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Not Wrong, but Not as Clear as Possible

There is a good reason the New York Times is considered one of the world’s top newspapers. With 122 Pulitzer Prizes, more than any other paper, and with the largest  combined print and online circulation (and with Donald Trump often calling it “failing New York Times”), it’s the paper to which all journalists should aspire. It’s historic (witness its landmark Supreme Court libel ruling New York Times v. Sullivan and its Pentagon Papers ruling New York Times Co. v. United States) and it’s credible.

I didn’t originally understand the following paragraph, written by Maureen Dowd and appearing in the Feb. 3, 2018 edition. It’s in a story about Uma Thurman talking about Harvey Weinstein.

“Pulp Fiction” made Weinstein rich and respected, and Thurman says he introduced her to President Barack Obama at a fund-raiser as the reason he had his house.

Huh? He had his house because he introduced her to a president? Wow. I didn’t know Obama was in the habit of giving out houses because of introductions.

OK. I know what the intent here is: “Pulp Fiction,” was so successful that it made Weinstein enough money to buy his house. But when I first read the paragraph, I took it to mean that the reason he got his house was because he introduced Thurman to Obama. Then I thought that Weinstein was crediting Thurman with Weinstein’s house, which is only indirectly true (the real credit should go to everybody who helped make the movie the success it was, starting with Quentin Tarantino).

The reality is one has to be really careful to make sure what’s written is exactly what is meant, and it’s not easy to do when you’re the writer.

Thanks to Richard C. for the idea.

Until next time! Use the right words!


February 6, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Call It What it Is: Propaganda

I don’t usually get political in this space, but when it comes to words, I’ll go there if something happens in the political arena.

Last week, President Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, blasted the assembled media for their “shameful and wrong” reporting that the crowd for Trump’s inauguration wasn’t the largest ever. This was in spite of photographic evidence that showed Barack Obama’s first inauguration was vastly more attended.

During a “Meet the Press” interview two days after the Trump inauguration, adviser Kellyanne Conway, when pressed during the interview with Chuck Todd to explain why Spicer “utter[ed] a provable falsehood,” Conway said, “Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. You’re saying it’s a falsehood, and they’re giving — Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.”

I say, call it what it is: propaganda, “ideas, facts or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause.”

Incidentally, Todd responded by saying “Alternative facts are not facts. They are falsehoods.”

I say, isn’t that partly what propaganda is?

It’s going to be a long four years.

Until next time! Use the right words!

January 26, 2017 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Simple Folk Speaking Simply … Wrong

Ah, networking people. They’re so simple. They don’t know how to use the language correctly. More examples follow.

“We’re under new management the past three years” — Actually, that’s a sign of bad management. Either that or someone doesn’t know the meaning of the word new.

The correct statement: “We’re under the same management for the past three years.”

“I was walking down the street and I could see the wind” — No, you couldn’t. You could only see the signs of the wind: the trees waving, your hair flowing, the leaves blowing, etc.

“I’m down the street” — No, you’re standing in this restaurant where the networking meeting is taking place.

“Whoever becomes president next month…” — Putting aside the incorrect whoever for the moment, I went through this last week: No one becomes president next month. Barack Obama will still be president for all of November. The new president, whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, takes over Jan. 20. Between Nov. 8 and Jan. 20, someone will be president-elect.

The correct statement: “Whomever is elected president next month …”

Until next time! Use the right words!

It’s here! My début book, “If You Experience Death, Please Call: And Other Fatal Mistakes We Make With Language” is available on Amazon for only $14.95.  Order here.

October 18, 2016 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment


I was reading Time magazine (again! How did I ever come up with post ideas without it?) and I saw the acronym SOTU. As this was an article about the President, I knew in context that it stood for State of the Union, as in the address Obama gave last week.

That got me thinking. When did these acronyms come into being? I only remember POTUS (President of the United States) going back to George W. Bush, and SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) about the time John Roberts became Chief Justice.

Leave it to the late, great William Safire. He famously wrote “On Language” in the New York Times Magazine from 1979 to September 2009, the month he died. I found online an “On Language” column from Oct. 12, 1997. In it, Safire explains that POTUS goes back to his time in the Richard Nixon White House, although former Motion Picture Academy President Jack Valenti remembers it from his time in the Lyndon Johnson White House.

Safire wrote that he next saw POTUS in a 1977 novel Full Disclosure. No wonder — he wrote the novel. FLOTUS, or First Lady of the United States, goes back to Mary Todd Lincoln, Safire said.

Bert Lance, Jimmy Carter’s former director of the Office of Management and Budget, told Safire he saw POTUS  as a Secret Service designation to indicate where Carter was at any given moment. Safire said it first appeared in print in 1983 — in the New York Times, to no one’s surprise — in an editorial that commented on  the escalation of acronyms:

”Is no Washington name exempt from shorthand? The Chief Magistrate responsible for executing the laws is sometimes called the Potus (President of the United States). The nine men who interpret them are often the Scotus. The people who enact them are still, for better or worse, Congress.”

Not COTUS, at least not yet.

Until next time! Use the right words!

February 7, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Truth About “Obamacare”

At the risk of getting political, I’m writing about  health-care law.

At a recent networking meeting, a member in the insurance business said something that amazed me: Ask people about “Obamacare” and they say negative things about it. But ask people about the Affordable Care Act and they’re much more positive.

There’s just one problem: They are the same.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (commonly known as the Affordable Care Act) is the federal statute that President Obama championed and signed into law in 2010. Originally, those who opposed it derisively called it “Obamacare.”

Who that first person was is not clear: Some believe it was Mitt Romney back in 2007, but I’ve also seen Hillary Clinton’s election campaign given credit as well as lobbyist Jeanne Schulte Scott writing in the trade journal Healthcare Financial Management’s March 2007 issue:

The many would-be candidates for president in 2008 are falling over themselves offering their own proposals. We will soon see a “Giuliani-care” and “Obama-care” to go along with “McCain-care,” “Edwards-care,” and a totally revamped and remodeled “Hillary-care” from the 1990s.

Unfortunately, the derogatory moniker stuck. I say unfortunate because it’s correct to call it by its name, not its nickname — and because it’s a nickname is why I put “Obamacare” into quotation marks each time.

So, whether you like the law or not, call it by its name.

Until next time! Use the right words!


November 6, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Did Obama Really Say That?

As I listened to the news on the radio last week, the local CBS station promoted that weekend’s “60 Minutes” in which President Obama and outgoing Secretary of State Clinton sat down together for an interview. The station played a clip, and I thought I heard the president say,  “I think that Hillary will go down as one of the finest Secretary of States we’ve had.”

Wait a minute, I thought, did I really hear that correctly?

The day the segment aired, I heard the same promo. Again, the president said,  “I think that Hillary will go down as one of the finest Secretary of States we’ve had.”

The next day, I found the clip online, and once again the president said,  “I think that Hillary will go down as one of the finest Secretary of States we’ve had.”

Wikipedia also has made this mistake. I can understand that, but Obama? I couldn’t believe it, and still don’t. Here we have an incredibly bright, thoughtful and articulate man making a common mistake: Secretary of States.

The correct term is Secretaries of State.

It appeared that Obama forgot that you pluralize the subject. Just like with passers-by.

Clearly, the president thought of “Secretary of State” as one complete entity. But there are so many other secretaries in his cabinet (Defense, Interior, Treasury, Agriculture, Energy, Justice, Commerce, Labor, Transportation, Education, etc.). Also, of  is a preposition or adverb, and those parts of speech are not sentence subjects.

Obviously, there needs to be an additional cabinet position: Secretary of Using the Right Words.

Until next time! Use the right words!


January 28, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Did I Just Take a “Trip,” “Vacation” or “Holiday?”

I’m back from Las Vegas — poorer but more relaxed. So, how would I describe my jaunt to the light pollution capital of the world?

It obviously was a trip. One of that word’s many definitions is “to make a journey.”

But was it also a vacation? And what about the oh-so-British holiday?

As always, I checked the dictionary. The fourth definition of vacation read, “a period spent away from home or business in travel or recreation.” But my dictionary did not list vacation and trip as synonyms. It wasn’t until deep in the second page of — the 15th entry — that I found trip as a synonym for vacation. I never did find vacation listed as a synonym for trip after 50 entries. So, I’m not sure saying I took a vacation is correct.

My stepsister lives in England, so when she comes to visit, she’s on holiday. Out of curiosity, I checked my American dictionary and found as the third definition “chiefly Brit. a period of relaxation; vacation.”

So, if any non-Brit says to me, “I’m on holiday,” I’ll understand. I’ll be confused by the lack of appropriate accent, but I’ll know you mean you’re on vacation.

Until next time! Use the right words!

December 27, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Hearing Problems Continue — Automotive Cliché Edition

I have difficulty hearing things clearly, as I’ve demonstrated in recent posts. Song lyrics are particularly difficult for me to understand; others have different areas.

Recently, I was talking about what I can’t hear straight, and the person I spoke to responded by saying she thought that when someone gets really angry, they blow a casket.

I find it amazing that people (myself included) don’t stop and consider whether the words we hear make sense. Blowing a casket makes no sense; unless you’ve discovered a new form of cremation, you should know how nonsensical it sounds.

The correct phrase is blow a gasket, referring to that part of the car that, if the gasket blows, fluids spill all over. For further explanation, click here.

However, unless you’re using this in an automotive sense, the phrase is a cliché and should be avoided … wait for it … like the plague.

Until next time! Use the right words!


December 11, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

For the Gun Lovers Out There

I don’t own a gun. I find guns dangerous yet I also believe that guns don’t kill people; people kill people. With guns, some of which are used only for killing (come on, you really think an AK-47, Sturmgewehr 44 or Uzi is for hunting?).

But I digress.

Today I was editing a book and came across this sentence: “Henceforth, you will remain in the cross hairs of an enraged Administration.”

Taken out of context, it can mean Obama’s coming to get you. And your guns. Word snobs like me will spot the cliché immediately. But I was struck by the words cross hairs. I always have been under the impression that the fine wires or threads in gun’s eyepiece or some other optical instrument was one word.

I looked it up. Two words.

How do you like that? My stereotypical image of Bubba “huntin’ me some ‘coon” or of Dick Cheney shooting at his friend has been destroyed. Gun owners know how to spell cross hairs, yet the guy who came in seventh in his sixth-grade Spelling Bee (and only because I heard the word wrong — I spelled acknowledge correctly) does not.

So raise your guns and salute. The Second Amendment lives!

Until next time! Use the right words!


October 18, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Important Terms for a Not-So-Super Tuesday

Tomorrow is Super Tuesday, a day in which a large number of states hold their presidential primaries or caucuses. I say “not-so-super” because only 10 states and 410 delegates are at stake for the Republicans. Contrast that with 2008, when 23 states and 1,681 delegates were evenly distributed between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Words such as majority and plurality get thrown around elections. A majority is easy: It’s one more than half of an amount. Most of the time, Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum have not received a majority of votes cast because they aren’t getting 50 percent of the vote plus one.

What they’re getting, and probably will continue to get, is a plurality. People sometimes say majority when they mean plurality. A plurality is a bit more confusing. It’s more than the next highest number but less than a majority. Pluralities usually require at least three of something because with two, you can get a majority.

Watch the returns tomorrow and see if Romney gets between 40 and 49 percent of the vote, as might Santorum. Take the difference, and that’s the plurality.

Here’s another way to look at it. If Candidate A gets 53 million votes and Candidate B gets 47 million votes, Candidate A has a plurality of six million votes.

Remember that the next time someone wins with less than 50 percent of the vote.

Until next time! Use the right words!

March 5, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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