Grammar Pet Peeves: It’s Been a While

It has been more than a year since I’ve written about my grammar pet peeves. This is because every time I write about grammar, I make some horrendous mistake like using the wrong your or there, or spelling grammar as grammer. Nevertheless, I’m going to venture into a few points that I’ve been noticing lately.

Have vs. Have Got
If you watch a lot of Monty Python or, alternatively, are British, you frequently hear have got when it seems have would suffice. (Those of you not on government computers will see what I mean in the YouTube video above.) Certain grammar purists and other nerds insist that have got is redundant and annoying. But many people with friends and social lives feel that have got is one of those idiomatic phrases that has so permeated (or, as my horrible boss at my previous job used to say, impermanated) the language that it’s now acceptable. In fact, some, like the authors of the Grammar Girl blog, suggest that have got adds emphasis that have lacks.

Since you most often see have got used with a contracted form of have, (“I’ve got this mole I think I should get checked out”), I think that have got is acceptable in informal settings, like in a blog or at the dermatologist’s office. While I’d steer clear of have got in formal writing, it’s undeniable that without the phrase we wouldn’t have The Beatles’ “She’s Got a Ticket to Ride,” Monty Python’s French castle guard’s “He’s already got one” (above), or Shea’s landmark two-part blog series, “I’ve Got Problems.”

Awhile vs. A While
This recently came up on a friend’s Facebook page. She just put it out there: “use of ‘awhile’ versus ‘a while’. discuss.” And people did. This is what my friends are like.

Anyway, a while is a noun phrase that means “an amount of time”; awhile is an adverb that means “for an amount of time.” When you use the noun (It’s going to be a while before we regain the readers we lose because of this post), it’s two words. When you’re modifying a verb (I need to think awhile), it’s one word. So you’d be correct to say, “I need to think awhile” (modifies the verb to think) and, “I need to think for a while” (for an amount of time).

Hyphenated Adverbs
In a comment on the first Grammar Pet Peeves article, Friend of IBD Scott Rogers wrote this:

A pet peeve of mine … is the hyphenated adverb. The hyphen in “a series-deciding blown call” adds precision to a sequence of modifiers. The hyphen in “an obviously-fair line drive” adds no clarity, since the basic rules of English grammar make clear what is being modified by “obviously.” Now that people are getting better about plural apostrophes (“Fresh Egg’s”), I’m noticing many more hyphenated adverbs in signage (“Organically-Grown”).

I’d have rephrased this comment and claimed the thought as my own, but Scott used baseball-related examples and everything, so how could I improve upon it?

The Designated Hitter
Speaking of baseball, can we all agree that the designated hitter rule in American League baseball is an abomination? All it does is keep a bunch of fat, old has-beens in the league a few years longer to collect stats. (Thanks to The Baseball Stadium Connoisseur for the baseball card image of first-ever designated hitter Ron Blomberg).

Oftentimes
Oftentimes
is indeed a word. It’s in the dictionary, Shakespeare used it, and most importantly, it has its own entry on WikiAnswers. That said, I find it redundant and I hate it. Any time I see oftentimes in text that I’m editing, I change it to often or frequently. Then, just out of spite, I find the author’s iPhone and covertly set his alarm clock to go off at 3:00 in the morning.

April 4 vs. April 4th
This is more personal preference than grammar, but whenever I’m editing, I find myself deleting the suffixes people tack on the end of numerals in dates. What’s the difference between April 1st-4th and April 1-4? To me, the first is visually cluttered, the second clean and clear. When we’re speaking, we may say “April first through fourth,” but when you’re conveying information visually, clarity and simplicity should take precedence.

I use those -th, -rd, -st suffixes on numbers exclusively when I’m referencing that number in a sequence (for example, this is the 1,000th time you have rolled your eyes while reading this stupid blog).

Loose vs Lose
These are different words. They mean different things. I don’t know what else to say on this one.

Caps Lock
We all know that writing in all caps is bad form. When I stumble across anything other than an acronym in all caps, even a single word, I change it to lower-case italics, which achieves the same emphasis without looking disruptive. According to a story on ABC News, Google broke new ground when it released a netbook computer that made it difficult to activate caps lock.

While I applaud Google for trying to stop people from being jerks by writing in all caps, I don’t think there’s any feature in the netbook’s Chrome operating system that prevents people from writing blogs, so clearly there’s work to be done.

Also in this Series

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Who Needs a Watch?

I wake up several times a night and check my watch to see what time it is. I have really bad vision so I have to wear a watch with a light that I can put really close to my face to see the time. If I had an alarm clock large enough to see, it would look like a solar flare from Arkansas. I have told my wife that I wanted to be buried with my watch, that way (if for some strange reason), I woke up I would know what time it was. I know that won’t happen, though, because when I’m dead she’ll take one last opportunity to tell me, “That’s a dumb idea,” and pawn my watch.

Recently my watch died. This may surprise you but I had the geekiest watch on the planet (Casio G-Shock GW6900BC-1) with crazy meteorological features, solar panels, and atomic capabilities. I want to replace it, but a similar watch is expensive. My daughter Anna (the middle child) and I were talking about it and she said that I don’t need a watch since I have a phone and it has a clock.

I continued my search for a watch just to show my five-year-old daughter who was boss. Not wanting to make a huge investment in something that I’m not sure is even needed anymore, I found a really cool retro (Casio CA53W-1ZD) calculator watch, but the purchased was foiled when my wife said, “That’s a dumb idea,” after I showed her the watch. A recent Huffington Post article titled You’re Out: 20 Things That Became Obsolete This Decade mentions that a “survey by Beloit College of its class of 2014 found, few incoming freshmen know how to write in cursive or have ever worn a wristwatch.”

Let’s face it: elements of lives today will be obsolete before we know it. So what steps do we take to make sure what we are writing today isn’t the next newspaper and can continue to be relevant for generations to come? What should we do to make sure that the investment our interpretive site is making into exhibits is going to hold the test of time and not become the next set of encyclopedias?

When writing text for a brochure, exhibit, or website, remember that it is all about the relating to the reader. Visitors to our interpretive sites come for various reasons. Some want to see what the place is all about. Some are seeking an escape. Some relate to your mission. They all come because it means something to them in the first place. Regardless of why they are there, they are there and that’s an opportunity. When writing for that visitor take some time to look into the motivations behind their visit before you put pen to paper. (Okay, I know I’m not the only one that still does that too, am I?)

Think of your piece of writing like a song on played on country radio. There’s a reason that twangy stuff is so popular, and it has nothing to do with sleeveless shirts, tight jeans, and cowboy hats. Who hasn’t been dumped, lost a good dog, or been stalked by a psycho woman after you cheated on her and she dug her keys into the side of your pretty little souped-up four-wheel-drive, carved her name into your leather seats, then took a Louisville slugger to both headlights, and finally slashed a hole in all four tires. (All kidding aside, she was psycho.)

But write to relate to your audience. Country songs are written with universals in mind, so regardless of you proximity to Nashville, Tennessee, you can still relate. I’m just glad I’m writing to a primarily non-country audience today.

When creating a program or non-personal product, remember that the experience is everything. Visitors today care more about what they can do or say they did than what they can take home. No one says it better than Old Spice (that’s a phrase I never thought I would type).

As you know, people forget facts but they will remember experiences. Go out of your way to craft messages in your non-personal media that help convey the experiential process. Phrases such as “You have arrived” or “Welcome to _____!”  or wayfinding signs that indicate key photo opportunities will let visitors know that the experience has reached its precipice. I’m not saying anything bad about our visitors, but sometimes they don’t know they have arrived or have experienced something of significance if you don’t tell them.

Blogging Blog

I should have thought about this long before I went to Paul and said, “Hey, we should start an IBD blog.” Knowing that Paul would be looking for anything to do (in an attempt to take away the pain of being a redhead and a fan of the Philadelphia Phillies), I should have known that he would have taken the idea and run with it. Of course we put some thought into it (and by some I mean some), but really what is the purpose of this blog and blogging in general? Really, I’m asking you. What is the purpose of this blog and blogging in general? Again I need your help.

This post is a continued thought process, path of self-discovery, and evaluation that began in my post last week (Relevance for the Irrelevant), in which I challenged our readers to tell us what it is about IBD that keeps us relevant in your lives. As always, we both appreciated the comments and constructive criticism that was left in the comments section (Jen, for your benefit there will be no “stabs at humor” in this post, only critical lunges).

From the beginning of IBD we have stated that the purpose of the blog is to make the world a better place one post and typeface at a time. Which is a fancy way of saying we have such a big and lofty goal that it cannot be accomplished and therefore we can write about any topic we want and it applies to our mission. Since we put very little (uh, I mean some) thought into why we blog, I decided to research why it is that others blog. I was hoping that through this process it would improve our end product for you but realized many of the conclusions I was drawing may apply to your interpretive site, consulting business, or design firm.

For the longest time I have operated under the concept “If others are doing it, I should do it too.” That, along with the statement, “Come on, I’ll be your best friend,” have gotten me in a lot of trouble. Now that I’m a parent (eh, blogger) I understand the statement, “If others are jumping off a bridge, are you going to as well?”

Why should we blog? The Graphic Design Blender blog (yes, this is reference to a blog about blogging on a blog about blogging, and if you look closely at the image above it is a picture of this blog, with a picture of this blog, embedded with a picture of this blog) list the following as most common reasons for designers to blog: establish yourself as an authority with the design community, create good relationships with other designers, become “popular” and generate a large following, or make money.

Wow, those are great reasons for having a design blog and sure this is a design-ish-type blog. But let’s face it, no one respects our authority, our relationships are nothing short of artificial, becoming popular would be awesome but it hasn’t happened in our combined 74 years of life, and no one is making money. Okay, I’m not sure if I answered my own question about why we should blog.  So, let’s move on.

Why should you blog? (I like that question, since it takes the heat off of us and puts it on you. Paul, maybe we shouldn’t be blogging.) For the two years I have been writing on this blog, I have learned more than I have shared. I’m not holding back, but the practice of blogging teaches discipline in writing and makes you look at world in a different way in order to share your voice. If you are considering a blog for your interpretive site, you will become immersed in your resources in an attempt to have something to share.

After spending 16 years working at interpretive sites, I know how easy it is to begin to take where you work for granted. Blogging can cause you to find details, try new things, and explore in a way that may or may not have done in a while. You might just remember what it was that drew you to that location in the first place before the emails and evaluations took you away.

I have a short attention span in general and blogging has taught me dedication. What was I saying here? I don’t know really but I’ve got to finish this post because I know four people will read it. Oh, maybe that’s what I was saying. When you have an audience that cares about your subject or resource, you place more effort in being the expert and leaving no stone unturned (literally or figuratively). I joked above about our relationships being nothing short of artificial, which is totally untrue. It wasn’t necessarily a planned objective but lifelong friendships and relationships (I predict the first IBD marriage will be in 2013 where Paul and I will have to draw straws to see who will be the best man and who gets to design the invitations) have been developed through IBD. Relationships to your site, story, or products can be developed in the same way.

Blogging can drive your creative prowess for you and your audiences. For us it has led us to research the history of typefaces (okay, Paul already did that on weekends), visiting unusual places, carrying our cameras everywhere (even bathrooms), and visiting new baseball stadiums (okay that has nothing to do with what it can do for you). If you blog about your site, you will become a better interpreter of that resource for your audiences (who it is all about). In blogging though, you should know who you want your audience to be. This is difficult for interpreters who are used to meeting the needs of various audiences and mixed audiences. As a blogger you can build your own audience but you have to know who that is to do it right and be successful.

Design Blender states that designers who want to attract clients should blog about basic design principles, how to find a good designer, and what to expect when working with a designer. If you are interested in attracting designers you should blog about inspiration, interviews, and advanced design tutorials. For interpretive sites who want to attract support, you should blog about mission, core values, staff, offer interviews, and discuss current topics. If you are interested in attracting visitors you should blog about topics that may create discussion, discuss events, post images that will attract, offer something behind the scenes, list possibilities, and share experiences.

Paul, we should talk. After all, you promised to be my best friend.

Avoid New Verbs

On February 18, 2010 I wrote a post titled Unicorn Punching? where I highlighted new popular slang in an effort to seem relevant and in an attempt to be current. In that moment I was the hippest guy in the planet. Since I just typed the word “hippest” you can see how I have fallen. For the reader who implemented the use of the new nomenclature into their daily vocabulary, this post is for you (as well as your family who has been embarrassed by you trying to be cool). I’m trying to be subtle but that’s not always the best approach. What I’m trying to say is, Paul this post is for you.

In my daily search for news of the obscure online, I came across the latest list of words that are recommended for banishment from Lake Superior State Universityin Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. This was the 36th year the university has provided the masses with such a list.

According to their website,

“LSSU’s popular list began on Jan. 1, 1976, when former LSSU Public Relations Director Bill Rabe and a group of friends each contributed a few expressions that they disliked to form the first list. After that, the nominations stacked up for future lists and Rabe’s group, known then as The Unicorn Hunters, didn’t have to make up its own list again. LSSU receives well over 1,000 nominations annually through its website, lssu.edu/banished.”

Perhaps the IBD co-founders should consider a group name because the Unicorn Hunters is really cool name.  Maybe we could go as Captain Colon and the Funky Bunch or Brochu’s Coattails. We are open to suggestions. 

Anyway, I digress. Now back to why I wrote this post. In the Unicorn Punching? post several of the words that I recommended as being trendy or gaining steam in popular culture made the list. “Epic” and “Fail” are listed individually which makes their use together a true epic fail.  Dang it, I just can’t be cool. Here’s a few of the other words that went “Viral” in 2010. Again, I’m hopeless.

“Wow Factor” and “A-HA Moment” are listed as well and shouldn’t be used unless you were describing the wow factor that you had the moment you saw Morten Harket’s hair an a-ha concert in 1985.

For political reasons I will avoid making a comments about “Mama Grizzlies” and “Refudiate,” “I’m Just Sayin’.”

I have a few rules in life: 1.) When you don’t know what to do, walk fast and look worried. Carrying a clipboard helps. 2.) When confronted by a difficult problem, you can solve it more easily by reducing it to the question, “How would the A-Team Respond to this?” and 3.) Avoid new verbs. That’s why “Facebooking” and “Googling” (or is it “Googleing”) made the list.

The list reminds us that our interpretive texts should be written with time tested words and on a level that will appeal to our audiences. There are plenty of other elements that will make your exhibits dated. Writing in a way that can be viewed as timeless is no easy task but with careful thought and effort the words of non-personal media will long outlive the compressed laminate. 

LSSU’s list of banished words has a Facebook page (with 977 people who like their page at the time I wrote this post), where the conversations around the words makes the threads on IBD’s Facebook page (with 607 people who like their page at the time I wrote this post and great potential if Flipping the Pillow Over to Get to the Cold Side can get 4,568,563 followers) seem downright normal.

Nerd Rage: A Response to Internet Thievery

Everyone wants to be a blogger, and the reason is simple: Nothing makes you more attractive to a potential romantic interest than saying, “I’m a blogger.” Sure, athletes are popular, and so are musicians, I guess, but having opinions and writing them down and putting them online without any real hope of compensation? That’s hot.

So it’s no surprise that people are jealous of bloggers—so jealous in fact that they steal the content that we put online for free.

One case that’s been getting a fair amount of attention in the media recently comes to us from my coworker Russ. In a nutshell, the case goes like this: Cooks Source magazine took the content of a blog called “A Tale of Two Tarts” (which I was disappointed to learn is about desserts) by Monica Gaudio and published it, without permission (but with credit), in print. Ms. Gaudio contacted the magazine and was told this by managing editor Judith Griggs:

The web is considered “public domain” and you should be happy we just didn’t “lift” your whole article and put someone else’s name on it!

Ms. Griggs said lots more horrible stuff, which you can see in the article “How Cooks Source Magazine Learned That Reputation Is A Scarce Good” on the website TechDirt.com. This story has exploded on the blogosphere, and has also appeared in reputable sources like The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, and Time magazine, among countless others (seriously, it’s everywhere; just Google it). Cooks Source magazine’s Facebook page was crushed with comments (some of them hilarious, like “And Cooks Source was like ‘Dude, you *have* no pie article’ and ran off” from Cole Moore Odell, and “Cooks Source told Apollo Creed to fight Ivan Drago” from Jill Gallagher), and advertisers are bailing faster than Cowboys fans on the 2010-2011 football season. (Sigh. I miss baseball.)

In the Time magazine article, Gaudio attributes the uproar to “Nerd rage,” which is the greatest phrase ever. Well, the raging nerds aren’t just making obscure pop-culture references on the Cooks Source Facebook page; they’re turning up numerous examples of articles that the magazine stole from other sites, some of them pretty high profile. (See “The Cooks Source Scandal” on Edrants.com.)

As a blogger myself (hello, ladies!), I am at once concerned and elated. First, it seems that in spite of the little copyright symbol at the bottom of this page, I am in danger of having blogs that I spent literally fives of minutes writing about Comic Sans and the designated hitter show up without my permission in The New York Times and Orion magazine. And I’m pretty sure I saw something Shea wrote in Teen Vogue recently. On the other hand, writing these posts will be a lot easier in the future. Next week, tune in for page one of my new online novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

For the record, I am jealous that this happened to Monica Gaudio and not me, because the site Gode Cookery is getting more than a few hits these days.

Speaking of this happening to me, this happened to me! One Saturday not long ago (October 30, but who’s counting?), I noticed that IBD was getting an unusually high number of hits. In fact, IBD set a record for the most hits in a single day that day, and Saturday is usually our worst day of the week (probably because Jeff Miller is at work). Most of the hits we got that day were coming from Twitter, and they were landing on a post I wrote about the color blue two weeks ago.

I noodled around on Google to see if I could figure out who had Tweeted about IBD. After some research, I learned that the fine people at a site called COLOURlovers had alerted their more than 410,000 followers to the post. (Thanks COLOURlovers! We love you, too!) This is about 409,500 more people than the number we usually alert through the IBD Facebook page.

What I also discovered as I was Googling around was that my post appeared ver batim on another blog (to remain unnamed) with no credit or attribution. I commented on the post that I was surprised to see that the “author” also had a husky friend named Shea and how great it is that he roots for the same baseball team I root for. (Or maybe I just said, “Hey, you stole this.” Who can remember?) I was surprised, just minutes later, to get an email from the “author” with this response:

I just wanted to make a formal apology to you for what I have done. I have no intentions of claiming the work of yours to be mine and it is indeed of my fault not to clarify the source of the post. The post has already been deleted from my blog and I would like to apologize for any inconvenience caused and hope for your forgiveness.

I was satisfied with the apology and the quick action, but somewhat skeptical that the author had no intention of claiming my work as his. Unfortunately, this sort of thing has been going on for a long time. My father, who has authored a number of books on philosophy, was once contacted by someone who had questions about the Korean translation of one of his books. Dad had questions, too, like “There’s a Korean translation of that book?” The Internet has made this sort of thing all too easy and much more prevalent. Copying and pasting is not difficult, and having happened just by accident upon one instance of IBD being plagiarized, I’d bet there are more instances out there.

The important lesson of the Cooks Source incident is not just that intellectual property has the same copyright protection online as it does in print (seems to me that that should be evident), but that there is a serious level of misunderstanding out there. Cooks Source editor Judith Griggs’ understanding of copyright law—that she can use another writer’s work without permission or compensation in an ad-supported print magazine—is comically flawed, and she’s paying for it dearly now. But designers working with little to no budget should be wary: even something as simple as downloading a photo and using it in a newsletter without permission can be a breach of copyright law.

So this lesson courtesy of Judith Griggs: Don’t use copyrighted materials without permission, apologize profusely if you do so by accident, and know that if you screw up then act like an arrogant snoot about it, the Internet mob will crush you.

Exclamation Points! Their Time Has Come!

Typographically, exclamation points derive from stacking the letters in the Latin word io (exclamation of joy). And though they have been around for a long time—since the 15th century—there was no separate key for exclamation points on typewriters before the 1970s. For as long as I can remember, grammarians have told us to use them sparingly, if at all. I’ve always thought of them as the Comic Sans or clipart of punctuation.

Yet, only four short decades after the exclamation point got its own spot on a typewriter, a new style guide called Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home suggests that we should use them as much as possible (at least in emails).

I’m always deeply suspicious of any correspondence that uses too many exclamation points. I’ve considered setting up a filter on my email that blocks any message with multiple exclamation points in sequence (“!!!”). One of my favorite quotes from Terry Pratchett’s humor-fantasy Discworld series (now on its 157th book, or so it seems) is this one from the title character in the 1990 book Eric:

Multiple exclamation marks are a sure sign of a diseased mind.

There’s a generally accepted rule among my male college friends that no correspondence among any of us should ever include an exclamation point (though this rule is frequently broken in any message referring to Las Vegas or attractive dental hygienists).

And in spite of all this prejudice against the exclamation point, I frequently find myself staring at work-related emails that I am about to send, wondering if I should change “Thanks” to “Thanks!” And I frequently do.

Granted there’s a difference between using an exclamation point in an email and in a professional scenario—as in a business letter, formal writing, or interpretive media. Author Elmore Leonard, detailing his 10 rules of writing, says, “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” If you are writing the text for an interpretive exhibit and sticking to the generally accepted rule of 150 words per panel, this means you are allowed one exclamation point roughly every 220 to 330 panels. If you use three exclamation points following “OMG” in a text message, then you are done with them for 999,999 more messages (a week and a half, if you’re some people I know).

If it’s true what F. Scott Fitzgerald said, that “an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke,” then the people of Hamilton!, Ohio, must think they’re pretty funny. In 1986, the city of Hamilton, a town of more than 60,000 happy residents, changed its name to Hamilton! to generate publicity. And you know they’re laughing over at Yahoo! When you click on the exclamation point in the logo at www.yahoo.com, it plays the Yahoo! yodel jingle.

By Leonard’s and many other people’s standards, a lot of people overuse exclamation points, not just in personal communication but in professional writing. Some people refuse to use them altogether (like Elaine’s boss in a very funny episode of Seinfeld), while others can’t update their Facebook statuses without at least three of them. You’ll see me use them on this site occasionally, but I doubt I’ve ever used one in an editorial in Legacy magazine.

I tend to think of exclamation points the same way I do about swearing. They’re crutches people use when they can’t think of words to better express their thoughts—but sometimes it just feels right to let loose. In interpretive writing, I can see justification for using them sparingly (exclamation points, that is, not curse words), but when you’re reviewing your writing, I’d encourage removing them first and seeing if they need to be added back in. If you really need the exclamation points, maybe you don’t have the right words yet.

Well, that’s it! See you next week!