Wednesday 30 December 2015

Trooper vs. Trouper

Star Wars has storm troopers; ABBA sings about being a “super trouper.” Which spelling is correct?

Troopers and troupers

Trooper and trouper are homonyms—spell-check-confounding words that sound the same but have different meanings. Both words relate to groups, but their connotations are worlds apart.

A trouper is someone who keeps going under difficult circumstances without complaint. The word comes from a theatre troupe and suggests someone who plasters on a smile and declares, “The show must go on!” It also connotes group coherence, putting the good of the show above one performer’s ego.

  • Everything that could go wrong during the balloon expedition, did—short of fatal accident—but Zahra was a real trouper, helping the pilot spill the ballast and keeping the passengers’ spirits up with a rousing singalong.

Everything that could go wrong during the balloon expedition, did.

A trooper is a member of a military troop, someone you might look to for colourful curses but not so much for cheerful smiles and a helpful attitude. The same root gives us a crowd of people trooping from one place to another, that is, moving together in the same direction, as in a military march.

  • Get enough sherry into the Lady Dowager and she starts swearing like a trooper and goosing footmen with her cane.

So Star Wars and ABBA are both right. (Shame on you for doubting George Lucas or the Swedes!) When you’re unsure which spelling to use, remember troopers go to war and troupers go on stage: one swears and one smiles.

Disclaimer: According to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, trooper has been used so often instead of trouper to mean “a resilient, hard-working, reliable, or uncomplaining person” that this spelling has become acceptable. So go ahead and use it, if you must. But isn't it nice to know the difference?

Tuesday 17 November 2015

Wrack vs. Rack

The difference between wrack and rack is more than a wandering w. Though the two words have increasingly become interchangeable, they have different meanings.

On the rack

To say your nerves are racked is to suggest they have been stretched on a medieval torture device called the rack. Wrack, on the other hand, is an old-fashioned version of wreck that was originally used to mean a shipwreck.

Confusing the two is understandable, as a nerve-racking experience can leave you feeling something of a wreck. Just remember that expressions with rack are not about destruction but about unbearable tension—being stretched until you beg for the sweet release of death. For example, you can be racked with guilt or rack your brain for information.

  • She was racked with pain at the sight of the strip mall’s architecture.
  • I’ve been on the rack since yesterday’s rain of frogs, nervously awaiting the End Times.
  • It’s such a shame he’s let his father’s old teaspoon museum go to wrack and ruin.
  • “Ring the alarum-bell! Blow, wind! Come, wrack!”

Wrack and ruin

That said, today most dictionaries will allow “nerve-wracking” and “wrack your brain” as acceptable variant spellings. And the expression “wrack and ruin” has been spelled both with and without a w since at least 1599.

No one ever accused the English language of being consistent.

Monday 26 October 2015

Alright vs. All Right

There is no such word as alright. Banish it at once from your vocabulary! The correct form is all right.

  • First, ask the decapitation victim, “Are you all right?”
  • All right, what’s going on in your boudoir?

First, ask the decapitation victim, "Are you all right?"

“But, but…!” I can hear you say. “What about already? What about altogether? If those words are acceptable, why not alright?”

Yes, it’s true lexicographers (a.k.a. dictionary makers), acting as the bouncers guarding the doors to the English language, have deemed already and altogether cool enough to join the party. Alright, however, is still kicking its heels outside the club, smoking a cigarette and pretending to check its phone.

The Oxford English Dictionary (or OED to grammar nerds) calls alright a “nonstandard” spelling that “is strongly criticized in the vast majority of usage guides.” The American Heritage Dictionary agrees with the “nonstandard” tag, and the Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines alright as a “disputed variant of all right.”

All right, what's going on in your boudoir?

You may feel that in using alright you are jumping ahead of the stodgy word police and adopting a spelling which will no doubt become accepted in the future. You may be right—but in your attempt to be forward-looking, you risk coming across as ignorant and ill informed.

Until the happy dawn of an alright-embracing world, stick to all right.

Thursday 15 October 2015

Commas, Names, and Chopsticks

Should you put commas around a person’s name? Trick question! It depends on the sentence.

My sister Irina is the one with the absinthe habit.

In some cases, names should be held between a pair of commas like a piece of sushi between chopsticks; in others, commas are as superfluous and undesirable as a chaperone at an orgy. The difference is whether or not the name is needed to understand the sentence.

  • The poet Yeats did not take rejection well.
  • The next poet on the syllabus, Yeats, did not take rejection well.

In the first example, removing the name would change the sentence. “What poet?” we’d wonder. “Who are they talking about?” In the second example, taking out Yeats doesn’t change the meaning. We still know who’s being talked about—the next poet on the syllabus.

Commas go around a name when it can be picked up and removed from the sentence without changing its meaning.

  • My sister Irina is the one with the limp and the absinthe habit.
  • My sister, Irina, is the one with the limp and the absinthe habit.

Which sentence is correct? Both are, but they’re describing different situations. In the first, the speaker has more than one sister. Take out the name, and you won’t know which of her many booze-addled sisters she’s talking about. The name is essential, so it has no commas.

In the second sentence, the speaker has only one sister. Take out Irina and the sentence tells you the same thing it did before. The name is nonessential, so it’s set off with commas. The framing commas signal an interruption, a psst! What they contain is side business—informative, maybe, but not an integral part of the sentence.

  • My werewolf, Duane, lives in the basement rec room.

This is fine if you only have one werewolf; his name can be removed from the sentence without changing its meaning. But what if you have a whole pack of werewolves stashed in your house? You need the word Duane so your reader won’t think you’re talking about your other werewolves, Geraldine, Wallace, and Leticia.

  • My werewolf Duane lives in the basement rec room with the rest of his pack.

Disclaimer: Though this used to be a hard-and-fast rule, in The Chicago Manual of Style’s compilation of Q&As, But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”? (2016), the authors say these sorts of commas are now optional where the meaning is obvious. So, for example, you may write “my husband Hieronymus is a painter” without fear that your readers will assume you have more than one husband.

Job Titles and Commas

Unnecessary commas like to creep in when a name follows a job title or description, but you can weed out the extras using the same principle as above.

  • Loyalist Spies and Their Lizards was written by renowned historian and amateur herpetologist Elena Gutierrez.

Without the name we are left scratching our heads and wondering “Who? Which historian/reptile enthusiast can they mean?” Her name is essential, therefore comma-less.

  • Loyalist Spies and Their Lizards was written by Belleville’s own renowned historian and amateur herpetologist, Elena Gutierrez.

Belleville can boast only one historian and herpetologist, so even without her name we’d still know who’s being referred to. Since the name can be plucked out without changing the sentence, it is set apart with a comma.

  • Chartered accountant Neville Wimsey dreamed of being a lion tamer.
  • Our company’s chartered accountant, Neville Wimsey, dreamed of being a lion tamer.

Direct Address Loves Commas

Another situation in which names need commas is when you are speaking to someone directly.

  • Fatima, I don’t think you understand what this eggplant means to me.
  • Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor, not a go-go dancer!

Grab a flamingo, everyone!

Such names are always set off with commas—even when they’re not actually names:

  • Death, where is thy sting?
  • Grab a flamingo, everyone, and start playing!

In fact, the chopsticks-and-sushi rule can apply to all kinds of words and phrases. This is where grammar nerds like to throw around the terms restrictive clause and nonrestrictive clause, meaning words that are essential to the sentence and words that are not. But I’ll save more on that for a later post. In the meantime, reader, pick up your commas and dig in!

Saturday 10 October 2015

Hoard vs. Horde

A hoard and a horde

Would a dragon sleep on it? Has it been saved up painstakingly over the years? Then the word you want is hoard, meaning “stash, stockpile, or cache.”

  • I keep a hoard of no-cook meals in the basement for the inevitable day when the home appliances rise up against their masters.

Horde is best known for being your standard barbarian’s preferred grouping, as in “the barbarian horde.” It suggests an unruly mob or a large, savage pack of animals.

  • Screaming and gibbering, the horde of tween girls broke down the doors of the boy band’s concert venue and tore the security guards to shreds.