Saturday, 24 December 2011

Customer service and common sense

When I began these posts, I warned you that I might occasionally stray from my area of putative expertise and reflect on other matters. This is one of those occasions.

Accepting as a matter of common sense that the best kind of advertising is good customer service, I am always amazed when some companies forget this policy and put their own short-term gain ahead of long-term customer satisfaction.

Let me first give you an example of sensible policy in this regard. I recently bought a book from that venerable Victoria institution, Russell's Books. From their huge secondhand collection I chose one of several copies of a book, took it home, and began reading. Half way through I came upon some missing pages, so I dashed back to the shore, hoping to exchange the book for another copy. Too late! The store was closed. "Come back tomorrow," I was told by an employee who was still hanging around. I explained my predicament:"You know how it is when you're in the middle of a book." "Of course," he said, grabbed some keys, climbed the stairs and found me another copy. Needless to say, I left the store with very positive feelings about Russell's Books.

Here's another incident. I bought a bag of cherries at Oxford Foods in the Cook Street village. A few cherries into the bag I encountered some rotten ones, so I took the bag back. Instead of taking my receipt and refunding the full amount, the assistant weighed the bag, knocked off the cost of what I had eaten, and gave me the balance. No thought given to my inconvenience at having to return to the store, or my discomfort at biting into a rotten cherry. I have never been back to the store. That day, Oxford Foods saved 99 cents and lost a customer for life. Thrifty's or Safeway would never act like that. Or so I thought....

Recently, we had to put down our dear dog, Tia. It was a sad occasion, but she was almost 17, and had had, as they say, a good innings. She has gone, as Elvis and others have put it, "where the good doggies go". She had been on painkillers, but I had run out, and needed one pill to get her through her last day. I went to a Safeway pharmacy. The pill cost $1.53, but I was charged an $11 dispensing fee. I pointed out that this seemed a bit excessive for a single pill, but was told by a somewhat sympathetic pharmacist that they had to follow "policy". I decided to try to discover the thinking behind this policy and contacted the Complaints Department. 

I am now engaged in an email correspondence with Safeway. I receive form letters with one or two original sentences specific to my complaint, buried in paragraphs about their commitment to world class service, etc. I persist in asking them why they can't dispense with the dispensing fee when it's more than  five times the cost of the single pill. They fall back on their standard answer: it is their policy to charge a dispensing fee.

What is interesting in all this is that my simple questions do not get simple answers. Instead, I get what George Orwell called the worst kind of writing: "gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug". I can imagine a person at Safeway's Head office cutting and pasting from a catalogue of stock responses, like Harper's ministers.

They have, however, "escalated [my] concerns to the Retail Operations Department for further review on this matter". 

Update, January 23

I am happy to report that common sense has prevailed. A representative from Safeway contacted me, apologised, offered a refund of the dispensing fee, and explained that pharmacy managers did in fact have the discretion to dispense with fees in exceptional circumstances.

Update, April 22

I have long been interested in how some businesses can see the benefits of creating long-term good will in their customers, and others just don't get it.

MEC gets it. I recently spent a few days in Vancouver, and of course it rained. It rained so hard that the water came right through the MEC jacket I was wearing. Vancouver rain would penetrate anything.

(By the way, for those of you on the prairies who might lump Victoria and Vancouver together as soggy cities on the Wet Coast, note that Victoria has exactly half the annual rainfall of Vancouver.)

Anyway, I popped into MEC and pointed out to the man at the Customer Service counter that rain was coming through my rain jacket. "Ah," he said, "we don't make that jacket anymore. I think it's well past it's normal lifespan. This is not a warranty issue." Yes, I know, I was about to say. I quite understand. Thank you.

"Hang on," he said." Let's check it out." He looked at my purchase record. "You bought it in 2005." Fair enough, I was about to say. I've had good use out of it. Thank you.

"Wait," he said. "I see that you paid $110 for it. It cost us about half that. I can offer you a store credit of $40. Then we've still made a slight profit and you're happy."

So that's why I shop at MEC. I like to support local businesses and I do, but when it comes to buying anything that I might want to take back in the future, I shop at MEC.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Possessive gerund

Mr. Charest, appealing to nationalist sentiment, has often been unhappy with Prime Minister Harper's government, but he hasn't called into question Quebec remaining in Canada (Globe and Mail, December 23, 2011)

I remember Inspector Morse's once deducing from the use of a possessive gerund in a note that the suspect was an educated person. If Morse had read today's article from the Globe, he would have picked up the error, a result of the similarity and confusion between the participle and the gerund, both of which end in "ing".

The participle is a verbal adjective; the gerund, a verbal noun.

Mother liked to hear me doing my homework.

Here, "doing" is a participle, an adjective, modifying "me".

Mother was disappointed at my failing the exam.

Here "failing" is a gerund, a noun, modified by "my".

The question always to ask is, is Mother disappointed at me or the failing of the exam. If the latter, then whose failing the exam? My failing the exam.

Or in the case of our example, is Mr. Charest calling into question Quebec or its remaining in Canada? Whose remaining in Canada? Quebec's.

So the passage should read:

Mr. Charest, appealing to nationalist sentiment, has often been unhappy with Prime Minister Harper's government, but he hasn't called into question Quebec's remaining in Canada.


From the Globe editorial on July 18, 2012
The donor deal, Carleton announced, "did not fully reflect [the university's] policies" with respect to budget management and staff selection - a reference to it allowing the foundation to effectively name three of the program's powerful steering committee.

Again, the reference it not to "it", i.e., the university, but to "allowing the foundation to effectively name three of the program's powerful steering committee".

So the paragraph should read:

The donor deal, Carleton announced, "did not fully reflect [the university's] policies" with respect to budget management and staff selection - a reference to its allowing the foundation to effectively name three of the program's powerful steering committee.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Beget and begat

When I was at school, we were taught never to use the word "get". It was probably considered a bit common. We were to receive letters, not get them.

And yet "get" is a respectable old English word. In keeping with his preference for these words, George Orwell, master of the simple style, in his essay "Shooting an Elephant", after describing in longer sentences his three attempts to bring down the rogue beast, writes simply, "I got up."

The principal parts of the verb are get, got, and gotten (in North America) and got (everywhere else).

Today, I get the mail; yesterday, I got the mail; in the past I have gotten (or got) the mail.

Interestingly, the older past participle has survived in America, but not in England.

The verb has two compounds, "to forget" and "to beget", with principal parts as follows:

Forget, forgot and forgotten, and beget, begat and begotten.

The older form of the participle has survived in both cases, but it's the past tense that differs.

She forgot where it occurred in the Bible, but she remembered that Abraham begat Isaac. She had forgotten that he had begotten Isaac.

Thanks to the the King James Bible, the verb "to beget" has not been forgotten, but survives in all its forms, particularly in "only begotten son" and in the genealogical catalogue in Matthew with its 37 "begats" in a row, tracing the link between Abraham and Christ. (It has always puzzled me how Jesus can be a direct descendant of Abraham, through Joseph, while being the son of God.)

This brings me to today's error in the Globe.

Thirty years ago, a pub owner challenged Prohibition-era laws to open a brewpub in West Vancouver. Two years later, in 1984, Spinnakers opened as a neighbourhood pub in a forgotten, mixed industrial and residential corner of Vic West overlooking the harbour. A month later, the pub served the first batch of its beers – an ale, a malt, a stout and a special brew. And people came and they drank and, lo, they pronounced it good, so others went forth to begat other craft breweries (21 December 2100).

Our writer has probably not read Matthew, but has heard of the passage in the Bible with all the "begats". In adopting a Biblical style to convey the almost religious significance of the birth of craft beers, hwrongly assumes that "begat" is the infinitive.

The passage should read:

And people came and they drank and, lo, they pronounced it good, so others went forth to beget other craft breweries.

The verb "to beget" has a very precise meaning. It means to father a child. The verb "to get" has a special meaning in that sense as well. In older literature we read of a man getting a woman with child. She conceived and gave birth to the child. He begat the child.

So Abraham got Sarah with child. He begat Isaac, and Isaac is recognised as his "only begotten son", a phrase later applied to Jesus.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Apostrophes - possessive plurals

Even the Guardian makes mistakes.

Apostrophes indicate either contractions or possessives. Possessives are indicated as follows:

  • singular noun, e.g., "boy" - Add apostrophe s ('s) > the boy's desk
  • plural noun ending in "s", e.g., boys - Add apostrophe after the "s" > the boys' classroom
  • plural noun not ending in "s", e.g., men - Add apostrophe s ('s) > the men's cloakroom

In other words, a plural noun not ending in "s" is treated the same way as a singular noun. In an article about a bug in Facebook, the reporter for the Guardian writes:

Facebook could not say how many peoples' private pictures had been viewed as a result of the flaw (The Guardian December 8, 2011).

Now "people" can either be a plural noun meaning persons in general as in "the people" or a singular noun meaning a race or tribe as in "a people". In the latter case the plural would be formed by adding an "s", as in "Aboriginal peoples", and the possessive would be indicated by an apostrophe after the "s", as in "the Aboriginal peoples' charter".

But in the example from the Guardian, "people" is already a plural noun, meaning persons in general, and the sentence should read:

Facebook could not say how many people's private pictures had been viewed as a result of the flaw (The Guardian December 8, 2011).

Apostrophe errors are very common and one often comes upon huge properties or organizations belonging to or serving one person, as in Boy's Gym instead of Boys' Gym or Cross Lake Teacher's Society rather than Cross Lake Teachers' Society

Wednesday, 7 December 2011


As part of her excellent series on the caste system in India, Stephanie Nolan writes in this morning's Globe about the Love Commandos, a volunteer group that helps couples from different backgrounds who are cast out or threatened by their parents.

Mr. Sachdev [of the Love Commandos] has a lengthy roster of young couples who are fulsomely grateful to the Commandos: Vijay Sagar and his wife Simran were attacked by her parents, Sikhs in the Punjab, who objected when she fell in love with a less-educated Hindu (Globe and Mail, December 7, 2011).

"Fulsome" is one of many words whose meaning is changing, because, some would say, they are being being used incorrectly by so many people. 

The first meaning given in the Oxford Canadian has a negative connotation: "excessively complimentary or flattering, effusive, overdone". However, it is often used in its second sense, as in the example above, to mean abundant.

At least in this example the meaning is fairly evident from the context, although it would have been clearer if Ms. Nolan had simply referred to a "roster of young couples who are extremely grateful to the Commandos". In this sense of "full" or "abundant", "fulsome" has become a fashionable word, and is often used unnecesarily, and sometimes confusingly, when a simpler word would be better. It has become part of many journalists' and politicians' vocabulary, ready for use when the occasion arises. In yesterday's Globe, we read:

Kamloops MP Cathy McLeod told the newspaper that Mr. Kent wants to find out more information to see if something might trigger a panel review. “What he’s committed to is understanding this issue in a more fulsome way, which includes a site visit, which includes the community." (Globe and Mail, December 6, 2011) 

Again, it is fairly clear that Mr. Kent is committed to a fuller understanding of the issue. But he didn't say that, because "fulsome" has become part of his stock vocabulary. 

A problem arises when the reader cannot tell from the context which meaning is intended. In a  comment on an article about Margaret Thatcher, the writer comments:

Vanity Fair has been a redoubt of anglophilia from the days of Tina Brown’s editorship through the current regime of Canadian-born Graydon Carter, so it’s hardly a surprise to find Moore, former editor of the rabidly Tory The Daily Telegraph, waxing eloquent here. Fulsomeness aside, the article’s timely not only because we’ll soon be seeing Meryl Streep’s impersonation of the baroness in theatres but because it provides a sort of relief to the seemingly intractable difficulties faced by Britain’s current Tory supremo David Cameron (Globe and Mail, November 8, 2011). 

What meaning is intended here? Is the praise of Margaret Thatcher abundant or sickeningly so? Probably the latter, but we can't be sure.

"Fulsome" is a word best avoided altogether. Its earlier meaning of "sickeningly excessive" is almost forgotten, and in its newer sense of "full" or "abundant" it has evolved into political or journalistic jargon.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Enormity and enormousness

Ah, the enormity of it! Just as the use, or to my mind, misuse, by many people of words such as "disinterested" for "uninterested", "fulsome" for "full", "fortuitous" for "fortunate", and "comprise" for "constitute" has led to the appearance of these disputed meanings in the dictionary, the use of "enormity" for "enormousness" (yes, the word does exist) has led the Oxford Dictionary to accept this meaning as well.

"Enormity" really means "monstrous wickedness", although the second meaning, "great size", is given with the warning that many consider it incorrect.

Etymologically, both the adjective and the noun have evolved from the latin enormis, meaning "out of the norm". At first, they both referred to behaviour out of the norm, as in an enormous sin or the enormity of the act. Then the meanings separated, with the adjective coming to mean "out of the norm" in size, as in an enormous building, while the noun retained its moral meaning. But writers accustomed to the adjective in its new sense of "huge" began to use "enormity" as a corresponding noun instead of the awkward "enormousness". Here is an example.

The enormity of the stakes and the long-term nature of the game make the eventual decisions so important. (Times Colonist, 8 September, 2011).

Fowler, subsequent style guides, and the Oxford dictionary all warn against this usage.

Better to say

The huge importance of the stakes  and the long-term nature of the game make the eventual decisions so crucial.

The Guardian (28 November, 2011), on the other hand, in an obituary for Ken Russell, the film maker, uses the word in its proper sense:

It has, of course, to be said that he was capable of almost any enormity in the careless rapture he brought to making his films. He could be dreadfully cruel to his undoubted talent, almost as if he was defying himself, let alone those who supported him.

Here the writer is using the word to refer to Russell's habit of shocking his public by doing something outrageous or "out of the norm".

When a word such as "enormity" has an accepted, long-standing, logical meaning, why not avoid the use of other disputed meanings that leads to confusion?

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Hoi polloi

"I was having high tea at the Empress recently," said an acquaintance recently. "Keeping company with the hoi polloi."

On the contrary! The hoi polloi, the masses, were outside. Perhaps she was keeping company with the hoighty-toighty.

Nor does Gary Mason get it right when he writes in the Globe (November 9, 2011) of the occupiers in Vancouver as follows:

A leaderless movement that initially attracted a disparate collection of well-meaning activists along with just plain folk was ultimately hijacked by a hoi polloi with questionable ambitions. 

The hoi polloi are the common people in general, not a faction. In fact, some purists would argue that the indefinite article is redundant, since it is already there in Greek -- "hoi" means "the" and "polloi" means "many"-- and so we should speak of hoi polloi and not the hoi polloi. Redundant or not, it is illogical to write of a hoi-polloi, since that would be to say, literally, "a the many".

As the word "hijacked' implies, the occupier movement was taken over by a minority group with its "questionable ambitions", certainly not by the masses, or hoi polloi.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Southey (Robert) and other surprising pronunciations

A few days ago I was watching a documentary. I heard an English academic pronounce the Laker poet Robert Southey's surname with the vowel sound of "cow" and not "dust", as I've always pronounced it.

What? I thought. He should know better than that, but I had better check. Indeed, I was wrong, and the best evidence of the correct pronunciation is that Byron rhymed his name with "mouthy" in Don Juan. Apparently, Southey himself pronounced his name with the "ow" sound, and was annoyed that southerners would pronounce it with the short "u".

"Southern" and "southerly" are pronounced as "suthern" and "sutherly", not retaining the sound of "south", so southerners must have assumed that Southey would pronounce his name in the same way.

The question is, should I now pronounce it correctly and be thought incorrect? I have never been quite game enough to pronounce "forte" and "schism as they should be pronounced, i.e., as "fort" rather than "fortay", and "sism" rather than "skism".

However, the spelling and pronunciation of the word "pronunciation" itself is not open to dispute. "Pronounce" loses its "u", and the "ow" sound, when it becomes the noun "pronunciation".

Similarly, "denounce" becomes "denunciation" and "renounce" becomes "renunciation". Interestingly, we don't make an "annunciation" over the loud speaker system -- that special announcement was reserved for the angel Gabriel.

On a technical note, if you are still with me, I have changed the URL of my blogs by dropping the hyphens previously in "carolusgrammaticus" and "carolusperegrinator". I wanted the spelling to be consistent with that of the address of a website I have set up. If you are interested, you can visit You can get to my blogs from there as well.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Feeling bad

One of my acquaintances prides himself on his correct grammar. Reasoning that "bad" is an adjective and "feel" is a verb, and knowing that a verb can be modified only by an adverb, he would say "I feel badly...." rather than "I feel bad ...."

As it happens, he is wrong. In this case "bad" or "badly" is not modifying the verb "feel", but describing the state of mind of the person, so the adjective is required: just as one feels "sad" rather than "sadly", or like Maria in the song, "pretty" rather than "prettily".

Thus it is incorrect to say:

I feel badly about hurting her feelings.

And correct to say,

I feel bad about hurting her feelings.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Criterion and criteria

"Criterion", "phenomenon", "automaton" and "polyhedron", etc., are borrowings from classical Greek with their plural form ending in "a", as in one automaton but several automata, an interesting phenomenon but unusual phenomena. Because the plural form of these words has the same ending as the singular form of certain nouns borrowed from Latin, such as "alumna" or "formula", and other Greek words from a different declension, such as "dilemma" and "enigma", it is sometimes mistakenly assumed that criteria, phenomena, automata, etc, are in fact singular nouns. This was the case in today's Globe and Mail:

Bilingualism is listed as a criteria of the job.

This should read:

Bilingualism is listed as a criterion of the job.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Prophecy and Prophesy

Like "practice" and "practise", "prophecy" is the noun and "prophesy" the verb. The last syllable of the verb is pronounced "sigh". There is no verb "to prophesize".

The witches in Macbeth prophesy that "No man born of woman shall harm Macbeth", but this prophecy is intended to deceive.

In today's Globe, we read in a review of a modern derivative of the play, that

Bearing news of the witches' prophesies, [the letter] was somewhat carelessly left lying around...

The reference should, of course, be to the witches' prophecies.

More serious is the error in an article on the Paris Fashion Week in the Globe of March 18, 2011.

"Everything is changing," prophesized the designer post show.

This should read:

"Everything is changing," prophesied the designer post show.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Language pollution

In the paper this morning, I noticed a comment from a police superintendent about the problem with gangs in Kelowna:

Gang activity is huge in this area right now and we have capacity issues in being able to deal with it... (Globe and Mail on August 29, 2011).

Why do people talk like that? Why not say:

Gangs are very active right now and we don't have enough people to deal with the problem.

Recently I read under the headline "Navy submarine's rust repair to restrict diving depths":

Materiel safety of the submarine would be maintained through a depth limitation caveat on the Windsor submarine's safety register (Globe and Mail, August 1, 2011).

What does that mean? Fortunately, the headline explains the incomprehensible jargon of the navy spokesman.

We encounter this kind of language pollution everywhere. On BC Ferries I'm told what to do "in the event of an emergency situation", and where to find "the washroom facility".  We read about "rain events", "flood events", "shower activity". Why all these unnecessary words?

And unnecessarily long ones. When I take my dog for a walk I pass a sign which reads:

Dog owners are required to remove excrement left by their dogs,

instead of

Please pick up after your dog,

and, believe it or not, instead of being simply told to close a gate, I am asked politely, to

Please preserve the integrity of the fence.

It is bewildering that people use language like this when they really want their reader to understand. I remember seeing as a young child the intriguing sign on a Western Australian railway station: Expectoration Prohibited. Perhaps it was considered impolite to say, Don't Spit. More recently I noticed in a New Zealand airport a notice which said Disabled Egress. And on the seat in front of me on a West Jet flight: Seat bottom usable as flotation device. It's just too bad if you find yourself in a predicament and you don't have the vocabulary to get yourself out.

Why do people write or talk like this? To make the subject seem more important? To make themselves seem more important? In some cases, perhaps.

George Orwell, in his essay "Politics and the English Language", had another explanation. He said that we write like this because it's easy. We don't have to think. The words are already in our head in prefabricated strips, and as we open our mouth or take up our pen, they just spew out. It is harder to write simply and clearly because we have to think about what we really want to say and choose the words carefully.

Or as Mark Twain is supposed to have written to a friend:

I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.

Orwell ended his essay with a set of of rules for good writing. Two of them say it all:

Never use a long word when a short one will do.
If it's possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Fortuitous and fortunate

"Fortuitous" does not mean "fortunate". It means "by chance". In the latest edition of my wine magazine, I read:

It was truly fortuitous that the immigrants who came and made their home on this continent brought with them recipes along with wine, beer and spirit-making skills.

Clearly, this didn't happen by chance, and it was to our benefit that they brought these recipes and skills with them. I would make another correction to the sentence as well, assuming that the writer is referring to  their wine-making and beer-making skills, along with their spirit-making ones.

It was truly fortunate that the immigrants who came and made their home on this continent brought with them recipes along with wine-, beer- and spirit-making skills.

Here's an example of the correct usage of "fortuitous" taken from the Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage:

Hennessy's involvement with the musical was fortuitous rather than planned.

Licence and license

"Licence" is the noun; "license" is the verb. And the same is true of "practice" and "practise". These are the British spellings, and the Canadian ones.

Pull out your driver's licence and check the spelling. License your dog. Do your piano practice. Practise meditation.

I'm sure the Globe's stylebook follows this distinction as well, so in the following error the writer's American spellcheck must have prevailed.

Unlike health cards, which usually aren't sent out for a few weeks after a replacement request has been fulfilled, a temporary driver's license can be issued after the forms have been processed. (August 23, 2011)

If you are ever in doubt as to which spelling is the noun and which the verb, think of "device" and "devise" to remind yourself that the nouns end in "ce" and the verbs end in "se".

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Fit, fitted, fitted

Recently in a post, I explained that many people mistakenly think that the verb "to cast" has a different past tense. It doesn't. The reverse is true of the verb "to fit". They think that it doesn't change. But it does:

Today the shoe fits; yesterday it fitted; in the past it has fitted.

In the Life section of today's Globe and Mail, we read:

The dress looked great on the hanger. It even fit.

This should read:

The dress looked great on the hanger. It even fitted.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Like or As

Today's error is usually made by people with less formal education than the editors of the Globe and Mail. In an editorial in the weekend edition (August 20, 2011) on the crackdown by the Syrian authorities on their people, they write:

Like in Egypt, they (the police) may soon tire of killing the innocent.

This misuse of the preposition "like" is often heard on sports programs as players make statements such as,

Like I said, we have to give 110% 

instead of 

As I said, we have to give 110%

"Like" is a preposition here, and as such should be followed by a noun or noun equivalent. "I said" is a clause, and should be joined to the rest of the sentence by the conjunction "as". 

The editors can correct their mistake either by replacing the phrase "in Egypt" with a noun, or using the conjunction "as" to join the phrase to the rest of the sentence.

Like the security police in Egypt, they may soon tire of killing the innocent.


As in Egypt, they may soon tire of killing the innocent.

Update, August 24, 2011

Here's another example from an article on the decline of Canada's health-care system:

This kind of rhetoric  is so commonplace that we have become largely inured to it. At first blush, it's another medicare-is-doomed pronouncement like we've heard seemingly every day for the past half century or so.

This should read:

This kind of rhetoric  is so commonplace that we have become largely inured to it. At first blush, it's another medicare-is-doomed pronouncement as we've heard seemingly every day for the past half century or so.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Forecast and Broadcast

"Forecast" and "broadcast" are compounds of that marvellous old English verb, to cast, which occurs so many times in the King James Bible. People were always casting seeds on stony ground, or casting stones at each other, or casting someone out into the stony wilderness. Importantly, it's one of those verbs that doesn't change in its different tenses:

Today I cast a stone; yesterday I cast a stone; in the past I have cast a stone.

And the same is true of its compounds, yet some writers persist in adding a cacophonous "ed" to form the past tense or the past participle. An example of this incorrect practice is seen the Globe and Mail of 19 August, 2011. But it's not their error this time: they are quoting verbatim from a report advocating cuts to the military establishment.

... [S]upport to the front-line deployable units is cut far more than originally forecasted.

This should read:

... [S]upport to the front-line deployable units is cut far more then originally forecast.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Commas and Periods inside or outside Quotation Marks? A Plea for Common Sense

Here’s an extract from today's edition of the London newspaper The Telegraph:

The Spanish government is to request help from the Vatican to transform the polemic site of  the tomb of fascist dictator Gen Francisco Franko into "a place of reconciliation".

And here’s one from this morning’s Globe and Mail:

In Russia, it’s “unpredictable kisses,” “a meeting at sunrise,” or "walking along uninhabited streets.”

What do you notice about the punctuation of the quotations?

The first extract follows the British practice of putting the quotation marks around the quoted words, of including the comma or period only if it is part of the quotation.

The second follows the American practice of always putting the comma or period inside the quotation marks, whether it belongs to the quotation or not.

The first is a matter of common sense; the second is illogical and results from an early American typesetting practice of always including the periods and commas simply because it looked neater that way. All English-speaking countries outside North America follow the British system.

In Canada, all newspapers follow the American practice, as specified in the Canadian Press Stylebook. In official documents, the practice varies. Many Canadians punctuate the British way simply because it is logical. In this, they are supported by the Canadian Oxford Dictionary and the corresponding Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage.

At writing workshops, I always ask participants how they would punctuate such sentences. While university graduates usually follow the American practice according to the style guides they have used, a majority of participants punctuate them the British way. People who don’t know, opt for this because it seems the obvious way to do it.

So here’s my plea for common sense. Let logic prevail! Abandon the American practice. Follow your instinct, knowing that you have the venerable Canadian Oxford Dictionary on your side. Write to your local newspapers and urge them to punctuate their stories like this:

In Russia, it’s “unpredictable kisses”, “a meeting at sunrise”, or "walking along uninhabited streets”. In Lithuania, it’s “wading in the marshes during a warm rain”, “the tranquility of a cigarette”, or “wet stars”, whatever those are. And in the United States, it’s "a warm fuzzy feeling".

In case you are more interested in the substance than the style of this extract, these are all expressions about love. And not only is love blind, so is the American practice of putting a comma or period inside quotation marks when it belongs not to the quotation, but the sentence. 

Monday, 15 August 2011

Pronouns: I or me, the genteel error

Recently at a writing workshop, I corrected a sentence in a participant's business letter. She had written: Please call Barry or I. I changed it to Please call Barry or me

"No," she said, "It's Please call Barry or I. That's what I was taught."

"Well," I said, "would you say, Please call I"?

"No," she admitted.

This is a very common error. Even some of my friends and family have made this genteel pronoun error in such statements such as Keep a couple of tickets for Wayne and I or Come to dinner with Jenny and I or This is a gift from Murray and I.

In all these cases, "me" is the correct pronoun, as the ear will confirm if we leave out the other person so that the pronoun is next to the verb or the preposition. Keep a ticket for (Wayne and) me or Come to dinner with (Jenny and) me or This is a gift from (Murray and) me.

"I" is the nominative (subjective) and "me" the accusative (objective) case of the pronoun. The latter is required after a verb (the direct object) or a preposition (the indirect object). Please call me, come with me, etc. 

I suspect that the myth has somehow arisen that "me" is incorrect, impolite, uneducated, and in the old sense of the word, common. Teachers strived to prevent their pupils from saying, Me and Tom will go, Miss, and perhaps the pupils learned not wisely but too well that "me" was wrong, and inferred that it was always to be avoided if possible. The extreme case of this is seen in Barry Humphrey's comic character, the social climbing Edna Everedge, who would shriek in a piercing falsetto voice, "Excuse I." 

Update, August 18, 1011.

And from Adrian Chamberlain's column in my favourite provincial newspaper, Victoria's Times Colonist:

She also browbeat my daughter and I into attending a children's performance of the musical Grease.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Lie and Lay

In an article in the travel section on August 11, 2011, the writer describes one of the deals of the day:

Travelling at highway speeds in a wind-powered go-cart.... Who’s it for? Those who would rather careen down a sandy beach than lay on it.

This is a double whammy for the Globe and Mail.

Now the second fault is a common but a serious one: the confusion of the verbs "to lie" and "to lay". The first verb is intransitive; the second, transitive. The first doesn't take a direct object; the second does. I lie on the beach, but I lay my towel on the sand. In other words, you have to lay something, even if it's an egg. When we speak of hens laying, the egg is the understood object.

Every English teacher has spent time on these verbs, and the lesson should have been learned by the writers and the editors of our national newspaper. 

The principal parts of these verbs are as follows: Today I lie on the beach, yesterday I lay on the beach, in the past I have lain on the beach; and, Today I lay my towel on the sand, yesterday I laid my towel on the sand, in the past I have laid my towel on the sand. Confusion has probably arisen because the past tense of “to lie” is the same as the present tense of “to lay”. You hear the mistake almost every day: “Go and lay down” instead of “Go and lie down.

The verb “to lie” i.e., "to tell a lie” is a different verb altogether: Today I lie, yeserday I lied, in the past I have lied.

Careen and Career
In the same sentence, the writer has confused two other verbs as well: “to careen” and “to career”.

The verb "careen" comes from the Latin word for "keel". Captain Cook careened his ship on the beach after striking the Great Barrier Reef, i.e., he laid it on its side, and exposed the keel in order to repair the hull. Or, in a related sense, a drunken man might careen from side to side, almost keeling over.

The verb “to career” means to move swiftly in an uncontrolled way as in "The car went careering off down the track", and comes originally from a Latin word meaning  “a wheeled carriage”.  This is surely the meaning intended in the sentence, and so it should read:

 “Who’s it for? Those who would rather career down a sandy beach than lie on it."

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Errors peculiar to servers in restaurants

Invariably when I eat at a restaurant, the server takes my wife's order first, and then turns to me and says: "And yourself?"

I refrain from responding that "yourself", like "myself", "herself", etc., is an emphatic or reflexive pronoun, as in,

You, yourself, must fill in the form.


Did you hurt yourself?

What the server should say is, "And you?"

Not too much later she (more often than not, the server is a woman, so I'll continue with the feminine pronoun) returns with the meal, puts it down, and says, Enjoy!"

"Enjoy" is a transitive verb, I stop myself from shouting. It needs an object. Enjoy what? The ambience, the wine, the food?

She probably means "Enjoy your food!" because 15 minutes later, she comes back and says, "How's your meal going so far?

Now this is a little worrying. Why does she want a progress report? Are there some unpleasant surprises ahead?  Did the chef lose a filling in the food and she's wondering who's going to find it?

But all seems to be going well. We have almost finished our meal, and are deep in conversation, when, noticing only a few chips left on my plate, she interrupts to say, "Are you done?"

Here is some advice to servers. It's really common sense, but must be quite different from the training that many restaurants offer.

  • Greet your diners politely. Cut the small talk, such as "How's your day going so far?" or, as I've heard in Australia, "How are yous going, all right?"
  • Bring our drinks right away.
  • Interrupt us only to take orders. Dispense with the customary mid-meal check. We would rather be left alone.
  • Don't take away our plates prematurely.
  • Above all, be grammatically correct.

I  always leave an extra tip for grammatically correct servers.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Apostrophes - it's and its

Statistics Canada released it's annual survey of police-reported crime on Tuesday (Globe and Mail, 22/07/11).

I'm sure that the writer knows the difference between "it's", the contraction of "it is", and "its", the possessive. Probably, the above error is a slip that should have been picked up by a proofreader. In the past it would have been, but in the newspaper industry today, proofreaders have likely been replaced by Spellcheck, which has its obvious failings.

Occasionally, one sees its', which is not correct in any circumstances.

The correct version of the Globe extract would read:

Statistics Canada released its annual survey of police-reported crime on Tuesday.

By the way, in case you were wondering, I don't search the Globe and Mail for errors like a fundamentalist looking in the scriptures for a line to justify his prejudices. I simply notice the mistakes in the sections I read. And I'm sure I miss many.

Apostrophes - the cottage sign error

As I drive through cottage country, I notice signs announcing the proud owners of the rustic dwellings at the ends of the driveways: The Smith's, The Sawchuk's, The Campbell's. The apostrophe indicates possession, and the object possessed, the cottage, is understood. What the sign means is: here is the Smith's cabin! But is there only one Smith, and does he style himself, The Smith?

Presumably, these cottages belong to the families - the Smiths, the Sawchuks, and the Campbells; and so the apostrophe should be placed after the "s" to indicate plural possession, as in The Smiths', The Sawchuks', and The Campbells'

I have noticed that on these signs only rarely is the apostrophe in the right place. See for yourself next time you're in cottage country.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Apostrophes - the greengrocer's

Islamist group's such as the Muslim Brotherhood... argue that... only a parliament chosen by free election can set the terms for a constitution. (Globe and Mail, 29/07/11)

This particular error used to be known as the greengrocer's apostrophe, because of the signs in the shop window saying "Apple's", "Orange's". These of course are plurals, not possessives, and don't require an apostrophe at all.

As Pope said, "A little learning is a dangerous thing." Some people learned at school to put an apostrophe before the "s" and extended the rule to every "s" they wrote. 

They would also, incorrectly, put an apostrophe before the "s" in a third person singular verb, as in "Rock and roll rule's!"

The Globe reporter, or his proof reader, should have said:

Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood... argue that... only a parliament chosen by free election can set the terms for a constitution.

Plain language (not!) - the BC referendum question

Recently, I answered the BC referendum question. I won't tell you how I voted, but I will comment on the wording of the question. Here it is.

Are you in favour of extinguishing the HST and reinstating the PST in conjunction with the GST?

The referendum package was sent to all BC  residents eligible to vote, around 40% of whom, according to the latest adult literacy survey, have low reading skills. The problem with the question is the use of the words "extinguish", "reinstate" and "conjunction". (And why say "extinguish" rather than "eliminate"? Is the HST a fire that needs to be put out?) 

People tend to write at the educational level they have reached. In this case, the words in question would have flowed naturally from the pen of the government researcher who wrote the question, but they are not appropriate for an audience which includes many who have not finished high school.

A referendum question that more BC residents would be able to understand would read like this.

Do you want to get rid of the HST and bring back the PST and the GST?

A mellow grammatical rant

Now of my threescore years and ten
Seventy will not come again

As a septuagenarian, I'm entitled to an occasional rant. I was once a raging grammarian, but I've come to accept that language changes, and that what grates on my ear is perfectly acceptable to younger people's. In fact, when I say "dived" or "sneaked", instead of "dove or "snuck", their ears are probably offended. And some usage that used to grate on mine doesn't grate so much any more. In moments of weakness, I may even "access" my account instead of "gaining access to" it. 

When words are used wrongly by almost everybody, the new meaning eventually becomes acceptable and finds its way into the dictionary. For example, "disinterested" means not to have an interest, e.g., personal or financial, in something, as in, "The judge must be disinterested in her case", but now, it's commonly used as a synonym for "uninterested", as in, "He seems to be disinterested in school". This new meaning is now given in the dictionary.

But some errors are not acceptable, especially in the fields of education and journalism, where we might expect to find models of correct usage of the English language. The CBC and the Globe and Mail, for example, used to pride themselves on always being correct. No longer, it seems! One reporter in the Globe and Mail doesn't seem to know the difference between "lie" and "lay", and I recently heard a CBC reporter say "I had went...."

As raging grammarians, we used to issue penalties and notify organizations who made grammatical errors. We were rightly criticized as being grammatiical snobs. In this blog, I hope that with my threescore years and ten I am now more humble. I intend merely to write a style guide based on the errors I encounter. If I make an mistake, please tell me, and if you have any questions, please ask them. You can email me at

Each entry will comment on a grammatical or stylistic "error".

Who is my audience? My family, who don't have a choice, some friends who I think may be interested, and anyone else who stumbles by chance upon the blog site. Largely, of course, like most bloggers, I am writing for my own satisfaction. What else is a retired English teacher to do? And to misquote Dostoyevski,

A man must have something to do.