Tuesday, September 30, 2014

I Literally Don’t Care How You Use the Word Literally

photo courtesy NBC

Does your ire fire up when you hear someone use literally in the following context: “She literally chewed my ear off, going on and on about how she met what’s his name from that movie.”* If your face has turned bright red and you’re figuratively blowing off some steam, you just might be a prescriptivist. A prescriptivist is a grammar geek who champions the rules of written language. It doesn’t matter so much to a prescriptivist who invented these rules; the important part is they be followed. Don’t begin a sentence with “And.” Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Don’t split an infinitive. Disregard for the rules, whether blatant or not, is fuel for the prescriptivist’s fire.
* If you’re not sure what literally truly means, let’s just say the above speaker would be in surgery right know, enshrouded by a team of medical professionals trying to figure out what to do about the gaping hole.
If you found nothing wrong with the sentence, however, you probably align yourselves with the descriptivists. A descriptivist is someone who embraces spoken language. Like a research scientist in the field, the descriptivist records dialogue from her chosen subjects, listening for patterns of usage regardless of the rules and regulations of English. She is much more comfortable defining language by how people use it rather than by the language laws decreed by the twentieth-century English-language gods Fowler, Strunk, and White. So when she hears literally in the above sentence, she knows that the speaker isn’t concerned about the literal meaning of literally, here, but uses the word for effect. (Americans love to use adverbs to gain attention . . . whatever.)

Along the prescriptivism/descriptivism spectrum, I find myself caught in the middle of these two schools of thought, especially when I write for myself. If I’m copyediting someone else’s work, I lean a little towards the prescriptivist camp, since I have to abide by house rules, i.e., the rules the editor wants her copyeditors to follow.

Back in 2011, prescriptivists’ panties were in a much reported bunch over Oxford English Dictionary’s decision to offer an alternative, “informal” definition for literally in 2011. “Used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true.” (I love how OED uses the word it’s defining in the definition.) Merriam-Webster rolled its new definition out in 2013: “in effect : virtually.”

They both get it right, and M-W is emphatic that figurative, the opposite of literal, is not intended by its speakers. In its Usage Discussion section, the editors clearly pinpoint what we mean when we use literally nonliterally:
Since some people take sense 2 [in effect : virtually] to be the opposite of sense 1 [in a literal sense or manner : actually], it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.
If M-W’s Usage Discussion doesn’t convince you, and you still think that people use literally to mean figuratively, try swapping them in a sentence:
I figuratively jumped out of my skin when Dmitri, wearing only a Scream mask, woke me up in the middle of the night. 
You’re so cute, I could eat you alive, figuratively.
Egads. No one in his or her right mind would utter such bizarreness.

One thing is certain: these alternative definitions show how our language evolves. Dictionaries often bend to the vicissitudes of our spoken language when new usage gains traction. And because literally has been used for over a century in its second sense (e.g., Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: “And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth.”; and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women: “The land literally flowed with milk and honey.”), it seemed only a matter of time for distinguished dictionaries, such as Merriam-Webster and Oxford, to acknowledge this evolution.

My partner Steve’s cousin Amy came to visit this weekend with her brother, Brian, and the four of us argued spiritedly about the putative misuse of this charged word. Brian seems to align himself with the prescriptivists. Amy utters literally quite liberally, much to Brian’s chagrin. But was she misusing the word? According to these ears, no. Plopping herself down on our living room chair after a sixteen-hour car ride from Milwaukee, she exclaimed, “There were literally no flights in the Midwest.” It was this declaration that set off the debate.

Amy continued to say literally throughout the weekend, always using it (in her mind) to mean actually. But in saying the word, she seemed to always put it in italics, which in turn seemed to evoke the second definition, virtually. I could see Brian begin to bristle. Being a fair and balanced grammarian, I pointed out that Amy always seems to combine both meanings into one super-meaning: She intends literally to mean actually, but she also wants the listener to understand that “Yeah, I know what I’m saying sounds crazy, but it’s true. There were literally no flights. For real. No joke.” When Amy says literally, she wants to have her cake and eat it too. And I applaud her for that. She knows that she has to be emphatic when using literally literally, or else no one will believe her.

Does this mean that the word literally has become meaningless? A victim of its own usage and ostensible misapplication? Perhaps a few more decades must pass before we have the answer. But, until then, we can use the word in whichever context we desire, emphatically or otherwise.

Fun facts:

Did you know that literally can be pronounced more than one way? Besides the four-syllable pronunciation of LIT-uh-ruh-lee (or LIT-ur-uh-lee), you can be confident saying it in three syllables—the way Rob Lowe’s character Chris Traeger discharged it literally a million times in his optimistically fast staccato on Parks and Recreation: LIH-truh-lee. I would giggle like a young grammarian every time I heard that word burst from his mouth.

Did you also know that literal is a homophone of littoral, which means, according to M-W, “of or relating to or on or near a shore especially of the sea”? Most people—except sailors, coastal zoologists and botanists, and Cousin Amy, who is in the U.S.N.R (that’s the Navy Reserve, for us civilians)—have never heard this word before and, when they do hear it, naturally think of literal. If you really want to confuse a sailor, coastal zoologist, or Amy, try this sentence on for size: “During ebb tide, the beach was littorally flecked with seaweed and abandoned shells that once housed small critters of the sea.”

Amy informed me that the men and women with whom she bivouacs pronounce littoral Lih-TOR-uhl, rhyming it with the way many men (and misinformed women) pronounce clitoral. This was exciting news to me. I immediately thought, How many years will it take for Oxford and Merriam-Webster to offer an alternative pronunciation?

Monday, July 28, 2014

Lay It Down and Lie Low: The Battle Between Two Misunderstood Verbs

Most Americans cannot tell the difference between the verbs lay (to place) and lie (to recline). It’s a sad truth. Actually, most Americans think that lay means both to place and to recline. And that lie means solely to fib. The confusion lies in the past tense of the verb to lie, which is lay.

Oy vey.

{ Flashback. }

I’m in sixth grade class. My teacher Mrs. Centurelli, holding my language arts quiz in her hand, sidles up to my desk. My eyes zoom in on the circled, red-inked grade, with the precision of Luke Skywalker targeting the Death Star. I usually nail these quizzes so when I saw “Use the following words in a sentence” on this one, I was pretty confident I’d get an A. Once a grammar geek . . . .

But, all I see is a big question mark. She hands me my quiz and I stare at that serpentine scarlet marking, well . . . quizzically.

Mrs. Centurelli explains, “I couldn’t grade one of your answers because it was vague.”

Vague? Yikes! I want that A.

“What should I do?”

She grabs the quiz back, turns it over, and points to the problem. “You were asked to use the word lay in a sentence, but your answer avoids using it in a way that makes me think I should just mark it wrong.”

I scan my sentence and read it aloud. “I like the song that Melanie sings called ‘Lay Down (Candles in the Rain).’”

Okay, I see her point. I could also have written, “His last word before he croaked was ‘Lay.’”

So I look up at her stern but somewhat bemused eyes and start singing the song in my best boy soprano (but with a hippie bent, since Melanie was singing about Woodstock, after all).

Lay down, lay down, lay it all down
Let your white birds smile
At the ones who stand and frown

Still frowning, Mrs. Centurelli asks, “So, what are you laying down?”

Isn’t it obvious. Jeez. “It! She’s telling us to just lay it all down, you dig?” The Sixties, especially the flower-spreading hippies, taunted me with the promise of freedom, whatever that meant. But I dug the patois.

“Yeah, I dig.” She throws me a little smirk and leans in closely to me.“No more answers like that, okay? You’re better than that.”

“Okay, Mrs. C.” I thought she was hipper than, I don’t know, my mom, but at least my mom knew the lyrics to the Melanie song.

{ Jump forward to now. }

In grammar-geek patois, lay is a transitive verb, meaning that it takes a direct object, i.e., the object being acted upon. In the sentence “I lay kitchen tile for work,” kitchen tile is the direct object of the verb to lay. What are you laying? Kitchen tile.

Lie is an intransitive verb, so it stands alone, needing no direct object. In the sentence “We lie on the waterbed, holding hands,” there is no direct object, since you cannot lie something. If you have trouble understanding that, try substituting the word recline or sit.

Now, for the nitty-gritty. What follows is your guide to choosing the correct verb, based on its tense.

The following sentences show these verbs and their inflections in context:
  • Before we lie down, will you lay the handcuffs at the foot of the bed? (Substitute recline for lie down and set for lay, if you’re at all confused.)
  • I’m trying to entice you with my wiles, but you just lie there like a sleeping bulldog. (An old folk belief still persists that lie refers to people, whereas lay is reserved for animals and objects—not true! Remember the saying “Let sleeping dogs lie.”)
  • Enraptured with the fall foliage, he lay on a pile of maple leaves he had earlier raked into an orange and gold mound. (In this example, lay is the past tense of lie.)
  • After carving the chicken into eight pieces, Marcus laid the knife in the sink to prevent any cross-contamination with the vegetables lying nearby. (Knife is the direct object of laid; the lying vegetables are doing just that, minding their own business.)
  • Had you lain down for a spell before the midnight showing of Rocky Horror, you would not have fallen asleep in the middle of Tim Curry’s “Sweet Transvestite.” (Unforgivable!)
As a copy editor, I close my eyes and hum om every time I see or hear lay and lie used improperly. Hell, I roll my eyes and slap the side of my head every time I catch myself misusing one of these words. Improper use of lay and lie makes the teacher in me cry just a little. Again, if you have trouble differentiating between the two, substitute recline or sit for lie and place or set for lay, until you get the hang of it. Then, you can start using these verbs properly, without having to think about which is correct every time you open your formerly ignorant mouth. Ha ha.

It’s interesting to note that both words derive from the Old English and they are distinguished by one different vowel: lay comes from lecgan; lie comes from licgan. It seems that this scourge—confusing these two seemingly innocuous little verbs— belched out of an Anglo-Saxon’s maw well over a thousand years ago. It’s time for a revolution.

For fun, here are a few song lyrics. Can you tell which are used properly?
  1. Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down (Simon and Garfunkel)
  2. Lay down, Sally, and rest you in my arms (Eric Clapton)
  3. You’re gone and I’m lost inside this tangled web in which I’m lain entwined (Sarah McLachlan)
  4. Lying beside you, here in the dark, feeling your heart beat with mine (Journey)
  5. Lay, lady, lay across my big brass bed (Bob Dylan)
  6. And when I laid beside you for the first time (Tegan and Sara)
  1. Correct. This one is a little tricky, but me is the direct object of lay.
  2. Incorrect. “Lie down, Sally” would be correct.
  3. Incorrect, although in this instance, lain is most likely dialect for laying (she pronounces the word with two syllables), in which case, it’s still incorrect. “In which I’m lying entwined” would be correct, but if she truly meant lain, then “in which I’m laid entwined” would be correct, although it would imply that someone had put her in the metaphorical web, which would be odd.
  4. Correct. Lying is intransitive; grammarians applaud Journey for the proper use of this verb.
  5. Incorrect. “Lie, lady, lie” would be correct.
  6. Incorrect. “And when I lay beside you” would be correct.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Strange Case of He Versus Him, and Other Pronoun (Mis)applications

In Michael Jackson’s classic “The Girl Is Mine,” a duet with Paul McCartney in which a ménage a trois seems to be out of the question, Paul pleads to the unseen, unnamed girl, “I love you more than he.” I smile every time I hear this lyric because, in the context of the song, it is grammatically correct. What Paul is trying to get across to the girl is that there is no way in hell Michael loves her more than he, Paul, loves her. If Paul had sung, “I love you more than him,” a ménage a trois might be a possibility, because what he would actually be saying is that he loves her more than he loves Michael. (So the next time you profess your love in this comparative manor, choose your pronoun — he or him — wisely.) Let me show you what’s really at work here by supplying the “unsung” lyrics in brackets and alternating he and him:
“I love you more than he [loves you].”
“I love you more than [I love] him.”
He is known as a subjective, or nominative (from the Latin nomen, or “name”), pronoun, meaning it acts as the subject of a sentence and, many times, precedes the verb. You can see in the first, true, lyric above that “he” is the subject of the unsung “loves you.”

Him is an objective pronoun. It acts as the object of a verb in a sentence and, many times, follows the verb. In the second, made-up, lyric, you can see that “him” is the direct object of “I love.”

Sometimes proper English sounds strange to us. When we answer the phone and the caller asks for you, you respond, “This is he” or “It is I,” using a nominative pronoun. Why? Because in this instance, “I” really acts as the subject of the sentence. Let me show you by rearranging the sentence a little: “I am the person to whom you are speaking.” Grammatically, we use nominative pronouns when they follow “to be” verbs because they act as the subject. What follows the “to be” verb is called the subjective complement and the pronouns that are a part of this subjective complement become predicate pronouns. (I’ll admit, it’s not so easy to commit these grammar concepts to memory, but if you are a word nerd as much as I, you’ve already done so.)

I would go out on a limb and state that pronouns have become the most notoriously abused part of speech in the new millennium; I’ve noticed in general conversational speech, and also on television shows, that people are misusing them more and more. This, in turn, infects our minds until we begin to misapply pronouns liberally. So to help you distinguish which pronouns to use in which circumstances, here is a little pronoun chart you may remember from English class. It will help you distinguish between pronouns that act as subjects and those that act as objects:

Nominative (Subjective) Case
she, he, it, who
they, who

Objective Case
her, him, it, whom
them, whom

(As you can see from the charts, you, who, and whom can be either singular or plural, depending, of course, on the number of persons involved.)

Steve, my partner, observes keenly that “people try to be too right” when choosing pronouns, and, in their pursuit of the correct pronoun, chose the wrong one. Probably the most common example of misuse involves pronouns that are the object of a preposition. How many times have we heard people start a sentence, “Between you and I.” This, of course, is incorrect. Objective, not nominative, case pronouns are required after the word between, which is a preposition. (Prepositions are words that begin phrases that help further explain, say, temporal or spatial relationships.) For example, in the James Taylor song “Shed a Little Light,” Taylor sings, “Let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King and recognize that there are ties between us.” “Us” is the object of the preposition “between”; therefore, it is an objective case pronoun. Now change “us” to its synonym “you and me.” We use me instead of I because me is also an objective pronoun. If you get confused, just remember that you would never say “between we.” So why would you ever say “between you and I”? We are so conditioned to say “you and I” when I acts as a nominative pronoun that we begin to use the phrase “you and I” at all times, even when we shouldn’t. This is what Steve means when he says we try to be too right.

Some of you may be saying, “Relax already, so what if I choose the wrong pronoun every now and then? It’s my right as an American to speak colloquially.” Terrific, speak colloquially with your nonjudgmental friends, but what if you happen to be on a job interview or are trying to impress some clients or a first date? Discussing your love for the culinary arts, you relate a story that begins “Me and him went to the fishmonger for some bottarga to shave over our homemade spaghetti.” In this example, the wrong case (objective) is evoked. It should be the nominative (subjective) case; therefore, your story should begin “I and he,” or better yet, “He and I.” Listen to yourself speak and you’ll be surprised how often you sound like Cookie Monster, who’s always proclaiming, “Me want cookie!” We Americans get too relaxed sometimes and have a difficult time distinguishing between nominative and objective cases, especially when there are two pronouns involved. Remember, sometimes speaking colloquially can make you sound, well, just plain colloquial.

So, to iterate, use a nominative case pronoun when you need a subject for your sentence and the objective case when your pronoun acts as the direct object of a verb or the object of a preposition. You will never be embarrassed on a date or job interview again (unless, of course, you’re with Cookie Monster). But when you’re with friends or family, you should feel free to speak however you choose.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Joy of Anagrams

Mixing It Up for Pleasure’s Sake

For a while now I’ve been obsessed with anagrams. Totally obsessed. Bloody tasteless, you say? A less bloody test, I say. Everyone should “Self Anagram,” that is, rearrange the letters of your name to spell something else. I particularly like my Self Anagram I ZAP A BULLOCK. It was timely when I wrote this post, seeing how Sandra Bullock was nominated for an Oscar for her role as an astronaut drifting through space. She didn’t win, ergo the befitting ZAP. Although the I is inappropriate because I voted for La Bullock in a friend’s Oscar poll. (I thought she would win, even though I didn’t see Gravity, but, come on, it’s Sandra Bullock. Isn’t she at the height of her career?)

My favorite anagrams, though, limit themselves to one word and, as a special bonus, are antigrams, which are anagrams that are opposite in meaning. One of the most obvious, or well-known, antigrams is united / untied. Wonderfully straightforward in its contrariness. Here are a few more, including our fine example. You may have to stretch your imagination just a tad to discover their oppositional nature:

united / untied
pit / tip
abet / beat
rousing / souring
restful / fluster
prenatal / parental
striking / skirting
conversation / conservation
morose / romeos (unless of course Romeo is behaving like a Werther)
compliant / complaint

I must confess here that one of my favorite antigrams challenges my one-word favoritism and measures in at two words: apart / a part. Lovely.

I also get psyched for any anagrams that have a relationship other than oppositional to one another. Here are a few examples:

lips / lisp (both oral)
sorted / stored (both for the fastidious)
infarction / infraction (both are violations)
melon / lemon (both fruit)
garnet / argent (both colors)
nudity / untidy (prudes may see them as inhabiting the same world)
martial / marital (ha ha)

Sorry for the last one. It’s a bit 1950s I Love Lucy, but I love I Love Lucy. So it stays.

There is one anagram, though, that hovers somewhere in between these worlds. Scared / sacred. You either find these two words toeing the same party line or at opposite ends of a tug of war, most likely depending on how you define and view things that are “sacred.”

My very favorite anagram of all time, though, comes back to my name. My middle name. I seldom use it, but it’s Domenic. As a child, I knew the name was important: I was named after my mother’s father, Dominic. As you can see, though, the spellings differ. This is why I never knew how to spell it growing up. So after some prodding, my mother fessed that she spelled my name wrong on my birth certificate and that the i became an e. The problem was, I could never remember which i, so sometimes I spelled it as Dominec or, in a dyslexic fugue, Demonic, which serendipitously turns out to be the diametric opposite of Domenic, which means “born on Sunday, the Lord’s day.” I hit the jackpot with that one.

Two of my favorite anagram-finding Web sites have features to enhance your anagram-search fun, such as limiting the number of words per anagram or forcing the generator to use a certain word. I recommend using both sites.


Andy’s Anagram Solver

Do you have any favorite anagrams, self anagrams, or antigrams? If so, share them here.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Closing Quotation Mark Dilemma

Three simple rules to keep your punctuation marks in their right place

My biggest punctuation pet peeve involves quotation marks. I get very self-righteous and snobby whenever I espy misplaced ones. If you don’t know the first thing about using quotation marks in relation to other punctuation in standard American English, dear reader, read on. These are the three simple rules you must follow.

1. Periods and commas always precede closing, or end, quotation marks.

Mary said, “I truly, madly, knee-deeply love you, Joe.” 
Desperately seeking a “bromance,” Jason hung out at the gym hoping that another dude would ask him to join in a game of twenty-one.
2. Semicolons and colons always follow closing quotation marks.

She is my sworn “frenemy”; I love her like a sister, but she is constantly throwing shade every time someone tells me I look good.
These movies were featured in Jean’s article “The Three Scariest Movies of All Time”: “The Exorcist,” “Alien,” and “Mommie Dearest.”
3. Question marks and exclamation points precede closing quotation marks only when they are part of the quoted material.

Thomas enthused nonstop about Barbara Billingsley’s scene-stealing performance as the Jive Lady in “Airplane!” 
Did you just accuse me of “cockblocking”?
❦   ❦   ❦

It really is that simple, dear reader.

I had a Harvard-educated lawyer tell me that I was wrong, that the comma did not fall before the end quotation mark. I was proofreading his such-and-such agreement and the situation involved a defined term, something like
This agreement (the “Agreement”, and together with . . . .
So, like a good proofreader, I transposed the comma and closing quotation mark that he had wrong. But in his mind, I was wrong. Self-righteously (why do grammar arguments evince so much arrogance?) he claimed that the comma cannot precede the end quotation mark because then, whenever the term Agreement appeared throughout, it would have to carry a comma at the end, like this: Agreement,. I looked at him incredulously. I said, “It is understood that the comma will not have to be attached to the defined term.” I tried to convey the sense that no one in his right mind would expect that to happen. It was less than a week after 9/11 when this conversation occurred, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt. All of our minds in New York city were addled then. A collective jumble of criss-crossed circuits and untethered emotion.

I think people sometimes get confused because there exists a British style of quotation mark placement. The rules are the same for American style regarding placement next to question marks, exclamation points, semicolons, and colons, but differ for commas and periods only when the quotation is just a fragment. In these instances, commas and periods follow closing quotation marks. For example:
Hermione looked high and low for her “soul mate”, but, alas, could not find her.
This is called logical quotation. Many Americans insist that they are being logical when they place the comma after the closing quotation mark when it comes to a fragment. If the British do it, why don’t we?

For me, though, placing the closing quotation mark after a comma or period seems logical. I like to tell people that the eye sees the period or comma first and this sends a little trigger to the brain, informing it that the sentence is either ending (if you see a period) or there is more to come (if you see a comma). Your eye then sees that the quotation has ended. To me, this seems “cleaner,” or better for my brain, knowing that this sentence is going to continue before knowing that the quotation ends. Even if it is for a split second. My explanation may seem a little poetically justified. But then again, human beings have the uncanny ability to justify almost anything.

❦   ❦   ❦

A few years go by. I notice that Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged online entry for metonymy contains misplaced quotation marks. What? I can’t believe my eyes. My brain is confused. Anger wells up, my jaw in a furious clench. So, I let M-W know, in terse sanctimony, how my esteem for this hallowed institution has fallen precipitously towards the brink of no return. Okay, I exaggerate a bit, but you can infer my “haha, I got you,” superciliousness.
Your Unabridged dictionary’s definition of “metonymy” has punctuation errors. Commas always occur before the end quotation marks, never after.
For those of you unfamiliar (and presumably myself when I sent the missive), the definition of metonymy on Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged site reads verbatim:
a figure of speech that consists in using the name of one thing for that of something else with which it is associated (as in “spent the evening reading Shakespeare”, “lands belonging to the crown”, “demanded action by City Hall”, “ogling the heavily mascaraed skirt at the next table”)
Two weeks later, a reply came from the Halls of Academe:
Thanks for writing. 
Although most people in the U.S. now place all commas and periods that follow quoted material inside the quotation marks, this was not always the case. For a long time, many writers placed such punctuation marks within quotations only if they were part of the material being quoted. This was the case when our unabridged dictionary, Webster’s Third New International, was being written. We’ve since changed our policy, and when a new edition of our unabridged dictionary is released, commas in definitions like the one at the entry for “metonymy” will be inside the quotation marks. 
Thanks again for taking the time to write. 
Emily Brewster

Well, that explains my coming across misplaced closing quotation marks in old American books and magazine articles. I’m surprised, though, that I even got a response after my snidely gibed e-mail. But tickled, really. In true geek fashion, I will always love learning, especially the history and rules of grammar.

That letter, though, was almost ten years ago. Oh, Emily. When’s the fourth edition due? My brain won’t be able to relax knowing that the metonymy entry still has misplaced quotation marks.

❦   ❦   ❦

Here are some other helpful tips, guaranteed to relax your taxed brain, when confronted with punctuation confusion:

You do not have to double-up on punctuation. In other words, using the examples above, you wouldn’t add a period after the exclamation point in the “Airplane!” sentence. It would look silly: . . . Jive Lady in “Airplane!.” This holds true for commas as well.

When you read the newspaper, say the New York Times, note the punctuation. Really look at it and see how these rules are applied in print. Do the same when reading a novel, or a magazine article. When you acknowledge the punctuation, it sticks.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Double El(l) Dilemma

How one man’s spelling rules made me a true American

Here’s a question certain to divide the English-speaking masses. How do you spell the past tense of cancel? If you answer canceled, then you and I probably would agree on many other issues of grammar. If your spelling contains two l’s, perhaps you’re British, an Anglophile, or a lover of gratuitousness. Regardless of your spelling choice, I’d like to suggest why you spell the way you spell: Noah Webster.

Let me explain.

I’m currently immersed in David Sacks’s 2003 history of the alphabet, Language Visible. Among the contents of his letter L chapter is a section devoted to the Colonial American scholar and lexicographer Noah Webster, the man responsible for changing the way Americans spell.

James Herring’s 183 portrait
of Noah Webster
After graduating from Yale in 1778, Webster zigzagged across the Nutmeg State for several years, trying unsuccessfully to find work as a lawyer. Dissatisfied with several teaching jobs, he began writing articles supporting the American Revolution. While doing so, he founded a private school where he wrote his wildly successful grammar and pronunciation guide, called The American Spelling Book. Webster championed consistency in grammar foremost, but as new editions of the book were published, he changed certain British spellings. Defence became defense. Theatre became theater. And the second l was dropped from words like counsellor and traveller. By separating us from the British way of spelling, Webster hit upon something revolutionary: This act of defiance — this Americanization of words, if you will — not only strengthened the American identity by showing that it was different from British identity but also encouraged the publishing of American books on American soil. The United States therefore would not have to rely on the importation of publications from England. Self-reliance like this was important in the early days of the Republic: it created a sense of American pride, as well as more jobs.

One of Webster’s Americanizations reminded me of a conversation I had one night, over cocktails, with two fellow grammar geeks. The question was whether or not you double the l when a verb that ends in a consonant-vowel-l trio changes to its past (-ed) or gerund (-ing) form. Webster unequivocally ordained not doubling the final consonant of any word that spun off into derivative words when the final syllable was unstressed. To put it more simply, cancel becomes canceled in the past tense and canceling in its gerund form. This was radical, as it defied the British rules mandated by Englishman Samuel Johnson, the reigning lexicographer of his time and place.

Here are a smattering of l-ending verbs that demonstrate Webster’s dictum. Notice that there are far more words that do not add an extra l to their past and gerund endings. Webster, a die-hard patriot, must have known this when creating the first American dictionary. Loyalist grammarians must have raged at the affront.

Last syllable unstressed; do not add an l:
bedevil, bevel, cavil, channel, counsel, equal (we treat qu as one consonant), imperil, label, level, marvel, model, parcel, pencil, revel, rival, shovel, travel

Last syllable stressed; add an l:
excel, expel, extol, impel, compel, dispel, repel, rebel

Even the way we spell the letter L, el, has a British alternative spelling, ell. It’s really a matter of preference; I prefer the former. Of course, if you feel the need to spell all these words with two els, like an English person, be my guest. Your caviling won’t annoy me in the least.

My second English dictionary, c. 1989.
The spectacles are Colonial American.

Webster’s rule gets thrown out the window when spelling cancellation. Perhaps this can be attributed to some fiercely loyal Johnsonian involved in the production of Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language. (Johnson, I’m certain, is smiling in his grave.)

If you find yourself in Central Connecticut, visit the Noah Webster House, in his hometown of West Hartford, to learn more about the man behind America’s first dictionary of the English language. Information available at https://noahwebsterhouse.org.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Growing Up in the Presence of Spirits

When Should Children Learn About Alcohol?

Having been on a month-long cleanse, I am ready to start drinking again. Not that I need a drink, but I do miss two aspects of the bibulous life. The first is the way alcohol makes me feel: more social, a little braver, a little sexier; the second involves the ritual of creating a cocktail and celebrating Happy Hour with my mate, sharing tales from the livelong day, while munching on small bites of umami goodness. This usually involves watching videos on one of our countless streaming devices. Although we may not be going out to a bar every night to get our buzz on, we are experiencing a sort of community, albeit a virtual one, by viewing the lives of those whose stories are digitized on the small screen. In that respect, alcohol brings us closer to the world and its inhabitants.

Say what you will, if it wasn’t for the communal and narcotic effects of hooch, we would have destroyed one another a long, long time ago, we being people in general. But that’s not to say that all aspects of drinking are healthy. On a societal level, yes; on a personal level, not so for everyone. A friend’s father, a man loved by all, basically drank himself to death: He suffered a stroke after the unfortunate demise of his first-born child, but it took years for the effects of alcohol abuse and the stroke to send him off to an eternal slumber. My friend can attest to the horrors of a life cut short by alcohol abuse filled with interminable bouts of depression.

I am lucky. I do not possess any genes that make drinkers belligerent, or those that won’t allow the imbiber to stop until they think they’re the life of the party, a party that is unfortunately fun to no one else but the imbiber.

I got drunk twice as a precollege teen. Very drunk. Both times I was in my parents’ house. The first time, they were away, and my brother, a senior in high school, and a star quarterback of the football team, decided we (read he) should throw a party. All I remember from that night is his loving placement of a bucket near my bed and, at one point, my stumbling to the bathroom and catching a glimpse of him making out on the living room couch with my best friend Donna. Whether they went all the way would remain a mystery to me until the next morning, but as you can imagine, I couldn’t care less. My head was pounding and my soul had been crushed by the spirit world, though I couldn’t tell you what spirits I even imbibed.

Of course as luck would have it, the neighbors spilled the beans. My parents must have been possessed by the soul of a new-age Catholic priest: mercifully, they proclaimed in hushed tones that I had learned my lesson. A hangover was punishment enough.

The second time, it was my parents who decided to throw a party—a New Year’s Eve soiree—and Donna and her family were invited. Bottles of gorgeously gleaming alcohol festooned the kitchen counter, and when no one was looking, Donna and I indiscriminately poured ourselves about a half dozen stiff ones throughout the night. We mixed juniper-scented gin, peaty scotch, woodsy Tennessee whiskey, and whatever else we could lay our naive little paws on. If only my parents, or my brother, had warned me about the effects of mixing sprits. I suppose I had to learn at some point; why not in front of my parents and their bemused guests. Indeed, education does begin at home.

When college rolled around, I embraced my freedom with the fervency usually displayed by religious zealots at a revival. The first thing I thought as my parents pulled away from campus in their deep red Honda Accord was, “I can do whatever I want.” So, at every kegger I attended, I let the flagon flow judiciously into my big red cup. My goal, however, was not to get blotto; I just wanted to make some new friends. So I sipped, rather than guzzled, and never drank enough to get completely blitzed. After all, my memories of my drunken nights with Donna were not so distant. The one time I do remember stumbling like a Skid Row sot occurred at the professional theatre across the street from my dorm room. Harry Hamlin, who I secretly held a torch for after seeing him prance around practically naked in Clash of the Titans, was starring in an adaptation of Doctor Faustus. I was able to snag two tickets, so I brought a female friend with me, my freshman-year beard, if you will, and this gal from Texas, before we headed arm in arm to the show, presented me a fifth of Jim Beam and said, “Time to show me what a man you are.” I figured that being so brassy, and from Texas, she would be able to handle her liquor better than I, but as time would tell, she did not. Three shots and a First Act later, she fell face first into the aisle in front of the usher. Intermission would be more challenging than the Elizabethan dialogue. (Harry, by the way, did not disappoint.)

As my time as an undergrad came to an end, and I entered the 9-to-5 “workforce” (a most soul-sucking force if ever there was one), I refined my taste for Tennessee whiskey and bourbon, then discovered rye while doing a grad-school stint in Pittsburgh. Cocktails, like Manhattans and Old-Fashioneds, gleefully washed over my taste buds and sparked a life-long devotion. Aged charred-oak flavor could have become my downfall, but I learned how to pace myself, like a runner in a long-distance race. Water rehydrates, and as I sipped my drink, I always had a glass of iced tap at the ready to prevent a nasty hangover. My goal as a drinker was to relax and be merry, not get wasted, and I would sometimes pity my friends who did not understand, or could not because of a genetic disposition, that drinking should not be a contest, but an ultimately peace-producing pursuit.

So now I ask the question, “How young is too young for kids to learn about alcohol?” One thing is for certain: Kids need first to understand the deleterious effects of drinking or else they will be doomed. And clearly no one wants a doomed child.

Both my parents were in their early twenties when I was born. As you can imagine, they were still in “party” mode, probably because there seemed to be multitudes of other young couples on the block who also shared a penchant for punch- and cocktail-filled nights, and silly parlor games that relied on the effects of inebriation. Thus, looking back, alcohol was always present in the house. When we were younger than high-school age, my brother and I just knew not to drink it or we’d give ourselves away by becoming silly and smelling boozy. Although I have to admit, I loved the smell of alcohol, particularly cocktails. Some of my first olfactory memories are of whiskey sours being made in the rec room, as my parents mixed these delightfully citrus-redolent concoctions atop the hi-lo shag-carpeted bar they had fashioned. Overstock pantry items were stored behind the bar, and I always volunteered retrieving one of them for my mother, for behind the shaggy bar lived an array of little nips, these one-and-a-half-ounce colorful, sometimes oddly shaped bottles of spirits and liqueurs. I would stare at them and admire the way the light shone through them, particularly the brightly hued ones. My favorite was Galliano. It tapered to an almost point, like a tower, and glowed neon yellow, like one of my fluorescent crayons. These bottles became soldiers, waging wars on a battlefield of vinyl countertop, bordered by thick tan naugahyde edging. If the troops needed refreshments, a two-foot-tall pump bottle of Smirnoff that stood regally next to the fridge provided that extra jolt of bravado my little soldiers needed to blaze on. I wouldn’t fully depress the pump for fear my parents would discover some missing hooch, but I do remember at one point placing my little hand gently on the pump, pressing ever so slightly, with my other hand ready to collect any liquid that might dribble out. When a few drops landed on my palm, I sniffed it and immediately thought it was rubbing alcohol. Unconvinced that it was, I tasted it. The burn was so intense I vowed I would never press that pump again.

I never had to demystify the adult world of alcohol, and I think this has a lot to do with my respect for it. Although they were strict, and I was taught not to hang with the “bad” crowd, my parents never shielded me from it. I was even allowed to take a sip of beer every now and then (not to mention my grandmother feeding me a mixture of Southern Comfort, honey, and hot water when I was sick and left in her charge—I loathed the burn but loved the flavor). As I transitioned from tweenhood to adolescence, they always said, “If you are going to drink, we would rather have you drink at home.” I always felt that behind the invitation was a veiled threat. What I understood them to really be saying was “We don’t want you to drink.” And besides, who really wants to have a drink with one’s parents? Nevertheless, when I did take them up on their request that fateful New Year’s Eve, and tested the boundaries by drinking at home, they did not judge me, and for this I was grateful.

The French have been known to serve their children a little wine with dinner, usually starting at age twelve. Some people say that introducing children to alcohol before they are emotionally and physically mature enough to handle it might be good. But recent studies in France have shown that there is a rise in teen alcohol dependency. I suppose that when something is so engrained in one’s culture, most parents just pour wine for the kids without discussing the ramifications of tippling. (Or if they do, it may be the grandparents who undermine the parents’ warnings and are much more lax in their approach.) Remember, education begins at home, so I would proffer that when parents school their kids in the art of the tipple, they need to do much, much more than just decant and serve. Some tough love seems completely appropriate. Kids soak up all they see and hear like thirsty sponges. We must keep the dialogue open, but be strict and enforce boundaries.

When we throw a party and friends bring their kids along, we make sure we have mocktails waiting for them. After all, they are our guests. Just because they cannot yet imbibe alcohol, why shouldn’t they have a special drink, made exclusively for them. Also, we don’t want them to get too curious about what Mommy and Daddy are drinking. So, some ginger ale and mango juice, with a maraschino cherry and an orange slice, on the rocks, usually does the trick. To make it even more special, we add a fun swizzle stick. (We keep a double shot glass filled with them just for this occasion.) Telling them it’s special has the magical properties of making it special. Figurative becomes literal in the minds of children. Our friends Monica and Matt are the parents of two bright and creative children, Frances and Cole. When they visit, or thank us for a little gift, they draw lovely pictures of whatever’s on their minds. Frances has cottoned to the fact that Steve, my partner, and I are in the cocktail biz. Over the years she has drawn us some hilarious pictures of cartoon characters extolling the virtues of cocktails, including Santa Claus and a buzzing bee (which is our logo/avatar). They are very telling and show a preternatural understanding of the drinking life. See for yourself and let me know what you think.

“This Is My BFF!” by Frances
“Yumm!” by Frances