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It’s Festivus! Share your grievances.

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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.

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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.

 

Not a creature was stirring, save for those darn apostrophes

Christmas Landscape

By Joe Diorio

The holiday season is upon us. Or at least it has been since late September when my local Walmart put out its first Christmas decorations. But more important than the over-commercialization of the holiday is what showed up in my mailbox the other day. It was a Christmas card with the following written inside:

“Happy holidays! We love the Diorio’s.”

Wait! Love the Diorio’s … WHAT? Our humor? Our address? The way I make mountains out of grammatical molehills?

I take issue with the last item. It seems knowing how to make one’s last name plural has gone the way of waiting until your second slice of apple pie after Thanksgiving dinner before playing any Vince Guaraldi Trio Christmas music.

“Diorio’s,” as it appears on the card, is possessive. Simply adding an “s” at the end, Diorios, makes it plural. I suspect the author of this card – who is no doubt removing me from their Christmas card list as they read this – meant to say “Diorios” rather than “Diorio’s.”

Since it appears to be that hard to make someone’s last name plural rather than possessive, and I suspect more than a few of us will be sending Christmas (OK, HOLIDAY) cards this year, I offer to you a great guide developed by Kate Brannen that was recently published in Slate. Brannen’s (see? That’s possessive) column offers a user-friendly guide to making a last name plural. Written way better than I could ever hope to write, the full column appears here.

Enjoy the holidays and let’s write carefully out there, folks.

Joe Diorio is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee. He hasn’t started addressing his holiday cards yet.

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Yo, Adrienne, what’s that clatter?

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Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love. It also is a place ripe with stereotypes, from Rocky Balboa running up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum to the late comic David Brenner making jokes about growing up in Philadelhia’s edgier neighborhoods. (“Fabbio are you from Philadelphia, too?” he once said, quickly following it up with, “Did you steal my bike?”)

In 2006 writer Steve DiMeo, who I had the pleasure of working with at an advertising and public relations agency in Philadelphia, put pen to paper to re-imagine the holiday classic “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” What follows is his wonderful rendition of the holiday favorite.

 

Christmas in South Philly

A Visit From Uncle Nick

or, “’Twas? What da hell kinda word is ‘Twas?”

 

By Steve DiMeo

 

‘Twas da night before Christmas,

You hear what I’m sayin’?

And all through South Philly,

Sinatra’s Christmas tunes was playin’.

 

Da sink was piled high,

Fulla dirty dishes,

From da big Italian meal

Of gravy and seven fishes.

 

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.

 

I trew open da stormdoor

To look and see who’s who.

Like a nosy little old lady

Who’s got nuttin’ better to do.

 

In da windows of da rowhomes

Stood white tinsel trees.

And those stupid moving dolls

You get on sale at Kindy’s.

 

When what should I see,

Comin’ from afar.

But fat Uncle Nick

In his big ole Towne Car.

 

He was swervin’ and cursin’,

Givin’ all da gas he got;

As he barreled up the shtreet,

Looking for a spot.

 

More faster than Santa,

My drunk Uncle came;

Wit’ a car full of relatives,

All drunk just the same.

 

“Yo Angie! Ay Dino!

Vic, Gina, and Pete,”

He yelled out there names,

Then spit a loogee in da shtreet

 

“I can’t find no spot nowheres,”

Pissed off, he said.

So he double-parked the Lincoln,

And came in to hit da head.

 

As he hugged me, he burped,

And passed a loada gas.

It stunk up da house,

Like a rotten sea bass.

 

His coat was pure cashmere,

His pinky ring shined;

His toupee was all twisted,

The front was now behind.

 

He ran up to da bathroom,

Bangin’ pictures wit’ his hips.

Never lettin’ da smelly stogie

Fall from his lips.

 

With eyes oh so bloodshot,

And a butt, oh so flabby;

In walked Aunt Angie,

All dolled-up and crabby.

 

“D’jeat yet?” she asked,

As she thundered to da kitchen;

“All da calamari’s gone?”

Aunt Angie started bitchin’.

 

In came Cousin Gina,

In Guess jeans too tight.

She was bathed in Obsession,

Her hair reached new height.

 

In strut Cousins Dino,

Little Petey and Big Vic;

Shovin’ pizzelles down their throats,

It was makin’ me sick.

 

I said, “How da hell

Are all youse people doin?”

Not one of them answered,

They was too busy chewin’.

 

Uncle Nick came down at last.

His face was beet red.

“Sorry I missed da toilet.

I pissed in the bathtub instead.”

 

That was it, I had had it.

I yelled, “Get the hell out.”

Uncle Nick looked real puzzled.

Cousin Gina started to pout.

 

Wit’ that they mumbled curses,

And opened a Strawbridge’s bag.

And fumbled ‘round to find da gift

Wit’ our name on da tag.

 

I then felt kinda stupid,

As I thanked them for their gift.

But they stormed out da stormdoor,

All of them miffed.

 

We tore open da paper

That was taped on and on.

It was a bottle of Sambuca,

And half of it was gone.

 

But I heard him yelling

As he slammed on da gas.

“Merry Christmas, ya ingrate!

You can kiss my ass!”

 

Yo. Happy Holidays, a’ight?

 

 

© 2006 by Steve DiMeo

 

 

 

 

Brevity, the path to confusion

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By Joe Diorio

Brevity in writing is not always a virtue.

Example 1: Opponents of the Oxford comma ranted on Twitter recently over usage that appeared in a Vogue magazine headline, “Cardi B on Raising Her Daughter, Bernie Sanders, and Coordinating Outfits.”

“I cant believe cardi b named her daughter bernie sanders” (sic), one person wrote, thoroughly ignoring the rules of punctuation and capitalization. “Look what your precious Oxford comma did this time, nerds,” said another.

With respect, both individuals are wrong. If I write, “My daughter, Hannah, and Chelsea rented a house in Pensacola, Florida,” then one might mistakenly think my daughter’s name is Hannah. But if I add a sentence, “The three of them had a good time,” then you know my daughter is not named Hannah. The problem is not with the Oxford comma, but with a lack of enough detail.

Example 2: The subhead on The New York Times October 17, 2019 story about the death of U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings read, “A son of sharecroppers, he fought tirelessly for his hometown, Baltimore, and became a key figure in the investigation of President Trump.” In this case, “Baltimore” is intended to be a parenthetical statement, but one could confuse the headline to be saying that he fought for two cities – his hometown AND Baltimore. This could easily be cleared up by saying “…he fought tirelessly for his hometown of Baltimore …”

Brevity is always good, but there can be exceptions. It is especially bothersome in social media. There, brevity often breeds snarkiness rather than insight.

That’s not just opinion. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication suggests longer tweets – 280 rather than 140 characters – breeds civility.

Professor Yphtach Lelkes and his team analyzed tweets from before and after Twitter implemented the increased character limit to 280 in 2017. They concluded that the average quality of conversation improved.

They defined quality as an ideal form of political debate, evaluating tweets for clarity, polite language, justification of opinions, and the use of facts or links to more information. They also evaluated whether users exchanged ideas rather than simply shouting insults at each other. It seems that the increased tweet length let people explain themselves; they could be more deliberative, polite, and civil.

Professor Lelkes says his findings might not apply across all social media. Facebook isn’t Twitter, he notes, and there are too many differences amongst various social media outlets. He’s using a grant from Facebook to study how different aspects of technology lend themselves to different conversations and actions.

By the way, Cardi B’s daughter is named “Kulture Kiari Cephus.” That’s six characters longer than “Bernie Sanders.”

Falling flat on pronouns

CNN’s Chris Cuomo tried a joke that fell flatter than a pancake recently. At a CNN LGBTQ town hall U.S. Senator Kamala Harris said her pronouns were “she, her, and hers.” This is a nod to the fact that non-binary individuals will use the plural pronouns “they, theirs, and them” in singular usage when referring to themselves.

Cuomo tried making light of Harris’ statement and said “she, her, and hers? Mine, too.”

First, please know that there is nothing new about using the plural pronoun “they” for singular usage. Emily Dickinson was doing it over 100 years ago. Second, identifying one’s personal pronouns is not some trendy idea. I participated in seminars on this topic whilst working at Vanderbilt University, where I learned this is a way to show respect toward others.

To his credit, Cuomo apologized for his gaffe. And, yes, “his” is indeed one of Cuomo’s preferred pronouns.

Channeling my inner Ask Abby, it is perfectly acceptable when meeting someone to not only say what your preferred pronouns are, but to ask the individual what theirs are as well.

A moment to brag

Last month a faculty member at Saint Joseph’s University asked if he could use my newsletter in his intensive writing class. Besides being flattered to the hilt, I think I left skid marks saying “yes!” Nothing beats having your work recognized by academia.

I sincerely appreciate all the feedback I receive. Please don’t hesitate to let me know what you think of A Few Words About Words.

Let’s write carefully out there, people.

Joe Diorio is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee.

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