Tips for National Grammar Day

By Joe Diorio

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE – In honor of National Grammar Day (March 4, 2021) Nashville writer Joe Diorio, author of the book, A Few Words About Words: A common sense look at writing and grammar (due out in August 2021 from Beaufort Books) offers his top 10 grammatical tips.

  1. Overheard at a COVID-19 vaccine site: A nurse asked a patient, “Can you roll up your sleeve?” He probably can, but the more accurate usage would be, “Please roll up your sleeve.”
  2. When you talk about COVID-19, remember saying “pandemic” means worldwide. Saying “global pandemic” therefore is redundant.
  3. We experienced many emotions during the inauguration of President Joe Biden on January 20, but no one was “balling” their eyes out. More accurately, they were “bawling” their eyes out.
  4. For TV news anchors, this summer when the temperature goes past 100, remember it is not “a hundred degrees” outside. Saying “a hundred” is an expression of volume. It therefore is “one hundred degrees” outside.
  5. No matter what, “irregardless” is a word. It has been since 1795. It means the same thing as “regardless,” so please just use “regardless.”
  6. “Uncharted” does not mean the same thing as “unchartered.” Remember, “unchartered” would refer to the part of that famous three-hour tour where the SS Minnow wound up on a heretofore “uncharted” island.
  7. When referring to the NFL team in Washington, D.C., it isn’t necessary to call them, “the team formerly known as the Washington Redskins.” Think about it, does anyone in Nashville refer to the local NFL team as “the team formerly known as the Houston Oilers?”
  8. Do not use an apostrophe when pluralizing your name. Never.
  9. Using a double asterisk to designate something important in a text is acceptable, and not just because we are all texting these days. The Chicago Manual of Style notes it is acceptable to use when highlighting something important.
  10. “Affect” is a verb, “effect” is a noun. Except when they aren’t. Look this one up.

Joe is the author of A Few Words About Words, the free monthly newsletter about good writing.

Greeks and democracy

By Joe Diorio

The January 20, 2021 Inauguration of Joseph R. Biden, Jr. presented two opportunities to reflect on great writing: President Biden’s acceptance speech and the wonderful poem, “The Hill We Climb,” by Amanda Gorman.

What struck me as I listened to both President Biden and Gorman are the analogies and similarities to public speaking techniques utilized in Greek literature. Garry Wills, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, offers a series of comparative techniques used in Greek oratory that appear in the Gettysburg Address and which remain relevant to this day.

Wills writes about the Greek oratory with respect for its use in a speech commemorating a new cemetery. One of the comparisons he cites is light and dark. “The dead go into the dark; but the living need the splendor of the departed, as they do the sun.”

Gorman, in her opening line, uses a similar analogy when she says, “When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?”

In his opening comments, President Biden also utilizes the light/dark idea as he says, “This is America’s day. This is democracy’s day.”

Wills discusses the contrast of choice and determination, and Gorman takes the handoff on that message, saying, “Somehow we weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.”

Wills notes that words and deeds are a frequent participant in Greek oratory, explaining it is hard to fit words to the heroes’ great accomplishments. President Biden takes that topic to heart, saying “so now on this hallowed ground where just a few days ago violence sought to shake the Capitol’s very foundation, we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power as we have for two centuries.”

President Biden’s speech can be read here. Gorman’s poem can be read here.

Greeks and Bernie

The internet meme of Bernie Sanders – do I have to describe it? – took the internet by storm in the days after January 20. It would be far easier to list where a Bernie meme did not appear (I’m putting my money on Pope Francis’ Twitter feed, but I haven’t checked.) than where it did.

Linguist Gretchen McCulloch, in her book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, explains that the term meme has Greek roots, outgrowing from the word mimeme, meaning “imitated thing.” So that’s another thing from January 20 we can connect to Greek culture. If you believe Gus Portokalos, the patriarch portrayed by Michael Constantine in the movie, “My Big, Fat Greek Wedding,” just about everything comes from Greek culture. But I haven’t checked that, either.

Bawling or Balling …

Great tweet from @jhollymc offered on Inauguration Day, when more than a few of us were perhaps feeling emotional over the moment. “Lots of people crying today, so here’s a reminder from the word police: If you are crying, you are ‘bawling your eyes out.’ If you are ‘balling your eyes out,’ that’s … well. Let’s stop there.”

OK, a puppy just died

Football fans and observers of politics spent a good deal of ink and air time discussing the fact that Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots football team, decided to decline the offer to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. That was certainly news. But what caught my eye was this line from Belichick’s statement: “Above all, I’m an American citizen with great reverence for our nation’s values, freedom and democracy.”

Bill, Bill, Bill, it’s “… our nation’s values, freedom, and democracy” with a comma after “freedom” and before “and democracy.” Do not defer using the Oxford comma until the second half of the game. And as for “what’s up with the subhead, Joe?” I always maintain that every time you do not use the Oxford comma, a puppy dies. Thanks, Bill.

Nouns, not pronouns

Some members of the U.S. Congress recently griped about new rules requiring gender neutral writing. One wrote that the rules are “banning gendered pronouns,” words like “father, mother, son, and daughter” in favor of “parent, child” and so on.

I won’t call out the guilty party, but what immediately came to mind as I read about this is that the words mother, father, son, daughter, parent, and child are not pronouns, but nouns.

After I committed an error in this newsletter a reader quickly chided me saying, “Get your grammar right, then take your shot.” If it is true for me …

Let’s write carefully out there, people. 

Joe Diorio is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee.

If it’s January, then it must be Festivus

By Joe Diorio

Time for my annual celebration of Festivus, when we air out grammatical gripes – my own and my readers.

Run-on sentence of the year does not go to CNN

Some readers asked if there can be a “Run-on Sentence Award” and that Maeve Reston of CNN be given the inaugural honor.

Ms. Reston, writing about the January 5 U.S. Senate runoff election in Georgia, penned this lengthy one-sentence tome: “With the eyes of the political universe, focused on turning out voters in Georgia — where the two runoff elections will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate — the President’s relentless attacks on the state’s voting apparatus, its tabulating process, and its Republican secretary of state are prompting handwringing among GOP strategists and state leaders who fear those attacks are eroding confidence in elections at a time when they need to turn out as many of their voters as possible to reelect Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue on January 5 and hold onto their firewall against a Democrat-controlled House and White House.”

Funny thing: Reston did NOT write a run-on sentence. The strict definition of a run-on sentence is when two sentences are smashed together without a coordinating conjunction or proper punctuation. Reston’s sentence, while long and having the potential of leaving the reader exhausted from reading it, would not draw a “tisk-tisk” from Miss Thistlebottom since it is properly punctuated and holds together from a grammatical standpoint.

That missive COULD have broken into separate sentences. Like this:

“The eyes of the political universe are focused on a turn out the vote effort in Georgia. That’s where a January 5 runoff election will determine whether Republicans or Democrats control the U.S. Senate. President Trump’s relentless attacks on the Georgia secretary of state and the overall voting apparatus might erode confidence in elections precisely when incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue need that confidence. If voters believe Mr. Trump’s rhetoric, then they may stay home on January 5, thereby hurting Loeffler and Perdue’s chances of victory. Their loss would hand the Senate to Democrats.”

Interchangeably? I think not

“Can we get reporters to stop using ‘uncharted’ and ‘unchartered’ interchangeably?” one reader asked.

Both are adjectives, but the similarity ends there. The word “uncharted” means an area not mapped or previously surveyed and is normally but not exclusively a nautical term. Conversely, “unchartered” means having no charter or constitution. Once again, in nautical terms “unchartered” would refer to the part of that famous three-hour tour where the Minnow wound up on a heretofore “uncharted” island.

An unnecessary rush to the finish line

Kudos to copywriter Jessica Shepard for her advice on not being lazy when trying to finish a writing project. Her wisdom was shared on her LinkedIn page.

“When you’re writing … long form sales page or a home page, by the time you get to the CTA (Call To Action), you’re spent, right? So ya get lazy. You write ‘Learn more’ or ‘Sign up,’ then push your chair back and take a much-needed walk.

“But, um, here’s the thing: CTAs are sooooo important. They can make or break your conversions! They deserve more.

“So make the next step clear, risk-free, and irresistible for your customers. Pro tip: Write your CTAs in the first-person and finish this sentence your button copy: “I want to ______.”

Miscellaneous miscellany

From Mark Ankucic, a content marketing specialist at 3P Learning: “Read what you have written out loud. If you find a snag, edit it. If you run out of breath, shorten it. If it sounds insincere, delete it.”

A nurse at a COVID-19 vaccine site said to the patient, “Can you roll up your sleeve?” He probably can, but the proper grammar would have been, “Would you roll up your sleeve?”

Believe it or not, there are a few recipients of A Few Words About Words® who decide they don’t like the newsletter and opt out of the distribution list. Yes, I’m shocked too. One person, back in August, opted out by writing, “Too many emails. I grt over 100 a day.” Apparently, none of those emails are about proofreading.

Pandemic quotes I can live without

According to the Yale Book of Quotations, “Wear a mask,” says Dr. Anthony Fauci was the number one quote of 2020. I do wear a mask, but there is no shortage of pandemic quotes I will be glad to see disappear from everyday conversations in 2021: covidiot, maskne, you’re on mute, abundance of caution, false negative, and – one that may wind up in the dictionary – doomscrolling.

The typo of the year

This one goes to The Tennessean in Nashville, Tennessee. In April the Lego company, doing its part to help during the pandemic, announced it would stop making plastic toy bricks and would instead start making plastic face shields. The headline in the Tennessean read, “Lego s___s gears to produce 13,000 face visors.” Yes, I “bleeped” myself; think “number two.” You can’t make this stuff up.

Happy New Year and let’s write carefully out there, people.

The first “Second Gentleman”

By Joseph Diorio

It looks like Douglas Emhoff, the spouse of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, will become the first Second Gentleman of the United States.

Juxtaposing the words “first” and “Second” in that usage is confusing enough, but just where did the term Second Gentleman come from? According to a historian of U.S. Presidents, the title is not formal, and it has come into fashion more recently than one might think. It apparently grew out of the custom of calling the spouse of the president First Lady which, by the way, also is not a formal title.

“The title First Lady was first used when describing Dolly Madison, the wife of James Madison, the fourth president of the United States. President Zachary Taylor used it when he delivered Mrs. Madison’s eulogy (in 1849),” says Alvin S. Felzenberg, a historian and author of The Leaders We Deserved (And A Few We Didn’t): Rethinking the Presidential Ratings Game (Basic Books, 2008). And, like Second Lady, the title simply came into common use, although not immediately after Taylor’s coinage of the term.

“I’m not sure when using First Lady became commonplace. No one referred to Mary Todd Lincoln as the First Lady,” says Felzenberg, who thinks it was around the time of Jacqueline Kennedy that First Lady was used on a regular basis.

Felzenberg says the term “Second Lady” became popular much later in history; he says it was applied to Lynne Cheney, wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney. “No one called Lady Bird (Johnson), Barbara (Bush), or Marilyn Quayle by the term, so it is fairly recent.”

Of course, Emhoff would be the first “Second Gentleman,” a term no one has heretofore used. “When Hillary Clinton was running for president in 2016, Bill Clinton joked that, because of his Scottish heritage, he would have preferred the title ‘First Laddie’,” Felzenberg says.

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Me, myself, and I

DeAndre Hopkins, a wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League, on November 15 made an amazing catch of a nearly 50-yard pass from teammate Kyler Murray for a game-winning touchdown. There were three defensive players surrounding Hopkins when he made the improbable end zone catch. At a post-game press conference, Hopkins described his feat this way: “It was just a better catch by I.”

Admit it, you grammar aficionados, just reading that quote made you cringe, didn’t it?

Sports analysts noted the grammatical error and gave Hopkins a pass (pun intended) for his fractured syntax. But in case you’re wondering, “I” is a subject pronoun, whereas “me” is an object pronoun. Use “I” when referring to the subject of a sentence or clause (“Kyler Murray and I make a good combination,” said DeAndre Hopkins.) and use “me” when you refer to the object of a sentence or clause (“Hey DeAndre, will you catch a game-winning pass from me?” said Kyler Murray.)

A holiday card primer Since we are knee-deep in the 2020 holiday season, I figure now is a good time to remind everyone how to make your last name plural. You know, so you don’t write “Happy Holidays from the Smith’s” on a greeting card.

Let’s write carefully out there, people.

Joe Diorio is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee.

Irregardless IS a word!

By Joe Diorio

I like Jamie Lee Curtis. She was great in movies like Halloween and True Lies. But Ms. Curtis posted something on social media that has grammar grouches and aficionados in a huff and called my affection for her into question.

An internet meme started floating through the cyber thoroughfare in late October quoting Ms. Curtis from a July 6, 2020 tweet, “In case you thought 2020 couldn’t get any worse, Merriam-Webster just officially recognized ‘irregardless’ as a word.” The post was accompanied by a screaming face emoji, a truly fitting condiment for one of Hollywood’s renowned “scream queens.”

First, I find it curious that a three-month-old tweet is only now generating widespread attention. (Widespread is a relative term. Her July 6 tweet generated over 2,000 comments and more than 5,000 retweets. Meme generators are just a tad slow, I guess. I blame the pandemic.)

Second, Ms. Curtis is wrong. “Irregardless” is a word. It is a horrible word. But irregardless of my feelings, it is a word.

And, third, channeling my inner fourth grade English teacher, we have gone over this before, people.

For those readers who are hissing prove it at their computer or smart phone screens right now, crack open the dictionary. Merriam-Webster notes it is an adverb and is the nonstandard version of “regardless.” AND it has been in use since 1795. Dictionaries simply chronicle word usage; it’s why “doomscrolling” is under serious consideration for entry into the next edition of Merriam-Webster.

“The dictionary can kiss my wild Irish aspirations,” writes John Timpane, writer, author, and all-around grammatical expert.

“I don’t care what Merriam-Webster says, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think that irregardless is a word and the rest of us who know better,” wrote Leslie Geary, another grammatical expert colleague of mine, on her Facebook feed.

I get it. Irregardless sounds like a double negative. It sounds like an overly engineered version of regardless. It’s clunky.

Merriam-Webster sympathizes. The dictionary staff spends a good deal of time apologizing for the word’s inclusion in the dictionary. Kory Stamper, a former Merriam-Webster editor and author of “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries,” dedicates an entire chapter apologizing/explaining/dodging barbs for its presence in the dictionary. But for the time being (or at least since 1795), we are stuck with irregardless. 

Good resource in these changing times

CISON PR Newswire recently posted a useful news story about AP Stylebook changes and updates related to Black Lives Matter (no hyphen is needed when referring to dual heritages: African American, Asian American, etc.), COVID-19 (saying “global pandemic” is redundant), climate change (Although climate change and global warming are used interchangeably, climate change is the more accurate term that describes the effects of increasing levels of greenhouse gases. It includes extreme weather events.), and more. Here is the link.

Still debating crowd sizes

A TV reporter tweeted about the size of the crowd waiting to say goodbye to President Trump as he left Nashville shortly after the October 22 presidential debate and wrote, “A member of the 118th Wing tells me there are at least 200 hundred people gathered here to bid [the President] farewell …” How many people? It’s either “200” (and it’s ok to use the Arabic numeral in this case), or “two-hundred.” Unless the reporter meant 200 times a hundred, meaning there were 20,000 people at the airport. Surely that would be the largest bidding adieu crowd ever … period.

TV does it right

I pick on the occasional fractured syntax and grammar on TV news. But please know that I know TV journalism is a tough job. You are working against impossibly short deadlines with precious few pieces of information at hand. So here is a positive shout out for a “lower third” (the text that appears at the bottom of the TV screen during a news story) that accompanied an October 27 story on ABC affiliate WKRN in Nashville about a charity clay pigeon shoot hosted by Mike Fisher.

Fisher is a former National Hockey League player who is married to Country Music superstar Carrie Underwood. The lower third that appeared during the portion of the story where Fisher is on camera talking about his charity read, “Mike Fisher. Still married to a famous person.” Well said, WKRN.

Let’s write carefully out there, people.

Joe Diorio is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee.