Words with Friends

When I started this blog, it never occurred to me that I would be making friends. In fact my big worry was that nobody would read my posts at all.

Surprise! Build it and they will come. I hear regularly from friends – old and new – with questions to ask and knowledge to share. Here are three interesting exchanges I had in January:

1.  My friend Janis Koike made a perceptive comment about a recent Instant Quiz. Here’s my quiz sentence:

Because of the noise in the next room, we couldn’t hear her verbal directions. WRONG

My point was that verbal means “having to do with words,” so writing is also a form of verbal communication. Here’s the correct answer I was looking for:

Because of the noise in the next room, we couldn’t hear her oral directions. CORRECT

But – as Janis pointed out – you don’t need oral. If we didn’t hear the directions because of the noise, of course they were spoken. So “we couldn’t hear her directions” works just fine.

I want to pass this on because redundancy is a habit many of us fall into: “a Jewish rabbi,” “first dibs” (I heard that one on The Big Bang Theory), “the final conclusion.”

2.  My next example isn’t going to teach you anything useful. Well, maybe it’s useful to know that I’m crazy!

A reader I know only as Willem suggested I might have used shibboleth incorrectly in a post.

That seemed strange because I knew for a fact that I had never used the word shibboleth in my life. It’s not part of my working vocabulary. I wasn’t even sure what shibboleth meant.

I started scrolling through recent posts so that I could tell Willem he must have imagined it…only to spot shibboleth in my January 28 postI’ve often wondered where the shibboleth against because came from.

Yikes. I quickly looked up shibboleth and decided Willem was probably right. Here’s my revised sentence: I’ve often wondered where the fear of because came from.

But I’m also discovering that I apparently don’t know my own brain and my own habits!

3.  My third example comes from the January 14 issue  of The New Yorker. An article called “Greek to Me” includes a sentence describing how “a band of traveling dwarfs plunder treasure from the past.”

No. No. No. The rules of subject-verb agreement require you to write that “a band of traveling dwarfs plunders treasure from the past.” A band…plunders. (You skip over “of traveling dwarfs” because it’s a prepositional phrase.)

Let me assure you that I don’t have a nervous breakdown every time I come across a verb mistake. (I make them myself!) But this is The New Yorker, which fusses over every comma, every verb, every hyphen. And the article was written by Mary Norris, who spent years as their head copyeditor – and has written a wonderful book called Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.

So I wrote to her. A few days later I received this comforting reply from Mary:

With collective nouns, the effect of the plural sometimes trumps the grammar. The effect of the plural “dwarfs” overruled the singular “band.” These things are not cut and dry.

That “not cut and dry” was exactly what I needed to hear, and I pass it on to you. If the rule makes a sentence sound awkward, screw the rule. (Mind you, I don’t think Mary Norris would put it that inelegantly.)

Isn’t it wonderful to have friends?


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