By Joe Diorio
I avoid political discussions in this newsletter and won’t break that rule now. But since I reserve the January issue for my celebration of Festivus, the airing of grievances, I will point to a December 27, 2018 story in The New York Times explaining that the shutdown of the federal government boils down to one’s definition of the word “wall.” Concrete, steel, and a beaded curtain were offered up as examples.
For whatever it’s worth, the dictionary defines “wall” as a continuous vertical brick or stone structure that encloses or divides an area of land. That seems to exclude beaded curtains, but I’m sure the debate will continue.
Decorative border accoutrements aside, the past year provided many opportunities to lengthen the Festivus pole. Here are but a few:
They are graduates, not a chemical. A dean at an institution of higher education where I worked (I worked for Vanderbilt University and the University of Pennsylvania. Let the guessing games begin.) frequently referred to a graduate as an “alum.” This person isn’t alone in making that mistake. The word “alum” is short for potassium aluminum oxide, a colorless astringent compound that is a hydrated double sulfate of aluminum and potassium, used in solution medicinally and in dyeing and tanning … and that is more than you probably ever want to know about alum.
However, an “alumnus” is a male graduate. An “alumna” is a female graduate. “Alumni” is the plural for male and female graduates, while “alumnae” is the plural for female graduates. I just explain the rules. I don’t make them.
By land or by sea. Sadly, 2018 had more than its share of occasions to lower the flag halfway. Here’s hoping we’ll need to do that less often in 2019. But if we do, remember that lowering the flag on a flagpole that’s in the ground is lowering it to “half-staff,” whereas lowering it on a boat is “half-mast.”
Recognize that language is evolving. There are those – I was recently among them – who would argue that the pronoun “they” is plural. Yet the use of “they” as singular, especially for non-binary individuals, is largely accepted today. Language evolves and absorbs over time. Sometimes it takes a while, since Emily Dickinson was using “they” as singular over 100 years ago when she wrote “Almost anyone under the circumstances would have doubted if [the letter] were theirs, or indeed if they were …” Also, I rarely argue with Merriam-Webster.
Stop relying on spellcheck. This is a good New Year’s resolution for everyone. A flyer for a New Holland, PA charity’s open house said, “Donations Excepted.” Spelled correctly, all right, but a bit confusing to the reader.
Conversely, stop and look when that red line shows up under text. An on-screen graphic accompanying a TV news story about a big game between the Tennessee Titans and the Indianapolis Colts said post-game coverage would include “Players Reax.” The word “reax” appears in the Urban Dictionary as an alternative to “reaction.” Go slow with absorbing new words. Especially for those of us who are hipness-challenged.
And a holiday kudos goes to … I usually find cause to beat on the press for grammatical miscues, but on December 22, 2018 humor writer Ysabel Yates penned a wonderful op ed in The New York Times where she offered some critical edits to the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Here’s a sample:
“’You would even say it glows’ feels a little flat. Add a simile here, and make sure it’s consistent with [the] character. For example, ‘Glows like the end of every cigarette he swore would be his last.’”
Happy New Year, and let’s write carefully out there, people.
Joe Diorio is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee. You should tell your friends and colleagues about him