Is 'cringe' an adjective?
Posted by June on November 28, 2022
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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.

Got language questions? Your dictionary probably has the answers
Posted by June on November 21, 2022

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.

When comma rules collide
Posted by June on November 14, 2022
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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.

Lineup, line up, line-up
Posted by June on November 7, 2022

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.