Living in a Material(ized) World

When something “materializes”, what happens exactly?

If I’m on the spot, I’ll say something goes from a state of being invisible or nonexistent to visible or existent.

But there are a lot of gray areas there… magical, even spooky stuff.

There’s a nice fat usage note on “materialize” in the American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition. Let’s break it down:

“In its original sense, materialize is used without an object to mean ‘to assume material form,’ as in Marley’s ghost materialized before Scrooge’s eyes…”


*chains rattle*


So it sounds like back in Dickens’s day, the word was reserved for the literal description of an invisible thing reverse-fading (is that what you call it?) into visibility.

What have we done since then?

“But these uses are probably less common nowadays than the two extended senses of the verb. In the first, the meaning is roughly ‘to appear suddenly,’ as in No sooner had we set the menu down than a waiter materialized at our table.

I like the idea of “extended sense”. Isn’t extending sense how language evolves?

The waiter wasn’t a chain-lugging ghost who emerged from some ether to take a mozzarella stick order.

He just walked over to the table. But as far as the hungry, distracted diners were concerned, he may as well have pulled a Jacob Marley.

Not everybody is happy about this:

“Some critics have labeled this use as pretentious or incorrect, but it has been around for more than a century, appears in the writing of highly respected writers, and seems a natural extension of the original sense.”

Have these critics ever succeeded in shutting down a change to English? I’m imagining  Gandalf and the Balrog: (“YOU SHALL NOT PASS!“)

If you know of such an instance, please let me know in the comments.

One more step in the evolution of materialize:

“Materialize tends to be applied to things or events that have been foreseen or anticipated, and usually occurs in negative constructions: The promised subsidies never materialized. It was thought the community would opposed the measure, but no new objections materialized.”

So we’ve ended up at materialize referring to: Things that never existed continuing to never exist.

And even if they came into existence–objections, subsidies, whatever–they would still just be intangible words or numbers.

I’d say this is fitting in our increasingly digital world of bitcoins, blog posts, information products, et al. What can we still touch?

The tangible is fading, like Jacob Marley back into the fireplace.

What does the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come have to show us tonight?

If it ain’t broke…

“1. (Also to fix up.) To prepare (food or drink.) You must fix me a drink, Fanny Trollope said in her Domestic Manners of the Americans (1839); and Bret Harte, an American writer, in a work of 1891, wrote Mother’ll fix you suthin’ hot. The use is familiar in BrE, but when used is still regarded as a conscious Americansm.”

-Fowler’s Modern English Usage

I’ve always found it irritating when fix is used to describe the preparation of food or drink. I wonder why. I suppose it’s just a completely superfluous use of a word that works really hard and really effectively throughout the rest of the language.

Why make it work overtime where its services aren’t even needed? To describe the various actions you take to turn a bunch of ingredients into a bouillabaisse or gin fizz, make  is fine… dare I say better, with its connotations of creating.

Yet fix sticks around. And no one is the worse for it, so I ultimately file this away as a usage pet peeve that I have no grounds for proselytizing about.

I am curious about the geographical distribution of fixing things that end up in someone’s mouth. The Fowler’s entry suggests it’s America-wide, citing uses by Norman Mailer and Bret Harte (who is Californian as far as his writing is concerned, and I had to Google to be sure he was a different person from “The Hitman”).

And also southerner Eudora Welty, which aligns with my idea of where the word is used this way–thinking of my good buddy from the south who has fixed me a cocktail or two over the years, and they’ve all tasted good, which I guess is all that matters.



What Obamacare and Snap Polling Tell Us About Prepositional Phrases


“Alexi Halavazis, 25, also of Herndon, Va., cast his first presidential vote for Obama. He said the reason was Obama’s health care law, which allows him to be covered by his parents’ medical coverage. With ‘Obamacare. I can stay on my parents plant (sic), at least for another year, and it helps my parents because of the pre-existing conditions’ requirement that they cannot be denied health care, Halavazis said.'”

-USA Today

Isn’t it weird how that quotation from Alexi Halavazis  beginning “Obamacare” is presented up there? I’m not implying anything was taken out of context or otherwise fudged by the reporters (two names are in the article’s byline), but what an awkward way of making it flow with the rest of the narrative.

I presume the reporters asked Mr. Halavazis some version of “Why did you vote for Obama?” and his response was “Obamacare. I can stay…”. But then , by summarizing the quote before actually presenting it, they put themselves in the situation of needing to make the quote a prepositional phrase.

Weirdness ensued.

Is there a better-written alternative to what ended up getting published? These come to mind:

  1. Ditch the summary of the quote, and just put the quote up top. “…vote for Obama, because of ‘Obamacare. I can stay…” This may not be best practices from a journalistic standpoint, and the reporters certainly know more than I do about that sort of thing.
  2. Place “With” inside the quotation mark. Probably not ethical.
  3. Make the period after “Obamacare” a comma. Also maybe not so ethical, though in speech, can’t commas sound like periods sometimes? How full was the stop in his voice after he said “Obamacare.”


Anyway, it’s a quickie article on the biggest content-barrage evening in America. Let’s enjoy our election night parties and not split too many hairs.

On the other hand, gotta love their typo about staying on his “parent’s plant”.

How Safe Is Your Syntax From A Dangling Modifier?


Having determined that dangling modifiers make the writer look like a chump, Layman’s Terms will avoid them from now on.

Wait, wait…  Layman’s Terms didn’t determine anything. I did! For myself, at least. You probably knew it already. But it’s another rule of usage that was never on any test I took.

The worst ones sure do look bad. Bill Bryson uses “Handing me my whisky, his face broke into an awkward smile” as the poster pimple illustrating this syntactical blemish. It’s a funny one–the face hands the whisky.

But it’s not often that a truly egregious dangling modifier like it finds its way into print. I think our brains come standard with a low threshold for such jumbling.

Avoiding the passive voice is one way of staying out of trouble. Purdue University’s helpful online grammar site gives several examples of dangling modifiers, almost all of which flop because of passive voice in the main clause.

Here’s my modest proposal: Just don’t begin any sentences with modifying clauses. You’ll never get a dangler. And even when the modifier is clear about what it modifies, it usually sounds bad.

How many terrible bio blurbs begin with something like “A passionate world traveler, gourmande and djembe beater, Petunia Zickafoose is a polymath without equal…”? No laws are broken here, but it sets my AMATEUR! alarm blaring.

Put the main thing first, then tell more about it.

The Shocking Truth About Hyperbole


So a headline is there to grab the reader by the earlobes and leave him no choice but to read the sub-headline, which is there to grab him by the eyelids and leave him no choice but to read the first sentence, and so forth.

The AdWords revenue just gushes forth from there, right?

Even if no one literally says that’s how it works, there is no shortage of do-or-die advice about the need to grab attention right away in a blog post or any other type of article.

And it’s all correct–attention spans are growing scarcer than fossil fuels as the internet continues to have its way with our brains, and the headline is the shiny, spinning lure that is the writer’s only chance of getting fish to bite.

But I have some reservations about how this wisdom is applied. At what point does being provocative and attention-getting cross the line into poor taste or even dishonesty? OMG Cat isn’t so cute after all? Pringles cause cancer? Defibrillators might not work? 

Maybe a line can be drawn by saying you have to be able to back up your shocking truth, but nowadays you can back up any claim and find (or become) an expert in no time. In the context of a blog post, what are the odds you’re really going to be fact-checked?

Hyperbole is OK, but integrity is really cool.

Almost there!


Hey, this guy looks familiar.

“But “almost” is also a stringer, a filler. Two extra syllables, like blush after makeup, just that requisite fuzziness, like ambiguity in an instance of total candor.”

-André Aciman, writing in The New York Times, 9/15/12

Even though he can’t resist taking a peanut gallery potshot at Strunk and White, André Aciman does a good thing for all of us “almost”-abusers who need that spoonful of ambiguity more often than is healthy. Namely, he forces us to examine our compulsion.

It just makes writing a lot easier, taking that extra second to install an escape pod just in case anyone calls us out on the claim that would have been without “almost”:

  • “No, no, the movie was almost as bad as Gigli!”
  • “No, no! I was so mad I almost split the kitchen table in half with an axe!”
A world without “almost”, where everyone is positive beyond any doubt about their every declarative sentence–or at least has the guts to pretend to be–isn’t a real one.

André Aciman’s article deftly analyzes more nuanced uses of the word, though what I ultimately understand as I finish it is that the meaning of “almost” is alm–no, IS!–worth an entire book.

Or at least a bloated Times Magazine twelve-pager.


Wait, Which Friday Night?

Last  The last issue of The Economist implies its extinction; prefer last week’s or the latest issue.” 

The Economist Style Guide

Does it imply that? Oxford New American Dictionary concedes that “last” can mean “most recent in time; latest”. But that’s definition #2.  #1 is “coming after all others in time or order; final.”

No one would fault the preference for #1, but the Style Guide is speaking with a conspicuous lack of British restraint in trying to strike #2 from the lexicon.

The context would need to be nonexistent or at least very specific for any intelligent reader to think that “the last Bagehot column was a bloody disgraceful wankfest” means that the bloody disgraceful wankfest was the final Bagehot column.

It seems here that the E is trying to impose order on a snowflake by pushing for a style rule on “last”. The system is policing itself, don’t tread on it.

O(h), O(h), O(h) It’s Magic, You Know

Is it “O Face” or “Oh Face”?

O, oh.  O is confined almost exclusively to religious and poetic contexts.  By convention it is always capitalized and never followed by punctuation.

-Bill Bryson, Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words

James Joyce snuck it through, but good luck to anyone else using “O” in a way that isn’t all the worst kinds of self-aware. It’s kind of a shame, since “O” is appealing not just for its simplicity but also its utter symmetrical roundness. It looks like something Oddjob could throw and behead a stone statue.

So sometime in the middle 16th century “O” picked up an “h” on the end. The OED offers this in its “Oh” entry:

Etymology: Variant of O int., probably intended to express a longer or stronger sound.”

Longer and stronger sound. Ohhhhhhhhhh, I get it. Maybe. Still, why? What was wrong with “O”? Did someone decide something so elegant should be reserved for special occasions?

Thanks a lot! Even if it once did, the “h” no longer pulls its weight, perfectly illustrated here:

The “O” is carrying the honey, the grahams, the grains, everything… the lazy “h” is just along for the ride.

Although not quite the all-purpose Leatherman multi-tool that Yiddish has in “Nu”, O(h) is the most versatile morpheme available to us. Disappointment, surprise, enlightenment, Oh Face–you can have a whole day’s worth of agony and ecstasy with little else to express yourself. It’s an important word, and its aesthetically nicer version is off-limits in everyday writing.

Oh well.

Whoa Whoa Whoa

7. Do Not Overstate

When you overstate, readers will be instantly on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that has followed it will be suspect in their minds because they have lost confidence in your judgment and your poise.”

-The Elements of Style

Let’s take this one for a spin:

I was born in 1983 at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital (now New York-Presbyterian Hospital). While expecting, my parents at first liked “Sam” as a tag for their undeclared son, then second-guessed the schoolyard liability of being named after the elder statesman of Texas. Because any third grade thug is just killing time until he can ace the AP U.S. History exam, yeah?

So they arrived somehow at “James”. Red Bull is the greatest scientific discovery of the later twentieth century. I finished school, tried and failed to become the next Mark Knopfler, and today am still alive.

Did my overstatement kill the rest of the story? I don’t think so, though maybe when I look at this again tomorrow I’ll see it did.

I concede the basic point, though. Spewing easily-disproved hyperbole is a reliable way to set off B.S. detectors, which you should probably assume are up to date and numerous, and will be reading your work sooner or later.

So how did Sam H. affect his legacy when he apocryphally said,

“Texas has yet to learn submission to any oppression, come from what source it may.”




Boing Boing

caoutchouc. This strange-looking word, adopted in the 18c. from a Quechua word via Spanish and French, is pronounced /ka℧t∫℧k/.” –Fowler’s Modern English Usage

I can’t believe this is in any English dictionary. The last time I heard it spoken–sung, actually–was in fourth grade French class circa 1994, where we were tasked with reciting some nutball song about trampolines and rubber babies that was supposedly not in English.

But it is in the American Heritage Dictionary 4th Ed., as well as the catch-all dictionary that comes packaged with Macs. (It means “unvulcanized natural rubber”.)

At least Fowler grants, with classic British restraint, that it is “strange-looking”. Caoutchouc is strange everything. Between the triple vowel and the arguably silent “c” on the end, this is a lingusitic three dollar bill if ever I choked on one.

English speaking muscles are not set up to handle a word like /ka℧t∫℧k/. Even if it would (probably) sound awesome sneered by Mick Jagger, I don’t know what sex innuendo he could rhyme it with.

Obviously it will not remain in the language.  It would make my week interesting to hear from anyone who has encountered or, for planet Vulcan’s sake, used caoutchouc in the past ten years.  Preferably someone with no connections to the rubber industry, but I doubt even the Fitzcarraldos of 2012 are punishing their larynxes with this anymore.

I can only imagine what throat-contorting morphemes comprise the Quechua word for rubber after vulcanization.

Live long and bounce back.