The Logophile: A Rocky Word Quiz

  1. To widen the highway, the state procured land through
    1. eminent domain.
    2. imminent domain.
  2. From psephos, Greek for “pebbles,” we get psephology, the study of
    1. erosion.
    2. freckles.
    3. elections.
  3. Stanley likes zippers but not buttons, dumpsters but not dustbins, and yoyos but not boomerangs. What does Stanley like?

Answers

  1. a
  2. c
  3. Stanley likes words that were once trademarked brand names.

This article is featured in the September/October 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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Logophile Language Puzzlers: Wild On-Stage Antics

  1. Madeleine’s wild on-stage antics were a sharp contrast to her normal ______ demeanor, …
    1. straight-laced
    2. strait-laced
    3. strate-laced
  2. …but her slapstick comedy act was nonpareil — it was
    1. unmatched.
    2. not at all funny.
    3. amateurish.
  3. Madeleine likes silhouettes but not outlines, magnolias but not dogwoods, and mesmerism but not hypnotism. What does Madeleine like?

Answers and Explanations

1. b. strait-laced

It’s a common mistake to write straight-laced when, in fact, the idiom is strait-laced. Strait, which derives from the Latin strictus, means “narrow, constricted.” As an adjective, it’s an archaic word that today exists almost exclusively in two phrases: in straitjacket, a garment designed to be extremely constrictive; and in the idiom at hand, strait-laced, which means “strict or conservative in morality or behavior.”

The confusion is easy to understand. You might consider someone who is strait-laced to be on the straight and narrow, and conflation of the two would lead to straight-laced. But also consider: You can’t lace up something — shoes, a girdle, a straitjacket — and still keep the laces straight.

As a noun, strait is less archaic; you can find it on many maps. This type of strait is a narrow waterway between two larger bodies of water — and again the idea of constriction is evident here.

2. a. unmatched

It probably comes as no surprise that nonpareil came to English through French — in this case, Middle French. It derives from a Vulgar Latin form of the word par, meaning “equal” (think on par with). Nonpareil, then, means “having no equal,” or “unmatched.”

Nonpareil is also a little round chocolate covered in sugar.

3. Madeleine likes eponyms, words named after people.

Eponyms abound in English, and they aren’t always obvious. You probably recognize boycott and gerrymander as eponyms, but so are chauvinist, diesel, leotard, and ritz. So is madeleine, the small, shell-shaped cakes; they’re believed to be named for Madeleine Paulmier, the 19th-century pastry cook who is thought to have invented them.

 

—Andy Hollandbeck is the Post’s copy editor and managing editor.

This article is featured in the July/August 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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Logophile Language Puzzler

  1. Sylvia discovered an 1864 photo showing three of her ____________ posing in their Union Army uniforms.
    1. forbears
    2. forebears
  2. Senescence doesn’t bother Jerod; he isn’t afraid of
    1. open spaces.
    2. foul odors.
    3. getting old.
  3. Pete the Reporter prefers a typewriter to a computer, a pewter pot to an iron pan, and a quiet pier to a noisy wharf. What does Pete like?

Answers

  1. b.
  2. c.
  3. Pete likes words that can be typed using only the top row of letters on a standard keyboard.

Featured image: Shutterstock

Celebrate National Grammar Day by Not Being an Insufferable Know-It-All

If you have someone in your life who helps you make sure your writing is grammatically correct — a spouse, a parent, a coworker, a paid copy editor — today, March 4, is a great day to show your appreciation. It’s National Grammar Day!

Begun in 2008, National Grammar Day is the brainchild of Martha Brockenbrough, author of, among other books, Things That Makes Us [sic]. She chose March 4 as the day to celebrate grammar because, when spoken aloud, the date becomes the complete and grammatically correct sentence “March forth!”

But when it comes to grammar, many people are unfortunately more interested in denigration than celebration, and some might view National Grammar Day as an opportunity to impose their vision of “proper grammar” onto those around them. These type of people will publicly point out errors (or what they believe are errors) in other people’s words, whether they’re spoken, typed, or hastily thumbed out on their smartphones. They’ll take pot shots at grocery-store express checkout lanes for shoppers with “12 items or less” rather than “12 items or fewer.” Some may go so far as to whip out a Sharpie and deface public signs — adding missing punctuation or proofreader’s marks — in the name of “correctness.”

Such unsolicited “correction” of people’s grammar and usage is not only rude, it’s misguided. Don’t do it — especially not today.

Our English teachers tried to teach us good grammar in grade school: How to form plurals. How to conjugate verbs. Where to place commas. How to construct — as well as deconstruct — complex sentences. (Many of these rules aren’t technically grammar at all, but usage and syntax and mechanics, but in the common parlance, we lump them all under the heading grammar in the same we call any music created by an orchestra classical.)

What those same teachers maybe didn’t teach us is that there isn’t only one grammar. There isn’t one set of language rules to govern all English-language communication. There isn’t just one English.

Those grammar-school teachers were teaching us Standard Written English, the form of English preferred by publishing houses and in academia for (surprise!) writing, and conforming to tenets set down by prescriptive authorities (like the Associated Press).

A man stands in front of a grammar idea map on a chalkboard
(Shutterstock)

Problem is, no one naturally speaks in Standard Written English — that’s why they have to teach it in school. And while the rules of Standard Written English can be a good guideline for extemporaneous speech, they aren’t absolute. Grammar isn’t monolithic, and language is fluid. People from different locations and backgrounds naturally use different grammatical and mechanical constructions; that’s called dialect. And one’s way of speaking — in word choice, enunciation, and formality — can change from one situation to the next; that’s called register.

We switch registers all the time without even thinking about it. Just think about how, say, a high school student speaks to a teacher in class, compared with how she speaks to the principal when she’s called into the office for a disciplinary problem, compared with how she tells her friends after school about the whole affair. Each situation involves a different level of formality and intimacy that are reflected in language.

We instinctively switch registers all the time depending on whom we are communicating with and how. And while some of the language choices we make don’t jibe with Standard Written English, that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. So while y’all and yinz might not fly in a formal paper, they are perfectly acceptable — which is to say, grammatical — in informal conversations. Same with ain’t.

This idea of the situational malleability of grammar can be difficult for some people to accept. We like our rules, our right-wrong binaries. We like the idea of grammar as mathematics — that there is One Right Way to construct any given sentence, and it’s just a matter of the correct application of rules to find it.

Even professional copy editors — like myself — have struggled with this idea. Many have admitted to me that, in their early lives, they often felt compelled to “help” people use the English language “correctly” by pointing out danglers, misconjugated verbs, nonstandard usage, and mispronunciations. I know I did. I also know exactly when I stopped and why:

Early in the millennium, at a time when I was making the transition from proofreading to copy editing, my then-wife and I were occasionally invited to dinner parties at the home of one of her coworkers — we’ll call her Isabelle. Isabelle was from Brazil; English was her second language. I generally enjoyed the gatherings, and the food was usually fantastic, but during our third or fourth dinner party, I noticed that Isabelle seemed reticent around me.

I mentioned it to my wife on the drive home, and she told me, “Isabelle’s afraid to speak English around you because she thinks you’ll correct her in front of everybody.”

I felt horrible. I had made Isabelle self-conscious and uncomfortable around me because I felt like I had the authority and latitude to “help” her use English “correctly.” I vowed that I would never make anyone feel like that ever again.

And neither should you.

So don’t celebrate National Grammar Day by being an insufferable know-it-all. There are other, more constructive ways to mark the day:

But unless someone asks for your help or you’re paid to do it, don’t criticize the way other people speak or write. Yes, bona fide mistakes will go uncorrected — who doesn’t make mistakes? You can certainly bask in smugness for recognizing a grammatical “error,” but you won’t be making the world a better place by calling it out.