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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


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

Is Everything “All Right” or “Alright?”

I pulled out my Tom Petty CD Full Moon Fever and enjoyed listening to it again. Then I saw one of the titles: “Alright For Now.”

That got me thinking. Is that correct?

Free had a hit in 1970 with “All Right Now.” Is that correct?

When we talk or sing, there’s no way to know if we’re saying or singing all right or alright (unless we or the musician spell it out). So when we write, which is correct?

The answer is both, although all right is more correct and more formal.

According to my dictionary, the two words evolved from the Old English ealriht. Variations in writing and speaking over time have given us not just these two but also all ready/already and all together/altogether. Since the 19th century, some have believed that alright is all wrong, but writers such as Gertrude Stein (“the first two years of medical school were alright“) and the New York Times have used it, and it remains common today.

So, enjoy the uses, whether you prefer Petty or Free.

Until next time! Use the right words!

July 10, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

So That’s Why I Didn’t Recognize That Word

My newspaper’s daily crossword puzzle starts the week ridiculously easy and gradually increases in difficulty as the week progresses. So, Mondays are a breeze.

But in today’s puzzle, I found this clue: “Wee bit.” Five letters.

I didn’t know the answer, but by figuring out the other words around it, I found the answer: skosh.

I had never heard of that word, so I checked my dictionary. It wasn’t there.

I checked and found it.  Its origin is Japanese: sukoshi, meaning “a little (bit).”

Here’s why I didn’t know it: It’s slang.

The accompanying sentence showed me why it’s unnecessary: Move down a skosh so I can sit down.

Why use skosh when bit works just fine? And this usage of bit goes back to before the 12th century.

There is no reason to invent a slang word when three is a perfectly good non-slang word.

Even in a crossword puzzle.

Until next time! Use the right words!

June 17, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Where Does the Ball Drop in New York?

Since 1908, people have gathered in New York on New Year’s Eve to watch the ball drop and usher in the new year.

The ball drops down a flagpole atop the same building in that same famous location: Times Square, that major intersection of Broadway between 42nd and 47th streets.

Not Time’s Square and not Time Square.

I didn’t know this as a child. Growing up, my family watched the ball drop (three hours later on the West Coast) and Dick Clark say “Happy New Year” from what sounded like Time Square (go ahead and say it; that’s the way it sounds). And since I knew of a Time magazine, I never thought differently.

Until one trip to New York City in the early 1990s. I had heard there was a discount ticket booth, and I wanted to buy tickets for “Death and the Maiden,” starring Glenn Close, Richard Dreyfus and Gene Hackman (that was the entire cast). So I asked my friend where it was and he said “Time Square.”

I asked why it was called that and was told it’s for the New York Times, hence Times Square. But even then, the Times wasn’t in the square. It was around the corner at 229 West 43rd Street. Since 2007, the Grand Old Lady has been on Eighth Avenue between 40th and 41st streets.

I wonder why it  isn’t time to revert to its original name, Longacre Square. Bad timing?

Until next time! Use the right words!


April 11, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

We “Shall” Use “Will” Correctly

Although the word shall remains in the dictionary and has more than eight definitions, we almost never use the word. We use will instead.

Is that correct? Well, my dictionary has a note on the matter. To paraphrase, the rules for using shall vs. will have not been followed, especially not in the United States. It is more often followed in Great Britain, though not always, either.

So, here are the basic rules: The verb shall expresses determination (We shall overcome), command (You shall love the Lord…) or inevitability (We shall see). The verb will expresses, desire (Call it what you will), natural tendency (He will tend to get angry over nothing) and capability (The car will seat up to five). But over time, it also has come to refer to determination (I have decided to go and go I will) and inevitability (You will do as I say).

Will also can be a noun with many meanings, including desire that’s either singular (When there’s a will, there’s a way) or collective (the will of the people). It also refers to a last testament, i.e., written instructions that dispose of a deceased person’s estate. But I’m more interested in the verb.

Long story short, use shall for determination but be prepared for people to think you sound pretentious and haughty. Use will for everything else.

Until next time! Use the right words!

July 26, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments


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