Get to Know a Color! Red

My six-year-old son Joel recently started wearing the Philadelphia Phillies clothing I’ve been buying him since he was born. I know that Joel resents the Phillies because they’re frequently on TV when he’d rather be watching Spongebob Squarepants, so I asked him about it. I figured he had decided to embrace the Phillies out of affection for his father or a desire to relate to his extended family, much of which is in Philadelphia. The actual reason is much simpler than that: after stints with green, yellow, and blue, red is now Joel’s favorite color.

This got me to thinking about how and why people relate to certain colors. This also made me hungry, because it turns out that red is an appetite stimulant, which may explain why there are so many fat Phillies fans.

Anyway, welcome to the first installment of “Get to Know a Color!” Every now and again in the coming months, we’ll delve into the meanings, associations, and usage of a specific color. (To paraphrase Buster Bluth, as I have done before, this party is going to be off the hook.)

The human eye can perceive roughly 10 million colors, so if I do one a week, I’ll be done in the year 194,317, or shortly before the Earth is swallowed up by the sun. To narrow it down a bit, Isaac Newton, who devised the first color wheel in 1666, identified seven pure spectral colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Since indigo and violet are both essentially purple, we can narrow that to six. Given that primary season just ended in politics, we’ll start with red. (Get it? Because it’s a primary color! Now we’re having fun.)

First, a note about creating meaning with color: The color wheel is your friend. We encourage designers to select a color palette using the color wheel. Colors that oppose each other on the color wheel—blue and orange, yellow and purple, or green and red—are complements. Used together, they create a bold statement. Colors adjacent to one another on the color wheel, like green and blue or orange and red, are analogous. They create a softer, subtle visual presence. Selecting colors carefully based on a specific kind of color palette will reinforce your message.

Look up color psychology online and you’ll find a lot of sweeping statements about specific colors. An article about color psychology on the website infoplease says this about the color red:

The most emotionally intense color, red stimulates a faster heartbeat and breathing. It is also the color of love. Red clothing gets noticed and makes the wearer appear heavier. Since it is an extreme color, red clothing might not help people in negotiations or confrontations. Red cars are popular targets for thieves. In decorating, red is usually used as an accent. Decorators say that red furniture should be perfect since it will attract attention.

One important thing to keep in mind when you read this sort of thing is that these meanings vary across cultures. For instance, in China, red is associated with good luck, but in South Africa, it’s associated with mourning. If you’re on Wall Street, the last thing you want to be is in the red. In Jamaica, if you’re red, it means that you’re drunk. In Germany, if you had 99 balloons, they would definitely be red.

Another factor to keep in mind is that sometimes these generalizations can be contradictory. Red is associated with love and warm emotions, but it is also associated with danger and alarm. In the United States, red is the color of the Republican party; globally, it’s associated with communism.

Whatever the associations, red is the most intense color on the color wheel. According to Johannes Itten’s The Art of Color, the human eye sees colors as electromagnetic radiation measured in nanometers. Of all the colors, red has the longest wavelengths, followed by orange and yellow. (For more on this, have a look at “The Physics of Color” on the website Colors on the Web.) This is why, if we were at a really awesome party and you got us talking about color, you’d hear us say that warm colors advance and cool colors recede.

Because red is so intense, it is used to attract attention. In print, it’s frequently used as a highlight color. Online, it should be used sparingly because it’s tough on the eyes in large quantities on screen (not sure how Netflix gets away with what they do). In short, red is to color what bolding is to type, or what habanero chilis are to dinner (evidently, I’m still hungry). It’s a powerful tool that should be used carefully.

Paul’s Grammar Pet Peeves: Part 2 is Comprised of Five Points

The first installment of Paul’s Grammar Pet Peeves, “Part 1 of Literally Millions,” garnered literally fives of comments, some of them from people I didn’t even go to college with. So it’s clear to me that nothing excites you, the IBD reader, like reading about things that annoy me. With that, I give you five more pet peeves!

Comprised of/Composed of
The phrase comprise means to include or to be made up of. For instance, you could correctly say, “Shea Lewis’s wardrobe comprises many sweater vests.” The word compose means to make or form. So you could say, “Shea Lewis’s wardrobe is composed of many pastel shirts.”

shea-PaulSimonWhen you say this: “Shea Lewis’s wardrobe is comprised of stylish and contemporary clothing,” you are both factually and grammatically off the mark. Not only does Shea look like the late Illinois Senator Paul Simon when he goes out in public, but the phrase is comprised of is grammatically nonsensical. It translates from English to English as is included of or is made up of of. (Thanks to Nick Racine for pointing out that Paul Simon was a senator from Illinois, not Minnesota, as I originally posted. I must have been thinking of Al Franken, who is a senator from Minnesota and played Paul Simon on Saturday Night Live.)

I frequently hear people say that they are tired and need to lay down. This makes sense only if they are carrying a large, heavy box, which would explain why they are tired and what they intend to lay down. Usually, however, they are not carrying anything and what they mean to say is that they need to lie down. The act of laying (time to put on our mature faces, people) requires a direct object (stay with me, I see those smirks), as in, “I need to lay down this large, heavy box.” When you position yourself in the angle of repose, you are lying down.

What complicates this one is the past tense. The past tense of lay is laid; the past tense of lie is lay. Not to mention what happens when you’re talking about those Hawaiian flower necklaces: “I laid down those leis and then lay down.” (Note: Thanks to Sarena Gill for catching my misuse of “your” in the previous example. Sarena is no longer welcome here.)

Okay, so this is one of those quirks that makes people learning English as a second language want to stab native English speakers in the neck with a fork. Adding an apostrophe-S to a word makes it possessive. Just adding an S makes it plural. So why, then, does adding apostrophe-S to “it” not make it possessive? And why is it that just adding an S to it does make it possessive? The simple answer is that “it’s” already serves as the conjunction “it is,” so to make it less confusing, we English speakers invented a new rule that applies only to this one tiny word, making “its” possessive, thereby confusing everybody. You’re welcome, speakers of other languages.

One technique to try is to replace all instances of “it’s” with “it is” or “it has” and see if it works. Then replace all instances of “its” with “his or her” and see if that works. If it does, then you’re good to go. If it doesn’t, you are ready for a career as a writer for The New York Post.

Everyday/Every Day
DaveMatthewsBandEverydayEveryday (one word) is most commonly an adjective, but it can also be a noun. It means commonplace or ordinary. Every day (two words) is an adjective followed by a noun. The phrase simply means daily. For example: “Every day, the everyday activities of my life make me want to stab myself in the neck with a fork.”

Here’s another sentence to consider: “Every day, I think that Dave Matthews should have had a grammarian look at his album cover before he named an entire album ‘Everyday,’ unless he actually meant to say that his music is average or ordinary.”

Presently means soon. Currently means now. If you say you’re on your way presently, it means you haven’t left yet. If you say you’re on your way currently, then you are actually en route.

Paul’s Grammar Pet Peeves: Part 1 of Literally Millions

When I studied journalism in college, one of the first things my copy-editing professor said to the class was, “This course will not make you any friends.” Indeed, the only person at the party less popular than the typography nerd has to be the grammar purist. With that, I bring you the first installment of my top grammar pet peeves!

I theorize that when English speakers learn their native language, they so frequently get corrected for using “me” incorrectly that they start using “I” all the time, no matter what. Now you hear statements like, “People often tell Shea and I how much they love our website” (which is incorrect because it should be me instead of I and also because they actually hate our website).

My favorite quick and easy way to think my way around this one is simply to remove the other person from the sentence. You wouldn’t say, “People often tell I how much they hate my website.” You would say, “People often tell me how much they hate my website.”

I blame grocery stores for this one. Every time you see a “10 Items or Less” sign at your local market, I encourage you to get in line with 11 items just to protest the poor grammar. (Kudos to Whole Foods, pictured here, for getting this one right.) The word fewer should be used for items that can be counted (like items in a grocery cart), while less is for what they call mass nouns (like milk or sand). Think of this as the “Things vs. Stuff” rule. When you leave the hatchback of your car open and drive 80 miles per hour on the highway after a trip to the grocery store, you will end up with less stuff and fewer things by the time you get home.

An Historic
As I watched coverage of the presidential election last fall, I cringed every time I heard Barack Obama’s election described as an historic moment. And these weren’t just the local news pinheads, but respected national journalists like Charles Gibson and Jon Stewart! When did America stop pronouncing the H in historic? What is this, Great Britain? We don’t hit our thumbs with an hammer or drive an hydrofoil through Florida swamps. The H in “historic” is not silent like the H in “honor,” so it seems to me that it should be a historic moment rather than an historic moment.

His or Her/Their
This one is not the fault of English speakers, but rather the fault of the English language. Where is our gender-neutral singular pronoun? They have it in other languages! It’s technically incorrect to say “A person traveling in Philadelphia should monitor their cheesesteak intake” because a person is singular and their is plural. But the grammatically correct version, “A person traveling in Philadelphia should monitor his or her cheesesteak intake,” is clumsy.

You could say, “People traveling in Philadelphia should monitor their cheesesteak intake,” but instead, I propose that we make a gender-neutral proper name like Chris, Pat, or Terry the official gender-neutral pronoun of the English language. This would make the correct version of the above example, “A person traveling in Philadelphia should monitor Terry’s cheesesteak intake.”

Problem solved.

People Who Stand Rather than Walk on Escalators or People Movers
This is not a grammar pet peeve. Just something that annoys me.

The common usage of this word has completely inverted its meaning. People use the word literally to emphasize hyperbole in a statement, as in, “Literally every time I go to the grocery store, some weirdo is there taking pictures of the ’10 items or fewer’ sign.” Clearly, that just happened the one time (maybe twice), so what Terry means here is, “Frequently when I go to the grocery store, some weirdo is there taking pictures of the ’10 items or fewer’ sign.” If Terry wants to use hyperbole, Terry can still say, “Every time I go to the grocery store, some weirdo is there taking pictures of the ’10 items or fewer’ sign.”

The problem with this misuse of literally is that it saps it of its power when it’s used to emphasize an impressive actual fact like, “This website gets literally tens of hits every day.”