this article has struck a chord. Tell that to my boyfriend, who confesses that the semicolons in my e-mails won his computational linguist heart.

Or just tell it to the NYT. A rudimentary search turned up semicolons in three articles in the last two days, including one usage that probably should have been a comma.

Is the world going semicolon crazy? And if it were, dear readers, wouldn’t it be great?