Setting the Record Straight

February 11, 2009

Grammar Rant

We Verb You To Quit Saying 24/7

If I were the Grammar and Usage Czar:

–Nobody would be “tasked” to do something. The person would be assigned or directed or ordered or requested or asked or commanded or ordained or appointed.

–Nobody would be allowed to use the expression “twenty-four/seven” or its newest variant “twenty-four/seven/three sixty-five.” It would be at all times or around the clock or all day or every day or always or without end or any of useful alternatives.

–Particularly in television, reporters or anchors would not be allowed to describe something as happening “as we speak.” “Police are investigating as we speak” is redundant; the present tense of the verb takes care of all that.

–“As well” should be consigned to the trash heap. “They sold new models, but also sold used cars as well.” “Also” or “and” or something else would do without the “as well.”

–Speaking of “well,” that would not be allowed to be the first word in every television reporter’s story: “Well, Skippy, the city….” “Well, today was to be the day….”

–Everyone would be assigned to study the objective case and nominative case. They would never again say “It made no difference to Joe and I” or “Mail it to Mary or I.”




January 14, 2009

What’s That, You Say?

Mean What You Say, Say What You Mean

     The beginning of a new Congress brings to mind the title of the set of parliamentary rules by which that body operates (that is, when it operates) and the importance of that poor, ignored, misused orphan, the apostrophe.
     The book is “Robert’s Rules of Order.” A person (a family, actually) named Robert wrote the compendium of rules for the conduct of assemblies, etc. Hence, “Robert’s Rules.” But people who write about the rules usually call them “Roberts Rules” or worse, “Roberts’ Rules.” This relates also to my friends the Richardses, erudite journalists who nonetheless refer to themselves as “the Richards.” Others are “the Roberts” and “the Cheevers.” Why? Mostly carelessness, I think; they know better. But then, a family named Morris never uses “the Morris” for the plural, or Joneses “the Jones.” Why would they get it right? Go figure.
     Does all this laziness do any harm? In some cases, yes. A recipient of an invitation to visit “the Cheevers” (instead of “the Cheeverses”) may forever have the impression their last name is Cheever, not Cheevers.
     This doesn’t even get into the maddening habit of many painters of house numbers and welcome mats of making it “The Smith’s” or “The Johnson’s.”
     What grammar sloppiness really hurts understanding? Well, for example: If someone promises to “ensure compliance” with a regulation, that has (or should have) a different meaning from “insure compliance.” The first means the person will make sure compliance happens, the second means the person will provide financial backup in the case of noncompliance.
     Harm is also done by misuse of words whose meanings are clear opposites, such as “average” and “median.” If you promise a worker the “average” wage for the region, that would be different from the “median” wage.
     A humorous sidelight to all this is the regional variation of the meaning of “next.” A southerner, speaking on a Wednesday, may say “next Saturday” meaning “a week from this coming Saturday.” In other regions, “next” means “the very, absolute, coming-up NEXT Saturday, three days from now,” etc.
     Aside from all this, it is sometimes difficult to discern a train of thought, a rational discourse, in some contemporary language. “Well, it’s like we were, like, there, and I, like, did not actually like the, like, mood, y’know. So, like, I freaked, know wha’m sayn?” WHAT?
     Many people, including many in the military or in communications businesses such as television, would be surprised to learn there is no country pronounced “Eye-rack.” Iraq is “Ih-rack” or “Ih-rock,” but not “Eye-rack.”
     With Iran, the long “i” sound is permitted only as a second or third pronunciation, with “Ih-rann” the preferred, or “Ih-ronn.”
     And then there is the world of overuse. Nowadays, everything seems to be “great.” “Great food at Great prices,” one restaurant trumpets in its advertisements. I have had many restaurant meals in my day, but only one or two I would call “great.” I have never encountered “great” prices and am unsure what that means. The Great Wall of China is truly great, but few other walls are. Only a handful of movies could be considered “great.” So, how about being precise? The food was delicious or remarkable or plentiful or tasty or scrumptious, but hardly great. The prices were reasonable or a bargain, but hardly great. A party could be festive or enjoyable or lively or even memorable, but how many are great?
    Why does something have to have “an adverse effect on” something else? Why not harm, hurt, diminish, injure, or any of several worthwhile words with more precise meaning?
    Why are we confusing “lie” and “lay.” (I know “lie” has been a prominent part of the political discourse these past several years, but here I am talking about “lie” as in “lie down.” A person “lies low,” not “lays low.”
    Why did we allow one popular movie to help make “I shrunk the kids” accepted? “Shrank” is still a perfectly accepted and correct use for the plural. Also, “sank” and “drank.” As yet, nobody is saying , “He drunk his fill.”



September 13, 2008

Sarah Ain’t Seen Nuttin’ Yet

How the Media Could Get Tough

     News being not what it is misconstrued to be, but rather what it is—that which is new or unusual—the American Idol wannabe Republicans are running for vice president will soon face the usual close examination and exposure by the legitimate news media.

     It is no surprise that Barack Obama came to be such a big story and it is no more of a surprise his star faded a bit and Sarah Palin became the big story. All stories have a short shelf life in the legitimate news business. Have you noticed you don’t hear much about Joe Biden? He’s still campaigning and speaking, but the news has been elsewhere.

     No doubt, before Nov. 4, something or somebody else will grab the headlines. One of the first ones, we suspect is the small crowds John McCain gets versus those of Palin if they ever part company on the campaign trail.

     Whoever is in the spotlight long enough should expect some good, hard questioning by the legitimate news media (we define that as the traditional media that includes daily newspapers, news magazines and national television networks and not the other crap flying by). Here is a primer on how hard the legitimate media can be but usually is not.

     Some conservatives who idolize Sarah Palin already are crying foul about the way she is questioned by the media.
     If the legitimate parts of the news media behaved as the John McCain campaign has, she would be devastated and made to look the biggest fool ever to step onto a political platform.
     Based on the first transcripts from the ABC interview with her, we suggest ways the she could have been made to look silly.
     The interviewer noted McCain’s reference to her foreign and national security credentials as stemming from heading a state close to Russia and commanding the state’s National Guard.
Palin avoided the question and a follow-up. Instead of insisting on a response, the interviewer moved on to another question.
     Later, the interviewer returned to the proximity to Russia as credentials for an Alaskan governor to be discussing Russia’s invasion of Georgia.
Palin: “They’re our next door neighbors and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska.”
     The interviewer did his job and said, “What insight does that give you into what they’re doing in Georgia?” Then he let her dodge it and get off the hook. He could have pressed on, making her look the fool the assertion represents.
     Remember when junk telephone calls were the norm? The callers read from a prepared script and most were easily flummoxed if you interrupted them to ask a question or say something irrelevant to the subject. Palin’s answers to predictable questions had the appearance of being scripted.
     Palin: “What I think is that smaller democratic countries that are invaded by a larger power is something for us to be vigilant against.”
     The interviewer, even letting the bad syntax slide, could have asked: “Why do you smaller democratic countries, why not smaller countries in general. Are you saying it is okay for a larger power, such as the United States, to invade any smaller country it wants to as long as the smaller country isn’t democratic?”
     Other than by providing a transcript, tough exchanges in print are hard to use to illustrate a lack of knowledge.
     A newspaper tired of a sleazy councilman’s constant accusations he was misquoted. The newspaper decided to get even and ordered reporters to quote him verbatim and not fix his grammar and syntax. He ended up looking like a fool, as most people would if you put their words on paper exactly as spoken.

     In the Palin example, she has the careless all but the most genteel among us are prone to do, dropping the “g” on our gerunds. The more you do it, the less sophisticated you sound. In print, it makes you look like one of the American Hillbillies.
     Print reporters and editors usually edit quotes to make them more understandable, and that usually means repairing grammar and syntax. Unfortunately, speakers believe they spoke more eloquently than they actually did, so they rarely appreciate the fixes.


September 12, 2008

Politics Now P-A-R

Honorable Politics, R.I.P.

        Back before the ides of March, when it appeared John McCain would be the Republican nominee for president, we noted that if Barack Obama were the nominee that because of his race, he would face a particularly uphill fight this fall. We added, that much depended on whether the Republican nominee “comes up with another Kevin Phillips, Lee Atwater or Karl Rove.”
          It appears to have happened. Kevin Phillips, who began bringing Madison Avenue tactics to presidential campaigns with an angry Richard Nixon run in 1968 and the “Southern strategy,” has changed his stripes. A somewhat repentant Atwater, who honed the craft with shiftiness, distortions, exaggerations, dirty tricks and character assassination, has died and we are left either with Rove or somebody or somebodies who learned the craft as enhanced by him into one that vicious, mean and not ashamed of outright lying or duplicity.

          The Rovian way appears to take the Nazi theory of “repeat a lie often enough and the people will believe it” to a new level, realizing an increasingly ignorant American electorate would never catch up to lies quickly enough for them to have a negative impact before the election.

          The theory appears to be a correct one, having been tested by Rove not only in the previous two elections, but throughout the two junior-Bush terms inside the White House. The more the electorate relies on being spoon-fed the news instead of seeking out information and reading it in print, a method that aids comprehensive, the more effective the Rovian strategy becomes.

          He probably did not anticipate the birth of tabloid-cable, the perceived need by a dying newspaper industry to compete by dumbing down the news and making it more exciting, the fast spread of e-mails and the increased ability to plant false ideas into the media the electorate does rely on.

         The biggest shame of the today’s GOP campaigning strategy, which is old politics with a cruel edge, is that in order to win, Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats are beginning to believe they need to get down into the gutter with the competition.
          Another shame is that McCain, a man we knew to be honorable and ethical, if not a person very tolerant of those who disagree with him, appears to have bowed to expediency and decided to take the dirt road to get elected. The selection of Sarah Palin, which could not have been the choice of the McCain we knew, appears to have been a stroke of genius straight out of the Phillips/Atwater/Rove playbook.
          One can excuse some excesses on the part of a presidential candidate. These people have to have tremendous egos to believe they can do the job better than anyone else in a nation of more than 300 million people. And if they believe that, then logic might tell them that if the country is better off with them at the helm, then however they get there is justifiable.
          As an honorable presidential candidate said in 1964, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Today’s mantra would appear to be “extremism in the interest of getting elected is no vice.” But would an honorable person stoop so low?


August 23, 2008

This Just In

Biden Says Obama to Alter Earth Orbit

     In his maiden speech as a candidate for vice president, Joe Biden made a couple of amazing assertions, which, if true, suggests he and Barack Obama should not be elected.
     Biden said that when Obama stands on the Senate floor, he stretches his body full length to reach across the aisle to pass legislation. Anyone who has been on the Senate floor knows, that even at Obama’s height, he cannot stretch that far.
     And why would he even try? In the Senate, to pass legislation actually means you help pass legislation by voting for it, and that means going into the well of the Senate and expressing your aye or nay to a clerk at a table in front of the dais.
     But Biden said Obama does it another way. He said, “He made his mark literally from day 1 reaching across the aisle to pass legislation….”
      As president, of course, Obama would no longer have a vote in the Senate, so he doesn’t have to behave in the silly way Biden describes.
      But Biden, and this is the real news, said if elected president Obama would have the opportunity to change the orbit of the Earth. If this is to be his solution to global warming, this is scary. It isn’t clear how he would go about it, but that is a scary prop- osition.
      Yet Biden said, “he will have such an incredible opportunity, incredible opportunity, not only to change the direction of America, but literally, literally, to change the direction of the world.”
      First job for the Obama/Biden campaign advisers: convince Biden, literally, to quit using the word “literally.” If he wants to use emphasis, choose another word or repeat it in the next breath as he is wont to do.


Biden Was Best for President,

Is Best for Vice President

     As occupants of front-row seats for decades of D.C. doings, we have watched Joe Biden grow from someone who matured from simply playing at being a member of Congress to being a major player in world politics. He should be allowed to be an even bigger player.
     As much as Democrats love their candidate, Barack Obama, his biggest lack and his main Achilles’ heel in the upcoming campaign is his lack not only of experience, but also knowledge of foreign affairs.
     The replacement for the boob in the White House has a major mess to clean up over the next four to eight years, but he can stumble through on the domestic front —there are plenty of people who can help him out.
     In foreign affairs, the country needs not only to extricate itself from Iraq, do the right job in Afghanistan and finish it, it needs to restore its credibility around the world and demonstrate this is not really a nation of bumbling fools. And the nation needs to act with the greatest authority possible.
     Biden, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is in a position to hit the ground running as vice president to establish and lead a foreign-affairs team to get busy and right all the Bush administration wrongs.
     As Vladimir Putin has demonstrated in arranging to sidestep the Russian constitution and hang on to power for eight more years, and the invasion he led into Georgia to nip off its Russian-speaking sections, he has delusions of grandeur and perhaps illusions of Cold War II. His arguments for Georgia could easily be applied to Ukraine, which is half Russian-speaking, and who knows where else.
     Biden also has demonstrated a deep knowledge of all the other foreign-affairs issues the nation will face in the coming years, inside and outside of the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and has the respect of his peers abroad.
     As a senator for 36 years, he also has a background depth on the major domestic issues the nation has faced and the maturity that Obama seriously lacks. Biden has served in the past as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and could be a treasured adviser with that background.
     We all know that with tabloid-cable, bloggers and e-mail swappers, this is going to be the nastiest campaign period in U.S. history. Biden played around a bit when he first came to Congress, but suffered an early family tragedy that appeared to turn him around and cause him to focus more seriously on life.
     Yes, he makes speaking gaffes and overstates his own works that will be exploited to the hilt in this day of gotcha media, but he has been around long enough he should be able to weather a serious probe into his past.
     But for Oprah and Iowa, Biden might have had a chance to last long enough in the presidential primaries to be choosing his own vice president at this point.
     Whom better to have sitting a heartbeat away than a man who fits Obama’s wise description of the right person for the job: “I want somebody who’s independent, somebody who can push against my preconceived notions and challenge me so we have a robust debate in the White House.”


August 22, 2008

Pavlov & Presidents

How Would Pavlov’s Dogs Vote?

     Feel like salivating when you hear a campaign speech? Whether the response is drooling, anger, joy, whatever, the response is no accident, because as far as the two presidential campaigns are concerned, you are little more than one of Pavlov’s dogs.
     Just over a century ago, Ivan Pavlov, a Russian scientist whose biggest achievements were in the fields of medicine, became eponymus for conditioned reflexes when he conducted experiments on training a dog to salivate at the ringing of a bell.
     Pavlov won the Nobel Prize for showing that a dog, conditioned to expect a treat whenever a bell rang, actually salivated at the ring of a bell in anticipation of a treat, regardless of whether the treat was proferred.
     The Pavlovian bells in a presidential campaign are certain phrases, known as propaganda techniques. We’ve already heard many, we are about to be inundated the rest of them. Some lists have up to a dozen items, but the major ones we’ll see in the campaign are: glittering generalities, assertion, lesser of two evils, plain folks and transfer.
     To be a responsible voter, one needs to be able to recognize those and other lures in the candidates’ speeches and statements intended to ring whatever bell they believe you want rung, and make you salivate for their election.
     Thanks to the early primaries, we have been inundated already with a plethora of propaganda techniques that can be classified as Pavlovian bells. More are coming. We are not talking here about the moronic tabloid-cable gotcha quotes, mostly taken out of context.
     Most of the moronic stuff you have heard so far comprises the “transfer” propaganda technique. It includes tying the statements of Barack Obama’s former minister to Obama himself; tying the incumbent president to John McCain, even the positions of the president with which McCain disagrees.  
     The serious Pavlovian statements are the ones candidates, both McCain and Obama, make to tweak your patriotism, prejudices and similar feelings, but mostly to take advantage of your ignorance.
     You have McCain saying early on, “I would rather lose a political campaign than lose a war. It seems to me that Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign.”
         First, let it be known Obama did not say he would rather “lose a war in order to win a political campaign,” this is a phrase inserted into Obama’s mouth by McCain (assertion). But McCain did say he would rather lose a campaign than lose a war (lesser of two evils).
         This is a rah, rah statement (glittering generalities), meant to appeal to your patriotism, a false patriotism. The United States has not won a significant war since World War II. The best it has done is fight to a draw in Korea. In making the statement, McCain may feel it in his heart, or he is simply counting on the outcome of the Iraq war not being decided by Nov. 4.
     Do we really want a president so gung ho he would have had us fight on and on and on in Vietnam, far beyond the 58,000 American dead? If a president had had the guts to admit defeat and leave Vietnam (as we eventually did) years earlier, tens of thousands of American lives would have been saved.
     You have Barack Obama saying, “We meet at a moment when this country is facing a set of challenges unlike any we’ve ever known. Right now, our brave men and women in uniform are fighting two different wars while terrorists plot their next attack.”
         Today’s situation is bad, but we have faced worse times, and recently (card stacking). Candidates never talk about the military, whether it is engaged in a dust-up or all-out war calling them “brave,” (glittering generalities) even though they have not had a choice but to follow orders once they’ve signed up.
         And Obama is counting on a Pavlovian response to the fear of terrorists plotting a new attack as evidence the United States needs a new way to deal with threats (pinpointing the enemy).
         Finally, in most of his speeches, Obama attempts to characterize himself as an outsider who wants to bring about change (plain folks). He is a U.S. senators and that makes him an insider, but talking against “Washington,” of which he is an elite part, elicits a Pavlovian response from the voters.
     Not that more than a few dozen wise voters will ever get the chance between now and November to ask a candidate a question, much less challenge him on his statements, but these statement carefully intended to elicit Pavlovian responses are the very ones that need to be challenged.
     It is the news media, which has its access as representatives of the public, that must ask these questions, challenge these statements and, force responsible answers to the real issues of the day.
     Don’t bet on it. This is the age of tabloid-cable and blogging—the campaign will be about little more than how many houses a candidate knows his rich wife owns (name calling) or whether the other candidate is enough of a Christian to lead this supposedly secular nation (name calling).
     Other propaganda techniques, already professionally massaged in the commercials and programming that floods the airwaves, include bandwagon and stereotyping. There is one other.
    Where did both candidates plan to be on September 11? Of course, in New York City as each attempted to elicit the same Pavlovian response by the voters (testimonials).


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