Tag Archives: adjectives

Questionable words.

Chocolate chicken with ketchup ice cream

by Annie Wei-Yu Kan

It is quite a relief not to have to read my ex-husband’s drooling perversions. I can continue to think of 69 as no more than a number on a menu. Anyway, in Mandarin, sixty-nine is liùshijiǔ, which has no perversion possibilities but could be heard to mean “rainwater is wine.”

I mention this just because in general we would not think of rainwater as wine. And we may not think of chicken feet as food. And we might not think of chocolate as suitable for a main course. And we are taught that ain’t isn’t a word, and impact isn’t a verb, and similar notions.

It’s true that rainwater isn’t wine, rainwater Madeira nothwithstanding. But you can drink it. As to the rest, no. When I said we I wasn’t including myself. Nor you, I hope, but I know you have some things to learn.

Let’s start with the idea that this or that word “isn’t a word.” We’ve all heard, I’m sure, that “ain’t ain’t a word.” This is like saying that hot dogs aren’t food.

Hot dogs aren’t fine food. It would be abnormal to serve them at a banquet, unless you were doing a special “slumming” sort of theme. You might, however, include them in a fancy menu, perhaps done up in a very clever way, as a bit of a reference to that kind of food we eat guiltily.

Likewise, you can use ain’t in thoroughly informal conversation. But you can also use it in a formal document if you do it right: as a conscious reference to a more casual style of usage.

To the shareholders of this august company, to whose munificence we are much indebted and who in turn are gazing expectantly at our forthcoming prospects, I will say, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

“Ain’t is a word? Say it ain’t so!” Yes, it is so. We’ve been eating hot dogs for a long time, and we’ve been using ain’t for a much longer time. We still use it, and it still serves a very good purpose as a marker of the style of discourse. Think of it as a mason jar on the table of your text, if you want. “Country-style eatin’ tonight!”

I have a whole cookbook full of thoroughly undignified food. It’s called White Trash Cooking and it’s by Ernie Mickler. I could never serve recipes from it at a banquet. It’s mostly not health food. It’s ugly. But it’s delicious. And I have a whole set of words in my vocabulary that are not suited for essays but are excellent when tearing a strip off some good-for-nothing pervert. I have another set of words that I bring out when chatting with friends over a glass of wine.

And of course there are words I use only on formal occasions. I would be a fool to use them when talking to the butcher at the market:

I would be singularly obliged if you would bestow upon me, with proper remuneration, a dorsal section of porcine flesh appropriately cured in saline solution and thereafter subdivided transversely in parallel into segments every two millimetres.

Coming back to hot dogs, you can also serve something that is suspiciously like a hot dog at a fancier dinner if you call it knockwurst or Vienna sausage. These items are not likely any healthier for you. What goes into them is no less questionable. Likewise, there are words that have dubious pedigrees that are nonetheless commonly accepted. Look up the etymologies of the words in bold to see how questionable some of them are:

This is a nice mess you’ve gotten us into with your tawdry carousing and jaunty skirt-chasing. When you’re so weird and silly, I’m right to be surly. Now let’s have some dinner and then I’ll throw your warped ass out onto the street.

There are also words with decent pedigrees that are rejected as needlessly as some people reject perfectly good pizza. Here are three:

Hopefully, the invite will arrive alright.

If you can use them and people will understand them, they’re all words. A given one of them may be more or less appropriate to a given context. Some words are inappropriate for most contexts. Dirk uses those all the time.

Is irregardless a word? That’s a silly question. Is ketchup-flavoured ice cream food? Of course it is. Where would you serve it? Most people wouldn’t serve it anywhere. But it’s still food. There are places you can buy it. Garlic ice cream too. Chicken feet are also food. Go for dim sum. They’re a treat. People eat them and enjoy them. And people use irregardless as a word and live, as long as you don’t kill them for it.

Although irregardless is pleonastic or contradictory in formation, and synonymous with regardless and therefore not especially needed, and frankly irritating to many people, it’s still a word. When someone uses it, you hear it as a discrete lexical unit, and you know what it means. You may not like it, and that’s your right. I wouldn’t use it either unless I was trying to be funny. But it’s still a word. If you want to conjure a particularly heedless or colloquial air to your document, go ahead and use it. Just make sure that your readers know you’re doing it on purpose.

Even those terrible processed snack foods loaded with sugar are food. They’re disgusting and monstrously unhealthy, though I don’t mind having one every year or two. Can you eat it and digest it and not get sick from it? It’s food, even if it’s not to your taste.

And that weird gibberish adolescents speak? It’s all words. Can it be used in a sentence (or as an exclamation or interjection) and understood? It’s a word. Even those ravings businessmen belch into emails and think themselves geniuses for eructating are words. They may be hard to swallow, but they won’t kill you. Not quite.

Which brings me to impact. I think we can agree that impact is used as a verb in too many places. Any word can suffer from overuse. But if you’re going to say that impact can’t be a verb, you’re just going to say something that’s wrong, so don’t bother.

Listen up. Or read up. English is a very flexible language. This makes it better, not worse. If you see a contortionist in a pretzel pose, do you think she’s old and dying and degenerate, or do you think she’s youthful and highly able? The latter, of course. Why would you think differently about a language?

We can convert words from noun to verb, verb to noun, noun to adjective, and so on. If you accept I signed it or We came into contact, both of which are conversions, you can certainly accept This is the most fun thing I’ve done, and you can accept This finding will impact our sales. We have been converting words from one class to another for as long as there has been an English.

Those who object to such things are somewhat like those who are repelled at the idea of chocolate chicken. Chocolate chicken is actually very good; you use unsweetened chocolate, plus herbs. It’s quite savoury. But some people are so prejudiced they won’t even try it. Ironically, the odds are very high that they will eat commercial spaghetti or barbecue sauces that have far more sugar in them than not just the chocolate sauce for the chicken but even many dessert sauces. And people who claim to hate verbing use verbs all the time that were converted from nouns. They simply aren’t aware of it.

The words in bold, for instance, are all conversions:

Out strolling, we spotted a café; we seated ourselves and chatted as the sun smiled down on us.

Some people even claim that impactful is not a word. I can only conclude that their brains are starved from refusing to eat all sorts of nutritious food. The suffix -ful is productive. You can form a new word with it by adding it to a noun. If the result is understandable, congratulations. You have a new word.

As it happens, impactful is quite widely used and understood. You may not like it. You may prefer a lengthy phrase in its place. You may not like the taste it has. That is your choice. I would be careful of using it simply because many people dislike it. But it’s a word. It’s quite useful in some contexts, too.

Some people get quite incensed at the sight of incent. They insist that it should be give an incentive or words to that effect. Yes, of course you can use the longer phrase, just as you can serve bread in a basket, lettuce in a bowl, and beef on a plate. But you can also make a sandwich with bread, lettuce, and beef. And you can also use incent as a verb in the right context for the right audience. If you hate sandwiches, don’t eat them. But they’re still food.

Is incent a hideous backformation? It is a backformation from incentive, yes; whether it’s hideous is a matter of taste. But if you say it should be edited out, please remember that edit is a backformation from editor through just the same kind of process.

Know your audience for your writing, just as you know your dinner guests. Some of them not only like ketchup on a cheese soufflé, they insist on it. Warm it up and serve it in a nice gravy boat. Don’t scorn impactful if your audience will find it impactful. Are they paying you? Do you want them to pay you? Serve them what they will enjoy.

You undoubtedly know people who condemn a wide variety of words as “not words” or “unusable.” These are the sort of people who would come to dinner at your house and complain about your silverware placement, your choice of main dish, the proper order of serving, whether cheese should be served first or last, whether you should have served chardonnay instead of pinot noir with your turkey, et cetera. They are as dreary as those dietitians who seem to think celery is a suitable substitute for potato chips. They claim to be superior. In fact, they are merely limited and inflexible and have no idea how to enjoy what’s set before them or make use of what’s available to them.

I certainly hope you are not one of those sorts of people. If you are, smarten up. Everyone knows you don’t serve hot dogs at state banquets. You also don’t serve filet mignon to a group of six-year-olds, and you don’t open a bottle of Mouton Rothschild for people who prefer beer and are eating bratwurst and sauerkraut. Govern yourself similarly with regard to your choice of words.

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Numbers and quantifiers.

Edible dishes

by Annie Wei-Yu Kan

If nouns are food, what are numbers?

Numbers are also food. They’re food that holds food. They’re edible dishes.

It’s true that numbers aren’t exactly the same as nouns, but they’re more like nouns than like anything else. Try this:

There are bananas.

There are three green bananas.

There are three of them.

There are three.

There are green of them.

There are green.

Yuck. Well, obviously green – or any other adjective – doesn’t behave like a noun. But three does. Some numbers behave even more like nouns:

There are a thousand of them.

A thousand? There are tens of thousands of them!

Do you see? They have indefinite articles (a thousand) and can be pluralized, and they can be the sole complement of a preposition: of thousands.

You don’t always need a preposition to join them: three bananas, not three of bananas. But this is a matter of economy and matches some things we do with nouns: banana bread, corn flour, a█████e ex-husband.

Some are even more like nouns:

There are a couple of rotten bananas on your counter.

A couple? There are a dozen of them.

All of these numbers are like food that holds other food. They’re like nouns, but they’re not the main event. They’re always presenting something else. They’re like a dozen hot dog buns holding a dozen hot dogs. Or they’re like rice paper wraps holding individual candies.

Many indefinite quantifiers are similar: a bunch, a lot, a large number, tons. They’re obviously nouns, and no one doubts it. But people get confused by this. They’re usually one noun holding a large amount of stuff. They are like those big deep-fried shells that hold salads at certain restaurants, or like the bread bowls that hold dip or chili. Are you eating the salad or the shell? The chili or the bowl?

Newspapers get this wrong all the time. A little learning is a dangerous thing. They’ve noticed that the collectives, which is another way of saying the indefinite quantifiers, are single nouns, and that they are the head nouns in the phrase, and so they conclude that the verb must be singular. You get things like this:

A handful of people believes this.

A large percentage of them is concerned about this.

Congratulations. You have just eaten the bread bowl before the chili. The chili is now spilling all over your table and onto your lap. I hope you’re happy. And no, Dirk, I will not eat that chili off your lap, since I know you’re going to ask.

Compare and contrast:

A large number of ex-husbands are vile.

A large number are vile.

A large number is vile.

Obviously the last one just means that you hate numbers such as 1,256,437. It makes no comment on what the number might be counting. Likewise,

A large number of ex-husbands is vile

is vile. You can see the difference in meaning also between these two:

A significant portion of men named Dirk are unpleasant.

A significant portion of men named Dirk is unpleasant.

In the latter, it seems to say that, for instance, 60% of Dirk is unpleasant. This is not true: 100% of Dirk is unpleasant. But there may be a pleasant Dirk somewhere else.

You would not say

A lot of people thinks so.

So don’t eat the deep-fried shell or the bread bowl first. Eat the contents first.

On the other hand, there are cases where you really do eat the container first. You bite through the bread on a sandwich, for instance. And sometimes you want to focus on the collective:

A bunch of bananas is hanging in the kitchen.

A bunch of people is coming down the street.

Change is to are and you see it means something a bit different.

So when you see a quantifier, ask yourself: do you want to eat it first? Or should you really deal with what’s inside it sooner?


The help

by Dirk E. Oldman

As an acquaintance of mine once said, apropos of the cause of his divorce – he was an army doctor and took a fancy to a nurse – “Don’t ████ the help.”

Who are the help? Numbers.

Sometimes numbers are wingmen or wing girls, too.

But one thing they are not is sex toys or clothing.

You shouldn’t ████ the help (though you can ████ the wingmen), but you also shouldn’t mistake them for lubricants, dildos, or any of the many latex, leather, and metal things that enhance prowess and that, in the world of words, we call adjectives.

By “the help,” in case it’s not clear, I don’t mean your kitchen staff. I’m not talking about the old South here. I mean imagine you’re in a high-end club and there are people you want to meet and get to know, and there are also people who are there to take your coat and serve you drinks. Maybe in another club you’ll meet one of those coat-takers off-duty and they’ll be open game. But in this club they’re not in the game. They’re just there to help. No matter how well dressed they are, no matter how cute they look in their bowties or miniskirts.

Take a phrase such as this:

six red-hot, half-naked vixens

This is like being in a room where you have, yes, six red-hot half-naked vixens, each one dressed in one piece of spandex and some aromatic oils, and over by the side there’s a person wearing a tuxedo holding the clothes – or equipment, or drinks – of said vixens. The vixens are the noun vixens, the spandex is the compound adjective half-naked, the body oils are the compound adjective red-hot, and the servant over by the side is the six.

The spandex and body oils are both close to the skin of the vixens. You could say they’re equally close. You could make it half-naked, red-hot vixens: the order doesn’t really matter.

But that person in the tuxedo, that’s another person. That’s not something the vixens are wearing. Why does this matter? It’s like this: when you have a bunch of adjectives in a row, you put commas in between them if they’re equal and could be swapped around – if they’re all as close to the skin of the noun:

pert, firm, round boobings

round, pert, firm boobings

firm, round, pert boobings

If they’re in order of closeness to the skin, if you can’t swap the order, you don’t use commas:

long leather whip

You can’t really say leather long whip. We have ideas about what qualities are more essential. Size, by the way, is considered less essential than most other things (I already told you, it’s the motion):

big red latex condom

No one says red big latex condom. Maybe the people who work at Starbucks do. They have a weird adjective order because they order them according to their process. Anyone who has screwed a Starbucks employee, please comment.

If it seems like the ones that have an order should have commas and the ones that don’t shouldn’t, well, I can’t argue with you: it could make as much sense. We just don’t do it that way. Just like we don’t mean “Argue with me about food” when we say Let’s hit the sheets, baby. Unless we’re deranged.

Where am I going with this? Well, you remember the help? They’re always less close to the skin. They have their own skin. So they’re always farthest away. And they don’t get commas.

two pert, firm, round boobings

Don’t put a comma between a number and an adjective:

two, pert, firm, round, boobings

Oh yes, and don’t put a comma before the noun. For ████’s sake. That’s a person, not another piece of clothing.

So remember: You can’t wear the coat-check girl or the cocktail waiter. You’ll get thrown out if you try.

Sometimes the help is there are the door guarding the entrance, or taking your calls:

Are there six red-hot, half-naked vixens in there?

Yes, there are six in there. You can’t see them now.

The number is still standing for what it’s serving, so it takes the plural. But you only get to see the number: there are six.

Some quantity words are not so much numbers as nouns unto themselves, which means they’re also sort of available, like wingmen and wing girls. They’re supposed to help, but they might get some action:

A pair of Chippendale dancers are coming.

A pair of legs is coming.

In the second one, it’s the wingman who got the action: a pair is rather than are. You can see more examples of this kind of thing in Annie’s food orgy above. For all the food words, swap in something that bores you less.

Sometimes you get more than one wingman:

There are a half dozen of them.

In that one, a half modifies dozen, and together they give the number to them.

One more thing. Sometimes what looks like one number is really more than one. Here’s a number, a servant serving the noun:

a hundred food-obsessed harridans

In this one, the number has its own servant, an underbutler:

two hundred food-obsessed harridans

If you can have a hundred you can have two hundred, just like if you have a vibrator you can have two vibrators. In newspapers they hyphenate things like this – one-million sex tapes – just because they have narrow columns that tend to break numbers up and make it harder to read them. But two quantifies hundred and together they quantify Annies. I mean food-obsessed harridans.

Here’s a little exercise for you. Punctuate the following:

Two dozen sweet lively party girls are eating chili off my lap

Remember, only put the comma where the words on either side are equally close to the skin. It goes without saying that you can’t make it

Lively, party, sweet, two-dozen girls are eating chili off my lap.

although I would probably lose control of my syntax in that situation. No, it needs just one comma, between sweet and lively:

Two dozen sweet, lively party girls are eating chili off my lap.

Today’s lesson, then: don’t mistake the help for clothing, be careful about ████ing the wingman or wing girl, and don’t ████ the help.

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