A Word is a Word is a Word, Damn it

Sitting near the back row of pews at church (are protestants even allowed to sit near the front?) the congregation burst into song because the program told us to. Otherwise we just sit there and try not to make eye contact.

The hymn bothered me.

It wasn’t the message, nor the melody. It wasn’t even that the song had too many verses (some hymns can last as long as a sermon). It was because of a simple, easily avoidable grammatical error that made me nearly shout something I usually only shout during football games. I’m told shouting in my denomination is frowned upon because it’s not in the program.

I might be able to handle this misuse of the English language if it was a one-time deal, but it was in the refrain. The refrain.

The composer used “I” when he should have used “me.”

Inexcusable.

My grandmother was an English teacher, so growing up the use of language was something I had to pay more attention to than silly things like math. That kind of attention turned me into someone who’s not very much fun to talk with at parties.

Or at the grocery store.

Standing in a grocery store checkout line one day, perusing magazine headlines like “Kim and Kanye are Space Aliens from the Moons of Jupiter” (which I don’t doubt in the slightest), and “Sandra Bullock Channels Nostradamus; the End is Near,” I noticed a handmade cardboard sign on the credit card reader. It read, “This Machine is Broke.”

Really? Broke?

So, this device that is connected to every bank in the country is somehow out of money? I pulled a red Sharpie from my pants pocket and added an “n.” The man behind me laughed.

I can’t help myself. I’m OCD enough (my favorite rock band is OC/DC) to have been a newspaper editor, which made my head hurt. Here are some of the major offenders:

  • No matter how many times you use it, irregardless is not a word.
  • Pacific is an ocean, it doesn’t mean precise or exact.
  • Doughnuts are made out of dough. Donuts don’t exist.
  • Theatre is a British word meaning theater. Theater is an American word meaning theater. For all you theater types, stop trying to use the British version. That’s a level of pretentiousness that can only be pulled off by hipsters.
  • PIN number is repetitious. What do you think the N means?
  • Free gift is silly. If it’s not free, it’s not a gift, is it?
  • Fantastic doesn’t mean something is amazingly good. It means something is not real. If your dinner is fantastic, you’re going to be hungry later.
I’m serious about grammar. Don’t make me come over there.

But still, about that I/me thing.

“This composer is still alive,” I told my wife as I sat in front of my laptop. You bet I looked him up. “He has contact information on his website. I’m going to write to him and tell him he has a grammatical error in his hymn.”

She put her hand on my wrist. I looked up. She just shook her head.

Damn. What’s the point of being a grammar nerd if I can’t correct everybody?

A Little Love from the Local Press

Jason Offutt, Maryville’s best-known literary bogeyman, is at it again with more tales about the scary, spooky, supernatural and downright strange.

Offutt, a former newspaper reporter who is now a senior instructor of journalism at Northwest Missouri State University and a columnist for this newspaper, has made something of a name for himself as the author of books and articles about the paranormal.

“Road Closed: Twelve bloody stories to brighten your day,” now available through Amazon.com, is his 12th book, and the fifth dealing with topics beyond the realm of what most people would call daily experience.

What makes “Road Closed” a little different from anything Offutt has produced previously is that it’s fiction in the classic sense, a collection of 11 short stories and one 23,000-word novella.

Of course, one could argue that all ghost stories and other paranormal tales are fiction. But much of Offutt’s earlier work has a distinctively journalistic cast and consists of reports and “eye-witness” accounts he’s collected from people who really believe they saw something — though just what is open to question.

The stories in “Road Closed,” however, are pure imagination and include, among other things, yarns about a family farm where trees come to life and a convicted man fleeing his victim’s family through what amounts to a dystopian nightmare.

As for the novella, “Matriarchal Nazi Cannibals,” Offutt said he’s not too worried about reviewers providing readers with spoilers because “the title pretty much does that anyway.”

Here’s a quick summary that offers a few hints: “A small Missouri town where a Nazi matriarchy lies silent, hidden, waiting — and they’re hungry.”

Offutt said the story revolves around a group of college film students who “find something hidden,” but he swears the plot isn’t based on his own experience with young people studying media at Northwest.

“It came to me in a dream,” he said. “My wife told me, ‘You’d better write that down. That’s good.’”

Another of the tales, “A Just Cause” was adapted by former Northwest student Harrison Sissel into a screenplay that won Best Science Fiction Script at the 2011 Los Angeles Film and Script Festival under the title “The Balance.”

Offutt said he thinks readers will find his latest offering to be more than just a collection of spooky stories. Some of the tales, he said, are closer to related genres like horror and science fiction.

As a boy, Offutt was a big fan of the “Twilight Zone” television show, and he said he hopes “Road Closed” offers something of the same flavor. Though, unlike the classic anthology series created by Rod Serling, Offutt said readers looking for moral insights and reflections on the state of society may be disappointed.

“I write a lot of things that are what I like to read, and I write for entertainment,” he said. “It’s not a social message, it’s just wanting to have fun.”

And Offutt has a word of warning for readers who may have squeamish stomachs.

“The book’s subtitle is ‘twelve bloody stories to brighten your day,’” he said. “I’m not necessarily trying to scare somebody’s pants off, but hopefully there’s a little bit of that in there.”

Offutt has published short stories before in magazines, and he said the form places demands on a writer that are very different from those associated with creating a novel or a work of non-fiction.

“With a novel you’ve got 300 pages,” he said. “These short stories are maybe 5,000 words. One is only 700. The shorter it is the more challenging it is to be able to tell the story.”

Follow Jason Offutt on a Trip Into Shadows

Sift through the dark memories of a family farm where trees come to life. Run with a frightened young woman through quiet streets after a sinister priest’s smile clings to her like a spider’s web. Meet a convicted man who must flee the family of his victim in a dystopian nightmare. And visit a small Missouri town where a Nazi matriarchy lies silent, hidden, waiting – and they’re hungry.

“Road Closed: Twelve bloody stories to brighten your day” is Jason Offutt’s first book of short horror fiction, which includes the tale “A Just Cause” that won Best Science Fiction Script at the Los Angeles Film and Script Festival in 2011 as a screenplay entitled “The Balance.”

Luke Rolfes, author of ‘Flyover Country,’ says of ‘Road Closed,’ “Readers should put this book down at their own risk. Once these twelve sink in their teeth, it’s all over but the screaming.”

Now available as an ebook, and print.

Hmm, aluminium is a word? Thanks for nothing, Noah Webster

Back off, this is MY language now.

The British chap* on television said something that struck me as silly. Not the context, the pronunciation.

Given that Americans speak English, and the English speak English (strange but true), language comprehension problems between Americans and the English should not exist.
They, of course, do. There are enough subtle differences between the two versions of the English language to make a conversation between an American and a Brit sound like it’s in Klingon.

The man on television pronounced aluminum “al-U-min-E-um,” which I discovered is correct, although horribly uncomfortable to say. Go ahead; try it.

This particular pronunciation problem came from two sources.

The first being English chemist Sir Humphry Davy who in 1807 discovered a metal in alum and named this new metal alumium. He later changed the name to aluminum because “aluminum” sounded more (whatever word they used for “hip” in 1807). Davy’s colleagues in the chemistry department couldn’t let well enough alone and changed the spelling to aluminium in 1812 because they just couldn’t let Davy have his day in the sun, now, could they.

The second reason is that Noah Webster developed a God complex and completely mucked up American English.

Noah Webster, Jr., was a lexicographer, a pioneer in the field of textbooks, and yes, the dictionary dude. In 1828, he published “An American Dictionary of the English Language.” You see what he did there? It’s the “American Dictionary of the English Language,” meaning it’s not the real English language.

Ever wonder why former British colonies like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and freaking Belize spell color with a “U”? It’s because that’s how it’s spelled. Webster thought English spelling rules were inconsistent, so he tried to standardize them.

He cut out the “U” in words like colour and flavour, changed “ise” to “ize” in words like organise, and realise, turned tonne into ton, grey into gray (although for some reason he left the greyhound dog alone), and aluminium to aluminum even though compared to Sir Humphry Davy, he didn’t know jack squat about chemistry, or apparently spelling.

Damn straight.

It doesn’t stop there. Because of Webster’s tinkering even words spelled the same in both countries are not always pronounced the same.

In England, privacy is PRIV-a-cee, advertisement is Ad-vert-ISS-ment, schedule is SHED-u-al, mobile is mo-BILE, oregano is OR-EH-GON-O and garage is GARE-idge.

As an American, this bothers me. I grew up thinking the British talked funny. Turns out it was us. However, Americans aren’t the only villains here. Time, culture, and geography also play a part. But mostly Webster. Yeah, let’s blame most of this on him.

Aluminium indeed.

 

*You can’t use “chap” unless the voice in your head talks with a British accent. For example, “that German chap with the funny mustache gave us quite a fit during the war.” Or, “that New Guinea tribesman chap with the spear.” Wouldn’t sound right coming out of the mouth of a Texan, would it?

Get Your Facts Straight

Bill and Ted, learning all about time travel and beer.

As an author, one of the things you need to strive for is accuracy. I don’t care if you’re writing a science fiction humor novel about conscientious time traveling drunks who jump through the years consuming booze that once led to, but will now prevent historic tragedies* – physics has to work, or, if it doesn’t work, there has to be a scientifically plausible reason WHY it doesn’t work.

Everything has to make sense. And in order for things to make sense, the author has to research things he/she doesn’t know. Here’s an article from Scientific American that points out a few scientific terms people often misuse. Get it right, people, and your readers will respect you for it.

*Totally my idea. Dibs.