Using an apostrophe for plurals is known in Britain as a greengrocer's apostrophe because of the surfeit of handwritten signs outside stores and stalls selling fruits and vegetables that say APPLE’S and ORANGE’S. It's become a standing joke!
"Use of conversational 'tee-ups' can obscure what you are trying to say, but also may signal that you are being insincere." (Adam Doughty)
A friend of mine recently started a conversation with these words: "Don't take this the wrong way…" I wish I could tell you what she said next. But I wasn't listening—my brain had stalled. I was bracing for the sentence that would follow that phrase, which experience has taught me probably wouldn't be good.
Certain phrases just seem to creep into our daily speech. We hear them a few times and suddenly we find ourselves using them. We like the way they sound, and we may find they are useful. They may make it easier to say something difficult or buy us a few extra seconds to collect our next thought.
Yet for the listener, these phrases are confusing. They make it fairly impossible to understand, or even accurately hear, what the speaker is trying to say. Consider: "I want you to know…" or "I'm just saying…" or "I hate to be the one to tell you this…"
Often, these phrases imply the opposite of what the words mean, as with the phrase, "I'm not saying…" as in "I'm not saying we have to stop seeing each other, but…" Take this sentence: "I want to say that your new haircut looks fabulous." In one sense, it's true: The speaker does wish to tell you that your hair looks great. But does he or she really think it is so or just want to say it? It's unclear.
Language expertshave textbook names for these phrases—"performatives" or "qualifiers." Essentially, taken alone, they express a simple thought, such as "I am writing to say…" At first, they seem harmless, formal, maybe even polite. But coming before another statement, they often signal that bad news, or even some dishonesty on the part of the speaker, will follow.
"Politeness is another word for deception," says James W. Pennebaker, chair of the psychology department of the University of Texas at Austin, who studies these phrases. "The point is to formalize social relations so you don't have to reveal your true self." In other words, "if you're going to lie, it's a good way to do it—because you're not really lying. So it softens the blow," Dr. Pennebaker says.
Of course, it's generally best not to lie, Dr. Pennebaker notes. But because these sayings so frequently signal untruth, they can be confusing even when used in a neutral context. No wonder they often lead to a breakdown in personal communications.
Some people refer to these phrases as "tee-ups." That is fitting. What do you do with a golf ball? You put it on a peg at the tee—tee it up—and then give it a giant wallop.
Betsy Schow says she felt like she was "hit in the stomach by a cannonball" the day she was preparing to teach one of her first yoga classes. A good friend—one she'd assumed had shown up to support her—approached her while she was warming up. She was in the downward-facing dog pose when she heard her friend say, "I am only telling you this because I love you…" The friend pointed out that lumps were showing beneath Ms. Schow's yoga clothes and said people laughed at her behind her back because they thought she wasn't fit enough to teach yoga.
Ms. Schow had recently lost a lot of weight and written a book about it. She says the woman also mentioned that Ms. Schow's friends felt she was "acting better than they were." Then the woman offered up the name of a doctor who specializes in liposuction. "Hearing that made me feel sick," says Ms. Schow, a 32-year-old fitness consultant in Alpine, Utah. "Later, I realized that her 'help' was no help at all."
Tee-ups have probably been around as long as language, experts say. They seem to be used with equal frequency by men and women, although there aren't major studies of the issue. Their use may be increasing as a result of social media, where people use phrases such as "I am thinking that…" or "As far as I know…" both to avoid committing to a definitive position and to manage the impression they make in print.
"Awareness about image management is increased anytime people put things into print, such as in email or on social networks," says Jessica Moore, department chair and assistant professor at the College of Communication at Butler University, Indianapolis. "Thus people often make caveats to their statements that function as a substitute for vocalized hedges."
And people do this hedging—whether in writing or in speech—largely unconsciously, Dr. Pennebaker says. "We are emotionally distancing ourselves from our statement, without even knowing it," he says.
So, if tee-ups are damaging our relationships, yet we often don't even know we're using them, what can we do? Start by trying to be more aware of what you are saying. Tee-ups should serve as yellow lights. If you are about to utter one, slow down. Proceed with caution. Think about what you are about to say.
"If you are feeling a need to use them a lot, then perhaps you should consider the possibility that you are saying too many unpleasant things to or about other people," says Ellen Jovin, co-founder of Syntaxis, a communication-skills training firm in New York. She considers some tee-up phrases to be worse than others.
"Don't take this the wrong way…" is "ungracious," she says. "It is a doomed attempt to evade the consequences of a comment." Her advice is either to abort your speaking mission and think about whether what you wanted to say is something you should say, or to say what you want to say without using the phrase.
"Eliminating it will automatically force you to find other more productive ways to be diplomatic," Ms. Jovin says. "To be perfectly honest…" is another phrase to strike from your speech, she says. It often prefaces negative comments, and can seem condescending. It signals a larger issue: If you are taking the trouble to announce your honesty now, maybe you aren't always truthful.
"You are more likely to seem like someone who is perfectly honest when you are no longer commenting on it," Ms. Jovin says.
We don’t understand why Macy’s full-page newspaper ad for Elizabeth Arden cosmetics (page A16, San Francisco Chronicle, January 12) is headlined #ONLY ONE STAR. Seems like having only one star is a bad rating for any business or product. What could they possibly have been thinking (or smoking) when they created that lame headline?!
(Posted by John Maybury, Pacifica Riptide, Pacifica, California)
The front page of the San Francisco Chronicle (December 30, 2013) had four feature stories (breast milk, foster children, teachers’ high rents, hard-luck tale about an athlete) and not one single hard-news story. And it is the same sad story almost daily in this once-great newspaper.
I thought that features went inside and the front page was just for news. Or so I was schooled by my journalism instructor at UCSB.
I wrote a letter to the editor of the Chronicle about this (as I have done on several previous occasions). But none of my letters have ever run. Jeez, talk about thin skin!
(Posted by John Maybury, Pacifica Riptide, Pacifica, California)
“If the mission is successful, India will become only the fourth nation to visit the red planet after the Soviet Union, the United States and Europe.” (Associated Press story about India’s rocket launch to Mars, printed in San Francisco Chronicle, November 6, 2013; later corrected to say three nations plus the European Space Agency)
When the Pacifica Tribune website is run by the San Jose Mercury News (50 miles away), this is the kind of absurdity you get: a headline typo that shows total lack of awareness of Pacifica. And if you think that's bad, did you know that Tribune display ads are laid out by "designers" in India?
"Black sheep" is rather an odd phrase to choose to epitomise worthlessness. Why sheep? Black cats are supposed to be lucky and badgers, dolphins, pandas and penguins, which are all primarily black, are considered cute.
First thoughts might suggest that it came about because of the linking of black things with bad things, which is a long standing allusion in English texts -- black mood, black looks or (where I come from) the Black Country. It may also be because shepherds disliked black sheep as their fleeces weren't suitable for dying and so were worth less than those of white sheep.
In fact, it is more likely to have derived from a bit of misinterpretation by the writers of early English Bibles. Myles Coverdale's 1535 Bible, which was the first complete bible printed in English, renders Genesis 30:32 as:
‘All blacke shepe amonge the lambes’
which Coverdale had translated from a German source text. Like bloggers and web publishers these days, the writers of early bibles copied from each other without checking their sources. Other bibles have the text as ‘all the browne cattell among the sheepe’ or ‘every speckled and spotted sheep and every black lamb’. In the original texts, the Genesis 30:32 story is that the shepherd Jacob suggested that he remove any spotted, dark or otherwise identifiable sheep or goats from his master's flock in order to be able to later demonstrate that he hadn't stolen any white ones. The 'black sheep' were actually a mark of integrity rather than disrepute.
The 'Chinese whispers' of the early bible versions caused the original meaning to become lost and confused readers into the belief that the dark sheep were removed because they were worthless.
The first record of 'black sheep' in a derogatory sense that I can find in print is from an English Puritan who emigrated to America in 1635, the appropriately named Thomas Shepard, in the evangelical text The Sincere Convert, 1640:
Cast out all the Prophane people among us, as drunkards, swearers, whores, lyers, which the Scripture brands for blacke sheepe, and condemnes them in a 100. places.
Meanwhile, back in England, black sheep maintained the same status as black cats. The long-standing English country tradition that black sheep are omens of good fortune remained until the 19th century. The Folk-Lore Record, 1878, included this piece:
"We speak figuratively of the one black sheep that is the cause of sorrow in a family; but in its reality it is regarded by the Sussex shepherd as an omen of good luck to his flock."
Baa, Baa, Black Sheep is one of the oldest English nursery rhymes and was first printed in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book, circa 1744 and is certainly much older than the 18th century. The original printed form is almost the same as the version familiar today:
Bah, Bah a black Sheep, Have you any Wool? Yes merry have I, Three Bags full, One for my master, One for my Dame, One for the little Boy That lives down the lane
Like most nursery rhymes, the interpretation of the text is a source of debate. It has been suggested in recent years that it contains a racial slur which, to this reader at least, seems speculative and based on little more than it includes the word 'black'. If there is a negative connotation it is that the rhyme may refer to the unpopular export tax on wool imposed in 1275.
That country lore was overtaken by the figurative use of the 'black sheep' that we now commonly use.
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[Editor's Note: British spelling and punctuation differs from American English style.]
1. “Deep in the mountains of northern
Idaho, miles from the nearest town, lays evidence of a little-known portion of
a shameful chapter in American history.” (Shame on the Associated Press for using the incorrect
verb "lays" instead of "lies"!)
2. "Victim of stabbing was wife of her
killer” (Shame on the San Francisco Chronicle for this awkward headline. It would have been much simpler as “Man
fatally stabs his wife”!)
3. World Wide Words (worldwidewords.org) publishes bloopers like the following in its "Sic!" column: "(from an article in The Independent on August 12 about the
Australian general election) On the campaign trail and addressing a
Liberal Party event in the city of Melbourne [opposition leader
Tony] Abbott said: 'No one—however smart, however well-educated,
however experienced—is the suppository of all wisdom.'"(Our writer friend Mitchell Hall says, "If
the editors of World Wide News find similar statements, they could cite them
under a new heading, Analects.")
NEW YORK—Law enforcement officials confirmed Friday that four more copy editors were killed this week amid ongoing violence between two rival gangs divided by their loyalties to the The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual Of Style. “At this time we have reason to believe the killings were gang-related and carried out by adherents of both the AP and Chicago styles, part of a vicious, bloody feud to establish control over the grammar and usage guidelines governing American English,” said FBI spokesman Paul Holstein, showing reporters graffiti tags in which the word “anti-social” had been corrected to read “antisocial.” “The deadly territory dispute between these two organizations, as well as the notorious MLA Handbook gang, has claimed the lives of more than 63 publishing professionals this year alone.” Officials also stated that an innocent 35-year-old passerby who found himself caught up in a long-winded dispute over use of the serial, or Oxford, comma had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.