Tag Archives: grammar

English Won, Oh, Won!

Since the inception of the Internet many great things have to come to us dancing humans.  It has been a great boon for humanity—intellectually, informationally, pseudo-sexually.

One unintended consequence though has been the unleashing of a host of language butchers.

Mail became e-mail and though we will never see anyone with the slightest grasp of the English language say “the postal carrier brought me three mails today” somehow even the brightest among us will whip out “I got e-mails from my mom and my brother today”.  E-mails sounds like something naughty.  Where are these e-males coming from and do they also have e-females?

I do occasionally chuckle during my chat conversations.  When I wish to indicate to my interlocutor that I have been moved to spontaneous giggles I use the old stand-by “hahaha” or some deviation therefrom.  I am loath to type some such abominable abbreviation such as smomnilsfh—spitting milk out my nose I’m laughing so fucking hard.  Perhaps this is because I can touch type.  Perhaps not.

And what’s the deal with using two periods in a row? I had a friend explain to me that when he did it he wanted less of a pause than an ellipse (three consecutive periods). I asked him how long the pause of an ellipse was. He had no answer. Use an ellipse or a period.

I admit that I had these bad attitudes concerning spoken English long before the Internet showed up.  I reflect with fondness on once hearing my friend say that something or other was across from some other something and my asking him whether he spelled that acrost or a-crossed.  Yet this pronunciation lives on.

As does pronouncing of height as though it contained a second h—heighth.  So when I hear a native English speaker criticizing some immigrant struggling with English as a second or even third language, I shake my head in awe.  “When you have yours in order, then we’ll talk,” I chide them.

Which nicely brings us to one of the most pervasive butcherings to date.  There is a certain alleged Internet provider who will remain nameless—but who is easily identified by the copious discarded CD’s offering hour upon free hour of alleged Internet service—this filth monger thrust upon our beloved Earth a phrase vile and now disastrously ubiquitous: you’ve got mail.  Have got?  What is the sense of this misconjugated compound verb?  You have mail.  You’ve got cancer?  You have cancer.  Let us drop forever the superfluous verb.  Though I feel obligated to point out that “You have gotten better” is kosher.  Still, prefer something like “you’re feeling better” or “your health has really improved”.

Just to be on the fair side, I feel obligated to offer some useful advice for anyone who might be attempting to improve their English.  These are a couple of tricks I have found worth keeping in mind so as to look slightly smarter than I actually am.

How to Outsmart a Chimp

Let us take a look at a common mistake and reveal a simple solution to getting it right.  Lay v lie is a trouble.  It is especially compounded by the curious reality that the past participle of one happens to be the infinitive of the other.  No matter (and don’t worry about what that actually means).

The trick is to merely to remember this simple phrase: “now I lay me down to sleep”. The important part is “lay me” (verb —> object). This relationship reveals all you need to know to choose lay or lie. When you want to place something down you lay that something down. I lay my body down. I will lay the blanket down. If no thing is being lain, then you choose lie. I lie down. I was lying down. I will lie down. (Down is a direction and not a thing).

Now the tricky bit is that I lie now and I lay earlier. Confusing? Sorry. Not my fault. This is true whenever there is no helping verb. So, I was lying down. I lay down earlier. I was lying down when you called. In the end though you can probably avoid any of the more confusing conjugations by using other verbs.

Initially I was slow to parse this guideline and was constantly failing in speech.  Writing is paced more slowly and I was better able to work out the correct usage.

Merriam-Webster has a great little blurb on this distinction and its history at the bottom of its definition for lay.

Computer terms got you up in arms?  I Bit (B) two bytes (b).  I MegaBit (MB) two megabytes (mb).  No need to confuse these two confusing terms any longer.  I bit two bytes.

And just for fun, let’s talk about the usage of shim v shimmy.  I just made this one up, so be gentle: “Shims within the groove make me shimmy”.

This one is typically a spelling problem, but here is a phrase to help: “A lot of folks know well how to allot their time”.

In the end, if you are going to break the rules be certain you know the rules you are breaking.

Ok, take it for what it’s worth.  I’m going to bed.


This is in response to a page (scroll to the bottom) I stumbled upon (in the traditional manner).  On this page Professor Donald E. Knuth (Stanford University) puts forward the argument that since words will traditionally lose their hyphens once they have been commonly accepted into the vernacular, we should drop the hyphen from e-mail.  Where I do believe that much of what he says is correct, I also see e-mail as a particular case where his arguments should not apply.  I will give three reasons to support this claim.

First, though it is true that words will generally lose their hyphens after some appropriate break-in period, it is not the case that all hyphenated words will necessarily lose their hyphens.  He does offer a couple of good examples of recent additions to the English language which have appropriately dropped their hyphens: nonzero and software.  However, counter-culture, counter-clockwise (and anit-clockwise), drug-addicted, free-range, ex-wife, multi-protocol, and right-click are pretty much doomed to always carry around that little extra punctuation.  No harm there.

Second, it would seem more than a little odd to talk about a breakin period.  (Is that a period of break dancing?.)  There are clearly examples where the hyphen is required for clarity.  Break-in, re-examine, and re-organize are all good examples where their unhyphenated counterparts are clumsy, to say the least, as they are parsed along the page.  Breakin, reexamine, and reorganize become difficult for the reader to read.

These two have addressed the problem of hyphenation in general, but my third point relates directly to e-mail.  The e in question is short for electronic, so what we are really talking about is electronic mail.  This mode of conjoining words is very different from compounding two words in the ordinary manner, such as door and knob creating doorknob.  As such I am inclined to think that words created in this manner are less prone to losing their hyphens than compound words created through the more traditional channels.

For these reasons—because not all words lose their hyphens, because e-mail is easier to parse on the page, and because e-mail is a special case of compounding words—we should retain the hyphen in e-mail.

As always, your thoughts are encouraged.