Grammar Moses: Close, but no cigar

I received a public relations dispatch recently that had nothing wrong with it, but it did remind me how similar words can work in a sentence.

“Please find a press release to announce PAWS Chicago’s second annual ‘Slice to Meet You’ fundraiser in conjunction with Piece Pizza. For 3 months, pizza-loving Chicagoans can help PAWS Chicago just by eating pizza – talk about a win-win! Piece and PAWS Chicago are again teaming with celebrity chefs Rick Bayless, Stephanie Izard, Doug Sohn and Barry Sorkin and their unique pizza creations to not only raise funds but to spotlight dogs and cats who have been up for adoption for a while.”

I love pizza and animals, and I also appreciate a well-crafted (and brief) PR pitch. What struck me is that the word “teaming” could have been replaced by “teeming.”

The pizza company and PAWS Chicago are working together (teaming) with the four celebrity chefs. That’s great.

But given the number of celebrity chefs, this effort could be teeming with (awash in) celebrity chefs.

This is one of those occasions in which the game show host would tap his finger to his earpiece, listen intently and say, “The judges will accept that answer.”

A hare’s breath?

On the topic of quiz shows, for whatever reason the TV was set to the classic game show channel Buzzr one recent morning, and I found myself watching Bill Cullen guest hosting “To Tell the Truth” from the 1970s.

I was mesmerized and could not change the channel. Next up was “Classic Concentration,” the game in which you have to turn over tiles and match them. During the round in which the day’s winning contestant must race through a board in 30 seconds to uncover all the tiles, with one second left and two choices — I know, the anticipation is killing you — she picked the wrong one and missed out on the car.

The audience was apoplectic, and I’m sure this contestant was sad that she had to drive home in her crummy old Plymouth Valiant, but what intrigued me is what host Alex Trebek (yes, there was life before Jeopardy!) said next.

“You missed it by a hare’s breath.”

Or did he?

I honestly couldn’t remember whether the metaphor was a “hare’s breath” or “hair’s breadth.”

Both are apt metaphors. A hare breathes rapidly — what with all that running around — so a hare’s breath would be a very short amount of time. A hair’s breadth would also be very short. Human hair ranges from about 15 to 180 micrometers (millionths of a meter.) A very short distance indeed.

“Hair’s breadth” is the intended form.

“Hare’s Breath” is used cheekily in some novels, used incorrectly in a couple others (a romance and a western I found) but it also is the name of a small Maryland record label.

For the most part, it’s something people get wrong in speech.

In the race between the tortoise and the hare, the tortoise won — by a hair.


While I’m on the subject of animals, Merriam-Webster’s free newsletter includes a list of names of animals that double as verbs. It’s the kind of free association thinking I admire. Its list of nine includes ferret, fox, ape, parrot, weasel, rat, badger, snipe and squirrel. Not surprisingly, the verb forms have a lot to do with the habits of these creatures.

But I can think of seven more right off the bat: “bat” being the first. Others include “cat,” “snake,” “buffalo,” “mouse,” “goose,” “worm” and perhaps the most obvious of them all — “fly.”

As with the chicken and the egg scenario, you might wonder which came first — “fly” as a noun or “fly” as a verb. I assure you the verb came first. “Fly” was what developed from several long-forgotten dialects as an insect that flies.

I’d be lion if I were to tell you that was a complete list. Can you think of some other animal verbs? Let me know and I’ll explore in another column.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/executive editor of the Daily Herald. You can buy Jim’s book, “Grammar Moses: A humorous guide to grammar and usage,” at Write him at and put “Grammar Moses” in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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