(sigh) Another Missed Latin Plural

When you have only one, it’s PHENOMENON!

Here’s the goof, by someone who ought to know better.

Although the ideas have persisted for generations, the modern Flat Earth phenomena is surprisingly recent.

This is from The Guardian, a British newspaper. If anybody ought to get their Latin plurals right, it’s the Brits! Harrumpf.

The article, except for this error, of course, is kind of a fun read. Flat Earthers say this photo is fake:

What’s a Sundae?

Sundae, meaning a dish of ice cream with topping, is from the Sanskrit sandhi, meaning “a putting together.” It’s a grammatical term for the effect the ends of two words have on each other. This is one of the things that makes Sanskrit hard—The beginnings and ends of words constantly change depending on the words they are next to. Apparently the person (note I didn’t say “guy;” who am I to assume it was a male) who invented the sundae knew Sanskrit, and had a poetic bent, calling the dish a putting together of ice cream and topping.

We don’t exactly have sandhi in English, but sometimes the beginnings and ends of words can have an effect on each other. So be careful how you pronounce what you say. Hence the third panel of this edition of Basic Instructions:

Correctly pronounced, the two s’s (esses?) between the words “brussels sprouts” lasts a hundredth of a second or so longer than in “brussel sprouts” and you can hear it if you listen carefully.

That’s a little bit like sandhi, eh?

Another Gender Item

English allows plurals such as “they” and “them” as a substitute for long expressions like “him or her” even when the person in mind is singular. We don’t, after all, have a gender-neutral singular third person pronoun.

Another gender-related quirk in English is to use the masculine to refer to everybody. This is falling out of style, but you still see it, such as in this Curtis, panel 1:

We have perfectly good gender-neutral substitutes such as humanity, humankind, humans, people, and so on.

Old habits die hard, though, so don’t make too big a fuss when someone uses the masculine to refer to people in general.

PS—Here’s another example of using the masculine to refer to everybody, this time from Darren Bell’s Candorville. Third panel, top line.

Interesting that he used “itself” referring to humans in the last line of the panel…

An Historical Note

Many years ago, type was set by hand, and human typesetters kept the capital letters in an upper tray, called the upper case. The other letters were kept in a case below it, called the lower case. Over the years, as you know, all this became automated, and separate letters weren’t kept in cases at all, but were imprinted by typewriters and later made digitally. (I’m leaving out a lot of history here.)

But we kept the names for the two types of letters, and the terms “upper case” and “lower case” became adjectives, hence the change to single words, after a brief stint as hyphenated compounds. I remember when this transition to single words became official, in the mid 1960s.

All that history to give an excuse for sharing this episode of the Lockhorns:

It’s All Well and Good

…or so goes the saying. “Well” and “Good” are often confused. Here’s a pretty (ahem) good example of correct usage, thanks to Flo and Friends.

Here’s the short version of the rule:

Good is an adjective. It describes things.
Well, is an adverb. It tells how.

And of course, as with many rules in English, the rule has exceptions.

Well is an adjective when you’re talking about health.
Good is a noun when you’re talking about morals.

So there you have it.

Who and That

Here’s the rule: “Who” refers to people, “that” refers to everything else. So you say,

The person who sits next to me stinks.


The person that sits next to me stinks.

Okay, maybe you shouldn’t say either sentence, but you get the idea.

I ran into an exception that works. Maybe we could call this personification. After all, aren’t dogs really people?

Besides, Mike Peterson, of Comic Strip of the Day is a dog person, so maybe that’s a good excuse, too.

PS—Unrelated bonus article: I don’t do politics here, but this appeared yesterday in The Washington Post and it’s about an English teacher correcting someone’s writing. I guess I gotta be proud.


Do the Math!

Ever the editor, this math goof from The Buckets jumped out at me. You know what the percentage should be, right?

I guess the writing lesson is when you proofread, check the math, too.

About the Only Time I Use “It”

A common way to write poorly is to use “it” as the subject of a sentence when you decide you’d have to think too hard to come up with a real subject. For example, I could have written, “…when you decide it’s too hard…”

This use of “it” is called a false subject (or dummy pronoun in the comic).

You have to work harder, but your sentences will be clearer and have more punch if you avoid that two-letter monstrosity. (I should add that “there is” is just as bad.)

Of course, I have an exception. You may use “it” when you reference the weather. Hence this XKCD comic:

Hi, I'm your new meteorologist and a former software developer. Hey, when we say 12pm, does that mean the hour from 12pm to 1pm, or the hour centered on 12pm? Or is it a snapshot at 12:00 exactly? Because our 24-hour forecast has midnight at both ends, and I'm worried we have an off-by-one error.

I confess that I sometimes wonder what the domain of that percentage refers to, myself.

A Swearing Quickie

I don’t do it, and I’ve written about it a time or two, but it’s been a while, and I kind of like this Adult Children comic on the subject.

A sequence of random punctuation to denote swearing is called a grawlix, by the way. The jagged edges on the speech bubble is a nice touch, too.

Don’t Use “As” When You Mean “Because”

Yes, “as” is shorter than “because, and it’s even shorter then “since,” and I generally recommend the shorter word when you write technical material, but in this case, don’t! Here’s a bad sentence:

Melorheostosis is one of the most notorious diseases as the reason for its occurrence was a mystery.

“As” means something like “at the same time,” or “while.” But the intended meaning here is “because.”

So use “because”! Use the clearest words to say what you mean.

PS—Here’s an unrelated sentence where the writer gets it right:

 It was dubbed dark matter because it does not emit light, but it is also mysterious: it is not composed of atoms or their usual constituents like electrons and protons.

Isn’t that better? Less pretentious.