Category Archives: English language and grammar

Watch that slanguage!

A few months back, I retired from my gig as an unpaid but dedicated language and grammar grouch. Y’all could have sent me a few thanks and maybe policed your own copy for a change, but nooooooo! So I’m coming out of retirement with some hot tips on slang, which is fun to use and adds color to your writing — but must be applied correctly, like commas, ellipses, and Preparation H.

What set me off is seeing, in a writers’ newsletter yet, the statement that a fictional character with the cops after her is “on the lamb.” The same facepalmer* appears in the online lyrics to Bob Dylan’s song “Wanted Man,” made famous by Johnny Cash: “If you ever see me coming and if you know who I am / Don’t you breathe it to nobody ’cause you know I’m on the lamb.”

As I’ve said a few times before, even if something clears spellcheck it can still be atrociously WRONG. The correct word is lam, which should be familiar to anybody who’s ever seen a vintage crime movie or cop show. The noun is defined as “a hasty escape or flight,” the verb “to run away quickly, escape, flee.” For example: “I’m gonna lam it outta here before Raylene finds that dead skunk in the dishwasher.”

Because I’m a public-spirited person,** I’m passing on some similar lingo from Damon Runyon, the author of the stories that became “Guys and Dolls,” and the master of American slang in the last century. (WARNING: some of these are not quite politically correct in this century.)

Croaker – a doctor, “croak” meaning “to die” in those times.
Loogan – fool, putz, sucker, etc. Sometimes misused as “outlaw.”
Fin – a five-dollar bill. From the Yiddish “finnif.”
Taking it on the Jesse Owens – a variation on “lam;” running extremely fast indeed.
Stinkeroo – what we now call an epic fail.
In spades – to the max. Derived from the spade being the highest suit in bridge.
Zillion – bigger than a billion, quadrillion, or trillion. See also squillionaire.
Sheep’s eye – an amorous glance.
Tomato – attractive woman or girl. See also pancake (I warned you).
Cemetery bait – a tomato whose husband is so jealous that any guy who gives this doll the sheep’s eye is apt to wind up in the boneyard unless he takes it on the lam.

Runyon was also a philosopher: “The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.” I won’t argue with that but since I’ve already got a rant going here, let’s settle the conundrum currently raging over “substitute.”

Q: What’s wrong with this sentence: “We’re often told to substitute saturated animal fats for healthier vegetable oils”?
A: Wouldn’t “Saturated Animal” be a great name for a band? Seriously, the problem is that the fats and oils are in reverse order: the newer should substitute for the older. I’ve also read that , “Over the centuries, the verb substitute has been used with a variety of prepositions for its oblique object,” but I’m keeping my oblique object offline. I’m sticking with the Who, who wrote a song called “Substitute.”

I’m a substitute for another guy
I look pretty tall but my heels are high
The simple things you see are all complicated
I look pretty young, but I’m just back-dated, yeah.


*A new slang word. Send royalty checks here.
**I can’t shut up and I’m desperate to expand my “platform,” if somebody could just explain what it means.

Uncle Grumpy’s gone fishin’

Welcome to my retirement! Not the one from my actual job a few years ago but the brand new one from my other life as a professional language police person and grammar nag, writing under the moniker Uncle Grumpy.

You might ask why I’m retiring. (You might also not care.) Well, it wasn’t an easy decision. I like showing off my knowledge, skewering other people’s bad writing, and—at least once in a blue moon—being funny. However, I’ve reluctantly concluded that the odds of making any real impact* on the problem are somewhere below absolute zero. I’d have a better chance of being voted, “The Hottest of All the Hot Dudes in the South Even Though He’s Sixty-Plus and Is Minus Most of His Hair.”

What brought me to this sorry state? ‘Twas this bit of prose from a New York Times article: “In one dramatic marker of the divide, the Republican minority in the Oregon Senate on Thursday fleed the Capitol to prevent a vote on the carbon-pricing bill, which they say would harm the state’s economy.”

That’s right, FLEED. Of all the linguistic apocalypti** I’ve seen, which is plenty, this is among the worst. What next, “bleeded?” Most fourth-graders would know better. Even spellcheck, which I usually warn people not to lean on, would’ve caught it. I’m reminded of Groucho Marx in Monkey Business: “Oh, why can’t we break away from all this, just you and I, and lodge with my fleas in the hills? I mean… flee to my lodge in the hills.”

In any case, I am done grumping. I will no longer rend my teeth or gnash my garments over every goof I find. I shall live a life of serenity, unbothered by dangling modifiers, promiscuous possessives, buzzwords, typos like “pubic” for “public,” and all the rest. I’ll mentally step over these little issues like parking-lot puddles, and if they threaten to aggravate me I’ll simply take a stiff drink (unless I hear them on the radio while driving).


*This is literally the last time I’m going to say it: “Impact” is not a verb. I know I’m not supposed to say “literally” but since I’m retiring, this IS literally the last time I’m going to say it, so I’m literally giving myself a mulligan.
**This might or might not be the proper plural of “apocalypse.” Who cares? I’m retired, remember?

Southern overexposure

A problem facing writers like myself is establishing an identity. It helps if one’s homeland conveys gravitas (which sounds cool even if it’s a buzzword) and by default plants you in the same ballpark with giants like William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. So by virtue of the fact that I’ve lived way down below the Mason-Dixon for a while, and have absolutely no shame about self-promotion, I hereby do proclaim my humble self a Southern Writer.

(Please don’t be put off by this topic. I know that writers who write about writing are sometimes way past running on fumes and in desperate need of a Literary Inspiration Tow Truck. But this post is a voyage of longing, self-discovery, and angst about my place on this earth, all of which are SOUTHERN to the core. Don’t click away!)

Lest y’all think it was easy, I will have you know I’ve struggled to adapt since I came down from Up Nawth. I no longer get weepy and misty-eyed from watching blizzards on the Weather Channel, and I’ve learned that a “Meat and three” is not a rock band. However, I still don’t know or care what a “restrictor plate” is, except that it’s not what they serve your meat and three* on at the meat and three. I sure haven’t morphed into one of those noxious noodniks who still haven’t figured out they lost the Civil War.

Lots of real-life stories have a Southern tinge, like the one in which a cat caused a lady to lose control of her pickup, which “traveled across the west bound lanes of Lafayette Street, onto the side walk and into a utility police.” And nowhere but the South would you hear about the amorous couple who used a fish farm as their lovers’ lane and ended up, uh, sleeping with the fishes.

Unfortunately, the phrase “Southern writer” still calls up an image of a man (why always a man?) in a Panama hat, white shirt, and suspenders, sitting on the veranda under a ceiling fan with a typewriter, a glass of hooch, and a cigar. This guy probably wrote Southern Gothic stuff, hilariously satirized by James Thurber in “Bateman Comes Home,” in which old Nate Birge sits “watching the moon come up lazily out of the old cemetery in which nine of his daughters were lying, only two of whom were dead.”

The New York Times recently posed the question, “What Is a Southern Writer, Anyway?”, pointing out that the genre is changing along with the region. As novelist Lee Smith put it, “It is damn hard to put a pipe-smoking granny or a pet possum into a novel these days and get away with it.”

Oh yeah? Well, one of my relations once had a cat named Possum and I’ve heard of another Southern gent who kept an alligator named Kittycat in the bathtub of his mobile home. So here’s the first sentence of my next book: “Grandma got drunk on Cousin Junior’s moonshine and threw her pipe at Possum but instead hit Kittycat, who jumped out of the tub and chased Grandma, who was nekkid, plumb out the door of her doublewide and all the way down Dead Confederate Mountain.” Am I Southern or what?

*Vegetables. Including fried okra, macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes, field peas, butter beans, cabbage, corn on the cob, creamed corn, green beans, turnip greens, fried green tomatoes, baked beans, Brunswick stew, potato salad, and onion rings.

Scammer grammar hammer

I’ve found my calling. Since I retired a couple of years back, I’ve been floundering in the shallows of unfulfillment, trying to find purpose in geezerhood. And the market for over-60 male porn stars is a lot smaller than I hoped.

But now I’ve found a gig I can do brilliantly. It’ll never dry up and will leave me rollin’ in simoleons. The job? Teaching English to scammers! These hardworking capitalists have been around since the days of dial-up, but sadly, their grasp of the lingo is still a tad sketchy. Here, verbatim, is the email that plotzed into my inbox this very morning:

Subject: Due our security concern We need verified your payment activity

Dear (email address),
We need to lock your apple account for the following reason(s):

05 April 2017: We want to check your account surely not log-in with other device.
06 April 2017: Your account has been make a payment $116 using apple pay with a Payment Code: APP-X42-C22-P0.
10 April 2017: Due our security concern we need to block your account access until this issued has been resolved , we will waiting for 1 week or your account has been disabled permanently.

  1. LOGIN TO YOUR ACCOUNT
  2. Confirm Your identity and our system will replace with your new information.
  3. Your will be redirected and your account ready to use

It’s pretty clear why this message won’t work. First rule: send it to somebody who actually HAS an “apple” account. Besides, “We want to check your account surely not log-in with other device” is a dead giveaway. Haven’t they ever seen “Airplane?” Don’t call me Shirley! Here’s the same message with a few edits from your faithful protector of Good English:

Subject: Who the hell are you?

Dear gluten-brain:

We sure hope it wasn’t you who rented “Naughty Nymphos of North Korea” and “Pammy Does Pyongyang” the other day. We’re freezing your account colder than a Siberian squirrel’s nuts until you can verify yourself. Send us a photo of yourself (FULLY CLOTHED) and answer this security question: What’s the maiden name of your mother’s Uncle Sorghum’s fourth ex-wife? (You can also send a voice recording of yourself singing, “I Went Back with My Fourth Wife for the Third Time and Gave Her a Second Chance to Make a First-Class Fool Out of Me.”)

And from now on, be more careful about what you say online. You might get elected governor of Alabama.

A bad spell of whether

It’s official. We’re in a national crisis. You don’t have to take my word for it. Plenty of more authoritative authorities than your Uncle Grumpy have exposed the shocking truth: the White House can’t spell.

In Washington, you know you’re in trouble when two big stories about your problem surface like enemy submarines on the same day. Now, both the Washington Post and the Associated Press have articles listing the spelling and grammar gaffes the new administration has inflicted on the public.

The list isn’t short. Some of these mistake are mildly humorous, like the news that “Teresa May,” a British porn star, would visit the White House instead of Theresa May, the prime minister. (Irrelevant parenthetical question: Since the PM is of the female persuasion, shouldn’t she be called the prime mistress? A lot more people would listen to her speeches!)

But yuks aside, this is an official White House document mucking up the name of a foreign head of state, and not just any old state but bleedin’ Britain, FFS! In the name of equal-opportunity diplomatic insults, another release referred to Colombia as “Columbia.”

Then there was the presidential quote on the official inauguration poster that read in part, “No dream is too big, no challenge is to great.” They blamed a third-party vendor for that one, which is sheep flop.* Having been both vendor and vendee,** I can testify that the client must always, ALWAYS, review and approve the product before it goes to press. Other gems include “unpresidented,” “lose cannon,” and “attaker” for “attacker” (27 times in a single document).

Of course, we all make mistakes, including the very media that reported these. Before I’d even had my coffee this morning, the Post smacked me with, “Capitol Hill Republicans have tread carefully….” It’s trod, folks.

Some of the administration’s fumbles probably stem from plain carelessness, compounded by internet-induced ADD. However, I suspect they’re also caused by what the AP headline suggests as a solution: “Hey, Mr. President: It’s time to make spellcheck great again.” Sorry, but spellcheck wouldn’t have caught Teresa, Columbia, no challenge is to great, or the misuse of “historical” for “historic” in another tweet.

As I told my students in the writing workshops I used to teach, spellcheck can’t save you from yourself. It’s no substitute for thorough reviewing and proofreading by people who know and care about the English language.

This requires time and effort. But correcting and apologizing for mistakes eats up a lot more resources! You can’t even measure the damage that typos, malapropisms, and BAD writing can do to your credibility. I shudder to imagine what people thought of my old newsroom when we quoted a pope as saying, “Life begins at the moment of contraception.”

So block out some proofreading time, get yourself some reading glasses, and be your own spellchecker. Remember, even if you’re as ancient as Uncle G, it’s never two late too lern to right good English!

 

*A euphemism. Use your imagination.
**An actual word! It means, “the person to whom a thing is sold” (Dictionary.com). I could’ve just said “customer,” but this way I get to demonstrate that I know how to use a dictionary.