My Blog

We’re hearing these terms a lot nowadays.

covid 19 masks

All of us are or should be hunkered down as we wait out the storm that is COVID-19. I can’t provide a cure (Or can I? More on that in a moment.), but I can continue to do what I do best in the hope that it brings a moment of intellectual distraction to readers. 

With that said, here’s a few grammatical observations on the language surrounding COVID-19.

Pandemic, which as an adjective refers to something prevalent over an entire country or the world. As a noun, pandemic is an outbreak of a pandemic disease. Of course, pandemic differs from …

Epidemic, which is an outbreak of disease that attacks many people at about the same time and may spread through one or several countries.  

Underlying health conditions, I’m not sure how often we heard this term before the pandemic, but I did a bit of digging to understand its usage. “Underlying” is the present participle of “underlie,” meaning something beneath something else. It also can refer to a steady, truss, or a way to bolster or carry. In the case of the current health crisis, the first definitions seem to work best.  

Social distancing, which Merriam-Webster says was first used in 2003, roughly coinciding with the SARS coronavirus. It is the practice of maintaining a greater than usual physical distance from other people or of avoiding direct contact with people or objects in public places during the outbreak of a contagious disease in order to minimize exposure and reduce the transmission of infection.  

Asymptomatic, which Merriam-Webster defines as presenting no symptoms of a disease. This is one of those words of efficiency. Rather than saying “He has no symptoms,” you save a couple of words by saying “He’s asymptomatic.” Then again, what are we saving those extra words for?  

Elective surgery, which refers to a surgical procedure one chooses to do and does not involve a medical emergency. Elective comes from the Latin “eligere,” meaning to choose. Types of elective surgeries can vary from cosmetic to orthopedic and more. Fifteen years ago, for example, I had surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff. As painful as my shoulder was leading up to the surgery, that was an elective procedure.  

And now a word from the editor 

I mentioned earlier that I don’t have a cure for COVID-19. That’s not entirely true. We all have the cure at our disposal. For now, that cure is social distancing. We need to do that as much as possible.  

Speaking for myself, I am practicing social distancing because I’m angry. I’m angry that people are suffering. I’m angry because I cannot visit my daughter, son-in-law, or two-year-old grandson.  

But anger isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Psychology Today says that anger can be good for us because it is a tool to protect us and our relationships, and it make us stronger in the face of adversity. How we focus and use anger is what can make it useful, and that is where a cure can come in.  

COVID-19 can be beaten with social distancing. I’m mad as hell at this disease, and I am going to use my anger to leverage the one effective weapon at my disposal – social distancing – to choke this thing off.  

Let’s all get angry. Not at a politician. Not at a grocery store for not having enough toilet paper (Where is that stuff going, anyway?). Let’s all focus anger at this disease and kick it to the curb for good.  

Get angry. And let’s write carefully out there, people. 

Joe Diorio is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee. 

Sign up for my newsletter by texting AFEWWORDS to 22818.

 

 

 

In space, no one corrects your grammar

MOONRISE

By Joe Diorio

March 2020 marks the 54th anniversary of the flight of Gemini 8, the 51st anniversary of Apollo 9, and the 50th anniversary of Apollo 13.

OK, fess up. Unless you are a science and space nerd (like me), you didn’t know any of that did you?

Quick recap for the non-nerds in the audience: Gemini 8 and Apollo 9 were test flights in preparation for the July 1969 moon landing. Apollo 13 was a disaster in deep space and was chronicled in a Tom Hanks movie. Oh and, by the way, Neil Armstrong, who was the first person to walk on the moon, was the commander of Gemini 8.

Dates in the history of space flight may sometimes get lost in history, but space terms stick around in our language. Although they are not always used correctly.

As the anniversaries of those space milestones approach, and considering that prime star gazing begins in the Spring, I touched base with Janet Ivey, President of Explore Mars and CEO of the popular “Janet’s Planet” television science segments to straighten out some space terms that are frequently misused.

Dark Side of the Moon: Besides referring to a Pink Floyd album, there is a persistent misnomer that the moon has a completely dark side. Scientists refute that, pointing out that while the moon is “tidally locked,” meaning the same side always faces the Earth, that one side isn’t dark. It is farther than the side with the Sea of Tranquility on it, fueling the urban reference that something being on the far side of the moon is really far away.

While I’m at it, calling it a “sea” is a misnomer as well, although the genesis of that name doesn’t reside in NASA’s lap. The name was coined in 1651 by Francesco Grimaldi and his bestie Giovanni Battista Riccioli as they were doing some lunar cartography.

Anyhow, Merriam-Webster defines “sea” as a great body of saltwater, and Neil Armstrong didn’t find any saltwater when he visited. Which brings me to:

Search for water: The common misconception is that scientists are looking for a place to take a quick dip. It’s a little different in space. Water as a solid, liquid, or gas is in a lot of places – the poles of Mercury, Pluto, and the clouds of Venus all have traces of frozen water. It really isn’t a search as much as it is a categorization.

Weightlessness or zero-g: Gravity doesn’t go away once you are in space. Gravity is pulling at us all the time, albeit not by very much at 17,000 miles above the Earth. Rather than being weightless, in space you are in a constant state of freefall. The proximity of the celestial body that is pulling at you determines how fast you fall.

Twinkling stars: Yeah, it sounds romantic all right, but the proper term is astronomical scintillation, referring to what we see in the night sky. The twinkling – excuse me, scintillation – is caused by the Earth’s atmosphere, which is made up of different layers that have different temperatures, densities, and other variables that cause light coming from a star to bend and refract.

Falling or shooting star: To be blunt, there ain’t no such thing. Stars burn out. Sometimes they explode. But the streaks of light we sometimes see in the night sky are caused by tiny bits of dust and rock called meteroids that are falling into Earth’s atmosphere and are burning up. If any part of a meteoroid survives the fall and lands on Earth, it is called a meteorite.

Life: Yep this one gets confused, too. All of us are conditioned to think of life as we know it. But scientists looking into space think of life in purely agnostic terms, searching for biosignatures rather than E.T. waving at us as the Hubble Telescope peers into space.

Let’s boldly go and write carefully out there, people.

Joe Diorio is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee. He’s more than happy to bore you to death with his meager astronomical prowess.

 

 

 

Sharing is caring (and you really care).

A_Few_Words_About_Words_3

By Joe Diorio

My readers are not shy. In last month’s newsletter I asked for submissions of grammatical grievances, and the sharing began in earnest.

Waiting on? Waiting for? Just deliver it already.

For example, “Since when do we wait ON something?” a subscriber asked, pointing to a Washington Post headline that read, “Puerto Rico still waiting on disaster relief funds.” His curiosity – complaint, actually – was why wasn’t Puerto Rico waiting FOR disaster relief funds?

The dictionary says one waits on someone as in serving or attending to. The stackexchange.com surmises that the usage of waiting on the delivery is a regional dialect germane to the Southeastern United States, but that wouldn’t explain the Post’s usage.

A little further snooping through Merriam-Webster suggests that waiting on can also mean someone is ready to take step two once step one occurs. In Puerto Rico’s case, step one would be the delivery of disaster relief funds. It makes sense therefore that Puerto Rico would wait “on” disaster relief funds, because no one in Puerto Rico is going to sit around and admire a disaster relief check once it arrives.

Because Internet

“Answering a text with ‘ok’ or ‘k’ is passive aggressive or even hostile,” writes a frustrated grammar grouch on Twitter. “When did ‘kk’ become the new ‘fine’ or ‘duly noted?’ Who has time for this?”

The writer’s frustration is kk with me, and may reflect some pushback over the evolution of our language. Social media and the internet have significantly accelerated the pace of terms being absorbed into the language. Gretchen McCulloch, author of Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, says the frequency of seeing new terminology online, particularly on Twitter, influences how quickly the new words and phrases are absorbed into daily usage. Twitter users, she notes, pick up new phrases twice as fast as those not regularly Tweeting.

Department of Redundancy Department, Overkill Division

“I was ordering a part for my car and the woman at the parts desk said I needed to ‘prepay in advance’ for the part.” Well, to “prepay” is to pay in advance. Would one need a WABAC machine set on extra early to prepay in advance?

Proofread, PLEASE

Example One: The day before the Kansas City Chiefs were to host the Tennessee Titans in the National Football League’s divisional playoffs an ABC affiliate had the following on-screen graphic, “57000 tickets remain available.” Really? Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City holds 78,000 people, so that’s a LOT of extra tickets. Methinks someone overdid the zeroes.

Example Two: An NBC affiliate reporting on the impeachment hearings in Washington, D.C. posted a graphic that read, “Republicans say investigation is heresay.” Is it hearsay that language skills are eroding?

Example Three: Me (yes, me). In last month’s newsletter I said the founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society would “rage” war on misuse of the punctuation. While he may indeed be in a rage, he was actually WAGING war. Name the time and place and I’ll fall on the proverbial sword.

But back to the basics

One frustrated reader shared this chestnut: “The other day I heard a reporter on WHYY (NPR affiliate) start a sentence with ‘Me and him went …’ Ugh! A trained reporter ignoring the subjective case. What is the world coming to?”

OK, your teacher probably covered this in elementary school but let’s review. The word “me” is an object pronoun, and English sentences are constructed in a subject/verb order. If you and a friend are going somewhere you begin the sentence by saying one of the following:

  • Josh and I …
  • The two of us …
  • We …

If you remove the object pronoun from the offending sentence it would read “Me went …” or “Him went …” and, obviously, it would be incorrect. Johnny Wiessmuller, portraying Tarzan in 1930s cinema, was probably the last person who got a free pass for saying “Me went.”

Just to stir the pot

Everyone seems to say the year 2020 is the start of a new decade. But is it? According to the Farmers’ Almanac decades begin with the numeral “1” and end with the numeral “0,” meaning the new decade really does not begin until January 1, 2021. Think of all those “new decade” themed marketing slogans going to waste.

Who writes this stuff?

If you ever wondered who is behind this email newsletter, then click here to read a profile on me in Word of Mouth Conversations. Thank you, Lily Clayton Hansen, for a job well done.

Let’s write carefully out there, people. 

Joe Diorio is a writer in Nashville, Tennessee.

 

It’s Festivus! Share your grievances.

December_Artwork_2

By Joe Diorio

As the holidays fade into memory it is again time to shine the Festivus spotlight on those quirks of grammar that either drive us all crazy or disappoint us to no end. It has been quite a year.

The Apostrophe Protection Society lives!

Speaking of has-beens, my email runneth over with news from readers about the demise of the Apostrophe Protection Society (APS), which shut itself down in the fourth quarter of 2019.

The APS was created in 2001 by a retired journalist in the United Kingdom named John Richards to, as he explains, “defend the much-abused punctuation mark.” For 18 years Richards would wage war – no, I don’t know how – against usage like “apples’s for sale,” or “ladies fashions.” But Richards at age 96 said the war is over.

“When I first set it up, I would get about 40 emails or letters a week from people all over the world,” he told the BBC. “[N]owadays I hardly get anything.”

But shortly after Richards’s (yes, “Richards’s.” That’s how you use an apostrophe to make a name that ends in “s” possessive) post the APS website had a 600-fold increase in traffic. “The APS website is NOT closing down!” says a message on the APS website. Not sure if it is Richards saying that, but for sure reports of the death of the Apostrophe Protection Society are, to quote Mark Twain, greatly misquoted.

We should never give in to bad grammar, even if a 96-year-old man says he’s throwing in the towel. There are grammatical practices or phrases that should go away forever. The proper use of the apostrophe isn’t one of them.

Stop taking the gloves off

One quirk of our language that should go away, and to fight it I am taking off the gloves, is the use of the phrase “taking off the gloves” in political reportage.

To be polite, it’s overused. “Clinton escalates her smear campaign; Sanders takes the gloves off,” “Donald Trump is taking off the gloves,” “The Clintons are taking off the gloves,” “Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are taking off the gloves” are a handful of headlines from the 2016 presidential campaign.

To be impolite, it’s as though there is one key on every political reporter’s PC that spews out that line with a single keystroke. A Lexus Uni search by my colleague Melissa Mallon at Vanderbilt University uncovered scores of times the phrase was used during the 2016 presidential campaign.

The term is a colloquialism, used to indicate that someone has decided to stop being the nice guy in a political fight. Its first usage appears to have been in The Nottingham Guardian from April 20, 1866 when it reported, “[T]he gentleman who came to show the excited state of the town was obliged to admit that on the 26th of June he used to the excited people of the town the expression about taking off the gloves and breaking the buttons from the foils.”

I have chided writers in the past for a lack of creativity in social media posts (“I’m proud to be …”, “I’m excited to be …”, “So honored to …”, please make it stop.). Let me offer the same admonition to those covering the 2020 presidential campaign; there are other terms you can use.

  • “They are no longer nice, as if they ever were.”
  • “If voters thought it was nasty before, they ain’t seen nothing yet.”
  • “Nasty comments abound on the campaign trail.”
  • Covfefe” (OK, not that one. But it WAS only used once!)

Did it hurt less than a collision?

Carnival Cruise Lines is calling the December 20 accident between two of its cruise ships in Cozumel, Mexico an “allision” because only one of the giant ships was moving at the time of the snafu. Merriam Webster agrees, pointing out it the word is used almost exclusively when one ship bumps into a stationary vessel. As Johnny Depp’s character, Captain Jack Sparrow, would say, it’s a nautical term.

Illegal procedure on apologies

Myles Garrett is a defensive lineman for the Cleveland Browns of the National Football League (NFL) who made dubious news on November 14 this past year when, during a game, he ripped the helmet off of the head of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph and hit Rudolph in the head with said helmet.

Garrett received a hefty fine and long suspension from the NFL for his action. He also said “I would like to apologize” for the incident. Not to kick a man when he’s down – which is a 15-yard personal foul penalty in the NFL – but is that “Jeopardy” music I hear or did Garrett actually mean to just say, “I apologize?”

Let’s write carefully out there, people.

Joe Diorio is a Nashville-based writer. He’d like to know what your Festivus grievances of grammar are.

 

What do you call Santa’s elves? Subordinate clauses.

ChristmasInSouthPhilly_1

By Joe Diorio

Time to dip into the old cliché bag and roll out some holiday word nuggets.

Rudolph, the red-nosed caribou: Yep, the correct name for Santa’s reindeer is caribou. The word “reindeer” has roots in the 15th century from an old Norse word that grew out of the phrase “hreinn reindeer,” which was used to identify a male caribou. You can thank the advertising team at Montgomery Ward department store in Chicago for creating the story of Rudolph. The tale of the red-nosed caribou was used by the retailer in its 1949 holiday advertising campaign and was later converted into the well-known song. Bonus points for anyone who knows the name of the singer who first recorded the song. (And, no, it wasn’t Gene Autry.)

Baubles hanging from the tree: A bauble is defined as a trinket. Its origin goes all the way back to the 14th century and referred to a piece of jewelry, as in “he affixed the bauble, with a kiss, upon her finger.” It was Sir Walter Scott who referred to the scepter brandished by a court jester as a bauble. Interestingly, an ornament for a tree is the fourth and final definition offered up by Merriam Webster.

We kiss under the mistletoe, why: Mistletoe is considered a hemiparasitic plant that grows on pine, oak, birch and apple trees. It’s called a hemiparasatic plant because it carries out photosynthesis independently but obtains water and minerals from the tree it is attached to. So basically, it’s a leech. The business of kissing beneath mistletoe came from a Celtic tradition of placing a small amount of it above the door of homes during the winter as a sign of life despite the dreary weather; mistletoe remains green throughout the winter. The thought was hanging it over the doorway ensured harmony within the premises.

Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. Or, in current terminology, money and first aid: Think about the gifts from the three wise men. Gold, I get; giving money as a gift is both safe and a no-brainer. WebMD defines frankincense as a hardened gum-like material that is made from cuts in the trunk of a Boswellia carteri tree. WebMD also describes myrrh as a resin from bark resin, and is used to treat indigestion, colds, even colic. Having experienced a baby with colic, I know that’s a gift worth more than gold. Money and medicine; those three were truly wise.

And the holiday writing honor goes to …

In 2018 I cited the wonderful work of Ysabel Yates, who penned a noir-esque critique of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in The New York Times. My favorite line: “His nose glowed like the end of every cigarette he swore would be his last.” This year I turn the spotlight to a great piece written 13 years ago by Steve DiMeo, a writer and marketing pro in Philadelphia. Steve took the classic “A Visit From St. Nicholas” and reimagined it, South Philadelphia style. “A Visit From Uncle Nick” is a fun read even if you are not from Philadelphia. Some snippets:

Da brats were outta hand
From eatin’ too much candy.
We told them to go to bed
Or there wouldn’t be no Santy.

And me in my sweatpants,
Da wife’s hair fulla rollers,
Plopped our butts on the sofa
To fight over remote controllers.

When out in da shtreet,
There was all dis friggin’ noise.
It sounded like a mob hit,
Ya’ know, by Gambino and his boys.

The full poem is on my website.

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

Joe Diorio is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee. Before that he lived in the Philadelphia area for almost 30 years and can strut with the best of them.