Word Maven Patricia T. O'Conner

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Word maven Patricia T. O'Conner answers your questions about the English language. Today she's focusing on the language of the news media and the new AP style book. Call us at 212-433-9692, or leave a comment below. Visit Patricia T. O'Conner’s Grammarphobia website.

Comments [46]

Ann from nyc

Anybody still reading???
Can I get a napkin, please???

Jun. 17 2009 11:53 PM
Stephen from Manhattan

Do you know why the NY Times and New Yorker insist on hyphenating teen-age and teen-ager?

Jun. 17 2009 02:04 PM
joanie from Manhattan

When waiters say "are you still working on that?" I like to respond (in my mind): "YOU'RE working. I'm enjoying a meal in public."

Jun. 17 2009 02:01 PM
Marty Wolfe from Brooklyn

I've always wondered, people say, "I have ten times more something than someone else," which to my mathematical mind should be, "ten times as many" or "ten times as much."

Jun. 17 2009 01:58 PM

"qu" is from Latin.

Jun. 17 2009 01:57 PM
Karthik (pron. car + thick) from NYC

I was wondering if a sentence can start with the word "Because" ? I maybe wrong but I thought one should not begin a sentence with the word "Because". However, I have seen many literature (esp. Scientific literature) begin with that word.

Jun. 17 2009 01:57 PM
Ann from nyc

Wondering why I see so much use of 'phenomena' when 'phenomenon' is meant. And vice versa. I just today heard 'phenomenon' used as a plural.

Jun. 17 2009 01:56 PM

Lower taxes.

Jun. 17 2009 01:56 PM
Marty Wolfe from Brooklyn

Asking a waiter "Can I get" is mentioned in one of the Black Widower stories (By Isaac Asimov). The waiter, Henry, comments that technically, one should ask the waiter, "Can I have ..." because "May I have" would be asking for permission, the answer to which, in a restaurant, is of course "yes". The question is whether the item requested is indeed in the kitchen. So, more correct to say, "Can".

Jun. 17 2009 01:56 PM
Stephen from Manhattan

[13] Jessica from San Francisco -- You have mentioned my biggest pet peeve, what like to call PPAS (Personal Pronoun Abuse Syndrome). I cringe every time I hear someone use "I" in the objective case when "me" is correct. It pops up on TV and movies all the time in scripts supposedly written by "writers" who should know better. I always want to scream, LEARN SOME BASIC GRAMMAR!

Jun. 17 2009 01:55 PM
andriana friel from maplewood, nj

i'm nineteen and my generation is plagued with the overuse of "like". when did this come about?

Jun. 17 2009 01:55 PM
joanie from Manhattan

Dear AP:
Don't jettison SCOTUS, POTUS or FLOTUS.
What will you replace SCOTUS with, that uses fewer letters and has such a long tradition!

Jun. 17 2009 01:53 PM
John Celardo from Fanwood, NJ

Speaking of restaurants, I find servers who respond to thank you with "no problem" verry irritating. Any comment?

Jun. 17 2009 01:51 PM
Donald J from NYC

Please comment on this change:
In a pejorative tone, the new use of democrat, a noun, on right-leaning radio, etc., instead of the adjective democratic.
Ex: "democrat candidate"
Noticed they've been so effective that now many broadcasters have unknowingly adopted this mistake, to the delight of the right.

Jun. 17 2009 01:51 PM
Jed Justiniani from New York

"Waiting in line" versus " waiting on line" - which is correct when everyone stands in line; New Yorkers stand on line?

Jun. 17 2009 01:50 PM
joanie from Manhattan

I'd like a ruling on the use of the possessive:

We say "she is a friend of mine."
But is it correct to say "She is a friend of Mike's" or "she is a friend of Mike"?

I think my preference is for the latter...and it may be because that is the construction in French or Spanish.

Of course "FRIEND OF MIKE" (Bloomberg) has a special meaning ;)

Jun. 17 2009 01:49 PM
peter from Brooklyn

The New York Times seems to have almost completely abandoned the use of center in the mistaken belief that epicenter means a kind of hyper center. I think it is sounds lazy and should be stamped out.

Jun. 17 2009 01:49 PM
Liz from New Jersey

Please comment on the overuse of the word "actually" in conversation.

Jun. 17 2009 01:49 PM
Independent Observer

Apropos earlier discussion on pronouns: The following is from an actual subscriber agreement I recently saw:

"The undersigned person acknowledges that it is responsible for all charges on its billing statement and that if for any reason its applicable financial institution does not honor such charges, the undersigned agrees that [...] and its affiliates are not liable in any way for erroneous billing statements, incorrect charges to the undersigned's credit card or incorrect debits to the undersigned's debit card."

Jun. 17 2009 01:47 PM
Derek from Oyster Bay,New york

What does it mean when people say " Insofaras "?

Jun. 17 2009 01:46 PM


Jun. 17 2009 01:44 PM
Andy on Long Island from Long Island

Free vs For Free

Have the Saturday morning cereal commercials I saw in the 60s changed the language? I thought "free" was short for "free of charge," not another word for "sero."


Jun. 17 2009 01:44 PM
Jordan from Madison, NJ

I am a waiter in a busy restaurant. More than a hundred times a day, I hear requests begun with: "Can I get...?" Is this correct English? I think it sounds awful. People rarely say "please" either before or after they say "can I get." What ever happened to: "May I (please) have?" I rarely hear it anymore. I insist that my children say "may I have" before I fulfill any of their requests.

Jun. 17 2009 01:41 PM
Jennifer Bodenweber from Inwood

Pretty much universally in speach, people use there's instead of they're, singular instead of plural. Listen, it is pervasive even among journalists and broadcasters who should know better

Jun. 17 2009 01:41 PM
James from Brooklyn

regarding "spendthrift":

Q] From A N Page, Maryland: About spendthrift: I have often wondered how thrift applied to spend can end up being someone who is not thrifty. Any suggestions?

[A] It’s an interesting collision of ideas to us now. That’s because we think of thrift as the state of using one’s money and other resources carefully. But thrift is closely connected with thrive, which comes from an Old Norse word meaning to grasp or seize; this evolved into the idea of achieving prosperity, success and good luck, or of having achieved it, a sense that thrive still has. So thrift was the state of being prosperous. Only later under Puritan influence was thrift seen as frugality, an essential prerequisite for prosperity. The word spendthrift predates this shift in sense. Literally it means somebody who has spent his prosperity, that is, thrown away his accumulated wealth.

Jun. 17 2009 01:40 PM
Myrel Chernick from New York, NY

My question is: Is it vicious circle or vicious cycle? I often see vicious cycle but question its correctness

Jun. 17 2009 01:40 PM
jina from brooklyn

Why do "flammable" and "inflammable" mean the same thing? How, then, can we make a word that means "not flammable"?

Jun. 17 2009 01:39 PM
Leon Freilich from Park Slope

Did someone say "staycation"?


You’re taking a staycation

And skipping the Euro plage?

Then see you at Coney Island,

And brother, Non Voyage.

Jun. 17 2009 01:38 PM
ted from manhattan

on use of third person singular pronoun.

many years ago warriner's grammar, a popular grammar book in english classes declared they to be acceptable.

when i write i use hir for his and her. hir is a portmanteau of his and her.

i use s/he.

i like the monosyllabic sound as opposed to his or her.

Jun. 17 2009 01:37 PM
CH from Staten Island

Interesting that SCOTUS is being jettisoned just as the *official* English language czars are embracing the use of non-alpha spellings as words. "Web 2.0" the millionth word, n00b and w00t are some unfortunate examples. Needless to say I am a bit hesitant to accept these as official, dictionary-worthy spelling options. What will be next, creative spellings by font-face?

Jun. 17 2009 01:37 PM
Catherine from Rockville Centre

I PURPOSELY use "they", "them" and "their" in the singular because it is SO important to use them so that the language is gender neutral.

The only thing I wrestle with is whether to use the new word "themself" when "they" is singular or whether to use "themselves."

As Patricia points out, no one is bothered that "you" is used both singularly and plurally, and that we have both "yourself" and "yourselves."

Leonard and Patricia - join the revolution!!

Jun. 17 2009 01:37 PM
eric from jersey city

speaking of 'the bag'... I was a coxswain in high school and the stroke in the heavyweight 4 I cox'd used to say "in the bag" to refer to being drunk, or... unfortunately, to being on a drinking jag... perhaps there is a connection to being fired from a job as well.

Jun. 17 2009 01:36 PM
Mark from Manhattan Chinatown

Wondering what Ms. O'Conner thinks about the sequence of tenses rule. (Right: He said cash losses WOULD be half of the projected $85 million. Wrong: He said cash losses WILL be half of the projected $85 million.)

It seems to me NY Times copy used to follow this rule pretty strictly, but nowadays I see many exceptions (like the second example above, slightly edited).

I'm a career editor, but I'm not doctrinaire on this one. It seems to me that folks don't talk this way anymore. (On the other hand, do folks no longer talk this way because newspapers and other publications no longer write this way?)

Jun. 17 2009 01:36 PM
Jessica from San Francisco

Can you please, please, please talk about the correct use of "I", such as when someone says, "Jessica went to the store with Ben and I"? It should be, "Jessica went to the store with Ben and me" Right? T

Jun. 17 2009 01:36 PM
Gary from UWS

The mere fact that the AP Style Guide includes "tweeting" is proof that Twitter and the people who use it will be considered "twits" in five years.

By the way, this applies to Facebook too. In five years, Facebook will be as uncool as AOL is now.

Note to AP: don't try to chase fads. Stick to Photoshopped journalism.

Jun. 17 2009 01:34 PM
Tom from UWS

SCOTUS isn't going away - does UP think they're the only ones using it? I only started in the past year, because in online political forums, both SCOTUS and POTUS are common use.

Jun. 17 2009 01:33 PM
John-Paul G from Elizabeth, NJ

Several million people will probably call, email or comment it, but just in case, it was already mentioned at the inaugural Leonard Lopate show at the Jerome L. Greene space that tweets were defined as nouns by the inventors and twitter is the verb according to an anecdote related from... Oh I forget her name and the archives aren't loading but she's on The View.

Jun. 17 2009 01:33 PM
Tyler from Manhattan

I'm sure you get this question a lot, but do you have an easy-to-remember fool-proof rule of thumb to determine the appropriateness of who/whom and whoever/whomever?

Jun. 17 2009 01:27 PM
Therese Mageau from Brooklyn

Few or less? My husband and I disagreed the other night, when I said "fewer taxes" and he said, "No, less taxes." I think it's fewer taxes and less tax. What say you? Many thanks!

Jun. 17 2009 01:26 PM
Izz from NYC

Is "on accident" or "by accident" correct? This is as opposed to "on purpose." Or is it dialectical?

Jun. 17 2009 12:26 PM
Peter from Sunset Park


That is an excellent point about enhanced interrogation techniques. I actually take the unpopular position that torture is acceptable in extreme and rare situations such as ticking bombs. I think that the term “enhanced interrogation techniques” is, as you said, a euphemism. I am against the use of the term enhanced interrogation techniques because I think that a government should be able to make the case to its people that in extreme and rare situations, torture is the norm. Ugly but true.

Jun. 17 2009 11:24 AM
Jill from Canada

Seems the media is more likely now to simply 'copy and paste' the language of political spin doctors, uncritically adopting euphemisms like "enhanced interrogation techniques" (the most disturbing example). Is this really a growing trend, or was it ever thus?

Jun. 17 2009 11:10 AM
Peter from Sunset Park


Wow, are news agencies really using “activist” now as a euphemism for terrorist? So sick.

Jun. 17 2009 10:56 AM
Marc Naimark from Paris

@Peter: at least "militant" has the notion of combat. How about the same milquetoast use of "activist" instead of "murderer" or "terrorist"?

Jun. 17 2009 10:17 AM
Peter from Sunset Park

What does word maven Patricia T. O'Conner think about the news media’s use of the words “militants” and “terrorists”? For example, a civilian target such as a train or a pizzeria may be bombed in India, Pakistan, Israel, etc. and some in the media report that the attack is “carried out by militants.” Isn’t the specific targeting of civilian targets always an act of terrorism committed by terrorists? Or does Ms. O’Conner agree with the New York Times, NPR, Reuters and other major media outlets that attempt to normalize terrorism by calling it militancy?

Jun. 17 2009 08:38 AM
Joe Adams from Bergen County, New Jersey

Is it correct to use open and its participle opening to mean starting or beginning? This has been bothering me for about 30 years since I read (and I paraphrase):Frank Sinatra is flying to New York to attend Buddy Greco's OPENING tonight.
Since then I've observed that when a show is scheduled to begin, the date of the first performance is often called "opening date".

Jun. 17 2009 07:58 AM

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