Misuse of Misnomer

Oh. My. Word. In one day, I’ve had to correct more than one talking head–possibly by throwing my socks at the television–as said heads tried to impress with their intellect and redress some concept being debated.

“That’s a misnomer,” they’d say and then continue with their debate.

Unless whatever it was they were talking about was named incorrectly, the word they should have been going for is “misconception.”

Misnomer comes from the 15th-century Anglo-French mesnomer, which means “to misname or wrongly name.” See:

mes- “wrongly” + nomer “to name,” from the Latin nominare

Misconception means “a mistaken belief or a wrong idea.”

Misnomer may be more fun to say, but please, don’t say it unless you’re correcting a name. Otherwise, you’ll look like an illiterate fool.


Want to get paid more? Write Better.

Think writing skills don’t matter so much at work anymore since everyone seems to be conversant in text-speak? Think again.  A recent Grammarly study of Elance freelancers put into graphic form by http://www.Grammarly.com/grammar-check reveals just how significant writing skills are. Take a look:


Writing Skills Matter

People Lie, Things Lay

Not two paragraphs into a great article on why some people (like myself) just can’t seem to achieve a runner’s high (or love exercising, period), and I have come across one of my biggest pet peeves: an author or editor who doesn’t seem to understand that things, ideas, concepts, clues–lay. They don’t lie. They can’t lie. They’re not people. They’re not living, breathing beings.

Let me explain.

The example here from Ask Healthy Living: Why Don’t I Get a Runner’s High?, by Sarah Klein, on Huffington Post, reads: “The first clue lies in exercise selection.” A clue, here, is a concept. It can’t lie, as in tell a lie, nor can it lie, as in put itself in motion to take a rest or nap.

Talk to any English or grammar teacher worth her salt, and she’ll probably start to help you understand this lay/lie conundrum by laying terms on you like “transitive” and “intransitive” verbs to explain why Sarah’s sentence is wrong. Your eyes, of course, will roll back into you head, and a glazed look will come over your face. You’ll smile. You’ll listen, but you won’t hear a thing–just like back in sixth grade. It is true, though, that if you can, one, recall those words from your distant schooldays, and two, remember what they mean, you probably won’t ever find yourself making this mistake.

You see, “transitives,” to get back to the teacher’s explanation, need objects to make actions make sense. “Moved,” for instance, is a transitive verb. For “moved” to make sense, you’d need to know what was moved, the “what” being what you’re trying to communicate (your sentence). “He moved the car into the garage.” See how that worked? Something was taken and manipulated.

“Intransitives” don’t need objects. “The sun rises.” “Rises” is an intransitive verb. The sun doesn’t need anything to be manipulated to help it rise, it just does it on its own.

So, back to Sarah’s sentence and lay/lie. How should it have been corrected? It should have read: “The first clue is in exercise selection.” Why? Because a discerning a clue is a brain function, so a clue is in the category of a thing. A thought process. No wires or cranes or hardware needed.

Now, if you count yourself among those who have trouble with choosing lay and lie, you’re not alone. Sarah aside, rarely is there a show on the History Channel, National Geographic, or Discovery Channel where within the first few sentences, a narrator (not his fault, he’s reading a script) tries to explain how a reason “lies” somewhere. It drives me out of my mind. Even the great Bob Dylan got it wrong when he penned the title and song, Lay, Lady, Lay. For his lady to do what his song is asking, she’d have to have an out-of-body experience, grab herself by the shoulders, and physically lay herself down on that big brass bed.

To help you remember which word to use remember, use one of these:

People lie; things lay.

People lie down; chickens lay eggs.

If it breathes, it lies; everything else lays.

Lie down to rest; lay the blanket on top of yourself.

“Lay, Lady, Lay,” by Bob Dylan, should have been “Lie, Lady, Lie.”

“Transitive” is like “tangible,” so it needs an object, so your choice is “lay”. “Intransitive” is like “invisible,” so your choice is “lie.”




Sportscasters–Making up words, so you don’t have to

Puck-ality. Defense-ality. I never thought I’d hear these “words” spoken by anyone, let alone Olympic commentators who should know better.

Of course, the first one to utter an offense was the former Olympian and retired National Hockey League player. His word of of choice was “defense-ality” when what he meant was the lady hockey player’s level of play on defense was so high, she made a particularly great play. I can forgive athletes and any subject-matter-experts for verbal gaffes, because they’re not trained to speak correctly. They’re trained to give colorful commentary, hence the title, “color commentator.”

The professional, however, is trained to speak correctly. I know, because when I was first on the radio back in 1982, I had elocution lessons. I also had access to a pronunciation dictionary of world leaders, countries, colloquialisms, and other resources, so I wouldn’t make an error on-the-air. I’m sure, though, even without all those resources which, when you’re on television, are given to you in your ear by earwig as well as on your teleprompter and in your notes, this guy knew he was making up a word and making himself look stupid in the process. Yes, he, like all professional commentators seem to do these days, took the jock’s lead and created his own word for being extremely skillful with a puck.

You know, I know hockey is a fast-moving sport, but it isn’t so fast that you can’t   u-s-e   y-o-u-r   w-o-r-d-s   like the great Al Michaels to fully describe what’s happening on the ice–especially when that’s what you’re paid to do.

How High is a Year? What the descriptive and prescriptive dictionaries say.

Really, now, how high must you jump to clear a year? Every time I hear that commercial with Alex Trebek talking about how he’s represented some insurance company for “over” ten years, I want to scream. “Over” ten years, Alex? “Over?” How much taller did you have to make your ladder each year to keep your role as spokesperson?


Now, I know that there are dictionaries out there that will say it’s fine to write or say “over” x-amount of years, but those are descriptive dictionaries. You know, those free ones you can use by just entering a word in your search engine. The cheaper ones in the bookstore. Those dictionaries not called New Oxford American Dictionary, the ones all editors use to correct everyone.

Descriptive dictionaries, which can be written by anyone, by the way and can even be called “Webster,” because the name isn’t copyrighted, list terms, their typical spellings and the current lexicon’s vernacular. They describe how words are used, but not necessarily how they are supposed to be used. In those dictionaries, you’ll see regimen and regime both meaning “a strict routine,” when nothing could be farther from the truth.

A prescriptive dictionary, like New Oxford American Dictionary, lists words, their etymologies (how they came to be), as well as their definitions and how they are supposed to be used. In there, you”ll see that a year is a construct that can be experienced, lived through, chopped up into fragments. We can’t do something over a year, but we can do something throughout a year, during a year, and even have done something a year ago.

Just not over or under. Only more or less. Why? Because of that fragmentation I alluded to earlier. Fragments can be counted, and when we count, we use terms like more or less, not over or under, because the latter two refer to height.

Bridgestone Channels Dr. Frankenstein

Oh, Bridgestone. Have you really gone and given life to your latest version of tires? I thought the act of animating inanimate objects lived only in literature. If your advertising agency’s latest commercial is to be believed, though, your researchers have accomplished what was once thought–if anyone gave it a thought–impossible.

Yes, somehow, some lab team found a way to not only bring doughnut-shaped forms of rubber; bead wire; fabric, fiber, ply, and steel cords; as well as steel belts to consciousness, but they also instilled a current politically correct conscience.

These tires are concerned with the environment. “Environmentally conscious” is what we’re told.

Really? How, exactly, is that accomplished?stockvault-car-tire-texture140076-1

I visited my local tire store/garage and tried to have a conversation with one of these wondrous tires, and the thing–I have no idea if it was male or female–ignored me. How rude!

My disappointment was obvious. The store manager came over to, I believe, console me, and when I told him what I was trying to do, he kind of looked at me sideways. I pointed out that, as a journalist and media critic, it was practically a sworn duty for me to investigate such groundbreaking claims. I even showed him my trusty Livescribe pen and Dot Paper notebook. Even though I was as sincere as a person could be, all I got from him was a belly laugh. Had I not been a long-time customer, I think he would have thought I was loopy, but by now, he knows how I am.

Now, I have no particular prejudice against those writers, even ad writers, who give inanimate objects human-like qualities. I really don’t. I do, however, have a problem when these people who share a corner of my profession create verbal crap viewers and listeners are sure to repeat. As I’ve said before, we in the media are the new language teachers. Whether or not we and they know it, we set the standard for how people in our culture express themselves.

Language is a living thing to be sure. Let’s not make it choke on stupidity.

Three Stages of Ability – May, Might, and Can

You may remember his name.”

Thank you, NBC, for allowing me to remember Hannibal Lecter‘s name. Had the powers-that-be on your mega-broadcasting company’s brilliant marketing team not been so gracious, I would never again be able to recall the fictional serial killer‘s name.

That was my knee-jerk reaction upon hearing the tag-line for the new television series, Hannibal, which is scheduled to air Thursday, April 4th, at 10:00 p.m. EST.  “May,” I thought to myself, implies permission is needed to do something. Of course, as quickly as that thought left my mind, my mom’s voice echoed in my head. “I don’t know, can you?” It’s what she unfailingly replied whenever one of us would ask, “Ma, can I (enter standard childhood want)?” That was her way of letting us know we should have asked, “May I?” instead of, “Can I?”

Now, back to the Hannibal trailer. Turns out, “may” was used correctly in this instance. Here’s why:

May” is a helping verb called a modal. Modals give context to verbs, let the reader or listener in on the attitude or mood of the verb. You would use “may” when you kind of know, but don’t definitely know, the response to a question.

For example, say you’re sweetie wants you to go to a baseball game. You like baseball. The game is on a weekday. You have to work. The day has come to buy tickets. He calls and asks you, “Do you think you’ll be able able to go?” You have just one more thing to do to complete some world-changing project. It’s more likely than not you’ll be able to get away, and you want to do so . Since that’s the case, the outcome is likely, so you can respond, “I may be able to meet you there. I just have one more thing to finish. I’ll know more by lunch time.”

So, when would you use “might?”

Might,” also a modal, is used when an outcome is something you’d most likely never do or are reluctant to do. You’re less certain, but there’s wiggle room, how ever slight

Take the baseball scenario, but change your affinity for the game. In this case, you know you’re working on a project and, if you buckled down, you could finish in time to go to the game. The thought of sitting in the hot sun for two-and-a-half hours on a rock-hard seat splattered with stale beer, however,  jump-starts your gag reflex. You know you don’t want to go, but you also know that your sweetie has a way of charming you into doing what he wants. In this case, if pressed, you could go to the game, but you could also make a very compelling case not to go. You are on the fence, though, so you could say, “I might go, but I’m still working on the project that’s due tomorrow morning,” or, “I might not go, because I’m still working on that project due tomorrow morning.”

Are there any exceptions?

Of course. This is the English language after all.

In the first exception, you need to be aware that “might” is the past tense of “may.” So, let’s say that the day after the game, your boss asks your assistant if you got to use the box seats. The assistant thinks you probably did, but doesn’t really know, so he would tell your boss, “Yeah, she might have been able to use them.” Here, remember, the conversation is about a game that was played yesterday. In the past. That little fact is what makes “might” the correct word choice.

The second exception is a little strange in that the conversation must be about something that isn’t happening. Again, in the baseball example, you ask your friend, a college pitching coach, what pitch she thinks is coming up, she should say, “He ‘might‘ throw a knuckleball.” If “may” is used, the sentence would imply that the pitcher was just given permission to throw that rarest of pitches that never fails to jelly-leg a batter right back into the dugout.

In summary:

May = likely outcome or permission

Might = less likely outcome or uncertainty, as well as past tense

. . . and “can?”

Well, remember what my mom asked? “Can” refers to ability. “I can put away a hot dog, large pop, and a cup of chocolate chip mint Dippin’ Dots in the course of one game.”

I do have that ability, by the way, and I exercise it whenever I go to the ballpark.