Word Maven Patricia T. O’Conner

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Word maven Patricia T. O’Conner answers questions about the confounding English language and talks about ungrammatical song lyrics. An updated and expanded third edition of her book, Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, has recently been published in paperback, and  Origins of the Specious, written with Stewart Kellerman, was also recently issued in paperback.

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a paperback version of


Patricia T. O'Conner

Comments [79]

Felix from New York City

Is anything horrible anymore? Seems like every disaster is "horrific." Is one more proper than the other?

Dec. 31 2010 02:31 AM
David Huiner from Marietta, GA

Regarding "devout Catholic"... many people who cite their being Catholic as a large part of their cultural identity do not practice their faith. Many haven't been inside a church in many years but still identify as Catholic to explain many of their character traits. We use "devout Catholic" to differentiate the people who attend mass regularly and have an active parish life from the non-practicing cultural Catholics.

Nov. 24 2010 09:25 PM
Jonathan from Brooklyn

Speaking of alliteration, I remember when Dennis Cunningham was the movie reviewer for WCBS-TV, He reviewed "Teminator 2", and refered to Linda Hamilton as "The Buff Bimbo".

Nov. 18 2010 01:22 PM
Walter Naegle from New York, NY

A shout out --- will any giants who are NOT "gentle" please call in! I've had my fill of "gentle giants" and would like to hear from a good old-fashioned ogre, like someone out of "Jack and the Beanstalk."

Nov. 18 2010 08:40 AM

Leonard! You have a choice with forte - Italian forte (fortay) and French forte (for)

Nov. 17 2010 04:01 PM

Tomas - pertaining to words that are referred to in a singular case when they should be plural - This is a pet peeve of mine as well. I don't see the examples you site so much, rather I find that the speaker will incorrectly contract "THERE IS", to THERE's", as in "There's many reasons for this". I don't understand why people don't know that "there's" or "there is" cannot be correct. What happened to "there are" or even "there're" if you must contract the phrase?

Nov. 17 2010 02:28 PM
Joe Becker

A recent usage is that a political candidate espousing the principles of the Tea Party is always referred to as a "Tea Party Favorite."

Nov. 17 2010 02:26 PM
Dianna Maeurer from Manhattan

"a good time was had by all" .
I was tired of this phase twenty years ago; yet it persists in appearing weekly in just about every local paper, newsletter, etc!

Nov. 17 2010 02:11 PM

English is a Germanic language because of it's evolution from the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family. It is most closely related to Frisian and Dutch. This is because of the grammar and structure of the language not just the vocabulary. Even if one examines the English lexicon, although many words are of Latin origin, the most common words are not: the, and, he, she, dog, cow etc.

Nov. 17 2010 02:06 PM
Robert Zantay from New York City

The good Samaritain came from Samaria, aBorn again Christian is a Christian who is aware of the new birth which according to the bible occurs when a person believes that Jesus was raised from the dead after 3 days and nights, and then confesses his sins to God to receive forgiveness. At that point the person is filled with holy spirit. That is the "new birth". The person can at that point manifest the holy spirit by speaking in tounges, which is allowing the holy spirit pray (in a language which the person doesn't understand) perfectly to God. It is called the new birth because a person goes from being body and soul, which is the same as any breathing creature, to being body, soul, and spirit, which is the original way Adam was created. when Adam fell from grace he lost his spirit and was concidered to be spiritually dead. This is why he and Eve were told not to eat from the tree of knowledge or they would surely die.

Nov. 17 2010 02:04 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Today's version of the "good Samaritan" parable would be a story about a "good Palestinian" who might save a Jew,. or contribute an organ to save on. And, vice versa, of course.
Perhaps, in the US the equivalent might be "the good illegal Mexican immigrant," or some such..

Nov. 17 2010 02:00 PM
John-Paul G from Elizabeth, NJ

Not to sound like I'm proselytizing but the Good Samaritan was an example used by Jesus in the New testament as an example of an unexpected but helpful stranger. A schism between Jews and Samaritans is attributed to their enmity due to a variation in worship/doctrine. In the parable Jesus mentions a Jewish victim of a violent robbery and the victim is passed by a few successful people who had very specific reasons for not assisting. Finally a Samaritan finds him and takes pity on him despite being considered a lesser person by the people he was speaking to.

For iconoclasts I would yield to Leonard's view since the iconoclasts were a reactionary movement against religious imagery in the Eastern christian church. He was exactly on the ball for referring to Byzantium and the Russian icons.

Nov. 17 2010 01:59 PM
thorsdatter from 10128

PLEASE help wipe "as a reminder" out of our already tortured airline travel experiences...this is gratuitous as well as about, "Please remember"

Nov. 17 2010 01:57 PM
Sharon from Manhattan

"That being said...". I never hear this from anyone but people in the media: newscasters and people being interviewed, never on the street or in daily conversation. Why?

Nov. 17 2010 01:56 PM
Sheila Handler from Brooklyn, NY

A born again Jew is a "ba'al teshuva".

The Good Samaritan was from Samaria, a region around the ancient city of Shechem, now called Nablus. The sect of Samaritans exist till today. The Hebrew for this region is Shomron.

Samara is in Iraq (I think), like in "Appointment in Samara".

Nov. 17 2010 01:55 PM
marjorie from Montclair, NJ

The Hebrew term ba'al teshuvah (or ba'alat teshuva for a woman) is used to describe a Jew from a secular background who has become religiously observant.

Nov. 17 2010 01:55 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

The novelty of a "good" Samaritan in the NT parable, was to show that EVEN a Samaritan can be good! Samaritans were the descendants of Assyrian occupiers of the Kingdom of Israel after it was destroyed. Samaritans were thus considered foreigners usurping Jewish land, and were HATED by the Jews. The story merely illustrates that anyone, even a Samaritan, can do a good deed, eve better than a Jew. No doubt, the parable might have startled his Jewish apostles and followers.

Nov. 17 2010 01:55 PM
Daniel Garbin from Bronx, Nueva York

1. Not all northeastern European languages are Germanic, since Finnish is Ugro-Finnish (basically in the same group with Hungarian and Turkish.)

2. English is a Germanic language. Period. Just because English vocabulary has imported some French words, it doesn't make it Germanic.
For instance, Romanian has imported a lot of English words. So then Romanian is an English language? No! It is romance.

Nov. 17 2010 01:55 PM
Fred from brooklyn

What about "ahead" meaning "next", "coming" or "after" rather than the original "before" or "in front of"
npr and bbc news are both very fond of this trendy usage.

Nov. 17 2010 01:54 PM

I know it is not completely on topic, but would someone please comment on the errors that Michael Mulgrew made on Brian Leher's show Friday when discussing Cathie Black. Near the top of the segment he said (referring to Ms. Black), "Her and I met briefly." Here is an "educator" with a degree in English making a mistake with the subjective case. I wince when I think of all the people who might think this is acceptable usage.

Nov. 17 2010 01:54 PM
C.E. Connelly from Manhattan

The Good Samaritan is a parable told by Jesus. The Samaritan's were a heretical sect of Jews (or considered so by some Jews, especially the Levites). A member of another sect, a Levite, I believe, was robbed and beaten and left for dead. Members of other sects (ones considered non-heretical, including a Levite) walked by without helping. A Samaritan stopped and helped the man and even gave him his own robe.

Nov. 17 2010 01:54 PM
jimmy gallina

how about good fella or swell guy?

Nov. 17 2010 01:54 PM
Neil from Austin, TX

Pyjama is from Persian nor Indian.

It's Samaria not Samara.

Nov. 17 2010 01:53 PM

commenting on the Jewish word that would mean "born again" in the sense that you're discussing it on the show right now.. "Balt Tsheuva" which means "master of return"...

Nov. 17 2010 01:51 PM

I've heard enough of "at the end of the day" - I remember when it started being used a few years ago -

Nov. 17 2010 01:51 PM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

The term for a Jew who has returned to the practice of Judaism is "Ba'al Teshuvah," which is Hebrew. We don't normally use an English term for this.

Nov. 17 2010 01:51 PM

I'm tired of everything being called "historic" or "historical." Every election, campaign funding increases, and it's said to be a "historic" level of fundraising.

Nov. 17 2010 01:51 PM
James Nash from Bloomfield, NJ

One of my favorites is "the troubled space station Mir."

Nov. 17 2010 01:51 PM
Judy Epstein

Don't need to say "Born again Jew" because all you need to do is Re-Jew-Venate!

Nov. 17 2010 01:50 PM
Ali from NJ

What about 'return back'? Its very common parlance in America and I HATE IT!

Nov. 17 2010 01:50 PM
Keith from Bronx

Every news reporters favorite word is "dark". Im so irritated by the term "dark" to describe anything really bad. They never say "grim " or "bleak" or even "bad".
"Dark" doesnt mean absolute negative.

Nov. 17 2010 01:50 PM

The best has got to be the 'born again virgin'.... it's just not possible....

Nov. 17 2010 01:49 PM
Ronald Cozzi from Rahway NJ

When did right on become spot on?

Nov. 17 2010 01:49 PM
Carolyn from Brightwaters, Long Island

I hear "arguably" all the time to prove a point. Wouldn't that mean that the point could be wrong if it could be argued? If the person is convinced he's right, shouldn't it be "inarguably?"

Nov. 17 2010 01:49 PM
Susan from West Village

In foodie/restaurant critique columns, you sometimes hear, "tucked into" when describing someone dining on a particular dish. Where does that come from?
Ex. Tucked into a grilled chicken Caesar salad...

Nov. 17 2010 01:49 PM
Meredith from Pleasantville

What about the word "iconic"? I have not been able to pass a sentence in the last three years without it. And it is used for many in iconic ideas

Nov. 17 2010 01:48 PM
gene from nyc

Re: eschew, etc.

In the 80's, I remember being in midtown with a friend, about to cross 7th Ave, and, eying the traffic, I said,

"I think it'd behoove us to cross now."

We crossed the street and she said,

"Did you say, 'behoove??'"

Nov. 17 2010 01:48 PM
nat from Brooklyn

The one that bugs me is the use of "Perfect Storm" to describe just about any coincidence that ends badly.

Nov. 17 2010 01:47 PM
Brendan from Uptown

"Pajama" is from Persian.

Nov. 17 2010 01:47 PM
Leah from Brooklyn

Why do many of our noun forms use Germanic (or other) roots but the adjectival forms use Latinate roots? (Ex. Eye - ocular; moon - lunar; hand - manual; kidney - renal.)

Nov. 17 2010 01:46 PM
Henry from Teaneck NJ

Journalist's cliches often purport to explain, i.e. "Medicare, the program for the elderly" or "the speed of light, the distance light travels in a year." But they never explain the meaning of "rare earth" or "gross national product."

Also, the standard unit of measure in the US: ." Both length and area are described in terms of "football fields."

Nov. 17 2010 01:46 PM
allison munoz

Why does everyone say "complex" instead of complicated these days??

Nov. 17 2010 01:46 PM
frank alpert

I do not have the exact citation, but O'Henry wrote a clever short story relying on coded information in which the code was newspaper cliches--for example, plain text="citizen", code text= "concerned". A full sentence coded was marvelous string of nonsense.

Frank Alpert

Nov. 17 2010 01:45 PM
Karen from Manhattan

The word "iconic" has been applied to everything from Lady Gaga to handbags

Nov. 17 2010 01:45 PM
Kent from Brooklyn

How about "Radical Shiite Cleric Muktada Al Sadr" for a cliche?

Also; "Redoubling our efforts..." is that the same as quadrupling one's efforts?

Nov. 17 2010 01:45 PM
Tessa from Manhattan

I hate 'the takeaway' - 'what is the takeaway?'

Nov. 17 2010 01:44 PM
clarence from brooklyn

When there's a suggestion to not do something, why do people say "let's don't do (say, eat, etc.)..." verses "let's not do (say, eat, etc.)..."
Am I even making sense?

Nov. 17 2010 01:43 PM
Ken from Brooklyn

Thanks to "frequent contributer, Patricia T. O'Conner"

Nov. 17 2010 01:43 PM
Tamara Busch from New Jersey

I heard one Congressman say "At the end of the day" three times in two minutes.

Nov. 17 2010 01:43 PM

Hi all

I am fed up with hearing "he is suffering with down syndrome" it came up a lot with reference to Sarah Palins son. As a parent of a child with down syndrome- he may have difficulties with certain things but he definately is not suffering.
Thanks m

Nov. 17 2010 01:42 PM
Amy Heller

"Cancer survivor"--if you are using the present tense, it is pretty obvious that the person survived. Also "battling cancer," I mean, what does that mean?

Nov. 17 2010 01:42 PM
Patrick from Hoboken, NJ

A few months ago, I heard local radio reporters saying "possessing an illegal animal." The animal is not illegal, the act of possessing the animal is illegal. Should have been illegally possessing an animal. It just killed me...

Nov. 17 2010 01:42 PM
Mary from NYC

When did the word signage come about? What happened to just referring to signs as "signs".

Nov. 17 2010 01:42 PM
Amy Heller

"Cancer survivor"--if you are using the present tense, it is pretty obvious that the person survived. Also "battling cancer," I mean, what does that mean?

Nov. 17 2010 01:41 PM
Vinny_G from The Upper West Side of NYC

The first one that I hate the most is "...having said that..." and the second one that makes my blood boil is when a speaker begins a sentence or answers a question with "so,,, the thing is..."

Nov. 17 2010 01:41 PM
Connie from nj

I disagree with Pat about her explanation of the double copula; I hear it used more and more these days, and there is often no hesitation between the first 'is' and the second. The speaker is learning to hear it as normal. President Obama uses this mannerism frequently.

Nov. 17 2010 01:41 PM
Alan from Brooklyn

Is there a point where grammar offers diminishing returns?

Nov. 17 2010 01:41 PM
Diedrich Knickerbocker from Greenwich Village

President James Garfield was killed by "disgruntled officeseeker" Charles J. Guiteau

Nov. 17 2010 01:40 PM
Felix from Dallas, TX

Is not hard liquor redundant?

Nov. 17 2010 01:40 PM
Mark M from Long Island

What about Richard Nixon's home town of Selfimposedexile?

Nov. 17 2010 01:38 PM

"Horrible Tragedy"
as opposed to, say,
Delightful Tragedy"

Nov. 17 2010 01:38 PM
dan from manhattan

What's up with news commentators (CNNis the worst offender) says "drill down" on a story?

Thank you

Nov. 17 2010 01:38 PM

Am I the only one who has ever heard the expression "B-Flat" used to describe something that is simple or plain?

Nov. 17 2010 01:37 PM

So true! Just as Ms. O'Connor was starting to say Noriega I thought to myself "strongman"! How about "billionaire" George Soros?

Nov. 17 2010 01:37 PM
Mike from Tribeca

"Outpouring of support." Ugh!

Nov. 17 2010 01:35 PM

There was a member of Saddam Hussein's inner circle who was named
"Ali Hassan al-Majid". When referred to in the news, this following description was always attached: "known as Chemical Ali." The problem is that the only place I ever saw him referred to as Chemical Ali was in news reports that identified him thus: "Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as Chemical Ali, ...."

Nov. 17 2010 01:34 PM
The Truth from Becky

"The incomparable...."

"The world's, largest, greatest, biggest, best...."

Nov. 17 2010 01:34 PM
Mike from Tribeca

Shades of the nonexistent "38 eye-witnesses to the death of Kitty Genovese"! Great segment, as usual.

Nov. 17 2010 01:33 PM
The Truth from Becky

"The Quintesential....."

Nov. 17 2010 01:32 PM
Ken from Brooklyn

Was thinking this morning that I'm very tired of "The powerful House Ways and Means Committee" Don't any other adjectives apply?

Nov. 17 2010 01:31 PM

Too many talking heads are introduced on TV and radio as "noted" or "notable." In this context it's essentially meaningless.

Nov. 17 2010 01:29 PM
The Truth from Becky

Hate cliches almost as much as acronyms..ugghh.

Nov. 17 2010 01:29 PM
David from Middle Village

Please talk about the inability to use apostrophes correctly - its and it's, and even stranger, using apostrophes to make plurals. People seem to think they are required in many cases, like proper nouns, where they are not!

Nov. 17 2010 01:29 PM
John from Stuy Town

When did this start??

Nov. 17 2010 01:28 PM
Patrick from Hoboken, NJ

'Tour de force' is the most annoying journalistic cliche!!!

Nov. 17 2010 01:28 PM
Allison from Greenpoint

What is the origin of phrase "pipe dream"? Thanks.

Nov. 17 2010 01:28 PM

Could you please explain the trend to use "is" instead of "are" in plural descriptions such as "There is situations that..."; or "There is several ..."
I have heard this usage on the radio including NPR/WNYC and the BBC.
"IS" there reasons for this?

Nov. 17 2010 01:05 PM
Mark from Mount Vernon

Ideology is from idea. Divisive from divide. Lately I've heard them pronounced ID-eology and di-VIH-sive, including by WNYC on-air staff.
Aren't I-deology and di-VY-sive correct? .

Nov. 17 2010 12:45 PM

The decision by the New Oxford Amer Dictionary to add Sarah Palin's refudiate to their next edition is an outrage and a disgrace. These dictionary editors have committed a monstrous crime against the English language and have mocked and ridiculed generations of lexicographers by making this absurd decision. Wm Strunk, EB White, Wm Safire and Edwin Newman are rolling over in their graves.

Nov. 17 2010 12:10 PM

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