Category Archives: Mistakes

Errors, goofs, bloopers, flubs, foul-ups


Approaching Partial Zero



When I first heard of a partial zero-emissions vehicle (or PZEV, a fun acronym to say), I wondered if it was a line from a joke. But no. It is a line from a vehicle category designed to circumvent requirements like California’s demand that zero-emissions vehicles be produced by a certain date. There are technical specifications for a PZEV that have to do with exhaust emissions and fuel-system emissions. For a language columnist, however, the interest lies in the modified absolute.

Sticklers l…


Broadcast(ed) News

An astute indexlanguage observer I know emailed me a few weeks back with the subject heading: “changing past tense form?” I was intrigued before I even opened the email. He knows how to hook a language geek.

The verbs at issue were cast-verbs, including cast, broadcast, fly-cast, and the like. The bit of journalism that had sparked the question was from a blurb on the Skimm from September 24, 2015:

Yesterday, Egypt’s president woke up and said ‘today’s a good day to pardon prisoners.’ He released 100…


Only in the Right Position

2cac48e4476d82244d16fbd56145a6af.500x500x1I wouldn’t change one syllable of the beautiful lyrics that Al Dubin wrote (to Harry Warren’s music) for the huge 1934 hit that the Flamingos turned into a doo-wop classic in 1959:

You are here, so am I;
Maybe millions of people go by;
But they all disappear from view,
And I only have eyes for you.

The lyrics bring a tear to my eye. And I am simply amazed that many people hold beliefs about grammar that would condemn that last line as a solecism.

What these people believe is (if you will forg…


Being a Pronoun

Chapter 5 of Lindley Murray’s English Grammar (1795) begins thus:

A PRONOUN is a word used instead of a noun, to avoid the too frequent repetition of the same word.

The definition is useless: flagrantly inadequate. Yet after more than two centuries people still repeat it. Chapter 5 of Nevile M. Gwynne’s book Gwynne’s Grammar (2011), like almost all other grammar books addressed to the general public, simply paraphrases Murray:

A pronoun is a word which st…


The Third Flaw in the Second Amendment

9EEFE82C-D60F-4F34-B5DA-CFA2325E40E5I was at a department barbecue in California last summer, where conversation had turned to some recent school shooting, and how gun-control legislation can never be enacted because we cannot get round the Second Amendment. A nonacademic visitor suddenly interjected: “Nonsense. You’ve already done it.”

Several professorial heads turned toward her. “How do you mean, we’ve already done it?”

“You’ve already passed laws limiting the Americans’ ownership of arms. Individuals aren’t allowed to have nuc…


Everyday Artificial Stupidity


Monday afternoon. The classroom projector announces: “In 2 minutes the projector will go into standby mode.” After 60 seconds, it changes to: “In 1 minutes the projector will go into standby mode.

Was it really too hard to make that “1 minute”?

Tuesday, early morning. No one else in the building. The elevator wakes as I press the “Up” button. But before the doors open a synthesized voice inside announces: “Lift going up!”

The system has been idle, doors closed and no buttons pressed, all night…


A Healthful Perspective

grammar_peeves_mugThis past Saturday I was down in Washington, D.C., giving a seminar at the Smithsonian Associates called “Grammatical Gaffes: A Linguist Looks at Language Pet Peeves.” For two hours, almost 200 grammar enthusiasts and I romped through some of the greatest hits of  grammatical peevery, such as literally to mean ‘figuratively,’ impact as a verb, could care less, between you and I (or for he and I, etc.), use of less for fewer, stranded prepositions, the existence of irregardless at all, and singul…


Grammar Gripes: Studies Say … ?

Grammar gripes copy

A well-known Facebook group

The news was forwarded to me over email. “Grammar Police = Female Millennials.” And apparently 46 percent of American adults typically correct family or friends when they mispronounce words.

On August 20, released the results of its online Grammar Gripes 2015 study (conducted by Harris Poll about three weeks earlier), and the press release got picked up by sites like PR Newswire, and then by the Associated Press and The New York Times. We here at Lingua…


What’s a Passive?

passive-voice-demonstrated-by-zombiesI am not prepared to engage in the Passive Wars. As with any dispute, however, it behooves us to know what the heck it is we’re fighting about. As my colleague Geoffrey Pullum and others have observed, verb constructions described as passive often aren’t any such thing, and the very word passive suggests a kind of prose that lacks get-up-and-go, or whatever it is our sentences ought to have. Here, though, I want to draw our attention to a point of confusion that plagues even the most committed p…


The Grammar of Healthiness

Health-stub copy

Image by Vassia Atanassova, Spiritia, via Wikimedia

Over lunch this past weekend, my father and I were talking about a friend of mine who always seems to have multiple ailments, some diagnosed and some not. My father noted, “At least some are real health issues.” I replied, “Yes, but we know that mental states matter too, and he doesn’t seem to be trying to help himself be, or seem, any more well.”

My father paused. “More well?” he asked skeptically.

I am not sure I have ever tried to make a com…