February Seems to Be the Hardest Word

Welcome to February, the shortest yet most misunderstood month of the year.

How often have you heard someone not simply stress both Rs, but tumble over them? How often?

Sometimes it seems the only word more mispronounced than February is often.

Here’s the scoop: The English language loves to make things complicated. For starters, there’s English-English (the Mother Tongue) and there’s American English. We don’t always pronounce things the way they do across the pond. Remember “vitamin,” “laboratory,” “aluminum”? Then, there are consonants and vowels that are supposed to remain silent (when you live five hours or so west of the Greenwich Mean), yet stubbornly those letters take up the most awkward positions in words.

For February, the first R is silent, the second is not. “Feb-u-ary,” never “Feb-RU-ary.” It’s just that simple.

Those of us who grew up with a silent T in “often” often cringe when actors, newscasters and public speakers hit that T. It adds an unexpectedly Sloane-y tone to American ears. I fear we may have crossed the rubicon on this one, though. Too many popular figures choose “off – ten” while the original, “offen,” has been cast off into the Land of Disuse.

Where do you stand on “February” and “often”? Which other mispronunciations sound like fingernails on a blackboard to you?

Preposition Killer, Qu’est-ce Que C’est?

Talking Heads at Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto, in 1978. Photo by Jean-Luc. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Regular readers will remember the utter dismay I have when I see the phrase “on how” – especially when a writer simply wants to say “how” or means “about” or “regarding,” which some regard as old-fashioned.

You can imagine the look on my face when I encountered not one, but two examples of “on how” in my favorite magazine, the typically erudite and well-edited Economist. The horror! Oh, the horror!

Here they are, in a review of world-music-lover and former Talking Head David Byrne’s new book How Music Works, along with rewrites to suggest better choices:

“Many readers will skip a chapter replete with pie charts that advises up-and-coming artists on how to survive in this new landscape.”

In this case, all the writer needs is “how.” This is a helpful example of what happens when poor usage becomes ubiquitous. You see this phrase everywhere, and it creeps into your own writing. A better way to phrase this is:

“Many readers will skip a chapter replete with pie charts that advises up-and-coming artists how to survive in this new landscape.”

This Ain’t No Fooling Around…

Here’s the Economist‘s second instance:

“A chapter on how to engineer a music ‘scene,’ though of documentary interest…feels superfluous.”

I mentioned in my original post on “on how” that frequently what’s needed is the present participle. This revs up your writing, giving it an active voice, which most writers are encouraged to do anyway. Here’s the recharged sentence:

“A chapter on engineering a music ‘scene,’ though of documentary interest…feels superfluous.”

Once you know how, it’s easy to start making sense…

On How the Grammar Gremlins Wailed

You know I make no claims at grammar expertise. I’m often confused by usage and wind up poring over reference books, which is what I’ve done here because, without them, I wouldn’t have even the language to describe what’s wrong with these examples and how to make them right.

As always, please feel free to share your favorite mangled language or word-wranglers in the Comments.

On how “on how” came to be overused and abused
The prevalence of the “on how” locution makes me grind my fangs down to nubs. And what is a gremlin without its fangs?

Here’s what I’m talking about:

Teaching a demon on how to disguise itself in the muggle world is tricky.

We were taught on how underworld demons try to blend in so they can steal our blueberries.

It was surprisingly dangerous learning on how to saddle a dragon.

The use of “on how” in each of these sentences is correct. Technically. Grammatically. So, what’s got me flustered? Three things, basically:

1) “On” is a preposition. Often we see it attached to verbs in short phrases, such as “relied on,” “depended on,” etc. Part of the overuse of “on how” is coming from the attachment of “on” to verbs that don’t really require it, like “debated on” or “educated on.” In vernacular speech, we’re constantly getting our “on” on. Once “on” is firmly in place, it seems “how” must follow. The way to avoid this usage is to shorten the sentence. In the first example above, “on how” isn’t needed at all. We could say:

Teaching a demon to disguise itself in the muggle world is tricky.

2) The most common misuse of “on how” is as a replacement for “about.” Again, “on how” generally won’t cause your grammar check to draw squiggly green lines under a sentence. But, as most grammar gods command (okay, suggest), it’s advisable to avoid two words where one will do and select the word whose meaning is clearest. And that would be “about.” So:

We were taught about how underworld demons try to blend in so they can steal our blueberries.

3) Finally, to make your sentence zing, add “-ing.” In other words, turn the verb that follows “on how” into a present participle and chuck the offending prepositional phrase, thusly:

It was surprisingly dangerous saddling a dragon.

When the rule of “on how” has passed, the land will be safe for gremlins once again. I just hope I have some teeth left.

Early on
Oh my, here’s another “on” that’s clamped its mighty incisors to “early” and won’t let go.

Early on in the episode, Buffy stakes a vampire.

It was popular, early on, to dismiss “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as a teen soap opera.

Using “early on” when “early” will do is just pouring it on. Buffy would never waste two stakes when Mr. Pointy alone is more efficient. Put your faith in “early” and trust it will do the job you intend. “On” adds no significant meaning or clarity to the sentence and tends to make the writer sound bombastic. Leave the bombast for Principal Snyder; you’ve got more important demons to slay.

On Me, Myself and I
I love these easy-to-understand pronoun examples from Woe Is I by Patricia T. O’Conner.

“Some of the smartest people I know hesitate at the word than when it comes before a pronoun,” O’Conner writes. “What goes next, I or me? he or him? she or her? they or them?”

Good question. Apparently, the answer is that all of them are correct – though your choice may alter the meaning of the sentence, so that’s where you’ll want to be careful. Check out these examples:

Mulder loves baseball more than I.

Mulder loves baseball more than me.

The first sentence indicates that Agent Mulder, when he’s not chasing aliens or government conspiracies, enjoys our national pastime more than I do. The second suggests that Fox loves baseball more than he loves me, which, frankly, I refuse to accept. (Unless the next “X-Files” movie is as bad as the last one. Then, all bets are off, Mr. Duchovny.)

O’Conner goes on to help those of us who have trouble with “myself,” “yourself,” “himself,” “themselves,” etc. Austin Powers could have used her help, when he first met the villain and warbled, “Allow myself to introduce myself.”

In Woe Is I, you’ll find this helpful note: “Myself and the rest of the self-ish crew shouldn’t take the place of the ordinary pronouns…They are used for only two purposes.”

One is emphasis (“The prime minister himself would lose patience with Austin Powers.” Note that “himself” doesn’t need to be added to make this sentence clear.). The other is to refer to the subject (“Dr. Evil hates himself.” “How can you consider yourself a secret agent?”).

Now, that’s the way to tell those grammar gremlins, “Oh, be-haaave!”

Grammar Gremlins

I’ll admit I’m as flummoxed by grammar as the next person.

Despite my love of language, until recently I never formally studied grammar. What I know of grammar came mostly by osmosis, through reading well-edited books and magazines.

Proper editing is no longer prevalent, I’m sad to say. So, I’m beginning to study the subject myself and happy to share occasional examples, especially the ones that have tripped me up. Please feel free to let me know if you find them useful and to share your favorite grammar gremlins, as well.

Here are three that caught my eye this month:

Not only…but also
This phrase tends to sneak in to writing when we’re trying to make a point. But use it incorrectly or too frequently (a recent book on social media employed it in almost every sentence), and it starts to sound high-falutin’. When that happens it’s more likely to detract from your case than bolster it.

The not only…but also convention is a “parallelism.” It’s used, according to Frederick Crews in the Random House Handbook, when “you are telling your reader to consider one item in close relation to another.” The trick with not only…but also is to avoid “invaded parallelism” by keeping marauding elements of your sentence in their proper places.

Here the gates of not only…but also have been crashed by an invading subject (“she”):

She not only wants to learn Spanish, but she also wants to learn Portuguese.

To use not only…but also correctly, you want to avoid duplicating within the phrase any part of the sentence that precedes it. In the example above, the subject “she” starts the sentence outside the not only…but also construction, and then barges in between “but” and “also” where she doesn’t belong.

Correct:

She not only wants to learn Spanish, but also wants to learn Portuguese.

I thought the repetition of “wants to learn” felt awkward and wordy, but thanks to Crews, I’ve learned it’s part of the parallelism, which requires the same Verb-Object construction in the second half of the sentence to make it a genuine comparison.

So, while the sentence, “She not only wants to learn Spanish, but also Portuguese,” is clear enough to understand, Crews explains that “the parallelism is faulty on grounds of incompleteness.”

either / or, either /or, either/ or
You can use either a typewriter or a computer, but if you choose the latter, you should know: The computer is not a typewriter.

And you thought I was going to continue our discussion on parallelism, didn’t you? Nope, this one’s about formatting. Just when most people finally learned that you don’t have to put two spaces after a period, this bizarre construction popped up. And, if adding random spaces around a slash mark wasn’t bad enough, I recently saw this: [ California]

Good grief, people! Computer word processing programs have at least one marvelous advantage over the typewriter – they act like professional typesetters. This means that spacing is automatically adjusted between letters and punctuation and numbers and symbols.

Extra spaces? They’re a carry-over from the days of the typewriter, when each letter, number and punctuation mark was the same width; it left the eye a bit confused at the end of sentences, even when there was a period, so we began tapping the spacebar twice to give typed documents the same visual comfort of a typeset book.

Trying to outsmart the computer’s typesetting function by throwing in extra spaces willy-nilly only disturbs the reader’s eye and confuses your computer’s attempts at formatting. So give the spacebar a rest and let the word processor do the work for you.

Ahem! Textual throat-clearing
This bad habit has sneaked (not snuck) into general usage from pop culture sites and fan forums. Here’s an example from a standard news article:

“Match.com snatched up online dating site OkCupid for $50 million, TechCrunch reports. It’s an interesting, um, match, because OkCupid launched as a free alternative to industry giant Match.”

There’s one of two reasons the writer cleared his or her throat here, neither justified:

1) The pun wasn’t funny enough to fly on its own, so “um” was added as the textual equivalent of a George Burns rimshot. If it’s not that funny, it’s probably just taking up space, detracting from the clarity of the sentence, and should be discarded.
2) The writer doesn’t think readers are clever enough to spot the pun on their own and added “um” as advance warning: Clever locution ahead! This is a terrible way to engage readers and plain rude. If this is the case, it really doesn’t belong.

In fact, the very first “Don’t” in Television Without Pity’s guide to good manners and respectful engagement in its reader forums is to avoid “um.” They’ve learned, over years of monitoring and mediating thousands of tearful discussions, that “um” reads as “snotty” and is basically hurtful.

Sure, not every writer means it that way, but writing “um” is essentially adding extra, unnecessary words.

Trust is what makes for good writing. Trust that your readers are there because they’re interested and want to find out more or contribute their own expertise to a discussion. And trust in the words you use. Choose the clearest, most accurate words to express your thoughts and then trust that each will hold the weight of its meaning and do the job you’re asking it to.