Grammar Moses: Don't Fargo a discussion of disparate groupings

Updated 12/28/2019 5:52 PM

Reader Joanne Surratt describes herself as of a generation of proper grammar and writing.

To me, that's an indicator that she walked to school uphill both ways, in a snowstorm, shod in hand-me-down black rubber boots.


My lone millennial fan is the only one who will not understand that.

"I read an article in the Daily Herald ... about the FX series 'Fargo' being filmed in Elgin," Joanne wrote. "This is what caught my eye about the series: 'It will follow two dueling crime families, one black and one Italian, according to Newsweek.' To me, 'black' and 'Italian' is a mixed comparison. 'Black' is a race descriptor and 'Italian' is a nationality.

I see Joanne's point, because we always like a good apples-to-apples (or in the case of these two gangs, bad-apples-to-bad-apples) comparison. But I view this as a matter of self-identification.

It would be weird to have a TV show about a gang of hamsters going toe-to-toe with, say, the Harlem Globetrotters, but that's because you're talking vastly different species and hamsters are deficient in ball-handling skills.

In Chicago, you have Irish neighborhoods, you have black neighborhoods, you have Jewish neighborhoods. Three different types of groups (national origin, race and religion) but all people and very easy to visualize. People in such neighborhoods tend to cluster because of ties from the old country, mutual life experiences, beliefs, economic situations or ethnic similarities.

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In "The Sopranos," the crime family was not a white gang per se but an "Italian" crime family. The character Hesh might have been in cahoots with the Soprano family, but as a Jewish man he was not and could never be "one of us," something that was made clear to him all of the time.

The Soprano family had an uneasy relationship with a "black" gang, as I recall. But I doubt everyone who made up that gang was African-American.

Our style is not to use African-American anyway because its definition is fluid. Many recent immigrants from African countries do not identify as African-American, and neither do many black people who come from Caribbean, Central American or South American countries. Sure, that's semantics, but semantics is what this column is all about!

If you're combining numbers and percentages in a sentence, things can get confusing fast. But I don't see a problem with describing how a "black" gang and an "Italian" gang will duke it out on the next season of "Fargo."



It's clear that National Public Radio takes great pains to ensure its on-air talent pronounces words correctly.

That's just one of the reasons I'm a big fan.

As I listened to NPR recently en route to the office, I was struck by something in a story about the burgeoning homeless issue in Idaho's capital city.

Several times the person reading the story referred to the city as "Boy-see" rather than "Boy-zee," as I'd always pronounced it.

From my travels through YouTube, it's clear that butchering the name of their fair city causes Idahoans great consternation.

Boy, I'm glad I learned this before making any plans to visit the Gem State.

I get my undies in a bunch whenever someone pronounces "Muslim" as if it rhymed with "muslin," the lightweight cotton fabric.

"Muzz-lum" is how many people pronounce the word that describes an adherent to Islam.

For the record, it is pronounced "Muss-lim," with no "z" sound and where the "u" sound is identical to the "u" sound in "push" rather than the "u" sound in "Duh."

Write -- and speak -- carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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