Category Archives: what NOT to say

observation. blind.

observation blind

Hiking trail oxymoron. You either see it or you don’t.

Photo by me, Belle Isle State Park, Virginia, 26 December 2014.


It’s unanimous

Now it's unanimous

At the Oaxaca cathedral, 31 octubre 2013

Apparently even God wants you to shut up already on the cell phone: “God is calling you, but not on your cellular phone.”


One, two, three. . . and so on


Single-village mezcal.

I understand the analogy to single-malt scotch, but most of you cannot tell the difference. (If you can, I toast you right now. Salud.) And do you think or care that the mescal industry is that complicated?

But here’s the thing: When did we start quantifying things beyond our ability to perceive what value that may have?

1000-thread count sheets. Is the skin of your rear end that sensitive? You have a neurological disorder.

Degrees of temperature in the refrigerator. You used to care only that it was “cold” in there.

6.5-inch touchscreen with 40-gb hard drive on the inside of a car.  Are you driving it from Point A to Point B or living in it?

I give you 30 seconds, more or less, to stop it.

We looked it up, now quit saying that. Who are you, Mitt Romney?

Old chestnuts need cracking.

I’m taking a course on population, demographics. The professor gleefully reported that old, much passed-along nut that in Washington, DC, women outnumber men by a factor of five. After he said this with great excitement few times, adding how wonderful that had seemed in his youth in the city, decades ago, I raised my hand and said that the ratio is more like one-to-one. He scoffed, and disagreed.

To my rescue came a young woman in the class – compared to me, they’re all young — with one of those hand-held devices that can replace a roomful of brains. She instantly pulled up a little teeny Census Bureau table showing a slight preponderance of females, something like 110 women for every 100 men.

March forth, grammatically

As I am, you are probably beside yourself with excitement about tomorrow. Not only is the date, March 4th, the only day in the year that is also a command (shout the date and raise your arm in preparation to lead a small parade), but it’s also National Grammar Day. Celebrate wildly, but without dangling any modifiers.

Grammar is the structural foundation of our ability to express ourselves. The more we are aware of how it works, the more we can monitor the meaning and effectiveness of the way we and others use language. It can help foster precision, detect ambiguity, and exploit the richness of expression available in English. And it can help everyone–not only teachers of English, but teachers of anything, for all teaching is ultimately a matter of getting to grips with meaning.(David Crystal, “In Word and Deed,” TES Teacher, April 30, 2004)

It is necessary to know grammar, and it is better to write grammatically than not, but it is well to remember that grammar is common speech formulated. Usage is the only test.(William Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up, 1938)

what not to say

As we need new good luck tokens – who has a rabbit’s foot or a horseshoe around anymore? – so do we need updated metaphors. No more using old-fashioned terms like “sands of time” (no hourglasses) “from frying pans to fire” (less open-pit cooking). Agreed?

Here are some relatively newer fresh ones from Dr. House, of the eponymous TV show. (From’s Grammar and Composition site)

And send in suggestions for new good luck symbols.

· The tumor is Afghanistan, the clot is Buffalo. Does that need more explanation? OK, the tumor is Al-Qaeda. We went in and wiped it out, but it had already sent out a splinter cell–a small team of low-level terrorists quietly living in some suburb of Buffalo, waiting to kill us all. . . . It was an excellent metaphor. Angio her brain for this clot before it straps on an explosive vest. (“Autopsy”)

· The liver is like a cruise ship taking in water. As it starts to sink, it sends out an SOS. Only instead of radio waves, it uses enzymes. The more enzymes in the blood, the worse the liver is. But once the ship has sunk, there’s no more SOS. You think the liver’s fine, but it’s already at the bottom of the sea. (“Locked In”)

What not to say

I proof stuff at work, and thus get to rant about style and usage. My notes turn into “what not to say” memos. Here’s one:

Stop using the false range. If you say “from soup to nuts” or “from California to New York Island,” I know you mean from beginning to end, or one side to the opposite. But a random selection like “from boxes to movies to pumpkin pie” doesn’t explain a real range of anything along a known continuum like time or distance. Instead say your examples are “as diverse as. . .”

(That’s why this Dorothy Parker quote is funny: “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.”)