Grammar Pet Peeves: Nerds Unite!

The last time I wrote about grammar, anonymous commenter Shea Lewis of Hot Springs, Arkansas, asked this intriguing question: “Paul, are you serious with all of this?” To which I respond today: “Yes! On with the grammar pet peeves!”

Lets Go
I think there’s a perception that the only people who care about grammar are lonely nerds and retired teachers. I once got into a conversation about the use of less vs. fewer with a very nice lady in the express lane at a grocery store. She asked if I was a school teacher, and I said no. Then she smiled weakly and responded, “I got mace, you know.” To which I responded, “No, you have ma—AAAAAAAAAAAGH!”

But every once in a while, some jerk who was probably the captain of the high school football team and dated the cheerleaders and kicked sand in the nerds’ faces makes an embarrassing, high-profile grammar mistake. And then even regular people with social skills and friends talk about grammar. Then who’s laughing? Nerds, that’s who.

Well, nerds are still laughing at Old Navy, which is selling T-shirts that are an apostrophe short of being proper English. They mistakenly used Lets (as in, allows) instead of Let’s (let us) in designs on a series of college T-shirts. It got a lot of coverage, and of course, half the people I know emailed it to me. (See it on Gawker, Refinery 29, and the New York Daily News.)

Viola/ Voilà
This one occurs almost exclusively in the cooking column in your local newspaper. Every now and again, the author of this column, who is almost certainly named Mary Lou, writes something like this: “…and then you pour in the milk, and viola!, your cereal flakes are ready for breakfast!” In this instance, it’s likely that Mary Lou means to say Voilà (“Look there!”) instead of viola (“The violin’s dorkier older cousin!”).

If you’re annoyed when people misuse less and fewer, then this one will get you, too. As with less and fewer, amount and number can be addressed with what I call the Stuff and Things Rule. You should use amount with stuff that cannot be counted (an amount of sand, or milk, or work), and number with things that can be counted (a number of runs scored, or dollars in your bank account, or bricks thrown through your window for being an obnoxious blogger).

Anytime vs. Any Time
In the comments on a previous installment of this series, IBD reader “Susan” (name not changed because we’re unimaginative) asked, “Does anytime/any time work the same as everyday/every day?” The answer is yes. Anytime (one word) is an adverb that means whenever (“Anytime a former child star Tweets about IBD, Shea passes out.”), while any time (two words) is a noun phrase (“Dear Alyssa, I hear you’re a big baseball fan. Do you have any time to read all these other posts we wrote? Love, Shea. XOXOXO”).

You’re Going the Wrong Way
I wrote last week about how annoying it is to me that the Baltimore Orioles have a version of their logo with an apostrophe that’s facing the wrong way. The other time you see apostrophes facing the wrong direction is at the beginning of abbreviated years, as demonstrated above (the red one is incorrect and infuriating, the green one correct and soothing). Unfortunately, most fonts treat the apostrophe in this case like an opening single quote, so you have to trick your computer into turning it around. There’s a funny post about this called “Apostrophes don’t swing both ways” on the site I Love Typography.

That’s it for now!

Get to Know Some Colors! Black and White are Colors

First, let’s dispense with the nonsense: Everyone who saw the headline of this post and said, “But [black or white] is not a color! It’s the absence of all colors!” you are free to go. I suggest that you spend the rest of your day here.

For those of you still here, I’m glad we can agree that black and white are both colors. All of those people who just left would have told you that black is not a color (and white is the presence of all colors) when you think about color as light frequencies, and that white is not a color (and that black is the presence of all colors) when you think about color in terms of physical pigments (like paint or ink). You can see more about this on the Color Matters website.

But let me ask you this: If one of those geeks is wearing a black (or white) T-shirt, and you ask them what color it is, would they tell you it’s not a color?

In terms of cultural associations, black and white are quintessentially opposite, as represented in the Taoist Yin-Yang symbol. In many cultures, black is associated with evil, mourning, power, and Johnny Cash. White is associated with light, purity, innocence, and Madonna (the Christian religious figure, not the musician). Of course, as always, these associations vary across cultures (for instance, white is the color of mourning is China).

Black is the color of famous fictional villains such as Dracula, Darth Vader, and the Oakland Raiders. White is worn by brides, medical professionals, scientists, and me between Memorial Day and Labor Day. In martial arts, the black belt signifies the highest rank, while the white belt represents someone who would run screaming from the person with the black belt.

In design, black and white are considered neutral, but they have starkly different effects. While it’s true that black and white are technically neutral, I have always considered black to be cool and white to be warm. (I wish I had some reference to point you to so that I could back that up, but I don’t.) Part of the reason for this is that black shares traits and associations with cool colors (it’s somber and subdued), while white has a lot in common with warm colors (it’s bright and energetic).

In this Polo Black ad and others like it, the color black (that’s right, geeks, I said it) is mysterious and sophisticated (not to mention dreamy).

Apple has used a white backdrop as a part of its visual identity for years to convey friendliness, openness, and accessibility. The famous Volkswagen Beetle ads from the 1960s and ’70s used white the same way.

In the end, even though most graphic designers use black and white more than any other colors, it’s easy to overlook their importance as design elements (probably because they are so prevalent). Once you accept that black and white are indeed colors, the next step is to carefully consider the substantial impact they have on your communication.

And if anyone tries to tell you that black and white are not colors, ask them what colors a zebra is.

Fun with Infographics: The Best and Worst of Your State

Who doesn’t think infographics are fun? Of course, IBD has had its own little problems caused by infographics, so now we’re turning you on to someone else’s site.

A post by Jeff Wysaski on the website Pleated Jeans gives us this map of the US (click to enlarge) with the worst attribute of each state, based on actual cited statistical data. (See how we waited a couple months to share this so as to not crash anyone’s server?)

And as if that’s not enough, the website someecards gives us this map (again, click to enlarge) of the best attribute of each state, created by Ilya Gerner.

Comparing the maps side by side, we can draw some interesting conclusions:

  • Female criminals make great license plates. (Oklahoma)
  • Ugly people make great employees. (North Dakota)
  • There’s a reason drug-addled yuppies in the 1980s were so slim. (Colorado)
  • Book smarts don’t help you drive better. (Massachusetts)
  • Sunshine makes you thirsty. (Arizona)
  • Attending church may not be the best for your health. (Mississippi and Alabama)
  • Nerds use libraries. (Ohio—not that we needed the maps to tell us that.)
  • Airport travelers carry germs. (Georgia—again, duh…)
  • Smaller homes mean more room for golf. (South Carolina)

While there’s fun to be had here, there’s a lesson, too. The first thing I looked at on these maps was the places I have lived, because I wanted to see if they said anything about me. (The answer: Not really. I was born and raised in Pennsylvania and I’m not a hunter or an arsonist; I lived in Virginia for a decade and I do not have a motorcycle, nor have I declared my candidacy for president; and in my current home state of Colorado, I am neither skinny nor a cocaine user.)

These maps are entertaining because they reflect one of the core principles of interpretive communication—they contain something relevant for everyone. Even if we don’t find something that pertains to ourselves specifically, we look for connections to friends and family. For instance, I know now not to lend money to my Arkansan friend Shea (though if I had money to spare, I’d probably lend it to my poor teacher friends in North Carolina).

And those friends of mine in New Mexico? They’re not anti-social, they’re just waiting for that special visitor.

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).

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


Papyrus’ Avatar in Avatar

Since December 18, 2009, I have been checking the IBD website daily, patiently waiting for someone to ask a question or post a comment about the use of Papyrus in the movie Avatar. Until July 19, 2010, at 10:17 AM, I had been following rule number three of many unwritten rules about this blog, which states: 3. Quit writing about Papyrus because people will think you are an obsessive freak and may confuse you with Paul. The number two rule is: 2. Sausage is an acceptable commodity for the exchange of ideas and/or information in relation to IBD the book not the blog. The number one rule is: 1. Show total disregard for the proper use of the serial comma in order to annoy Paul.

Cal Martin (whom I will refer to in this post as Cal, the Chosen One, Chosen, or the One) finally posed the question on our Ask a Nerd! page. The question made me happy on multiple levels. First and obviously he asked about the use of Papyrus in the film, and second, there is someone who actually saw Avatar after me. Due to the age and number of children that I have, along with a wife with no interest in going to the cinema to see a movie that doesn’t involve talking dogs or sparkly vampires, see a movie like Avatar is a practical impossibility. I digress, here’s the Chosen One’s question/comment. Cal Martin says:

Hi nerds!

Okay, this is embarrassing. Or else I’m extremely rebellious and worthy of great praise, depending on your world view. I just saw James Cameron’s Avatar for the first time. That’s right – half a year later on DVD on my 27 inch tube television. It felt like I was right inside the picture!

Anyway, please, please tell me that I didn’t just see subtitles in Papyrus throughout the entire movie. I wanted to scream, “Good God, no! Papyrus?!?! Kill me now!” but I was afraid that it might expose me as a geek, and result in my sleeping on the couch.

My question – do you have other examples of huge projects (movies, large scale exhibits, multinational company signage, etc.) that had budgets of millions of dollars, yet made a basic gaffe such as this?


One, it wasn’t that long ago that I too saw Avatar at home and had that same reaction. I had heard about the unfortunate choice of Papyrus being discussed in certain design circles. (On occasion Paul and I hold hands, a perfectly acceptable custom in India; it forms the design circle of which I am referring to.) For this reason I had purposely avoided the movie. That, along with an unfortunate dream I had involving Smurphs when I was younger, has forever changed my view of blue people.

Chosen, I did make the mistake that you avoided in post-film conversation with my wife by saying it was pretty good despite the Na’vi speaking Papyrus. To which my wife replied that I had successful ruined everything. Which, in my opinion, is a bit presumptuous.

Back to the question at hand, the typeface used in all promotional materials, posters, and even the subtitles in the movies is not exactly Papyrus (seen above in yellow) but some sort of adapted version of Papyrus (seen above in blue). What is surprising to me is that movie with a budget well over $450 million (including promotion) didn’t search from a more original typeface to represent the film. Paul and I would have gladly provided the producer James Cameron this same advice for an amount much less than $10 million.

At the very least someone tried to alter it some in an effort to customize the typeface. Upon closer investigation you will notice that elements of Papyrus have been slightly altered.

The problem isn’t really Papyrus itself. In fact I think it represents the Na’vi and the movie well. As we have stated before in conversations about Comic Sans and Papyrus, it is the overuse that has made it ubiquitous. The real problem is that is also represents Italian restaurants, coffee shops, massage parlors, and churches. As a standard default font found on PCs and Macs worldwide the typeface has found its way into countless designs and lost the intent it was created.

My personal complaint with the use of the version in Avatar is that the subtitles are just too difficult to read. The first goal of subtitles should be legibility. Now if you were watching it at an IMAX theater you could probably read it better than on my or Cal’s home theater screens.

The One, I don’t really have an answer to the second part of your question. I don’t know of any other gaffes that have had an impact in the design community as much as Avatar and Papyrus. It is a really good question and perhaps some other members of the Nerd Herd can provide examples. In the meantime this is a reminder that we should consider every design decision we make important.

If someone had placed more of an effort into researching the use of Papyrus and shown Cameron this connection, I have no doubt that more effort would have been placed in finding an original typeface.

Rule number three has been re-implemented for the future of IBD. Oh yeah, if you haven’t seen it (Avatar not The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course) the movie is really good.

Who Are You Calling a Nerd?

No one likes being called a name. Paul and I got used to it at a very young age and have learned to embrace it. Much like that kiss from that creepy aunt from the other side of the family.

Uber IBD Reader Jeff Miller challenged me some time ago to explain the difference between what it means to be nerd, geek, and dork. He came to the right place. On several occasions in an attempt at self-deprecating humor, or as my wife calls it reality, we have called ourselves or each other nerds and geeks. It’s true. We are. Most of you know this by now. Now that Jeff is labeled as the Uber IBD Reader, he has achieved status in one of the three categories. Trust me, Jeff Miller likes this.

There is an element of geek-chic renaissance (at one time it was cool to be a nerd, ca. 469 BC – Socrates) with current shows like Big Bang Theory, Freaks and Geeks, Family Ties, Ugly Betty, and Heroes where nerds are featured as being mainstream and widely accepted.  Okay so Family Ties is not that recent, unless you consider the mid-80s current, but Alex P. Keaton and Skippy were great nerdy/geeky/dorky characters.

There are important distinctions to be made between a nerd, geek, and dork.

A nerd as defined by Wikipedia is

…a term often bearing a derogatory connotation or stereotype, that refers to a person who passionately pursues intellectual activities, esoteric knowledge, or other obscure interests that are age-inappropriate rather than engaging in more social or popular activities. Therefore, a nerd is often excluded from physical activity and considered a loner by peers, or will tend to associate with like-minded people

Nerdy Fact: The word nerd originates from the Dr. Seuss book, If I Ran the Zoo. Correctly used in a sentence: Jeff thinks Shea and Paul are nerds because of their obsession with baseball, talking about file formats, and letterforms.

A geek as defined by Wikipedia is

…a peculiar or otherwise odd person, especially one who is perceived to be overly obsessed with one or more things including those of intellectuality, electronics, etc.

Geeky Fact: Traditional geeks were sideshow freaks in the circus performing such acts as biting heads off live chickens. Correctly used in a sentence: Jeff thinks Shea and Paul are geeks because of their obsession with grammar (Paul only), texting, Facebook, and chicken wings (no chickens were harmed during the writing of this post).

A dork as defined by Wikipedia is

…a quirky, silly and/or stupid, socially inept person, or one who is out of touch with contemporary trends. Often confused with nerd and geek, but does not imply the same intelligence level.

Dorky Fact: Correctly used in a sentence: Jeff thinks Shea and Paul are dorks because of their obsession with sweater vests (Shea only), red Crocs, and 2008/2009 World Championship gear.

As an interpreter and/or interpretive designer it is important to embrace your inner geek and focus on your strengths. I have been envious of Pete Stobie’s ability as an interpreter for some time. For those of you involved in NAI, you may know Pete from his involvement at various levels of the organization, presentations at workshops, or through his reputation at the Kalamazoo Nature Center in Michigan.

I once saw a video of Pete’s Antson Pantz living history-type character program. I had seen a portion of the Antson Pantz program at an NAI National Workshop when Pete and I first met and became friends. While watching the video at home I noticed that my children stopped coloring on the walls, playing with matches, and eating broken glass and were glued to the TV due to Pete’s interpretive prowess. Even my wife started paying attention, commenting on how talented Pete is, how funny he is, and how cute he is. I turned the TV off.

Several years ago, after seeing Pete’s presentation, I was inspired to create a character much like Antson Pants. After several failed attempts which left children crying, I realized that my personal style was not conducive to this type of programming. I had to step back focus on my strengths, draw from Pete’s approach and adapt my program to be successful. To this day when I present a program I try to incorporate elements of Pete’s interpretive approach to the unexpected, revelation, and group participation. I leave the singing to the professionals.

Your design style comes out in everything you create and regardless of how hard you work at being different. Elements of your personality creep in. So what if I like things centered? As long as I know my tendencies and don’t center everything that I do, I can accept who I am as interpretive designer, nerd, geek, and dork.