In which Cam Newton demures from the truth

The Boston Globe sports page this morning contained this sentence:

He can’t demure from the truth: that race is a factor in how he is perceived because the expectations for comportment at the position he plays have been shaped largely by quarterbacks who didn’t look, play, or act like him.

By this evening the sentence had been corrected to say “demur from the truth”.  Well, “demur from” is certainly better than “demure from”, although “demur from the truth” sure sounds awkward to me. “Demur” basically means “object” — how do you object from something?

The confusion between “demur” and “demure” is deep enough to require explication from grammar sites. Sports writers probably don’t need to know the difference between the two words, but newspaper copy editors really ought to.

Is your solution in the cloud or on-premise?

Part of my day job involves answering questions from potential customers about my company’s products and solutions.  Here’s one that comes up all the time:

Is your solution in the cloud or on-premise?

This new meaning of the word cloud is ubiquitous now, and I think it’s great.  I don’t need to know where exactly WordPress saves my blog content — it’s just somewhere out there.  “Cloud” captures this perfectly.

Inventing a singular version of the word premises is also ubiquitous in tech-speak, but that usage is like fingernails scraping down the chalkboard of my mind — at least partially because premise is a totally different word.  Here’s a web page from IBM that leads with a customer who is supposed to be saying: “I want self-service access to on-premise services and data from the cloud.”  But the page also manages to use “on-premises” a paragraph later; apparently IBM hasn’t gone totally over to the dark side.

And here’s an entertaining rant about this usage in technical documents and press releases. Its title is “So apparently we lost the grammar war”:

Seriously I don’t know why this is. The two terms do not mean the same thing and are not interchangeable. Are we all just that lazy that we can’t stumble through the three entire syllables of premises? And if we’re too careless to notice that, what chance do we have of actually paying attention to the technical documents to install these products? (Again, I don’t fault individual usage of IT pros, but vendors’ press releases? Seriously??)

Or maybe this is the evolution of language. It’s shortened, perverted, and flexed to evolve with the times. Fine, let’s call it linguistic evolution.

bt i srsly dont lik it. do u?

The thing is, that extra syllable does make “on-premises” harder to say, especially when it leads into a word like “services” that repeats the sibilant. I predict complete victory for “on-premise”, although saying that gives me a pit in my stomach.

A short post in regards to language peevery

It’s National Grammar Day!  In honor of the day, Poynter listed some of their pet peeves..Here’s one of mine.

In my very important day job I read the weekly status reports of a number of highly experienced professional writers.  This week one writer used the phrase “in regards to”. Two reports later, another writer offered up “with regards to”.

Where did I go wrong?

Some people don’t like split infinitives (I don’t know why).  Some people are annoyed by due to.  “With regards to” and “in regards to” are like fingernails on a blackboard to me. This guy tells me I’m wrong to be annoyed.  Google Ngram Viewer tells me their use has exploded since 1960 or so.  I don’t care.  They sound awful.  And people who use them should get off my lawn.

In a league where success whithers away like a desiccated flower…

This over-the-top image is from a column in this morning’s Boston Globe talking about the Patriots.  Notice the atrocity perpetrated on the poor word wither.  It’s an odd mistake, because even my WordPress spellchecker alerts me that whithers is not a word.  And it’s not like this is some late-night game writeup that no one has a chance to edit. Has the Globe laid off all its editors?

Meanwhile, people complain about the low editorial standards in ebooks written by independent authors.  And people are correct.  I’ve been reaching such a book, and it’s hard to believe that the author–or anyone–read the words he typed before the book was published. Surely someone would have noticed that he regularly mistook then for than, that he was unclear about the difference between its and it’s, that the tree he was writing about was a cypress and not a Cyprus.  And on and on.

It doesn’t escape my notice, though, that this book is way more successful than any of mine, with dozens of five-star reviews.  It’s true that some reviewers point out the spelling mistakes, but just as many people seem exercised by the author’s errors in military technology.  (An M-16 apparently fires the 5.56 NATO round, not the 7.62 NATO round.  Who knew?)

Standards are slipping everywhere, and no one seems to care.  Also, you kids get off my lawn!

“Service is suspended due to a medical emergency”

Did you notice the grammatical atrocity in the title of this post?

Neither did our local transit authority, the MBTA, when it sent out a tweet like that after a person was struck and killed by a train.  Some people were worried about the victim, I suppose, but others were outraged about that “due to” in the tweet.

Huh?  I know the issue here, but I’d never heard the one about fiduciary responsibility.

I decided to find out what my cold-eyed editors at work have to say about “due to,” so I checked out our Writer’s Guide.  Here’s what they say:

“Due to” should only be used as an adjective, not a preposition.

Well, that certainly clears everything up.  Here’s how I understand this persnickety rule: Use “due to” when you can substitute “caused by” or “attributable to,” and not when you can substitute “because of.”  Which means, in effect, that it should only be used after a copulative verb like “is.”

At work we are responsible for an online help system containing well over two million words.  Apparently having nothing better to do, I did an online search to find out how many uses of “due to” we’ve got.  The result: 140.  Then I did a random check to see whether our highly experienced writers were following the editors’ persnickety rule.  The answer?  We’re a lot closer to the MBTA than to Mr. Stephen Wojnar.  Almost every “due to” in our Help system is a “because of,” not an “attributable to.”  What’s up with that?

My interpretation is that, even though our cold-eyed editors may know the rule, the “incorrect’ usage is so common that even they don’t spot it.

Bryan Garner in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage includes “due to” among his “skunked terms” — words so fraught with controversy that you’re better off just not using them, at least until the traditionalists die off.  Hopefully used to be the standard bearer for skunked terms, although by now the odor around that word has mostly disappeared.  I bet that, in a hundred years, “due to” will also smell just fine, and the MBTA will have won.

Are missing apostrophes more important than dying teenagers?

We report, you decide.

A bizarre battle is raging in towns across Britain between lovers of the English language and local councils that are culling the humble apostrophe from street signs.

The historic university city of Cambridge was the latest in a series of places this year that have made the change, which transforms names such as King’s Road into Kings Road.

Cambridge was forced to backtrack after anonymous punctuation protectors mounted a guerrilla campaign, going out in the dead of night and using black marker pens to fill in the missing apostrophes.

Apparently an apostrophe error earlier this year caused an ambulance to go to a wrong address, resulting in a teenager dying of an asthma attack.

“National guidelines recommended not allocating new street names that required any punctuation, as, we gather, this was not well coped with by some emergency services’ software,” Tim Ward of Cambridge City Council told AFP.

Although I’m not one of those who think the language is going to hell in a handbasket, I have some sympathy for the protesters who say the solution to the problem is not to make punctuation worse, but to make the software that emergency services use better.

On a vaguely related topic: At some point when I wasn’t paying attention, the Catholic Church seems to have removed the possessive from church and school names — at least in my neck of the woods.  When I was a lad,we lived in Saint Columbkille’s parish; this is now Saint Columbkille parish.  The parochial school down the street from me is Saint Paul School.  And so on.  A brief Google search indicates that if the school uses the possessive, “Saint Paul’s,” it’s Episcopalian.

The possessive doesn’t make a lot of sense in this context, I suppose.  Public schools don’t use it; there aren’t any Martin Luther King’s High Schools.  But the possessive usage for saints is so ingrained in my neurons that I’m always stopped short when I encounter the new style.

Next thing you know I’ll be demanding that the Mass return to Latin, which, after all, is the language that God speaks.

The Hemingway app judges Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and me

Here’s a web site called Hemingway that judges prose according to these standards:

  • Short sentences
  • No passive voice
  • No adverbs (it tells you to aim for “0 or fewer”, which suggests that it wants you to be better than perfect–damn computers!)
  • Short words (for example, use “use” instead of “utilize”)

Paste in your prose, and it highlights your mistakes and gives you a grade level for readability.

Fair enough.  So what does it think of, say, the ending of The Great Gatsby:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

It likes this excerpt.  Fitzgerald gets a Grade 8 for readability, which Hemingway deems Good, and the only thing it complains about is the adverb ceaselessly.  I’m troubled, though, that it didn’t flag the word orgastic.  What kind of weird word is that?  (Borne also looks to me like it’s passive, but that’s probably a tough one to notice.)

How about Faulkner, from The Sound and the Fury:

When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtains it was between seven and eight o’ clock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch. It was Grandfather’s and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather excruciatingly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father’s. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.

This gets a Grade 11 in readability, which Hemingway thinks is just OK.  One adverb (excruciatingly), no passive voice, but Hemingway marks those two interior sentences for shortening.

So with some trepidation I handed Hemingway the first paragraph of the novel I’ve been working on:

I got off my bike and stared at the guy in the brown robe.  The guy in the brown robe stared back at me.  He was sitting at the front of a cart piled high with apples, pumpkins, squash, and other fall produce; half a dozen dead turkeys hung  from hooks at the back of the cart.  I figured he was about seven feet tall, although that was probably an exaggeration.  But definitely big, and definitely scary, with small black eyes, long stringy hair, and a scraggly beard that was interrupted by a deep scar on his left cheek.

Hemingway gives this a Grade 9 in readability, which merits a Good.  Yay! However, it considers two of my sentences to be too long.  Plus, it flags two adverbs–probably and scraggly.  But hey, scraggly is an adjective–I demand a recount!  (Although maybe I shouldn’t–a recount might notice the two uses of definitely, which are definitely adverbs.) Finally, I get dinged for the passive voice in the phrase “was interrupted by”.

Will I change anything in that paragraph, in response to Hemingway’s criticisms?  Nah.  And if I were Fitzgerald or Faulkner, I wouldn’t change anything either.  Except maybe orgastic  and reducto absurdum.  They can do better than that.