Word Power

When you ask people to tell the stories of their lives, they will often recall special words: words said to them by a grandmother, a teacher, a father, a friend.  They will remember when a person described them in particular way or perhaps chided them with words that continue to sting. Though they evaporate quickly like a mist burned off by the morning sun, their sounds echo for days and weeks and sometimes years. Choose them wisely.


Risky Business

A young writer asks me recently what she should do to become a great writer.  My answer: Be brave. Be willing to write poorly. Be willing to be criticized. Be willing to begin.

Most writing projects fizzle not because they are not worthwhile or that the writing was poor, but because the writer was afraid of writing badly.

To write is to risk. And it almost always feels risky. You’re open to judgement, you may fail, and it may feel like your work is in vain.  But it almost never is.

Even poor writing is a step in the journey.  Your first or second or tenth piece may not be great, but if you love it, and if you have more stories to share, and if you can muster the courage to keep going, your breakthrough may yet be around the corner.

I’m not saying that you have the luxury of quitting your day job, and I’m not saying that you should persist in solitude without the opportunities for growth afforded by wonderful communities of writers and readers around you.  But I am saying that if you love it, it’s a wonderful journey–whether your work is ready by tens or tens of thousands.

Do You Yahoo?


Years ago, Yahoo launched a campaign ad that asked its audience, “Do you yahoo?”.  Their marketing department was attempting a feat at which Google would soon succeed: Can our company name become a common verb?

Do You Google?
I found its attempt to enter and shape the language interesting and admirable. To shape language is to shape thinking (and visa versa), and the Yahoo writers knew it. But nearly twenty years later, it is Google whose brand permeated the search engine space, and therefore, Google who landed the rights to the verb. “Do you Yahoo?” sounded a bit strange in the ’90s, but “Do you Google?” would now feel like second nature to most users.

And yet, a lingering question remains. Currently, English speakers might use the word Kleenex to refer to any kind of facial tissue regardless of its brand.  Do they do the same for google?  Can you google Yahoo or Bing? Will my grandchildren someday tell me they are googling through their sock drawers to find a clean pair?  Only time will tell.



Grammar Nerd’s Paradise: The Case of the $13 Million Dollar Comma

For years, grammar nerds like me have enjoyed an extended tussle over the Oxford comma (also called the serial comma).  Last month, the omission of the Oxford comma earned Maine milk-truck drivers $13 million dollars.

First, A Lesson
The Oxford comma refers to the final comma in a list. Here’s an example: I bought beans, carrots, watermelon, and chips. Because we already have the conjunction “and” between watermelon and chips, some writers would omit the final comma (particularly in newspapers, where space is at a premium).

A Wrinkle
Here’s where it gets confusing. What if your sentence reads like this? I’d like to thank my parents, Mother Theresa and God. How many people are you thanking? Four or two? Has Mother Theresa a daughter we didn’t know about? That’s why we need the Oxford comma.

The Case
Here’s what happened to the Maine truck drivers, who were seeking overtime for distributing milk.  The relevant Maine statute carved out an overtime exception like this:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

  1. Agricultural produce
  2. Meat and fish products; and
  3. Perishable foods

The drivers are distributers. Are they a part of this exemption? Without the comma separating “packing for shipment” and “distribution of,” the court ruled that distribution alone was not a part of the overtime exception, and therefore, Oakhurst Dairy owed its drivers $13 million dollars of overtime.

And that’s how this obscure little comma got its fifteen minutes of fame.

For what it’s worth, I’m an proponent of the Oxford comma, and I bet more than a few Maine truck drivers are too.

Walking on Stilts Among Giants

I recently finished Daniel Keyes’ 1966 novel Flowers for Algernon. In this touching story, a mentally challenged man named Charlie Gordon undergoes an experimental surgery to improve his intelligence.

The surgery is so successful that at one point in the novel, Charlie discovers that the scientists he once thought of an intellectual gods are not even as intelligent as he.  They are, as it turns out, human.  At a scientific convention filled with great minds, Charlie observes that they are men walking on stilts among giants.

This powerful sentence has stuck with me now for a few weeks. Here’s why: Keyes takes an abstraction, intellect, and uses a metaphor to make it visible. Intelligence is not something we can taste, see, hear, or touch, and intellectual fraud is even more difficult to communicate. But we can see, in our mind’s eye of course, men walking on stilts among giants. And so we do.

Well done!

Fabulous Words from McDonald’s

I stumbled across this article at mentalfloss.com last week: “McDonald’s Engineers a New Type of Straw for Slurping Shamrock Shakes.”  Take a look:


Let me confess. I have zero love for McDonald’s and its food. And even less love for Shamrock Shakes–a combination of mint/chocolate shake promoted around St. Patrick’s Day.

However, the video promoting this straw is fabulous.  Its tongue-in-cheek humor is perfect for media-savvy viewers who know a shallow pitch when they see one.  Here’s why the ad is great: it admits that the product is “spectacularly unnecessary” and proceeds to treat it as a serious invention (which McDonald’s apparently actually did).  The straw is actually a Suction Tube for Reverse Axial Withdrawal (STRAW) and the subtitles expose the ad’s own awareness of its overblown production. The British narrator is a nice touch. This tactic does not insult viewers; instead, it appeals to their savvy and makes them laugh.

Actually, it made me want one of these straws.

Have a look: 

Ending Sentences with a Preposition? Yes, please. Sometimes.

I have corrected many a sentence with a terminal preposition. “Where are you at?” becomes “Where are you?” and “What do you need the telephone for?” becomes “Why do you need the telephone?”.

But if you were taught that ending a sentence with a preposition was a hard and fast rule of English grammar, you only heard half the story. Though many times, we should correct terminal prepositions, sometimes doing so makes the sentence more unwieldy than it should be.

Consider this sentence, “I like the company I work for.”  Should we correct it to say, “I like the company for which I work”?  Doubtful.  (Most likely, I would avoid this altogether and write, “I like working for my company.”)

There are historical and technical reasons for the evolution of this rule, but it can be solved simply by focusing on communication. If you find yourself doing linguistic gymnastics to avoid ending in a preposition and the resulting sentence is convoluted and pretentious, abandon the enterprise.  Write simply and clearly.

Winston Churchill was famously criticized for occasionally using a terminal preposition, to which he replied, “This is the type of errant pedantry up with which I will not put.”  Well said.