Thursday, August 9, 2007

Pet Peeve: Poor Public Spelling

Our local Taco Bell marquee reads

There here
Grande Quesadillas

Question: What's wrong with this sign (giving the sign-spellers the benefit of the doubt for the missing punctuation)? Answer: There should be spelled they're since it is the contraction for "they are." Otherwise, there here doesn't make any sense.

This example is just one of many misspellings around town, some of which are emblazoned on signs that are more permanent. For example, a local Chinese buffet named Mongolian Garden had, for many months (perhaps even longer), a sign mounted above its front door that read Mogolian Garden. Who knows whether the owner or the sign printer erred; the fact that the restauranteurs would actually mount a sign that misspelled their own business name amazed me. Then a new, correctly spelled sign hung above the front door, with the misspelled sign moved and re-mounted over the back door. I was a little happier with that change, although I did wonder whether egg roll supply companies might think they were at the wrong restaurant when they pulled up to the Mogolian Garden entrance. However, just before the restaurant closed for good, the correctly spelled sign disappeared and the misspelled sign was moved to the front again. Why?

Another example was the dueling road sign problem we had on Greenswitch road. The sign on the southeast corner read Greenswitch (the proper spelling), but the sign on the northeast corner argued that the correct spelling was Greenswich. I felt agitated every time I crossed the intersection until finally the sign with the incorrect spelling was replaced.

Thinking about each public faux pas made me wonder whether business owners ever check with editors, teachers, or people who can spell before making their sad spelling skills permanently public. How hard is it to, say, look up words in the dictionary? Or ask a friend who can spell to take a look at your sign? After all, if you don't pay attention to details in your signs, potential customers will wonder whether you'll pay attention to the details in the product or service you provide to them. If I could give one bit of advice to business owners, it would be to please have someone check your spelling before putting up a sign!

I realize that by tackling this topic I have, of course, exposed my blog to scrutiny. I'm prone to mistakes, as everyone is, but I do run my blog past a second reader to reduce the chances that mistakes slip by undetected.

Your turn: what signs have you seen recently that cause you to cringe?

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Our Oxymoronic Language

I have a special 24/7 Phone Policy with friends, family, colleagues, students; that is, they may call me any time, day or night, for any reason. Maybe they have a question about an assignment. Maybe they just want to talk. Maybe they need a ride home from a local bar because they've had too much to drink. Maybe they need a shoulder to cry on. Regardless of the reason, I'll pick up the phone and talk as long as they want or need to. People think I'm crazy, but hey, it works for me.

In fact, my friend Phil likes to call at odd hours to discuss deeply philosophical issues or lesser ones, depending upon his mood. He and I are both night owls by nature, and I always look forward to finding out what his question will be. We've had many interesting discussions, and he challenges me to stretch myself, to think about issues deeply that I might never otherwise consider. No question is too silly to discuss. (He even puts up with questions from me such as "Why, when birds land on a telephone wire, are they all facing the same way?)

The typical call goes something like this: after greeting me, he'll ask a question like "How would you define intelligence?" or "Do you think today's students have a sense of entitlement?" or today's question, "Have you heard of the word asyndetically? Do you know what it means?"

Today's question threw me. I assumed (always dangerous, of course) that the word was an adverb derivative of the noun asyndeton. I seemed to recall that asyndeton was a figure of speech, but darned if I could pull a definition out of my head on such short notice. Since I was sitting at my computer, I headed to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary to refresh my memory.

The first thing that struck me about this word was not the definition, however, but its etymology (word origin). According to M-W, asyndeton derives from "Late Latin, from Greek, from neuter of asyndetos unconnected," but also "from a- + syndetos bound together, from syndein to bind together, from syn- + dein to bind." Dictionary gobbledygook aside, what we have here is an oxymoronic word--a word that means both "unconnected" and "bound together"--a seeming paradox!

Can you see why I love language so?

When I looked at the dictionary definition for asyndeton, though, the oxymoronic family tree for this word began to make sense. M-W defines the word as an "omission of the conjunctions that ordinarily join coordinate words or clauses." When conjunctions like and, but, and or are omitted but still implied (usually replaced by a comma), that's an example of asyndeton. M-W provides the following example:

  • I came, I saw, I conquered.
In this example, the conjunction and is missing (read: I came [and] I saw [and] I conquered.) provided me with another example:

  • He has provided the poor with jobs, with opportunity, with self-respect.
Again, the conjunction and is missing at each comma.

Connecting the etymology--asyndeton meaning both "unconnected" and "bound together"--and the definition, the word makes sense, even though it seems to contradict itself. The clauses are "unconnected" because the expected conjunction is missing, but because the ideas are parallel in importance and expressed in parallel form, connected by the commas in place of the conjunctions, the ideas are "bound together."

Cool, huh?

Our language is filled with seeming paradoxes, or oxymorons. Jumbo shrimp, for example--how can they be big (jumbo) while also small (shrimp)? A girlfriend of mine once described me as "calmly aggressive." How can one be calm but aggressive at the same time? (I like to think of it as being assertive rather than aggressive.)

So...what are your favorite oxymorons?

Monday, August 6, 2007

Pet Peeve: Definitely Defiant (or is that Defiantly Definite) about "Definitely"

It's pet peeve time again, folks. I recently finished grading papers for the summer session, and I am amazed at the number of students who use the word defiantly when they mean definitely. I'm not sure whether they think defiantly is the actual word they want, or whether they just really messed up the spelling and spell check suggested defiantly as the best course of action and the student thankfully accepted the correction. Argh!

So, let's do a quick review. If you are doing something defiantly, you are being bold, impudent, or rebellious. If you are planning to definitely do something, then you are certain you will be doing it. Here are a few examples to set the record straight:

  • She pouted defiantly when her mother grounded her.
  • "Don't you dare do that," said her father. In response, she defiantly broke the plate by dashing it to the floor.
  • I definitely want to see Peter Jackson produce The Hobbit.
  • I definitely hate it when students use defiantly when they mean definitely.
Feel free to share your pet peeves. What language abuses fan the flame of your ire?