A monthly column in which we attempt, however futilely, to defend the English language against misuse and abuse

Department of Redundancies Dept.

Reader Mary Kate McKenna reports that in Matthew Frankel’s “The Motley Fool,” which appears in The News Journal, he discussed saving for college thusly: “As a parent of children myself, . . .”  Mary Kate’s take: “I am a proud parent of both humans and a canine, so I understand the need for the distinction at times—however, NOT when discussing college savings!”

And then there’s Today host Savannah Guthrie, who claimed the NCAA Basketball Tournament “got underway with a surprise upset.”

Media Watch

USA Today scored a dubious double in covering the tournament. Columnist Dan Wolken wrote this: “. . . Villanova honed in on a second national championship in three years, . . .” As we have pointed out many times, people (and teams) home in on targets. “Hone” means to sharpen.

A nearby box related to Wolken’s column contained this: “5 of the last 30 NCAA Division I men’s basketball championship games have been decided by three points or less.” For plurals, use fewer (a word that seems to be disappearing from the language).

The Pesky Comma

Commas present a nagging problem for some people. Many writers don’t use them enough. Others, too often. Examples of the latter occurred in two recent letters to The News Journal.

One began, “But, the gun lobby is so powerful . . .” The second contained this sentence: “Perhaps, we should stop talking and start taking action.” In both cases, kill the comma. We suspect that the writers, if they spoke those words, would pause after “but” and “perhaps,” so they assumed a comma is needed. The careful writer knows that the rhythm of our speech doesn’t always translate to the written word.

Note: “And” is another word that is often followed by an incorrect comma when it begins a sentence.

How Long, Oh Lord, How Long?

(In which we discuss the continuing abuse of that most misused punctuation mark, the apostrophe)

In this case, it’s not an incorrect apostrophe but a missing one. Actress Emma Watson got a “Time’s Up” tattoo that has no apostrophe—and she’s an Ivy League graduate (Brown University).

Errant Words

Some TV talking heads (and others, of course) mispronounce climactic, the adjective corresponding to climax, by dropping the second c and making it “climatic” (which means “relating to climate”).  The problem crops up even more often when they use the antonym of climactic, which is anticlimactic, pronouncing it “anticlimatic” (not a word).

Grisly, grizzly and gristly: Grisly means ghastly, horrible. E.g., “It was a grisly murder scene.” Grizzly means grayish, or of, relating to, or involving the large brown bear of western North America. E.g., “They were attacked by a grizzly bear.” Grizzly is often misused for grisly: “The grizzly remains were found last night.” Gristly, on the other hand, means consisting of or full of gristle. E.g., “The meat was gristly, almost inedible.”

Hurdle, hurtle: Hurdle is both a verb and a noun. As a verb, it means to jump over (an obstacle) while running, or to overcome (difficulties, etc.) with some deft politicking. As a noun, hurdle denotes an obstacle or barrier. Hurtle is a verb meaning to move or make something else move with great velocity, especially in a reckless or uncontrolled manner and often with a resultant collision. E.g., “The car hurtled down the street and collided with a truck.”

And finally, reader Charlene McGrady calls out people who use the word “incidences” to mean instances or incidents (of, for example, traffic accidents). Writes Charlene: “The actual plural of ‘incidence’ (a term that I believe should only apply to the spread of disease) is ‘incidents,’ not ‘incidences.’” Grammarist tends to agree: “. . .  incidence is usually a singular mass noun (meaning it can’t be plural), and incidents is a plural noun. So, for example, where we would say the incidence of theft in the neighborhood has increased this year, we might instead say the incidents of theft in the neighborhood have become more numerous this year.”


Pronounced mor-FEE-uhn, it’s an adjective meaning sleep-inducing and of or related to sleep or drowsiness.

Need a speaker for your organization?

Contact me for a fun PowerPoint presentation on grammar: ryearick@comcast.net.

Bob Yearick
The copy editor of Out & About, Bob Yearick retired from DuPont in 2000 after 34 years as an editor and writer. Since “retiring,” Bob has written articles for Delaware Today, Main Line Today and other publications. His sports/suspense novel, Sawyer, was published in 2007. His grammar column, “The War on Words,” is one of the most popular features in O&A. A compilation of the columns was published in 2011. He has won the Out & About short story contest as well as many awards in the annual Delaware Press Association writing contest.

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