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


Pandemic Follies

The COVID-19 scare has revealed all manner of weaknesses in the grammatical skills of those in the media and others involved in the crisis. Some examples:

• Dr. John Flores on NBC: “As the temperatures go up, there’s a possibility that less people will be sick.” As we know—don’t we, gang?—when speaking of plurals, the correct comparative adjective is fewer.

• Jarrett Bell, in USA TODAY: “Yet, as it has impacted all specters of society, the coronavirus pandemic changed those plans.” Pretty sure Jarrett (a frequent contributor to “War”) meant sectors. A specter is a ghost, or something feared as a possible unpleasant occurrence.

• Reader Walt DelGiorno reminds us to use the comma in direct address, a suggestion prompted by a note from his physical therapist that included this sentence: “Quarantine doesn’t mean you have to stay sedentary Walt.” Says Walt: “I have kept pretty active, so perhaps I should respond that I am offended by being referred to as sedentary Walt.”

• And we award this month’s Literally of the Month crown to Vice President Mike Pence, who uttered five literallys—two in one sentence—and two actuallys (I counted) in the space of a few minutes during one of his nightly press conferences.

Then we had several Department of Redundancies Dept. candidates:

• From reader Walt Frank, who heard a reporter on Fox News describe foot traffic in an airport thusly:  “We have seen a steady flow of people coming through, periodically from time-to-time.”  The reporter managed, says Walt, “to squeeze both redundancy and a contradiction into the same sentence.”

• From a USA TODAY story on sequestered gymnast Simone Biles: “I’ve never not done anything . . . in my whole entire life.”

• Another reader reports that Robert R. Redfield, director of the CDC, said this on CNN:  “Looking back in retrospect . . .”

Media Watch

• Nancy Armour, USA TODAY: “I weep at the thought of him (Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs) being forced to make due with only six luxury cars.” Nancy may be due for a grammar lesson, because the expression is make do.

• Armour’s colleague, Jarrett Bell, makes his second appearance in this month’s column thanks to this gaffe in a quote from former Dallas Cowboy Michael Irvin about coaching techniques: “There’s a line to tow between guidance and control.” Jarrett, boobala, you toe the line, as at the beginning of a foot race.

• In researching a story for another publication about Michael Haddix, a former Philadelphia Eagle, I came across a public service video the former first-round pick made for his hometown. In it, Haddix said: “As a former Mississippi State graduate, I say yes to Starkville parks.” Yo, Mike, you’re a former student and former football player there, but you are and always will be a graduate of MSU.

How long, oh Lord, how long? Like Americans, New Zealanders seem to have a problem with the apostrophe.

• Writers, especially male writers, continue to have a blind spot when spelling the word for an adult female. Take, for instance, Josh Peter in USA TODAY, writing about Leon Spinks’ reaction to his physical therapist: “Spinks scowled at the women’s raised right hand.” Then there was this headline from The Catholic News Agency: “It’s my body/a women’s

choice.” All writers, please note: It’s woman (singular) and women (plural).

• David Baldacci in One Good Deed: “Despite the alcohol he had drank, Archer gathered his wits and formed his lie.” That’s had drunk, which a novelist like Baldacci, who writes often about drinking, should know.

Department of Redundancies Dept.

The Philadelphia Inquirer gave us two. First there was Scott Lauber writing about Neil Walker, a member of the Phillies who was in danger of being sent to the minors: “He knows he’s being judged on a few handfuls of at-bats in exhibition games.” A handful of at-bats would’ve worked fine.

Then fellow Inky sportswriter David Murphy followed with this: “Let’s consider each of the decisions that led you to your present state and the impact that each of them will have on your future life expectancy.”

Word of the Month: precarity 


pra-carity, it’s a noun meaning the state of being precarious or uncertain.

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