Category Archives: Write and Wrong

Language and (mis)usage.

And another thing about the Twitter

….it makes it real easy to go off message. Like really, really off message.

One Politician's Incredibly Unfortunate Tweet

Monday night, a spokesperson for California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman left a letter off the end of a address in a campaign-related tweet. In a world of tiny urls, one letter makes all the difference. Think genetic mutation.

What Sarah Pompei’s followers were treated to wasn’t the promised endorsement by the Deputy Sheriff’s Association of San Diego County. Instead, the truncated link takes you here:

So, vote Whitman! Recommended by cross-dressing Asian pop dubbers the world over. And please, people, remember to tweet responsibly.

[Via Gizmodo]

On Wife Beaters, Just a Thought

Ever find it weird how comfortable we are with the term “wife beater”? I mean, it’s kind of twisted. If you stop to think about it.

Headline Limns Limits of Popular Comprehension

I saw a short article on that caught my eye the other day. Yeah, I hang out on a dictionary website, what of it? Anyways, it said there was a spike in lookings-up of the word “limn” earlier this month after it was used in the headline of a Baltimore Sun article: Opposing votes limn differences in race. The unusual, even esoteric word choice got people’s attention, for better or worse.

One reader described the usage as “unbelievably arrogant and patronizing.” Others thanked the paper for expanding their vocabularies.Responding to the controversy, the paper’s eminent blogger about language, John McIntyre, pointed out that it “may not have been the shrewdest choice for the front page.” However, he added, “Speaking as a language maven, I applaud when people consult dictionaries to add another little brick to the wall of their vocabularies. Now that you know what it means, it is yours forever.”

Limn, says MW, means “to outline in sharp detail” or “to describe,” by the way.

I’m torn here. Being a word nerd and constant mourner of the English language (like the Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten), I praise a paper for introducing some nutrition into what junk food writing people usually devour. But I don’t think a headline is where you ought to do it. A headline — of a news story, anyway — is supposed to be the bit that tells you, in as few words as possible, what you’ll get from the article to follow. Throw in a $10 word and you’re defeating the purpose for a large majority of potential readers. You may even alienate some of those readers and lose valuable eyeballs.

You got to sneak it in there, like a pill in a dog treat. Trick folks into wisenin’ up. Insinuate a new word or usage into an easily apprehendable context and maybe you’ll manage to surreptitiously augment a vocabulary or two.

Lookups on Merriam-Webster spiked on September 8, 2010.


On September 7, The Baltimore Sun ran the headline, “Opposing votes limn difference in race.”

That unusual word choice ended up making headlines of its own.

One reader described the usage as “unbelievably arrogant and patronizing.” Others thanked the paper for expanding their vocabularies.

Responding to the controversy, the paper’s eminent blogger about language, John McIntyre, pointed out that it “may not have been the shrewdest choice for the front page.” However, he added, “Speaking as a language maven, I applaud when people consult dictionaries to add another little brick to the wall of their vocabularies. Now that you know what it means, it is yours forever.”

Limn means “to outline in sharp detail” or “to describe.” It’s a close relative of illuminate.

Best Intextions: I Had A Accident!

This morning my friend and I came up with a great plan for the day. (Sitting near one another, with our laptops.) I sent her a text message that I’d come over and pick up a few snacks on the way. She thought that idea was “Perf!” But her iPhone didn’t approve of her creative abbreviation and sent me a text that said simply:


Today’s lesson? Getting too excited over text can leave an embarrassing smudge on your reputation.

Best Intextions: That’s Not My Name Edition

More strange and awkward misapprehensions from the world of text messaging. This time we take a look at some common misnomers…

Do you have a friend name Brian? I do. And when I text him my phone makes an ethnic assumption. I type 27426 and it gives me Asian. Well, I guess there  are probably way more Asians in the world than Brians.

If I want to write to or about my friend Andy, before I can get to his name my phone offers me Body. There’s something creepy about it that I’ve never been able to put my finger on. Speaking of body parts, when I check in on my little bro I get arm.

My buddy Robbie tells me that when he tries to write to a girl named Karen, by the time he punches in the “e” his phone assumes he’s writing Lard. Here’s hoping you don’t have a fat friend named Karen.

And nine times out of ten, when I try to write the name Kev it comes out Jew. It’s just a typo, but I got this mad jewy friend named Kevin and it cracks me up every time. Ha. Jew.

Redifining the OED: Aging Tome Commits Digital Hara-Kiri

noun \ˈdik-shə-ˌner-ē, -ˌne-rē\
archaic: a reference book containing words alphabetically arranged along with information about their forms, pronunciations, functions, etymologies, meanings, and syntactical and idiomatic uses. Historically dictionaries were printed on paper and bound between leather covers. [see: book, library, reading, obsolete]

It’s been coming for a while now: the unbookification of the Oxford English Dictionary. The publisher told the Associated Press Sunday that the next version of the reference series might not be printed on paper, but only available to online subscribers at

Nigel Portwood, chief executive of Oxford University Press, told The Sunday Times in an interview he didn’t think the newest edition will be printed. “The print dictionary market is just disappearing. It is falling away by tens of percent a year,” he said.

His comment related primarily to the full-length dictionary, but he said the convenience of the electronic format also is affecting demand for its shorter dictionaries.

It’s hard not to cringe at the idea of the OED, the world’s seminal authority on the English language, going out of print, but let’s be real for a minute. The full edition is 20 volumes, 22,000 pages and costs $995. Even if I had a grand to throw at a dictionary I wouldn’t have anywhere to put it. And I’m the kind of nerd who gazes fondly from across the room at her New Shorter OED like it’s a cute boy with glasses holding a puppy. Your average Joe isn’t going to consider dropping a G on a book of words.

The full volume has sold just 30,000 copies — since 1989. It was never a truly consumer product. But the website, which offers subscription-only access to the definitions of over half a million words for an annual fee of $295, gets 2 million hits a month. In an increasingly illiterate world, that’s pretty good.

Until you compare it to Twitter, which gets 100 times that. Sigh.

Watch Your Head

Over a staircase on Mott St, Chinatown, NYC.

Best Intextions: A First Look

Long before Google Suggest and the Google Game your cell phone was trying to read your mind. Predictive Text, or T9, employs algorithms of spelling and common usage to help you skip all the button-pushing of old school 1-for-A, 2-for-B texting by suggesting words as you type. It creates a suggestion hierarchy — most likely candidates are listed first. For instance, hit 4-6-6-3 and your phone will suggest “good” followed by “home,” “gone,” “hood,” and so on.

Developers for the various manufacturers and carriers use different algorithms to predict what you want to say and the order in which words appear. Sometimes the sequence of suggestions makes you wonder what the hell they’re basing their math on.

Here’s a first look at some of the more entertaining and questionable predictive text suggestion progressions in a new series called “Best Intextions.”

Best Intextions: Howl it Know?

#1: Wolf
#2: Woke

Really, what are the chances more people are texting about wolves than about waking up?

Email  your favorite T9 text missteps to

Readability: More than Legibility

Read, here, a letter dated July 1957 from JD Salinger to the hopeful producer of a film version of The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger was known for his cantankerous resistance to over-commercialization of his art. Whether he’d burn all his unpublished works before he died was once a popular topic of cocktail party conversation amongst literati and wannabe-literati alike. (One night I was engaged in such a discussion while sitting in an empty bathtub on a sidewalk in Alphabet City. Doesn’t get much deeper/hipper than that.)

Take a minute with the letter, posted on The tone is fantastic, an expert blend of fluency, insolence and humor. For all his pomp (fully merited) I think Salinger takes a remarkably analytical tack, neither overly-personal nor defensive. And he calls himself “super-biassed,” which is just gold in my opinion. My favorite part, however, comes at the very end:

Thank you, though, for your friendly and highly readable letter. My mail from producers has mostly been hell.

Highly readable letter! This shouldn’t be rare, but it is.

I really try with my letters (which, naturally, are almost entirely electronic). I use full sentences, proper punctuation, capital letters. I aim not to simply write emails, but to craft them. Do I shoot off quickie emails and text messages? Absolutely. But in professional communiques, and even to my closest friends, I typically attempt to express myself clearly and to convey my literal message along with a sense of emotional context, be that enthusiasm, outrage, humor, hopefulness, bleak resignation, what have you. What I write reflects me and whatever cause I’m representing.

Which is why it pains me to read emails that indicate an utter lack of care — or proofreading. It’s embarrassing for the author and disrespectful to me. We don’t have time in our busy days to pen a novella every time we need to write an email, but we can do one another the simple courtesies of carefulness and attention. Maybe from time to time we can pause before hitting Send and ask ourselves, what would JD say about this?

I encourage you to check out more letters on the site, like this vintage gem from the editors at Mad Magazine. Editors, if you’re reading this, I’d love to get a form letter like this instead of being routinely ignored. Just saying.

[Thanks, Cathleen.]

It’s Not I, It’s Me

Hand I that book, won't you?

Nothing makes you sound stupider than trying too hard to sound smart. (OK, maybe not nothing, but allow me my indignation.) This is why it pains me every time I hear someone use “I” when he should say “me” and “whom” when it ought to be “who.” I can forgive innocent misuse in the kinds of complex grammatical scenarios that call for the I/me and who/m determinations. But there are too often instances when it’s clear the speaker is trying to prove intelligence by opting for the smarter-sounding choice, and  it veritably reeks of desperation.

You don’t want to be this person. And I don’t want you to be, either, which is why I’ve provided this handy guide for when to whom and whether to I.

The two pairs are fairly analogous, and their use can be guided by the same simple principle. You use “I” and “who” like he, she, they, we, and you use “me” and “whom” like him, her, them and us. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage describes it rather succinctly:

Use who in the sense of he, she or they: Pat L. Milori, who was appointed to fill the vacancy, resigned. (He or she was appointed.) Use whom in the sense of him, her or them: Pat L. Milori, whom the board recommended, finally got the job. (The board recommended him or her.) The same test applies to whoever and whomever: Whoever wins will collect $64. (He or she wins.) Whomever you ask will provide directions. (You ask her or him.)

The idea, if you want to get into the whys, is that of subject versus object. In grammar a subject does things, an object has things done to it. Read on for a detailed explanation.

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