November 10, 2009

Twitter Translated

Although The Awkward Adverb doesn't have a Twitter account, we haven't missed the buzz about the social networking platform. We recently happened upon a blog posting that gives advice about how to use Twitter strategically. Among the writer's recommendations, she posts several sample Twitter messages. Here's one:
RT @kellyecrane Great idea: PR consultants, let's use the #soloprpro hashtag to share information!
To the uninitiated, this looks like a bunch of gibberish. After doing a bit of research, we will attempt to translate:

  • The "RT" means it's a retweet, or reposting of someone else's Twitter message.
  • The @kellyecrane gives credit to the person who first posted this tweet and sends her an alert about the retweet. She apparently is a public relations professional.
  • The # character is called a hash mark, maybe because it kind of looks like a plate of hash browns?
  • Words prefixed with the # create "hashtags," or keywords that help Twitter users find related tweets.
  • The is a stand-in link that's shorter than the true web address, but it will take you to the same page. The author uses it to stay within Twitter's 140 character limit.

Twitter has been embraced by millions of users, but its growth is reported to be slowing. One barrier to greater adoption might be that this odd, new language intimidates and confuses potential users.

October 7, 2009

This Sentence Ends With

When an editor mangled Winston Churchill's text to adhere to the well-known rule, Never end a sentence with a preposition, Churchill supposedly scrawled on the proof, "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put."

Even if this anecdote isn't true (and several variations on Churchill's purported reply are floating around), the comment illustrates how the rule can be silly. English speakers end sentences with prepositions all the time, and it's often odd to do otherwise. You might ask someone, "Who did you give it to?" (or if you're a stickler, "Whom did you give it to?"), but you would never, ever say, "To whom did you give it?" unless you wanted someone to make fun of you.

Still, The Awkward Adverb believes that following the rule, when possible, lends elegance and clarity to formal writing. And Churchill wasn't being entirely fair. The motivation behind the grammatical principle is to keep prepositional phrases intact, and Churchill's sentence doesn't even include a prepositional phrase. "Put up with" is a verbal unit that means the same as "tolerate."

So he could have scrawled, "This is the sort of English that I will not tolerate." This response isn't as intentionally awkward, but it's also less funny.

September 8, 2009

Healthcare Hot Air

As the United States battles over healthcare reform, all insured citizens can certainly agree on one point: They have no have idea what their policies say.

Here is an excerpt from an actual policy:

"The plan covering the patient as a dependent child of a person whose date of birth occurs earlier in the calendar year shall be primary over the plan covering the patient as a dependent of a person whose date of birth occurs later in the calendar year provided."

If the policy were written for a reader to understand, the passage might read:

"What happens if my spouse and I both have health coverage for our child?

"If your child is covered under more than one insurance policy, the policy of the adult whose birthday is earlier in the year pays the claim first. For example: Your birthday is in March; your spouse's birthday is in May. March comes earlier in the year than May, so your policy will pay for your child's claim first."

Much better. The rewrite, taken from
a New York Times piece by a lawyer who works in a state health insurance department in Rhode Island, has shorter sentences, simpler vocabulary, and a clear example.

This health insurance commissioner's office frequently receives calls from citizens who do not understand why coverage is denied. When the state office follows up with insurers, the companies
often don't understand their own policies. Clear writing would benefit everyone involved.

August 11, 2009

Mean Dregs and Spam

A nonessential but always present aspect of spam is its usage mistakes. Spammers do occasionally include intentional misspellings in order to skirt around e-mail filters that flag certain keywords, but most of the mistakes spammers make are not strategic, and this explanation cannot excuse the atrocious grammar. Mostly, spam is horribly written because it comes from lowlifes and swindlers operating in the dregs of capitalism.

Here's an excerpt from a so-called Nigerian scammer:

I am the personal attorney / sole executor to the WILL of my late client ? I have a message for you please return my mail for details.Your Respond should be sent to my Private e-mail.

These few lines contain countless mistakes that aren't even worthwhile pointing out. When has clearly written, error-free spam message ever shown up in anyone's inbox? For all spam, the poor quality of the writing reflects the intent behind the senders' schemes and ethics.

July 8, 2009

A Whole Nother Nother

"It's a whole nother thing." The sentence rolls off the tongue easily, and it's commonly heard in English along with variants such as "a whole nother level" or "a whole nother ball of wax."

Despite the ubiquity of these expressions, "nother" isn't really a word. The speaker is splitting up "another" by dropping "whole" in the middle of it.

What would be more correct? Standard English offers some alternatives to "a whole nother thing""a whole other thing" or perhaps "an entirely different thing"—but these don't really cut it. The first comes off as stiff and awkward, and the second is, well, an entirely different thing. So although "nother" may not be suitable for business or academia, English speakers' natural feel for their language's texture gives "a whole nother thing" a certain degree of legitimacy.

"Nother" has even made it into dictionaries as a misdivision of "another," and the expression has been around at least since the country's bell-bottomed days. It appears on 1970s funk albums. When young Luke Skywalker was stuck on a remote, desert farm in Star Wars and his uncle delayed his plans, he complained, "But that's a whole nother year!"

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June 4, 2009

Get Back Inside the Box

Whenever people claim to "think outside the box," they're obviously thinking inside the box. The phrase refers to original thinking, but it has become a cliché, and clichés by their very nature represent the opposite of original thinking.

Most likely, the phrase came from this little brain teaser:

Take a square grid of nine dots. Try to connect all dots using only four lines, and do not remove the (imaginary) pen as you draw your lines.

One's natural instinct is to keep the four lines within the grid. But the puzzle can't be solved in this way. The only solution is to extend the lines outside the box.

Cool trick, right? The puzzle shows how the mind imposes artificial limitations on solutions to problems. This lesson resonated in the business world, and "thinking outside box" caught on as a corporate catchphrase. It eventually careened out of control to where it became irritating, simplistic, and unexamined. In fact, it has been argued that companies like AIG and Countrywide abandoned their tried-and-true business processes and collapsed from too much outside-of-the-box thinking.

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May 5, 2009

Exclamation Explanation

OK, we'll watch our step on this wet floor, but please, lay off the exclamation points.

The overuse of exclamation points is nothing new. This punctuation mark certainly has its place in written English, but it proves most effective when used sparingly. Add too much excitement or emphasis with exclamation points, and eventually nothing is exciting or emphasized. Or as F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, "An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke."

Now that computers with a repeat-key function are commonplace, exclamation-point overuse is running rampant. This problem shows up particularly on blogs, sloppy websites, and comments sections (and wet floor signs). People must say to themselves, Why use one exclamation point when I can use three? Why use three when I can have nine? Why not send a battalion of exclamation points marching across the screen to proclaim the importance of my thoughts?

Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. Too many exclamation points dizzies the eye and weakens the words.

April 7, 2009

Got People?

As confusing tax forms flutter about The Awkward Adverb's office, our eyes glaze over and our minds wander over to H&R Block's cloying slogan, "You got people."

I got people? Who talks that way? Tom Hanks' and Meg Ryan's computers told them "You've got mail," not "You got mail." We suppose the tagline is meant to sound casual, but it comes off as odd and forced, like a dorky dad mangling his teenage daughter's slang. It also raises unanswerable questions such as, Where did I get all these people? And when will they stop sleeping on my couch? Most importantly, it makes consumers wonder why they should trust their taxes to a company that, in its defining statement, shows a disregard for professionalism and accepted standards.

Although H&R Block hasn't entirely abandoned the tagline, which was introduced in 2007, it seems to have become embarrassed by it. Surf through the company's website, and the sentence is hard to find. When announcers do slip the phrase into broadcast commercials, they say, as any native English speaker naturally would, "You've got people."

March 9, 2009

Literally Literal

The common misuse of the word "literally" is a pet peeve of The Awkward Adverb (shared by many other people). The word is a useful tool to clarify that a potentially metaphorical phrase is indeed not metaphorical. Consider for example, "I was riding my bicycle through the park when I was yelled at by some clown, literally." Here,"literally" stresses that the yeller was not some generic loudmouth but a person adorned with white greasepaint, a pink wig, polka dots, and comically oversized shoes. Or if someone announces he is "starving to death, literally," that person should be provided medical attention, not a slice of pizza.

All too often, however, people use "literally" as an intensifier, which leads to some disarming imagery. During a February stimulus debate, one Republican representative proclaimed, "We're literally flying blind." We assume he then rushed to the Congressional microphone and made an urgent call for a sighted pilot. And Vice President Biden recently announced, "This is a monumental project, but it's doable. It's about getting the money out in 18 months, to literally dropkick us out of this recession." In actuality, a project involving the dropkicking of 300 million Americans would be beyond monumental, not to mention quite painful.

February 4, 2009

Presidentially Speaking

Awkward adverbs became a hot topic on Inauguration Day when Chief Justice Roberts and President Obama stumbled over the presidential oath. Not that we're pointing fingers at either party (The Awkward Adverb is nonpartisan), but according to the Constitution, what the president should have said was:

I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States...

What he was told to say was:

I do solemnly swear that I will execute the office of President of the United States faithfully...

From a grammatical standpoint, does it matter where the adverb falls in the sentence? Both versions are acceptable, but good style calls for placing an adverb close to the verb it modifies. Therefore, the Founding Fathers did well by sticking "faithfully" next to "execute" instead of far away at the end of the phrase.

Some sticklers, however, believe that verbs should never be split. They disapprove of how "faithfully" elbows its way between "will" and "execute," just as they shudder when Captain Kirk proclaims his intention to boldly go where no man has gone before. (He should prefer to go boldly into deep space.) Even though there’s no compelling reason to always insist on united verbs, schoolmarms used to slap wrists for perceived transgressions like split infinitives. At least one linguist believes that internalized habits stemming from this misguided rule were what caused the flub at the swearing-in ceremony.

January 9, 2009

Trumped-Up Titles

Some consumers avoid national chains because they feel that locally owned, independent stores are more authentic and sincere. But how are national chains insincere? As one example, consider the inflated job titles of their employees.

The clerks at Wal-Mart are "associates." Verizon Wireless has knighted its workers as "retail customer support representatives." Meanwhile, does the ubiquitous term "team member" actually foster unity among fast-food workers or big-box cashiers? No, it never seems to.

At The Awkward Adverb, we roll our eyes at the so-called "geniuses" who work at Apple Stores and at Subway's "sandwich artists." Although familiarity with Macs requires some smarts, it does not elevate anyone to Einstein's level. And the spreading of shredded lettuce over paper-thin tomato slices does not a Van Gogh make.

Why do big retailers wrap up employees in euphemisms? Perhaps company officials are trying to make workers feel better about humdrum jobs. Perhaps it's to please themselves, considering that these convoluted titles are always imposed from above. But if fancy titles are meant to impress the public, do not color us impressed. The Awkward Adverb prefers language that doesn't dress up the ordinary in pretension.