Homing In On a New Yorker Error

PhraseWit tells it like it is.

In my decades of reading the venerable weekly magazine The New Yorker — in hard copy, and now, deliciously, on my iPad — I finally caught a mistake. My heart pounded when I saw it. Could it be? In the Comment segment from “The Talk of the Town” on the political conventions, Steve Coll wrote: “But the tradition of free political airtime had been established, and admen honed in and fashioned the quadrennial infomercials we now endure.” I’d just been discussing the misuse of “honed in on” with our also-venerable game designer. It was top of mind, and now it was in my face.

My schadenfreude was somewhat muted, however, by what I found on Twitter, which was a dismissive quip and a link to a defense rather than an admission of error. New Yorker editor Mary Norris writes in a post entitled “Don’t Try to Hone In On a Copy Editor“:

Our tweeting readers have homed in on what they characterize as a flagrant misuse in this week’s Comment. . . . A million tweeters think [honed in] should be “homed in.” Continue reading

Transcendence Versus Pride: Capitals

Consider this: What’s the difference, if any, between the meaning of “love” and “Love”?

When a philosopher capitalizes words like Good, Beautiful, or True, and Grace, Spirit, or Love, they are differentiating them from their common lower-case cousins. Capitalized, they stand in for the bigger idea of each of the these words, something transcendent or universal.

In parody of transcendent capitals, we see humorous memes like, “Don’t be late for the Big Meeting” (perhaps tongue-in-cheek for a little meeting, or an unimportant meeting; or in recognition of an annual meeting), or “We’ve progressed from a small “r” relationship to a capital “R” Relationship.” You can imagine this being done with your voice, a brief hesitation before speaking the capital “R” Relationship, setting it out in quotes or italics. The capital letter achieves the same thing. Transcendently.

But when capitalization slides from a purposeful indication of transcendence to an unconscious indication of self-importance (Grammar Girl calls them “pride capitals“), it steps over a line and dilutes the impact of capitals as indicators of meaning beyond the everyday. Or it belies ignorance in the writer. Continue reading

Letters from the Grammarverse: A Singular Question

This week’s letter comes from an old friend/editor. It fomented a grammar rumpus amongst our ranks that carried across the pond. Take a read and see what your grammar ear tells you. We invite you to add your two cents to our Facebook page. All serious responses will be eligible for a free copy of Phrase WitWhen all is said and done, we’ll make a McLaughlin-Group-style verdict and bring down the gavel in a follow-up post. NB: The Comments section seems to be having technical difficulties for the moment, so please go to our Facebook page to post/repost your comments!

Leigh Sprimont writes:

An old friend/editor posed this question on Facebook:

Which is correct: “What color does red and yellow make?” OR “What color do red and yellow make?”

My ear tells me the former is correct, but I am not an expert on subject/verb agreement and I think that’s what we’re dealing with here. Can someone offer the rule that explains why only one of these is correct?

By the way, I already suggested she change it to “What color do you get when you combine red and yellow?” I’m just that kind of editor … but it’s for a very brief audio segment for kids, so the extra words are an issue.

Thanks for your input!


Fomented: Instigated, excited, whipped or stirred up.

Diagram My Valentine


Elizabeth O’Brien of English Grammar Revolution — Grammar the Easy Way — is our 2012 Valentine. We love how she took her insecurity in grammar and turned it into a strength. Her innovative and accessible approach to Sentence Diagrams is designed to help others who are teachers, writers, and copyeditors be more confident. Bravo for your work, Elizabeth. And thanks for the Puppy Love graphic!

Lovelace, from #OEDonline on Twitter: n.: A seducer, a libertine. Derives from the name of Robert Lovelace, a character in Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarissa (1747–8).

Sabbatical over

Sabbatical refers to the period of paid leave granted to a college teacher for study or travel. By extension, it is loosely a time away from a regular activity. Our esteemed colleague, co-founder, and blogger extraordinaire, David Drucker, has been on sabbatical from The Ballpoint Revue with a shoulder injury that has kept him from being able to type. Since he types for a living, it hasn’t been a very good time. Yours truly, Susan Babcock, has been buried getting PhraseWit ready for release, traveling, and holiday shopping. (That last part is false, but I like having three things in my lists.) We apologize to our fans for the silence, and plan to get noisy again starting now!

Phrasal Jokes

Despite her bitchy personality, the supermodel had the men in the VIP lounge at her _____.

a beck in call
b beckon call
c beck and call
d pecking call

As Ballpoint readies the upcoming release of PhraseWit about Common Phrases and their Mangled Cousins, we’ve observed that one person’s solid grasp is another person’s slippery slope. And the self-discovery we’re each having about our own phrasal confusions is just about as funny as it is embarrassing. Continue reading

I could care less (but I don’t)

A thoughtful post on the often misused phrase, “I could care less,” by the estimable Grammar Girl mines the many reasons mangled phrases gain traction. Most startling is the rising occurrence of the spoken misuse compared to the correct version, “I couldn’t care less.” You can see it rise graphically in this Google Ngram.

It’s easier to get away with misuses in speech because people tend to hear what they expect to hear. However, if your listener picks up your gaffe, or if you write it incorrectly, you undermine your own message. If you “could” actually care less, it means you still care Continue reading

Funny Misused Phrases

I get a good laugh just about every day working with the database for our next app, PhraseWit. We found these examples in real life, but decided not to publish the sources and links in the app itself so as not to embarrass the offending writers. By the same token, these are errors many of us at Ballpoint have made ourselves over the years — and to this day.

Here are some peeks at some priceless entries for incorrect use:

Is Baking Feminist? ”We must fight against the sexist, antiquated idea that ‘a woman’s place is in the kitchen.’ Continue reading

Pierre I don’t care

I remember as a child holding in my hand these tiny, palm-sized books in a boxed set by Maurice Sendak: Alligators All Around, Chicken Soup with Rice, One Was Johnny, and Pierre. Our parents accused us of being a “Pierre I Don’t Care” when we were being truculent, lackadaisical, or desultory — because we didn’t know those words. (Maybe they didn’t either!) Continue reading

Me Tarzan!

Me Tarzan; you Jane

A college professor friend recently sent me a note whose last sentence read “This will be a great experience for you and I.” It was immediately clear that the following scenario had played out several times during this highly educated man’s formative years.

He’d say something like “Jim and me are going to the movies” and a nearby adult – teacher, parent, etc. — would smack him down, hard. Steve (let’s call him Steve) would be told, in a stern voice, something like “You must say ‘Jim and I,’ not ‘Jim and me.’ After a while, Steve developed the “me” phobia that afflicts so many otherwise articulate individuals.

While I wouldn’t dream of correcting him to his face, if Steve wanted to know how to choose between “me” and “I” this is what I’d tell him: Continue reading