Word Maven Patricia T. O'Conner

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Our word maven, Patricia T. O'Conner, answers questions about the English language and grammar. 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 a paperback version of Origins of the Specious, written with Stewart Kellerman, comes out next week. Have a question about language and grammar? Call us at 212-433-9692 or leave us a question as a comment below.



Patricia T. O'Conner

Comments [45]

Bern from Mountainville

A sports reference from the early 1980s was the "much maligned" Phil Simms.

Nov. 17 2010 01:41 PM
LINDA MOGGIO from White Plains, NY

To Edward of NJ:
I think you're missing the point, Edward of NJ. "No problem" DOES mean "It was an arduous and unpleasant task but I did it for you out of a sense of moral, ethical, or economic obligation." If it weren't such a strain/problem, a simple "You're welcome" would suffice.

Oct. 23 2010 11:03 PM
Edward from NJ

Instead of "no problem" or "you're welcome" there should be a short phrase that means, "It was an arduous and unpleasant task but I did it for you out of a sense of moral, ethical, or economic obligation." Has anyone got something like that?

Aug. 18 2010 02:16 PM
PG from Brooklyn

Thank you Laura for your comment. The Luddite's were a labor movement, objecting to the phenomenon that Marx, a few decades later, would refer to as alienation. Comparing the original Luddites to someone with a petty aversion to Twitter or "smart" phones has always troubled me. Patricia's curt interjection - "language changes" - only confirms the degree to which contemporary culture has become depoliticized.

Aug. 18 2010 02:04 PM
Susan Barras from Astoria

As someone who's lived on the East Coast my whole life, I've heard the phrase "on line" (as opposed to "in line") anywhere except in the New York city area. It doesn't seem to me to be common in either the Mid-Atlantic region or New England. I'm curious if this is Ms. O'Conner's New York-centric-ness, or whether I've missed it elsewhere.


Aug. 18 2010 01:58 PM
Mark from Mark

During the 70's I worked in a machine shop operating a punchpress over summer vacations from college. One summer the owners had an automatic press installed by a company from Switzerland who sent technicians in white lab coats to handle the job. The concept was that the press could do the same job as a manual one like we operated only absent the operator. The big day came for the set-up of the press and the technicians fed the roll of steel stock into it, staryed it up and walked away once it seemed to be worker properly. A few minutes later the stock started jamming in the machine and started unrolling in huge loops all over the shop floor. I motioned to the worker next to me to look and soon the whole shop was watching surreptitiously and not saying a thing. When the foreman finally noticed and ran and got the Swiss guys who came running with the tails of their white lab coats flapping. I did not know the term then but I think we workers were all Luddites that day. Passive aggressive Luddites perhaps but the impulse was visceral.

Aug. 18 2010 01:57 PM
melanie belman-gross from new york

Meanwhile, why do just about all news programs, even the venerable BBC, have anchors who say 'meanwhile' when the connecting section which follows has absolutely nothing to do with what has just been said.
e.g. '3 iraqis were killed by a suicide bomb; meanwhile, New Yorkers are suffering from the heat.'

Aug. 18 2010 01:56 PM
Amy from Manhattan

I thought "sabotage" came from a stereotype of the kind of people who carried out destructive acts as "those people who wear those wooden shoes" (maybe they were worn by "lower-class" people?).

And to Paul, I thought "Microserf" referred to people who worked for Microsoft at the cubicle level.

Aug. 18 2010 01:56 PM
Kate from Montclair, NJ

Is it correct to say "as per", as in "as per your instructions"? Or is that redundant, and should one simply say "per your instructions"? I've always thought "as per" was an equivalent to "according to", but I've recently been told otherwise.

Aug. 18 2010 01:54 PM

I just searched "Grammarphobia" and found no "rank file"; I suggest it may have referred in military terms to the troops vs. officers.

Aug. 18 2010 01:54 PM
Richard from Glendale, Queens

Re: Listen up

If we can tell someone to "sit up" "read up on something" "toughen up" or "shut up" why can't we tell them to "listen up", too? The short plosive sound of "up" seem to emphasize a command. Maybe?

Aug. 18 2010 01:54 PM
Craig from Manhattan

Why do many broadcasters say, for example, "The Pakistani capital OF Islamabad?" It sounds like Islamabad is the capital of itself. Even NPR journalists frequently use this construction.

Thank you. Interesting as always.

Aug. 18 2010 01:54 PM

What about luddite aesthetics?

Aug. 18 2010 01:54 PM
Tom from uws

"... then you career from career to career."

I'm Still Here - Stephen Sondheim

Aug. 18 2010 01:54 PM
Mike from NJ

Oh, this whole conversation is lud-icrious.

Aug. 18 2010 01:53 PM
Brian from BK

Luddite: Anyone who calls this show with a simple grammatical question (instead of just Googling it).

Aug. 18 2010 01:52 PM
Lavelle from Long Island

"De nada" means "of nothing", not "no problem". These two and "you're welcome" convey different meanings. If I say that you're welcome, I will gladly do it again. If it is de nada, it means that there is no need to thank me to me - after all, it was of nothing! If it's no problem, well, it *was* something, but whatever it was, it wasn't a problem.

Ah, the subtleties of language.

Aug. 18 2010 01:52 PM

About "listen up" -- a linguist friend explained to me that the "up" signies something like "completely." For example, "eat up" or "read up"

Aug. 18 2010 01:51 PM
Nina from Manhattan

"Sorry" has replaced "Excuse me" or "Please, go right ahead" in public New York City--I always want to say, "No sorries--Thank you" or "Please go ahead."

Aug. 18 2010 01:51 PM
Laura from UWS

"The term rank and file is a political phrase indicating the individual members of an organization, exclusive of its leadership. The phrase originated in the military, denoting the horizontal "ranks" and vertical "files" of individual foot-soldiers, exclusive of the officers. ..."

In the corporate world, one says: line and staff

For any definittion, Google "define:____________[insert word or phrase]"

Aug. 18 2010 01:50 PM
Karen from nj

When I play cards with my in-laws in Pittsburgh, you can 'inkle' your partner. It means to give them a hint about what suits are in your hand. I never hear it used anywhere else. Any relation to the word 'inkling'?

Aug. 18 2010 01:50 PM
Nora from Bloomfield NJ

Re: No Problem

If you think that "no problem" sounds rude consider the Irish language version "Na bac" (say: na bach) which literally translates to: Don't beg!

Aug. 18 2010 01:50 PM
Bill from New Rochelle

1) I work on high-technoloy telcom equipment all day. I don't want a cell-phone, tweet, &c. I do use internet (for bill-paying, politics, and much more; and like e-mail.
I think of it as getting away from it all, rather than Ludditism. I read books in my backyard.

2) In the nude beach world, people in bathing suits are texillians.

Aug. 18 2010 01:49 PM
Ash in Chelsea

Over the years, I have found myself being jarred by WNYC's use of the word 'show" rather than 'program'. One always hears "...our show page". Somehow I think of radio shows as programs rather than shows. Maybe I expect something visual from a show? Any comment?

Aug. 18 2010 01:49 PM
Nora from Bloomfield NJ

Re: No Problem

If you think that "no problem" sounds rude consider the Irish language version "Na bac" (say: na bach) which literally translates to: Don't beg!

Aug. 18 2010 01:49 PM
Shelly from Manhattan

I am curious about the phrase "wait on line" when waiting to pay at a store, for example.
I have always said "wait in line". Is this a New York thing? We didn't say it in CT growing up. Which is correct?

Aug. 18 2010 01:48 PM
Laura from UWS

Instead of techno-peasant one also says:


Aug. 18 2010 01:47 PM
Paul from Manhattan, NY

Microserf is interesting to compare to Luddite.

Aug. 18 2010 01:47 PM

For people who avoid new technology I prefer the word troglodyte! In that the person is shunning the world by not getting an iPhone or twittering. Someone who is consciously avoiding digital online society.

Aug. 18 2010 01:45 PM
Tim in Queens

I love technology but shun Facebook and Twitter because I have no interest in taking part in what they do. It's the activity, not the machinery, that puts me off. So I don't consider myself a Luddite.

Aug. 18 2010 01:43 PM
Jan from Plainfield

One can be quite comfortable with technology yet be selective enough to not jump on every passing fad. I bought my first computer in 1988. I currently do programming in Microsoft Outlook for clients. I'm hardly a Luddite even though I'm in my late 50s. But I have little interest in Facebook and other social media because 1) privacy concerns and 2) I have other things I'd rather spend my time on. BTW a friend is someone who comes to your house, not people you collect online. As for reading books onscreen, I spend most of my time at my computer already, so when I read I like to actually hold a book in my hands.

Aug. 18 2010 01:43 PM
Rosalie from Long Island

Please explain: on my son's first day of 1st grade, he came home with piece of paper w/a border in the center where he could draw a picture of himself. The title of the photo was "This is me." When I went to school in the 70s, I was taught "This is I." Have things changed since I went to school? If so, is "This is him." correct?

Aug. 18 2010 01:43 PM
J Reilly from Bellmore NY

To Pat;
I believe that "careening" originates from the days when they would make a cleft in the beachfront and sail a wooden ship at the fastest speed they could muster into it to beach the vessel for repairs and maintenace.

Aug. 18 2010 01:43 PM
Laura from UWS

Luddites were "Freedom Fighters"! (not destroyers)

Aug. 18 2010 01:42 PM
Tom Pheysey from Morris Plains, NJ

"Sabot" is pronounced "Say-Bow." It is also an artillery term. Tanks fire "sabot" rounds for which an external fitting (the shoe) falls away from the round once it exits the barrel.

Aug. 18 2010 01:41 PM
Claire from Staten Island

"Les sabots" is the French word for the wooden shoes commonly worn by farmers. As a writer and fluent speaker of French, my "guess" is that sabotage comes from this root.

Aug. 18 2010 01:41 PM
DarkSymbolist from NYC

Not the most reliable source but...from Wikipedia regarding sabotage:

Claimed explanations include:

That it derives from the Netherlands in the 15th century when workers would throw their sabots (wooden shoes) into the wooden gears of the textile looms to break the cogs, feeling the automated machines would render the human workers obsolete.[ However, there is no contemporary source verifying either this behaviour or a source verifying the word being used in this sense before the 19th century.

That it derives from the French sabot (a wooden shoe or clog) via its derivative saboter (to knock with the foot, or work carelessly).

That it derives from the late 19th-century French slang use of the word sabot to describe an unskilled worker, so called due to their wooden clogs or sabots; sabotage was used to describe the poor quality work which such workers turned out.

Aug. 18 2010 01:40 PM
Howard from Upper West Side

Ms.O'Conner once claimed that "career" was an alternative of the word "careen." My experience in the NT Times morgue as a lad suggests this was clearly a typesetter's error that has now been enshrined in folk etymology.

As a cub reporter, I woulf something odd in a clipping and going back to an original source would find a subsequent article where the writer had made a careless mistake in transcription that was thereafter mindlessly repeated, the journalistic equivalent of the party game "Telephone.".

'Fess up, Patricia! .

Aug. 18 2010 01:38 PM
Robert Plautz from New York

For what it's worth, Ted Kaczynski has been described as a "neo-Luddite," someone who apparently considers the moral and ethical implications of using technology.

Aug. 18 2010 01:37 PM
tom from uws

Also, a "slow adapter" is not a Luddite. She might just be waiting for reasonable prices - or for her present device to stop working, rather than pouring money into frequent "upgrades."

Aug. 18 2010 01:36 PM
tom from uws

A Luddite does not use a cell phone. A Luddite uses a rotary dial phone. With a cord.

Aug. 18 2010 01:33 PM
Laura from UWS

Luddites. Please emphasize that the original Luddite Movement was against forcing independent craftsmen into factories where they were nothing more than regimented "wage slaves" ...They did not object to modern machinery; they objected to losing their independent status. When a man worked at home on his own loom, he was in charge.

Aug. 18 2010 01:32 PM
Ken from Upper West Side

Here's a possible alternative to Luddite: someone once described herself to me as a "technopeasant." I always liked that and have used it since to describe myself on occasion.

Aug. 18 2010 01:30 PM
MSH from UES

Can you ask about when "in line" became "on line" - as in standing in a que? I'm wondering if it changed with the rise of the internet. Thanks!

Aug. 18 2010 01:29 PM
Michael Kaplan from South Orange, NJ

I know Ms. O'Conner once worked for the New York Times. I read the paid obituaries every day and sometimes see 'internment' and 'interned' instead of interment and interred. The staff responsible for printing the obituaries should never use 'internment' without verification that it is the proper word for the context.

Aug. 18 2010 11:01 AM

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