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Grammar mixology: mixed metaphor cocktails

"Well that’s what happens," said a coworker, "when there’s too many cooks in the oven." You’ve got to love the metaphor mixers out there. How nimbly they grab the head of one idiom and slap it on the tail of another. Isn’t even one cook in the oven too many? Or was she going for that whole Hansel-and-Gretel-let’s-have-humans-for-dinner overture? 

Here are a few more tasty examples of overheard metaphor mixing:

"Let’s throw the kitchen sink at the wall to see if it sticks." (Hey Danny, get me the extra-strength Velcro, will ya?) 

"I’d have to pull a rabbit out of my ass." (Well if you can do that, who needs a hat?) 

"We need to make a stack in the ground." (Of what, pancakes?)

"That would change the world on its head." (This one’s so tangled, I’m not even sure how many idioms it mashes up.)

Keep ‘em coming, fearless word butchers. When I collect enough, I want to write a book. Unless that’s putting all my eggs in one drawing board. 

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Would you date this guy?

I try not to bring my grammar obsession into relationships, but in this case, can you blame me? Check out this profile from a guy who “winked” at me on Match.com:

I’m easy going,kind ,not to demanding, like have people over to watch the loins game or watch it ourselfs…if u been thru a divorice, its not that easy putting ur heart back out ttheir…my mom and aunt lives a few blocks away n i visits them every day…well if this is someone like u , lets talk,talk,talk and c where it goes.

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Hey Mr. Rite, it’s okay if you aren’t a terrific speller, but there’s this thing called spell check. And as for grammar, maybe someone who got B’s in high school English could give your profile a look-see? 

I’m sure he meant the Detroit Lions when he mentioned “the loins game.” Then again, what if he didn’t? A swirling uncertainty give me one more reason to tell him, “I dont thinks ur the one for mi.”

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The “I’s” don’t have it.

Chew with your mouth open. Burp the alphabet. Sing off key. Just don’t bastardize the already-perfect letter i. Don’t say “I’s.”

I saw it recently in a Facebook post: “Jack and I’s night out.” Say huh? You’d never say something was I’s idea. So why does adding “Jack” suddenly make it okay?

I kind of get it. The writer was thinking, “It was Jack’s and my night out” sounds awkward. And it does. Except it happens to be right.

A simple rule solves this and other conundrums. If you’re not sure which one to use, eliminate the other word in the pairing and you’ll find your answer.

Start with your best guess:     It was Jack and I’s idea.

Take out the first person:       It was I’s idea. 

Add what sounds better:        It was my idea.

Take out the second person:   It was Jack idea.

Add what sounds better:        It was Jack’s idea.     

Bring them together:             It was Jack’s and my idea.

I hope this helps. And we can put “I’s” out of its misery.

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When to use “a” vs. “an.” Think it’s easy? Not so fast.

It happened four times in one day, so I knew I had to write about it. Can you see the problem in these sentences people emailed me?

-It’s a sign, not a ad.

-It’s a odd thing.

-This is a NGO.

-Please mark it as a FPO image.

The rule — in theory — is simple enough. If a word starts with a consonant, it takes an “a”.

-A dirty dog

-A stupid song

If it starts with a vowel, it takes an “an”.

-An apple a day

-An even stupider song

So for the first two sentences in those emails, maybe the writer just slipped?

-It should be “an ad.” Not “a ad.”

-And “an odd thing.” Not “a odd thing.”

But the second two sentences fall prey to a tricker rule. Some letters, even though they’re consonants, when pronounced as a word, start with a vowel. Confusing to explain. Easier to demonstrate:

-N is a consonant. But when spoken as a word, it’s “en.” Since “en” starts with a vowel, it take an “an”:

So it’s “an NGO.” Not “a NGO.”

-F is a consonant. But as a word, it’s pronounced “ef” — starting with a vowel sound. So it takes an “an.”

It’s “an FPO.” Not “a FPO.”

Make sense? It’s an effing confusing thing.

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Who came up with making a word plural in the middle of the word?

Sure, it was weird to learn the plural of Attorney General isn’t Attorney Generals. It’s habit to just slap an “s” at the end of any phrase when you’re talking about more than one of something. It just happens to be one of those weird set of words that puts the adjective (General) after the noun (Attorney.) It should be General Attorney, right?  Like General Hospital. General Patton. General Studies. So yes, you add the “s” to Attorney because it’s the thing you’re making plural. (There’s not more than one “general” in this case.)

WRONG:     Attorney generals

RIGHT:       Attorneys general

Sounds weird. But it’s right. Same thing with phrases that put the description after the noun. But these make more sense because “of” separates them:

WRONG:    Head of states

RIGHT:       Heads of state

WRONG:    Beast of burdens

RIGHT:       Beasts of burden

WRONG:    King of Leons

RIGHT:       Kings of Leon

But here’s where the logic goes loco:  Passerby. Yes, I get that the noun is “passer.” But the “by” has been Superglued to the word “passer.” They’re permanently joined as one word. So by that measure, you should add “s” at the end of the word. But no:

WRONG:     passerbys

RIGHT:        passersby

So what British prig decided to make it plural in the middle of the word? Hey, he thought, let’s really mess with people and slice the word open, shove an “s” in the middle, make it one word again and call it plural?

The same guy who came up with hangers-on. That’s who.

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Words the dictionary actually tells you not to use.

So does “biweekly” mean twice a week or every two weeks? The answer is both. How ridiculous is that? On one hand, biweekly can mean twice in the same week. But it can also mean every other week. Who exactly was the head of word development when they came up with that chestnut?

But wait, it gets worse.

Bimonthly means twice a month. Or every other month.

Biannual means two times a year. Or every two years.

Biennial means every two years. Or two entire years.

The best part is what the dictionary says:  Avoid the ambiguity by using alternative expressions. Better to say “it occurs every two months” or “it happens twice a year.”

So here’s what the dictionary is really saying. We’ve got these words. But they’re so confusing we don’t even recommend using them. Basically, they’re toxic. Best tossed onto the hazardous waste heap. Left out to die of their own stupidity.

Sounds about right to me.

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The slippery “s” and the strange places it shows up.

We are a nation of “essers.” We have a twitchy finger that wants to add an “s” where it doesn’t belong, and drop it off words that need it. A few niggling examples:

Please take a look at this photo. Note the absence of an “s” at the end. Note the right way to refer to the store, as in, “I just went mad crazy at the shoe sale at Nordstrom.” Not Nordstrom’s.

This one is a local Detroit thing. Factory workers around here often say, “Oh, yeah, I work at Ford’s.” As if they knew Henry personally. As in, “Ya know, I’ve been working the graveyard shift over at Henry Ford’s place.” When I moved to Detroit it struck me as odd. Twenty-five years later, it still is.

You’ll also notice there is no “s” after Child in Julia Child. I’m not really sure why people want to add an “s” to her name. “Childs” isn’t even the right way to make “child” plural. Go figure.

I totally get why people often say John Hopkins University. (Leaving off the “s” in Johns.) You can’t throw a rock without hitting someone names John. Turns out this esteemed institution was created by a philanthropist named Johns Hopkins. Further proof that we just cannot figure out where to put an “s” and when to leave it out. Even when we set out to name our own children.

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You can’t relook at something. Hey wait, why not?

What’s with “relook” anyway? It’s not a word, and yet I’ve been hearing it a lot lately. It turns out you can’t slap “re” on any old word and have it mean “again.” So what should we be saying?

My vote is “review” or “reexamine.” But it made me wonder — when is it okay to “re” something?

If a sweater doesn’t fit, you return it.

But if you get another one, you don’t rebuy it.

If you flub something, you redo it.

But it you break something, you don’t refix it.

If you take on something for another year, you “reup” it.

If you take something down a second time, you don’t “redown” it.

If you start dating someone after a breakup, you rebound.

If he turns out to be your soul mate, you don’t refall in love.

Which brings me no closer to understanding the ins and outs of “re.”

Guess I’ll reponder, er, rethink it tomorrow.

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Let’s keep the silicone out of Silicon Valley

So you’re talking to someone about that area in the San Francisco Bay where gigabytes dance on the head of a pin. You know, Silicone Valley. Yeeouch. You’ve just described a whole different place in California. (With very different valleys.) Time to get your silicons and silicones straight.

Silicon is a common element (found in things like sand) that people way smarter than us use to make microchips. They were kicking out these wafer-thin chips like pancakes in the Bay Area back in the ’90s. Thus the name Silicon Valley.

Silicone (which you’ll notice has an “e” at the end) is a synthetic, rubbery compound found in lots of everyday products. You won’t find it in semiconductors or other infinitely complex components. It’s best known for being used to make breast implants.

So when you say Silicone Valley, my thoughts run to an area quite a bit south in California where you can’t throw a Frisbee without hitting a plastic surgeon — Los Angeles. Where they, ahem, use silicone to make very different kinds of valleys.

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So is it buck naked or butt naked?

Actually, I wasn’t sure. Buck naked sounds right. It conjures up images of crazy young bucks running around during a night of wild rumpus. And as for “butt” naked, if you’re not wearing any clothes, you’re exposing a lot more than your wild rumpus. So I did some checking.

Turns out they’re both right. But no one seems to agree on which came first or which is more correct. According to one source, the reference is to buckskin, which is flesh-colored and makes the person wearing it appear naked. “Buck” also referred to people with darker skin, including tribal natives who were sometimes naked. And then there’s a story that it started as “butt” naked, but in polite company it switched to “buck.”

All I know is the word “naked” is quite clear on its own and doesn’t need any adjective before it. If you want to add a little oomph to the description, you can always grab the simile, “Naked as a jay bird.” Which is equally odd. Aren’t all birds naked?