November 28, 2022

Is 'cringe' an adjective?

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“I hated that movie. The love scene was so cringe.”

Suddenly, this use of “cringe” seems to be everywhere. And some quasi-scientific evidence shows it’s on the rise.

According to Google’s Ngram Viewer, which lets you search for words and terms in a database of published sources then charts the words’ use over time, “cringe” appeared in about 0.000013% of published works in the mid-1970s. By 2017, “cringe” was showing up in about 0.0001% of published writing in the database — a nearly eightfold increase.

These numbers tell us only that “cringe” is being used more often, not how it’s being used. So from these numbers alone, we can’t tell whether this uptick comes from people using “cringe” in the traditional way, as a verb, for example describing characters in horror novels who “cringe” in fear. But if we tweak our search term we can learn more.

In the phrase “so cringe,” it’s likely that “cringe” is being used not as a verb but as an adjective. We know this because “so” is an intensifier of adjectives: so nice, so true, so small, so bright.

I searched Ngram Viewer for “so cringe.” No surprise: The phrase is extremely rare in published writing, appearing in just 0.00000007% of published works in the database in 2017. But compared to 50 years ago, that’s a landslide. In the mid-1970s, “so cringe” showed up in 0% of the publications in the database. It didn’t exist.

That’s Exhibit A that the verb “cringe” is being adopted as an adjective.

Exhibit B: the emergence of the term “cringe comedy” to describe shows like “The Office” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” that make viewers laugh by making them squirm. Wikipedia even has an entry for “cringe comedy.” I don’t recall people using that language to describe the awkward hilarity in “The Bob Newhart Show” or “All in the Family.”

Exhibit C (and this is the real hallmark of a language shift): the backlash. Whenever a new English usage gains popularity, people push back, as evidenced by this February 2022 post on Reddit.

“Cringe is a VERB,” an anonymous user insisted. “It’s something you DO: ‘I cringe at the thought’; ‘I am cringing just thinking about it’; ‘he cringed so much he imploded.’… Cringe is NOT an adjective, so saying ‘that is so cringe’ or ‘that’s the most cringe thing ever’ is objectively incorrect. … It’s like pointing at something funny and saying, ‘That is so laugh!’ What people mean when they use ‘cringe’ as an adjective is ‘cringe-worthy’ or ‘cringe-inducing.’”

Was anonymous right? Yes and no. "Cringe" is gaining acceptance as an adjective, so you can use it if you don't mind making others cringe. Here, in my recent column, I explain why.

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November 21, 2022

Got language questions? Your dictionary probably has the answers


In the late 1990s, a friend told me she had used the word “exponentially” in a debate with her brother-in-law.

“That’s not a word!” her brother-in-law insisted.

“Of course it is,” my friend replied.

“No, it’s not! And I’ll prove it!”

The brother-in-law then stormed out of the house and into the frontyard of the next-door neighbor, who was working on his lawn, and demanded, “Is ‘exponentially’ a word?”

This would have been perfectly reasonable if it happened in the early 1800s and the neighbor’s mailbox said “N. Webster.” But near the turn of the millennium, when nearly every house in the country contained a dictionary, this ask-a-random-person fact-check strategy was telling. And the unfortunate reality it revealed is still true in the age of Google: Most people don’t know the value of a dictionary.

Dictionaries have a lot more to offer than just word definitions. They also show you different forms of a word, like the adverb form in this entry from Webster’s New World College Dictionary: “exponential … 2. of or increasing by extraordinary proportions — exponentially, adv.”

Dictionaries also tell you how to form tricky plurals, pronounce a word, use an idiom correctly and whether a noun can be used as a verb. Here, in my recent column, are just a few examples of the great stuff you can find in a dictionary.

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November 14, 2022

When comma rules collide

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Which of the following sentences is punctuated correctly?

Look for fresh basil at your local grocery store, and, if it isn’t available, tell the staff to stock up.
Look for fresh basil at your local grocery store and, if it isn’t available, tell the staff to stock up.
Look for fresh basil at your local grocery store and if it isn’t available, tell the staff to stock up.

The answer is more complicated than meets the eye because it involves two different punctuation rules.
The first rule at play is summed up well in the Associated Press Stylebook: “When a conjunction such as ‘and,’ ‘but’ or ‘for’ links two clauses that could stand alone as separate sentences, use a comma before the conjunction in most cases.”

Our sentence has two clauses that could stand alone as separate sentences: “Look for fresh basil at your local grocery store” and “if it isn’t available, tell the staff to stock up.” The clauses are connected with “and,” so according to this AP style rule, we should have a comma after “grocery store.”

The second rule at play says that introductory phrases and clauses should be set off with commas. The second part of our example sentence, “if it isn’t available,” qualifies as an introductory clause because it sets up another clause to come. So according to this rule, we should have a comma after “and,” which marks the beginning of the introductory part, and another after “available,” which is the last word in the introductory phrase.

So if you take a strict interpretation of both these rules, you’d choose our first option because it has a comma before “and,” another comma after “and” and a third after “available.”
So option 1 is correct, but it’s also ugly. The three commas are just too much in my view. Luckily, comma rules leave room for personal taste.

Here’s the full story in my recent column.

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November 7, 2022

Lineup, line up, line-up


Here’s a word that separates the careful writers from everyone else: lineup. You know you’re reading something that’s not edited by a pro when you see: “On Saturday night, the club will have a great line-up.”

Just as telling: “On Saturday night, the club will have a great line up.”

And this mistake you don’ see as often, luckily: “The patrons had to lineup in front of the building to get in.”

That last one is a particular danger to anyone who doesn’t know to be skeptical of spell check. Most spell-check programs don’t question the one-word lineup because it is, in fact, a legit word. Yet it’s still wrong in that sentence. Here’s why.

The one-word lineup is a noun: We have a great lineup of performers today. The coach something-something’d the starting lineup. (I don’t speak sports. But you get the idea.)

The verb form is two words: Line up the planters against the wall. The children should line up outside the building at 8 a.m.

There’s no need to ever hyphenate it. Though, technically, according to the rules of punctuation, you could turn the two-word form into an adjective by writing "The line-up procedure is as follows." But that’s rare, and most people would probably just use the noun attributively (as an adjective) there anyway: The lineup procedure is as follows.

To write like a pro, use the one word lineup when you need a noun, use the two word line up when it's a verb, and never hyphenate it.

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November 1, 2022

'Here's' or 'here are'?


Like “there’s,” the contraction “here’s” gets used a lot in front of plurals, especially when some modifier like “a few other” or “some” comes before the noun.

Here’s some things you should know.

Here’s all the ways you can look at this problem.

I don’t remember who taught me so or when, but somewhere I picked up the clear message that, when the stuff that follows is plural, you should use “here are” instead of “here is” or its contracted form “here’s.” As in:

Here are some things you should know.

Here are all the ways you can look at this problem.

These structures put the subject after the verb. “Here are my cousins” is an inverted way of saying “My cousins are here.” But either way, the true subject of the verb is “cousins.” And because “cousins” is plural, logic dictates that it should take a plural verb like “are” instead of a singular verb like “is.”

Actually, there’s no prohibition against using “here’s” before a plural. As with “there’s,” you could make the case that putting “here’s” before a plural is standard in common speech —idiomatic. So I’m not critical of people who make that choice unless they happen to be members of the media writing for publication. News organizations strive to avoid sloppy, informal, ungrammatical forms. So if you want to do the same, avoid “here’s” before a plural.

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October 24, 2022

Yes, 'headquarter' is a verb

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When I was a young editor, I was taught that “headquarter” isn’t a verb — that the word exists only in the plural and only as a noun. So a company can have its headquarters in New York, but it can’t be headquartered in New York.

I didn’t bother to look it up. Why would I? Right or wrong, my boss had the authority to tell me how to do my job, so I just changed every instance of “headquartered in” to “with headquarters in” without question.

If I had looked it up, I would have probably gone straight to the Associated Press Stylebook, the manual for my editing job at the time, and I would have seen my boss’s instructions affirmed. “Do not use ‘headquarter’ as a verb,” AP instructed at the time.

But if I would have checked a dictionary, I would have discovered a disconnect between AP and the real world. Reference guides at the time, for example Webster’s New World College Dictionary, had long recognized “headquarter” as a verb.

Style guides and dictionaries have different jobs. Unlike dictionaries that simply report how people are using the language, style guides tell editors what to do, helping ensure consistency and readability. When readers think a word is wrong or just poor usage, it can get in the way of the message. So style guides sometimes prohibit controversial language. And the use of “headquarter” as a verb was indeed controversial.

Unlike the noun “headquarters,” which dates back to the mid-1600s in the meaning of the residence, or quarters, of a military commander, the verb “headquarter” didn’t show up in print till 1903. It took another 50 or so years to become common and another 15 or 20 years to capture the attention of the panel of experts at the American Heritage Dictionary. They didn’t like it, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. The American Heritage panel voted in 1969 to reject the verb in formal English. They continued to reaffirm their distaste for the verb into the 1980s.

By 1985, the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, as cited in Merriam’s, warned that the verb “can still cause careful users of the language to shudder.”

“While we do not doubt the truth of that observation,” Merriam’s editors write, “we suspect that there are also many careful users of the language who wonder, as we do, what the shuddering is about.” Here's more on "headquartered" in my recent column.

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October 17, 2022

'I got to go'?


“My wife and I cringe at the use of … ‘got’ in daily language: ‘I’m late. I got to go!’ Don’t I have to go?” Grant in Orange County, asked in an email. “Is there a separate usage for ‘have’ and ‘got’? I’m so confused.”

When a reader tells me something makes them cringe, I cringe. The reason: Their peeves usually put me in the awkward position of having to tell them they’re wrong. If a word or phrase is so common that you’ve developed a conditioned response to it, that means that it’s probably standard usage — and therefore acceptable.

Not so with “I got to go.” I scoured my reference books to find a justification for this phrasing and came up empty-handed. None of my usage guides say it’s OK. And according to dictionaries, “got” — the past tense of “get” — doesn’t mean “must” or “have to.” So “I got to go” isn’t a dictionary-sanctioned way of saying “I have to go” or “I must go.”

The best excuse I can find for this use of “got” comes from me personally: When people say, “I got to go,” I assume they’re saying “I’ve” instead of “I” and just glossing over the “ve.” That would be fine because “I’ve got to go,” a contracted form of “I have got to go,” uses “have got” as an idiom meaning “have,” according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and it’s “used in present tense situations usually in informal writing and in ordinary speech.”

“Idiom” is the key word here. It means that a construction that’s not grammatical is still OK because it’s standard. But when you want your English to be better than just OK, you should eschew “I have got” and stick with the simpler and 100% grammatical “I have.”

But “I got” isn’t always wrong. When you mean the verb “get” in the past tense, “I got” is correct. I got promoted. I got a raise. I got a parking ticket. It’s only wrong(ish) in cases where you’re using “got” like an auxiliary verb — especially to introduce an infinitive verb like “to go.” Here's the full story in my recent column.

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October 10, 2022

'Averse' and 'adverse'


“I’m not adverse to a little risk,” I said recently in a conversation about personal finance. Then I quickly revised my wording. “Averse. I’m not averse to a little risk.”

For all my years of studying English grammar and usage, I’ve never been comfortable with the difference between “averse” and “adverse.” My solution: I usually try to avoid both words altogether. Once in a while I’ll use “adverse,” only to realize I probably used it wrong, causing me to swiftly backtrack, then double down on my policy of never using either word.

My bad relationship with these words began early in my editing career when a 1965 book called “The Careful Writer” by Theodore M. Bernstein messed with my head: “‘Adverse’ means opposed, antagonistic, hostile. It is incorrectly used in the following sentence: ‘He reads the morning papers and is not adverse to reading about himself.’ In this example of litotes there is no intention of conveying an idea of hostility; the intention is rather to suggest disinclination. ‘Averse,’ therefore, would be the word to use because it means disinclined, reluctant, loath.”

I find that example confusing. As Bernstein himself said, “adverse” can mean “opposed.” So it seems reasonable to say, “He’s not opposed to reading about himself.” After all, a person who strives to be humble or who finds self-centeredness unseemly might oppose reading about himself. Anyone who’s googled their own name knows there’s something a little creepy about reading about oneself. So it’s not unreasonable to point out that, while some folks might be opposed to this kind of navel-gazing, this guy is fine with it.

Bernstein isn’t the only author whose advice on “adverse” and “averse” has let me down. Here’s Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage: “When used of people, ‘adverse’ and ‘averse’ are essentially synonymous, but ‘adverse’ chiefly refers to opinion or intention, ‘averse’ to feeling or inclination. Or, as it was put in the Literary Digest of 10 Feb. 1934, ‘We are adverse to that which we disapprove, but averse to that which we dislike.’”

So when you’re talking about people, the two words are synonymous except that they’re a little different? See why I get confused?

Luckily, in the real world, it’s a little easier than that because “adverse” often describes things and “averse” almost always applies to people. After all, an inanimate object can’t be averse to anything because “averse” is a feeling and only living creatures have feelings. Plus, “averse” often pairs with the preposition “to,” as in “I’m averse to risk.” Less commonly, it can also take “from”: “I’m averse from risk.”

Also, while some definitions of “adverse” are similar to those of “averse,” the former also has a unique definition: harmful, unfavorable or opposed to one’s interests.

In this sense, “adverse” often comes right before the word it modifies: Your policies can have an adverse impact, your medication can cause an adverse reaction, and when you go to the beach you want to avoid adverse weather conditions.

Yes, when it means “opposed,” “adverse” can pair up with “to” and describe people, but that’s less common than cases in which it means “harmful” and comes right before a noun.

If you’re looking for an easy guideline, consider this advice from Garner’s Modern American Usage: “To be adverse to something is to be turned in opposition against it — Thailand was adverse to Japan during most of World War II. The phrase usually refers to things, not people. To be ‘averse’ to something is to have feelings against it — averse to risk. The phrase usually describes a person’s attitude. Both words may take the preposition ‘to,’ but ‘averse’ also takes ‘from.’”

Good advice for the brave. But I’ll probably keep sidestepping both words altogether.

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October 3, 2022

Homonym, homograph or homophone?


On an old episode of 30 Rock, disgruntled television executive Jack Donaghy tries to sabotage his network by greenlighting a slate of awful shows. Along with programming like Mandela starring Joe Rogan and a full hour of Gary Sinise’s band, one of the worst is called Homonym! It’s a game show that works like this: The host reads aloud a word to a contestant, just a word, and the contestant has to guess which meaning of the word is intended without any context.

Host: “Okay, your next word is meat.”

Contestant: “Um, when two people run into each other.”

Host: “Sorry. It’s the other one. Your next word is stare.”

Contestant: “Uh, okay, the things you climb —“

Host: “No. It’s the other one.”

Contestant: “It’s always the other one! Let me see the card!”

Host: “No! Never! Next word: sent.”

Contestant: “I don’t care. Cent like a penny.”

Host: “No. Sorry. No.”

Lights begin to flash.

Host: “It’s a Homonym! double-down. That means you get to guess again: sent.”

Contestant (brightening): “Okay, um, scent like a smell or an odor.”

Host: “No, it’s the third one.”

Contestant: “Go **** yourself.”

It was brilliant writing, with just one problem. Those aren’t homonyms. They’re homophones.

The Oxford English Grammar says that homonyms are "distinct words that happen to have the same form." Examples include the bank where you put money as opposed to the bank of a river. The bird called a duck is a homonym of the act of moving your head out of harm's way really fast: to duck. So homonym means, basically, "same name."

Words that are spelled differently but pronounced the same are "homophones." Ate as in he ate some cake and eight as in the number before nine are homophones. So are peak and pique, hair and hare, and cue and queue. In other words, homophones, as the “phone” part suggests, are all about sound. So meat/meet, stare/stair, and cent/scent/sent are homophones, not homonyms.

So what about words like dove in “A dove flew by” and dove in “He dove into the pool”? Words that are visually (graphically, if you will) the same but pronounced differently? Those are homographs, according to Oxford. Some more examples: the verb lead and the metal leaddoes the present singular of do, versus does, the plural of the female deer doesow, as in putting seeds in the ground, versus, sow, a female pig.

So homonyms are named the same. Homophones sound the same. Homographs look the same.

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September 26, 2022

'This is she' or 'this is her'?

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The phone rings. You answer. “May I speak with Ms. XYZ?” the caller asks. You’re Ms. XYZ. How do you reply? A reader in Orange County isn’t sure.

“Many will respond with ‘This is she.’ I usually reply, ‘That is me.’ Are either of these correct? Should I instead just say, ‘I am Ms. XYZ’?”

Before I answer, let’s be clear about something: This is an academic exercise. You can reply “This is she,” “This is her,” “That is me,” “I gave at the office” or “’Sup, homie?” It’s up to you. Formal, proper grammar is optional — especially when you’re dealing with someone who just interrupted your dinner to try to sell you a home warranty. But that’s what my Orange County reader wanted to know: From a standpoint of proper, formal grammar, which reply is best?

If you apply the grammar lessons you got at school, you’d likely get the wrong answer. We’re taught that subject pronouns like “she” do the action in the verb: She gave at the office. And we’re taught that object pronouns like “her” receive the action of the verb: The donation was given to her. That could lead you to think that “This is me” would be the correct way to answer your caller, since the sentence already has a subject, “this,” leaving the second pronoun in what looks like an object position.

So you’d conclude that the answer is “This is me.” And you’d be left wondering why that’s so out of sync with everyday use. After all, almost no one says, “This is me.” The more formal-sounding “This is she” is more common.

This seems odd. Usually, people speaking casually go for the less formal option instead of wording that sounds proper. For example, you never hear “Whom are you talking to?” It’s always “Who are you talking to?”

So if everyone uses the more formal-sounding “This is she” in place of the seemingly more logical “This is me,” there must be a reason, right? Yes. And we would know their reason if, in school, we were taught about either copular verbs or the predicate nominative. Here’s the full story on both in my recent column.

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