Category Archives: diction

They Said It on The West Wing

CJ Cregg at lectern

C. J. Cregg at the press-room lectern

Are you a Wingnut—that is, a person who still enjoys watching and discussing episodes of the TV show The West Wing more than a decade after the program went off the air? Do you know what the characters are going to say before they say it? Do you have entire conversations committed to memory? Have you ever asked, “What’s next, Mrs. Landingham?” for no particular reason? Did you view the film The American President multiple times so as to spot similarities with The West Wing in plot, script, and casting?

If so, you’re a little bit loopy—and I’m your lawyer. No, wait! Ainsley Hayes (played by Emily Procter) is your lawyer. I, on the other hand, am your grammar and pronunciation critic.

It’s been many years since I owned a television set, but once I discovered Netflix I quickly found my way to more than 150 West Wing episodes spanning seven seasons from 1999 to 2007. The series is so intelligent, witty, and well paced—particularly the first four seasons, before Aaron Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme left the show—it practically ruined me for other televised entertainment.

But I was ready to move on. Enough is enough, I thought. I tried to watch House of Cards—Netflix seemed to think I’d enjoy it—but House of Cards was too dark and took itself too seriously. The characters were amoral and scheming, and I didn’t care if they lived, died, or ate each other’s digestive organs for breakfast, much less gained positions of power and influence. I had the same reaction to Mad Men.

I had just settled in to watch the BBC’s Planet Earth when I learned of a new podcast, The West Wing Weekly. Podcast hosts Hrishikesh Hirway (Hrishi) and Joshua Malina (Josh, who played Will Bailey on The West Wing) were funny and charming, and they were going to devote an entire hour, once a week, to the discussion of a single West Wing episode. What could I do but go along?

When examining a program minutely, naturally you’re going to pick it to pieces. You’re going to recall your favorite moments, rave about the acting, and criticize the ways in which the TV show isn’t like Real Life. That’s what you do. “That could never have happened,” you think, forgetting for a moment that The West Wing isn’t a documentary. Hrishi once observed that, after Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (played by Bradley Whitford) was shot and rushed to the hospital, he was removed from the ambulance head first, whereas an actual gunshot victim would come out feet first since the oxygen and other lifesaving equipment are kept toward the front of the vehicle.


PRESIDENT BARTLET: I like your sass.

C. J. You’ve got a very nice sass yourself… sir.


The argument starts when Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) compliments Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter) on her appearance—“Hayes, you could make a good dog break his leash”—offending office temp Celia Walton (Alanna Ubach), who upbraids Sam for what she considers a sexist remark. Also present are Charlie Young (Dulé Hill) and Ginger (Kim Webster). Ainsley—appealed to when she returns to the room—says flatly, “He’s not a sexist.” Celia presses the point.

CELIA: If you’re willing to let your sexuality diminish your power.

AINSLEY: I’m sorry?

CELIA: I said, I’m surprised you’re willing to let your sexuality diminish your power.

AINSLEY: I don’t even know what that means.

CELIA: I think you do.

AINSLEY: And I think you think I’m made out of candy glass, Celia. If somebody says something that offends you, tell them. But all women don’t have to think alike.

CELIA: I didn’t say they did. And when someone said something that offended me, I did say so.

AINSLEY: I like it when the guys tease me. It’s an inadvertent show of respect I’m on the team, and I don’t mind it when it gets sexual. And you know what? I like sex.


AINSLEY: I don’t think whatever sexuality I may have diminishes my power. I think it enhances it.

CELIA: And what kind of feminism do you call that?

AINSLEY: My kind.

GINGER: It’s called lipstick feminism. I call it stiletto feminism.

SAM: Stilettos?

AINSLEY: You’re not in enough trouble already?

SAM: I suppose I am.

CELIA: Isn’t the point that Sam wouldn’t have been able to find another way to be chummy with a woman who wasn’t sexually appealing?

AINSLEY: He would be able to. But that isn’t the point. The point is that sexual revolution tends to get in the way of actual revolution. Nonsense issues distract attention away from real ones. Pay equity, child care, honest-to-God sexual harassment. And in this case, a speech in front of the U. N. General Assembly. So… stop trying to take the fun out of my day. With that, I’m going to get a cupcake.


Mandy Hampton (Moira Kelly) lasts only one season as a White House media-relations consultant. Hard to believe, as she tells us early on how young and cute she is, despite having earned a bachelor’s degree in art history, a master’s degree in communications, and a Ph.D. in political science.

I’ve never seen this actor elsewhere; on The West Wing, at least, she’s shrill, abrasive, and self-absorbed. The writers don’t give her lines that are likely to endear her to audiences, but her delivery is alternately scolding and just short of hysterical. Here she is in repartee with Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) and C. J. Cregg (Allison Janney):

MANDY: Are you listening to me?

TOBY: Yes.

MANDY: What was the last thing I said?

TOBY: The last thing you said was, “Are you listening to me?”

MANDY: You guys are idiots, did you know that?

C. J.: In our own defense, we actually do know that.

MANDY: Would you tell him that signing the bill and, thus, swallowing the bitter pill of strip mining would not foreclose a PR approach that would trumpet banking reforms while at the same time excoriating the special-interest strip-mining scam which, by the way, is what I am happy to call it? Tell him that.

C. J.: Toby, Mandy wants you to recommend to the president that we do it her way.

TOBY: Did you understand what she said?

C. J.: No, but she seemed pretty confident.


West Wing First Daughter Zoey Bartlet (Elisabeth Moss) reminds her father that she “graduated high school.” White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler mentions that he “graduated college.” Zoey and Toby, both of whom are bright and well educated, surely meant to say “graduated from high school [or college]” but were, we suppose, distracted by a flying insect of some sort.

You can’t “graduate college” any more than you can “go college” or “arrive college.” In this instance, the verb “to graduate” is acting as an intransitive verb, and intransitive verbs cannot take on an object. — Sept. 14, 2010


Podcast cohost Hrishikesh Hirway is an accomplished musician and composer who comes across as brilliant, poised, and so likable that it made me a little sad to hear him mispronounce homage as oh-MAZH.

The Cambridge Dictionary gives the U.S. pronunciation of homage as HOM-ij, while the New York Times has this to say (, Nov. 5, 2010):

As with other leading American dictionaries, Webster’s New World currently recognizes two equally accepted pronunciations of the word: either HOM-ij or OM-ij. Since the pronunciation with “h” is listed first, that would favor “a homage” over “an homage.”

Refrain from saying oh-MAZH unless you are French and you cannot help yourself.


Numerous West Wing characters have been known to drop their H’s. To drop or not to drop—that is the question, as it pertains to the initial H in an English word. A pronounced H is said with a burst of sound, as in house, history, and high. People who would never say “an HIS-tor-y of Rome” may yet be heard to omit the H sound in a phrase such as “an ‘is-TOR-i-cal account.”

It is commonly noted in literature from late Victorian times to the early 20th century that some lower-class people consistently drop h in words that should have it, while adding h to words that should not have it. An example from the musical My Fair Lady is, “In ‘Artford, ‘Ereford, and ‘Ampshire, ‘urricanes ‘ardly hever ‘appen.” —Wikipedia

Don’t try to formulate a rule about this; it’s complicated, depending in part on how words entered the English language and what happened after they got here. It’s more a matter of custom than logic. For herb, the British pronounce the initial H—HERB. American-English–speakers say the older version, ERB, though to kill weeds they buy HERB-i-cide.


Eli Attie, a onetime West Wing writer and consultant, is a regular guest on The West Wing Weekly podcast. During one of his guest spots, he says short-LIVED with a short I, as in GIVE. Actually, the I in -lived should be long, as in HIVE.


C. J. pronounces this word PEW-litz-er. Josh and Hrishi discuss the matter at some length on a podcast episode. Hrishi reveals that the correct pronunciation is “PULL-it-sir,” and to make double-darn sure he telephones the Pulitzer offices to see how callers are greeted. If C. J. didn’t know better, someone else should have, wouldn’t you think—at least one of the other members of the West Wing cast and crew. Sigh.


Practically everybody on The West Wing says podium when they mean lectern or rostrum. You stand ON a podium and BEHIND a lectern, people. I have written (superbly) on this very topic; please see


To err is human, but if you don’t want to compound your error, do not pronounce ERR like “AIR.” It should rhyme with FUR. It was Toby Ziegler who committed this solecism on The West Wing, and I still haven’t quite gotten over it.

Why Me?


Why should I do business with you instead of somebody else?

What is your organization’s unique selling proposition (USP)? Generally, companies try to attract customers based on some combination of price, quality, and convenience. If your product or service isn’t the cheapest and it’s not the most convenient, then it had better be the best. Are you the best at what you do, at least in your niche? Is that niche well defined? Most important, do your employees understand it?

Note: The USP principle applies whether you are selling a product or service, an idea, a thesis, or yourself. The question remains: Why should I believe you rather than someone else who is making a comparable claim? Why should I hire you instead of another applicant? Why should I accept the premise of your essay? In fact, why should I even read what you’ve written? If USP stands for “unique selling proposition,” UIS can be an abbreviation for “unique identity statement.”

Note that USP and UIS are initialisms, not acronym.s. An acronym is pronounceable as a word. UNICEF is an acronym, as is NASA. When acronyms get comfortably embedded in the language, and they represent phrases that don’t require initial caps, they tend to go lower-case—hence radar for “radio detection and ranging,” laser for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation,” and snafu for “situation normal, all f***ed up.”

The fact is, people tend to do business with you because they like you. There’s nothing wrong with that, but likability alone isn’t usually enough to ensure long-term success.

Define your USP

Develop a USP (or UIS) that’s easy to understand. Your USP will be the basis for most of your communication: advertising, promotion, media releases, annual reports, correspondence, and so forth. Your writing tasks become easier when you are thoroughly and habitually aware of your organization’s identity (or your own).

Your USP might be similar to but not identical with your mission statement. If you are a home-health-care provider, for example, your mission might be “to help people with health challenges feel comfortable, safe, and as independent as possible in their own homes… to offer comprehensive home-health services delivered by loving, experienced, and continuously trained companions… to attract and retain the most skilled and experienced caregivers… to establish mutually beneficial relationships within the healthcare community…” and so forth.

Not so long ago I thought mission statements were a waste of time. Most of the mission statements I had seen were puffballs of verbosity, loaded with jargon and largely ignored in the organization’s day-to-day operation. But I now believe that developing a mission statement, like writing a business plan, can help a company pinpoint its USP—its reason for being and its advantages over the competition.

The sample mission statement above, however, doesn’t qualify as a USP. It could be a mission statement for any home-health-care provider. It doesn’t specify what sets you apart. It doesn’t answer the question “Why should I do business with your company and not XYZ Inc. down the street?” Among the criteria of (a) price, (b) service, and (c) convenience, where do you excel?

As a marketing consultant, I once spent six months helping “ABC Interior Design” improve its proposals… which were lackluster, to say the least. The firm had a stunning portfolio. Especially lovely were the church interiors—naves, chapels, and parlors, all gloriously yet tastefully appointed. But not one of the designers could state the company’s USP. Other firms had pretty pictures, too. In fact, three of the five lead designers had worked for the competition.

Finally, Jane, one of the three interns, mentioned that ABC was known in the profession as the best firm to work for. The corporate culture was fun and easygoing. Every so often the boss would declare “Pizza Day” and drive across town to the metro area’s primo pizzeria, paying out of pocket for luscious pies that honored every individual preference, from gluten-free to grease-soaked. In every respect, ABC treated its employees like solid gold, promoting and paying generously, understanding that relationships were the key to success and that loyal longtime employees were the key to relationships.

To broadcast this attribute, I set up a newsletter for clients, suppliers, and “strategic partners”—architects, engineers, and landscapers—highlighting personalities and relationships.

The “relationships” theme was incorporated into ABC’s branding and permeated the company culture. Hostility on the job—backbiting, unhealthy competitiveness—was nipped in the bud. The company even offered workshops on developing and sustaining positive personal relationships outside the workplace. Recognizing the need for balance, ABC’s culture and benefits were family-friendly. No employee ever had to worry that staying home with a sick kid might cost him his job.


Summarize your organization’s USP or your UIS.

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Product strategies? Off with their heads!

Craigslist handed me a beautiful gift the other day—a help-wanted ad that’s more ridiculous than one I could make up. Like many ads written in corporate-speak, it expresses a preference for applicants who “exhibit strong written & verbal communication skills” that are so plainly absent in the ad itself.

Note: By verbal, the writer probably means spoken. It’s common to see the phrase “verbal agreement,” as if any agreement expressed in words—written or spoken—were not verbal. But I pick nits, when there’s so much more to bewail in this misguided verbal-communication endeavor.

Hyphens do matter, as “exhibited” in phrases such as “cross portfolio strategies” and “cross functional stakeholders.” If there’s anything worse than a functional stakeholder, it’s an irritable functional stakeholder, I always say, when I’m talking about stakeholders of any stripe—something I go out of my way to avoid. But maybe that’s because I lack the ability to “evolve strategic & tactical elements based on research, data, & industry trends.” Perhaps one can learn to evolve such elements only in “highly matrixed” organizations. Most of my experience has evolved in organizations with lowly matrixes. I suspect I’ve even “executed collateral among stakeholders” in matrix-deficient organizations. Let’s have that be our little secret, if you don’t mind. I might need to pull the matrix card in a job interview some day.

As buzzwords go, transparency is a useful one, and this ad is anything but transparent. An organization that’s transparent doesn’t have a lot of secrets, knowing that secrets are not good for business. They’re like roaches, hiding in the dark, skittering around only when they think they won’t be noticed. Eventually someone turns a light on and they run for cover, but it’s too late. They’ve been found out.

Transparency is not served by jargon, which gives the impression that the writer is more interested in showing off—exhibiting power—than in telling a story, answering a question, or solving a problem.

Below you’ll find (a) the ad, (b) my reaction, some of which I shared in a friendly, helpful way with the advertiser, and (c) an excerpt from the Harvard Business Review Guide to Better Business Writing, whose author gleefully deplores the sort of verbiage you’re about to read… if you have the stomach for it.

The Ad

Organization seeks Marketing Specialist who supports the execution of product strategies and cross portfolio strategies and works with moderate guidance across businesses to create and execute supporting communications. 

  • Assists in the design, development, editing & execution of marketing messaging & collateral including advertisements, direct mail & technical information for targeted audiences in conjunction with internal marketing team and external agencies, including LMR processes and requirements. 


  • Understands the sales budgeting process and participates in the prioritization of tactics.
  • Exhibit strong written & verbal communication skills along with excellent interpersonal skills.
  • Demonstrated strategic thinking, initiative, and creativity.
  • Show agility with a proven ability to evolve strategic & tactical elements based on research, data & industry trends.
  • Demonstrated problem solving and analytical skills.
  • Demonstrated ability to work with cross functional stakeholders. OR. Demonstrated ability to work in a highly matrixed organization.
  • Proven track record of achieving goals. OR. Proven track record of meeting financial and other quantitative goals.
  • Demonstrated success working in a team environment.Critique


The ad reads as if it’s meant to test your knowledge of industry jargon. For example, if you don’t know what LMR stands for, evidently you need not apply. I had to look it up, and there are several definitions, not all of them printable. It could be “late-model restoration.” “Labor-management relations” is more likely, but without knowing the industry it’s hard to say. And the industry is only one of the secrets this inscrutable ad fails to communicate. The unwritten message is that this potential employer holds all the cards, some of which might be revealed if you make the cut. It’s a bullying sort of prose that hints at a bullying sort of employer. Self-important, verbally bloated, jargon-laden—these traits don’t speak well of the company. How can management possibly hire sensible people with ads like this? “Cross functional stakeholders”?  “Highly matrixed organization”? Seriously?

The day after I espied this ridiculous ad, I lambasted it on my blog with a link to a first-rate article from the Harvard Business Review, which, among other things, bemoans the use of jargon in business communication. Here’s an excerpt:

A Bizspeak Blacklist

It’s mission-critical to be plain-spoken, whether you’re trying to be best-of-breed at outside-the-box thinking or simply incentivizing colleagues to achieve a paradigm shift in core-performance value-adds. Leading-edge leveraging of your plain-English skill set will ensure that your actionable items synergize future-proof assets with your global-knowledge repository.

Just kidding.

Seriously, though, it’s important to write plainly. You want to sound like a person, not an institution. But it’s hard to do, especially if you work with people who are addicted to buzzwords. It takes a lot of practice….

[Below is]… an “index expurgatorius,” a roster of [undesirable buzzwords and jargon.] [Ed. note: (a) A few of these terms are occasionally useful and even necessary. Strategic alliance, for example, is a good term for a temporary partnership, and synergy is the only word I know of that describes how such a partnership can yield benefits greater than would be achieved by the two organizations separately.  (b) I have added jargon examples from other sources.]

actionable (apart from legal                action)


as per

at the end of the day

back of the envelope

bandwidth (apart from elec   tronics)

best of breed

best practices

boil the ocean

bring our A game

bring to the table

business model



centers of excellence

circle back around

circle with


close the loop






dialogue with




drill down

drink the Kool-Aid

ducks in a row

eating your own dog food


forward initiative


gain traction

going forward


go rogue

granular, granularity

harvesting efficiencies


helicopter view

impact (verb)





kick the can down the road



let’s do lunch

let’s take this offline

level the playing field

leverage (verb)

level set


long-pole item

loop in, keep in the loop

low-hanging fruit






out of pocket (apart from
reference to expenses)

paradigm shift



push the envelope

pursuant to

putting lipstick on a pig




seamless integration

seismic shift (apart from
reference to earthquake)


strategic alliance

strategic dynamism


think outside the box

throw it against the wall and see if it sticks

throw under the bus


under the radar

utilization, utilize


verbage (the correct term is   verbiage—in reference only    to verboseness)

where the rubber meets the road



—February 2013. Bryan A. Garner’s blog series on business writing draws on advice in his book The HBR Guide to Better Business Writing.


from Annagrammatica’s Little Book of Practical Writing







Pop Quiz


Which of the following abbreviations are acronyms?

  1. BBC
  2. CIA
  3. FBI
  4. inc.
  5. LASER
  6. NASA
  7. OPEC
  8. radar
  9. RAM
  10. scuba
  11. snafu
  12. USA

Clue: Seven of the abbreviations are acronyms, four are initialisms, and one is just a plain old abbreviation. To be classified as an acronym, a word—usually made up of the initial letters of a sequence of words—must be pronounceable, as in UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund). If the letters are said individually, as in DOJ (Department of Justice), the word is an initialism.

Answers: 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

  1. An initialism for British Broadcasting Corporation
  2. An initialism for Central Intelligence Agency
  3. An initialism for Federal Bureau of Investigation
  4. An abbreviation for Incorporated
  5. An acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation
  6. An acronym for National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  7. An acronym for Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries
  8. An acronym for Radio Direction and Ranging
  9. An acronym for Random-Access Memory
  10. An acronym for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus
  11. An acronym for Situation Normal—All F***ed Up
  12. An initialism for United States of America

NOTE: If you like number 11—snafu, said to have been coined by GI’s during World War II—you’ll love fubar (F***ed Up Beyond All Recognition), tarfu (Totally and Royally F***ed Up), and the like.


‘Homage’ Rhymes with ‘Bondage,’ Sort Of


When I began editing the course catalog at the University of Arizona, the biennial catalog had just been printed. That meant that for the next two years, I had to confront, on a regular basis, the following solecism at the top of the first page of text:

            An Historical Sketch

In American English, a few words—generally of French origin—begin with a silent H. They include hour, honor, honest, heir, and herb (but not herbicide). In most words beginning with H, however, the H is pronounced, as in handkerchief, her, him harass, height, heinous, helicopter, history, homage, house, hospital, hostile, house, huge, human, and hysteria.

Would you say “an house” or “an hat?” I hope not. No more would you say “an history.” When an indefinite article—a or an—is called for before historical, use a, as follows:

            A Historical Sketch

In a heading, you might as well omit the indefinite article altogether:

            Historical Sketch

* * *

Fairly recently, educated people who are otherwise well spoken have begun pronouncing the word homage as if they are writing a poem and they are desperate to find a word to rhyme, sort of, with garage, so they choose


An alternative but also less-than-ideal pronunciation is…


“Careful” speakers—generally people like me who spend far too many hours squinting at dictionaries and style manuals—say homage like this:


In fact, the New York Times published an entire article on the topic, in which the author, Ben Zimmer, goes to bat for HOM-ij.

In his book “The Accidents of Style,” Charles Harrington Elster calls [oh-MAZH]... a “preposterous de-Anglicization” that is “becoming fashionable among the literati.” Elster had previously complained that good old HOM-ij was losing out to OM-ij “in havens for the better-educated like National Public Radio,” and for defenders of the “h” pronunciation oh-MAZH just adds insult to injury…. A check of NPR’s audio archives corroborates Elster’s hunch.

I have a sneaking suspicion that people who Frenchify their vocabulary—seizing every opportunity to revert to the French pronunciations of English words that may have been in our language for hundreds of years—are putting on a little show. They want us to think they speak French, so they wrinkle their noses and elongate their vowels when saying French-based words and phrases such as hors d’oeuvre, entrepreneur, ambience, en route, and, yes, homage. Oh, well. It’s a harmless affectation. C’est la vie, n’est-ce pas?







Amuna Go Now


According to, “Fasting can be a preventative and therapeutic approach against obesity and metabolic disorders.” This is probably good news for people who find it possible to abstain from eating for hours or days on end. It’s bad news for those of us who dislike the word preventative used as an adjective. Fastidious users of the English language prefer preventive.

It’s a bit surprising when people add unnecessary syllables to common words, as in orientate and cohabitate. Orient and cohabit are better choices and require less effort to say or write, and we commonly slip into language shortcuts without even giving it a thought.

For a while I thought it was just me, but I’ve noticed that many, if not most, English-speakers are lazy about diction. I may WRITE a sentence such as the following:

I am going to walk to the pharmacy

…but when I SAY it, it comes out like this:

Amuna walk to the pharmacy.

Probably, at some point in the evolution of the shorter form, I said

I’m gonna walk to the pharmacy

…but “I’m gonna” collapsed into “Amuna” —during my forties, I suspect, at about the same time my arches collapsed. Pure laziness.

Preventive, orient, and cohabit don’t represent phonological laziness, however. They’re neater, cleaner, and more nearly “correct.”

Don’t Let It Rankle

bird preening

The other day I heard a sports journalist make a case on the radio for paying salaries to student athletes. He admitted that the issue is controversial and it might “rankle people’s feathers.”

I’m not sure what it would look like to “rankle” someone’s feathers. In fact, I don’t do well imagining people with feathers at all, unless they’re nine feet tall, bright yellow, and birdlike.

The idiom this journalist was reaching for, I believe, was “ruffling feathers.” Birds, evidently, don’t like to have their feathers tousled. Some species spend a great deal of time preening, perhaps for the purpose of attracting members of the opposite sex. If something or someone interferes with the birds’ careful grooming, they become understandably cross. Human beings, likewise, resent others’ attempts to disarrange things—their plans, their ideas, their preconceptions, and their feathers, I suppose, if they are wearing any. So, yes, paying salaries to student athletes would certainly ruffle a lot of metaphorical feathers.

Feathers can be ruffled but they can’t be rankled. This is due in part to the fact that rankle is an intransitive verb; it doesn’t take an object. If something doesn’t sit well with me, it rankles. It doesn’t rankle me. It doesn’t rankle anybody else. It just rankles. Period.

“To rankle” is to cause annoyance or unease. Let’s say you get caught jaywalking and you’re assessed a $25 fine. You admit you broke the law; you grit your teeth and pay the fine; but still… it rankles.

Rankle comes to us through Middle English from an Old French word that meant “festering sore,” from an even older Latin word—draco, meaning “serpent.” So I suggest that, if something rankles in your universe, you do whatever is necessary to get it out of your system before it festers and turns venomous. Herpetophobics everywhere will thank you.

Let’s Hear It for ‘Ain’t’


From Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain, 1883

To a question on Quora about the “difference between ‘I am’ and ‘am I,’ I submitted this answer:

Inflections in a language are changes within words that indicate attributes such as tense, case, number, gender, and so forth. For example, the English-language suffix -ed to show past tense is an inflection.

English uses few inflections compared with, say, German, which is said to be “highly inflected.” Instead, English relies upon word order. The statement “I do play the trombone” has a meaning quite different from the question “Do I play the trombone?”

Thus, “I’m” (or “I am”) is understood in English to begin a statement, whereas “Am I” usually introduces a question. Interestingly, you will rarely hear English-speakers say “Am I not?” Someone arriving tardily to a meeting will rush into the room, panting, “I’m late, aren’t I?” It’s ungrammatical, strictly speaking, but the logical contraction “amn’t” does not exist in English. “Aren’t I” is acceptable in virtually every context.

What I did not say, because it wasn’t germane to the question, is that the much-maligned word ain’t could slip neatly into the first-person-singular negative interrogative form of the verb to be. I would go so far as to say that “ain’t I” is better, grammatically speaking, than “aren’t I.”

When I was learning the language, ain’t was the grammatical scarlet A. It scorched the air like a cussword in a deacons’ meeting. A person who said “ain’t” was not only linguistically inept but also considered intellectually backward and socially inferior, one of the great unwashed, fortunate to have shoes and clean underwear, probably living in a rusted-out trailer, three kids to a room. Ain’t is probably the most stigmatized word in the English language.

No one is sure why this is so, as, indeed, ain’t was standard for centuries among cultured speakers in literature, particularly in Britain. “For most of its history, ain’t was acceptable across many social and regional contexts. Throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, ain’t and its predecessors were part of normal usage for both educated and uneducated English speakers, and was found in the correspondence and fiction of, among others, Jonathan Swift, Lord Byron, Henry Fielding, and George Eliot.” (Wikipedia)

Logically, we might as well say, “I amn’t.” It would be consistent with the second and third persons, as in, “You aren’t,” and “he isn’t.” But the issue doesn’t arise in the declarative form because we contract I with am and say, “I’m not.” Only in the interrogative do we come up against the lack of a contraction that makes grammatical sense, and so, rather than say, “I’m late, am I not?” which is just too, too prissy for us plainspoken Americans, we blurt, “I’m late, aren’t I?”

And we’ll keep on committing this same solecism, as long as the grass is green and the skies are blue, because, thankfully, language is not math and there are quirky inconsistencies at every turn. Are there not? And would we truly have it any other way?

My E-Bike and I

electric bicycle

Item for your to-do list:

—Buy an electric bike.

They’re not cheap, and you can’t buy an old, beat-up–but–serviceable one at a flea market. You’ll probably have to spend well over $500 for a new e-bike (mine was $700 on Amazon), but an excellent bicycle without the power assist can cost much more. If you’re going to buy a high-dollar bike you might as well get one that will let you sail up hills with ease and panache.

I love my e-bike. It’s my primary transportation, so I use it to run errands, to go to church, to visit friends…. People who aren’t aware it’s an electric bike are awestruck when they see a 70-year-old cyclist take steep hills without breaking a sweat. At least I imagine that’s what they’re gaping at. Maybe it’s my dorky fuschia bike helmet, but I prefer to think it’s my astounding athleticism.

‘Twas not ever thus. When I first got the contraption last fall, I kept falling off. Early in the day, when there weren’t many people about, I’d take it across the street, where there’s a giant parking lot, and I’d practice, and practice, and practice… and fall off. My knees kept hitting the handlebars and knocking me off the bike onto the ground. I tried raising and lowering the seat, but it didn’t seem to matter. After three weeks, my legs were covered with scrapes and bruises, and I wasn’t getting any better.

One November morning I took a harder-than-usual spill. Flummoxed and discouraged, wondering if I was ever going to get the hang of it, I sat on the hard, cold concrete next to the bike for five minutes or so, trying not to weep. A few kindly motorists stopped and asked if I needed help. “Thanks, I’m fine,” I sniffled, but it was a lie. The truth was, I was running out of weather suitable for bike-riding, and I wasn’t any closer to success than when I’d taken my first turn around the lot. Besides, the e-bike had been a gift from a friend concerned about my sedentary, solitary lifestyle. Bad enough that I had a $700 bike I couldn’t use. How could I tell my generous benefactor that his thoughtful contribution to my mental health was battering my body and annihilating my self-esteem?

At last I took a deep breath, stood up, and hauled my 57-pound bike to an upright position for the eighth or ninth time that morning. Right away I noticed that something was different. The controls weren’t where they’d been before I splatted. Instead of the power controller being on the right and the gear-shift knob on the left, their positions were reversed.

In a flash, I understood. The entire front assembly—the wheel, the handlebars, the brake levers—had turned 180 degrees when the bike hit the ground. Suddenly, magically, everything was in the correct position. I’d been riding the bike with the front part turned the wrong way ‘round. No wonder my knees had been hitting the handlebars and knocking me ass-over-teakettle.

I laughed out loud. I might have done a happy dance. Then I hopped on the bike and rode home. I haven’t fallen off since that morning. Problem solved.

Why hadn’t I figured it out earlier? Because I’ve never had a bike that would allow the front wheel and handlebars to be reversed in such a way. On all my old bikes, you could turn the apparatus only so far—maybe 120 degrees—before it would bump into the frame and refuse to turn farther. Besides, the handlebars were always bent or curved inward toward the rider on the older bikes. On my e-bike, the handlebars stick straight out to the sides. There’s nothing that screams “front!”

I’m still far from being an expert rider. I’m leery of busy streets, none of which have bike lanes. I don’t know how to use the gears to best advantage, and if I’m riding up a steep hill and I have to stop for some reason, it’s hard to get going again. I had one such experience on the way to a doctor appointment, and I ended up turning around and going home. But with every excursion I grow more adept. It’s the end of April; I have an entire summer to build my strength and confidence, and to find bargains on stuff like thermal underwear and goggles so that I can ride year-round, as long as the roads aren’t slick or snow-covered.

By the way, mine is a pedal-assist model. That means the motor won’t kick in unless I pedal. There are three power levels, so I can choose how much work I want to do and how much I want to rely on the motor. It’s up to me how much exercise I get.

If you’re thinking of getting a second car, consider an e-bike instead. It’s kinder to the environment, it’s a practical form of exercise, and it’s a whole lot of fun. Look for one that’s not as heavy as mine. If I had a 25-pound e-bike, I could probably lug it up the stairs into my apartment. Not happening with one that’s over half my body weight.

A tiny grammar lesson

Some grammar-and-style experts advise against ending a sentence with a preposition. Surely you’ve heard the famous comment (mistakenly attributed to Winston Churchill), “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

I’m reminded of the joke about the guy who asked his friend, “Where do you want to have lunch at?” The friend replied, “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.” Guy Number One said, “Okay. Where do you want to have lunch at, a**hole?”

The same experts don’t like to begin a paragraph with the word I. In fact, they’d rather you not start too many sentences with I. Well, I agree that a series of sentences starting with I can be tiresome. But if you’re writing about yourself, your experiences, or your opinions, it’s natural to begin sentences with I. Sometimes you can easily rearrange a sentence, inserting an introductory clause or phrase as I did a number of times in this essay. Sometimes you can’t.

I wouldn’t worry about it.

Talking Vegetables


I’ve been helping my Russian friend, Alexis, with her English-language practice… or, more to the point, I’ve been increasingly aware of how much she enjoys learning new vocabulary and of how little she really knows. She’s a lot of fun, all the more because her English is so hit-or-miss. She was cooking something on one of the stoves when I walked into the kitchen. I asked, and she told me, there were “vegetables” in the pan, which indeed there were… asparagus, specifically, plus liver. When I said “asparagus,” she checked the package and read out loud, slowly and carefully, “Asparagus Speaks.” Great hilarity was enjoyed by Alexis, me, and Penny, who came in just in time to hear about the chatty edible.

After Alexis and I had conversed for about ten minutes, I wrote down the “key words” for our little session: liver, carrots, asparagus, vegetables, corn, peas, beans, and chocolate. Alexis loves chocolate. AND I spoke my first sentence in the Russian language to a Russian person: “Krasivaya bluzka” (“I like your shirt”). I’m guessing that bluzka is etymologically related to “blouse.”

Aside from vegetables and liver, Alexis favors shrimp and a type of fish that makes me wonder if there’s a Black Sea equivalent to West Virginia roadkill. Alexis enhances the flavor and aroma of organ meats and shellfish by thawing them—on the table that most of us sit at to eat normal food—for, I’ve gotta say, a lunar month. I don’t think that the gentle reminder I contemplate delivering—“Alexis, you’re not on The Steppes any more”—would convey both our deep affection for Alexis and our profound aversion to her dietary and culinary quirks. Surely there are entire species of microbes who think it’s the Rapture.

Meanwhile, once or twice a month Penny takes two buses to a specific Walmart that is the only place in a ten-mile radius that carries a particular brand of bacon she favors, and though the aroma of bacon frying is normally quite tantalizing, the combined odors of Walmart’s Select Sacrificial Pork Components and Alexis’s Smelt Putrefaction Surprise, colliding in midair like a couple of supercells over the Alkali Lake Toxic Waste Dump Site, have explosive properties that certainly could be harnessed to aid the U.N. or the Little Sisters of the Poor, in a location far, far away from our octogenarian kitchen, whose exhaust fans are under orders to tactically overheat if Alexis so much as plugs in the can opener….

A Tiny Diction Lesson

Supercell: a thunderstorm characterized by the presence of a mesocyclone: a deep, persistently rotating updraft. For this reason, these storms are sometimes referred to as rotating thunderstorms. Of the four classifications of thunderstorms (supercell, squall line, multi-cell, and single-cell), supercells are the overall least common and have the potential to be the most severe. —Wikipedia

Steppe: a large area of flat unforested grassland in southeastern Europe or Siberia

The Great Traveling Textile Swamp


It was born in 1965 and multiplied at an
alarming rate, displaying its fertility so
unapologetically my ultra-modest mother
always blushed ferociously whenever someone
raised the subject. Someone always did within a
minute, maybe two, of opening the door and
coming in. It isn’t easy to ignore a rapidly
expanding wardrobe as it creeps across the
floor, however stealthy it deceives itself it’s
being, for the rate at which it grew did not
allow it to remain within the stationary limits of
a closet and whatever room it had invaded.
Even the entire second story couldn’t long
contain the clothing-and-accessory collection’s
escalation, which outpaced the conversations
we engaged in with respect to where to house
it, how restrain it, whether to inflame it, whom
to blame, and what, in general, to do about it—
conversations that became, eventually, the
same; and in the end we always had to find a
bigger house and move immediately into it, a
temporary fix that kept a lid on things for ten or
twenty minutes, what with advertising in the
classifieds and on the Internet, and then of
course the shipping, which consisted of the
actual transporting of apparel no one
happened to be wearing—early on, at any rate,
before the desperation phase, when things got
ugly and you had to Super-Glue your shirts and
pants and stuff onto your epidermis. (Note:
Extremely Dangerous. Do Not Attempt.)

On a muggy late-September night the cousins
went around the bend; insanity set in, some
kind of mania, authorities would later say. The
dénouement began when Cousin Dougie
drugged me with a few carafes of cabernet,
and then, while I was sleeping, all the relatives—
admittedly at wits’ end, all of them, with family
visits having gotten virtually impossible and,
when they happened, separated by a decade
at the very least—this band of renegade
relations knocked me out and packed me up
and shipped me, in a state of catalepsis, to a
famous nudist island supervised by lunatics, a
crazy South Pacific paradise of sorts.

Until a cure is found for my obscure disorder
(Insubordinate Apparel Syndrome, known
informally as Wardrobe Fever), I’m allowed to
travel on a visa for a week each winter—
luggage limited to slippers, skivvies, and
pajamas, plus a parka, scarf, and toothbrush.
Here’s a list of gifts I get for Christmas: coffee
and a pair of socks. Although it doesn’t sound
like much, it isn’t—well, except the coffee.
I receive, however, vast amounts of happiness,
enough to last millennia, because, when all is
said and done, the truth is: All you need is love,
caffeine, and underpants (and in a pinch, mere
love will do).

Tiny diction lesson

The entire second story: In British English, story gains an E and becomes storey. The ground floor is called “the ground floor,” the next one up is “the first floor” or “the first storey,” and the next one up after that—which would be the third story in an American building—is “the second storey” in Britain. Got it?

Catalepsis: Catalepsy. A physical condition characterized by a loss of sensation, muscular rigidity, flxity of posture, and often by a loss of contact with surroundings. —