Grammar Moses: Using the poison pen on Father's Day

  • A rattlesnake is not poisonous but venomous. Still, don't get bitten by one.

    A rattlesnake is not poisonous but venomous. Still, don't get bitten by one.

Posted6/20/2021 5:30 AM

Happy Father's Day, gents.

In honor of you, I'm going to root around in my mailbag for missives only from men.


I'm sure someone will remind me of this injustice in advance of May 8, 2022.

But don't worry, everyone. Men have more things on their minds than befouled sports stories and whether there is a "q" in "barbecue."

Old Lefty

While watching the PGA Championship broadcast in May, reader David Fiedler noted, commentators said that if Phil Mickelson were to win the tournament he would become the oldest player to win a major and it would be "HISTORICAL."

"Not so," David told me. "It was 'historic!' Only British commentator Nick Faldo got it right."

Fiedler is correct. I don't know whether Faldo's being British had anything to do with his proper word choice, but I do know traveling the world with an unabridged Oxford English Dictionary and a set of golf clubs would be onerous.

Something that is "historical" has to do with past events.

Something that is "historic" is momentous, such as a quinquagenarian's winning a major golf tournament. Mickelson broke an age record established before he was born.

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So much for guys not thinking about sports. I promise, we'll branch out.

Sink your teeth into this

A recent story in the Daily Herald carried the headline: "No, they're not poisonous."

"That should have been 'No, they're not venomous,'" reader Ken Valentine pointed out. "Poison ivy, arrow-dart frogs, oleander plants and puffer fish are poisonous -- that is, contact or ingestion will harm or kill you. Spiders, cobras, wasps and ants are venomous. Their anatomies contain fangs or stings with which they inject a harmful substance (a venom) into you as an offensive act."

This is an important distinction to make when you've wandered far from your campsite and find yourself starving to death in the desert.

While you'd do well to steer clear of a rattlesnake, if you were able to subdue one it would make a tasty, nutritious lunch. Rattlesnakes are venomous but not poisonous.

Don't be so negative

Gib Van Dine sent me a question before the pandemic got rolling and recently reminded me that I'd never responded.

I might not have because the answer is so darn complicated.


"I have a longtime complaint about newspaper reporting that contains strings of iteratively negating terms that alternately toggle the positiveness or negativeness of a statement," he wrote. "The reader is left trying to figure out whether that was a 'yes' or a 'no.' My normal approach is to count the negatives. An even number cancel each other out. An odd number makes it a negative."

It's not that I'm not uninterested in addressing your question, Gib. It's that my brain is now in a knot.

Gib gave the example: "Federal judge extends ban on end to affirmative action."

If you are so confused by a sentence and feel the need to draw a diagram, you've probably missed the mark. My No. 1 rule is to write clearly.

Gib's solution is to remove both negations, which cancel each other out, so it's clear:

"Federal judge extends Affirmative Action."

It's not quite that simple. In fact, you could be oversimplifying things to the point of making the resultant sentence inaccurate.

In Gib's example, if the legislated end date is Jan. 1, and the judge prevents someone from ending the program two months early, he's not really extending Affirmative Action but preserving it. Also, there could be legislation that says you can't end Affirmative Action until a certain date, and the judge could rule for an extension of that law.

However, attempting to simplify your writing is a lofty goal.

Bishop Robert Lowth in his 1762 treatise, "A Short Introduction of English Grammar," railed against ending sentences with prepositions, but he also had this to say about double negatives: "In English, two negatives should equal a positive."

And it logically follows that an odd number of negations should create a negative statement.

Both of Lowth's ideas have remained lodestars for English teachers ever since. But one of the most eloquent British men of all time, Sir Winston Churchill, famously pooh-poohed the notion that you mustn't end a sentence with a preposition if in doing so you've made your sentence awkward.

So, really, why do we hold so tightly to centuries-old edicts?

Much has changed since Lowth's day. Printers stopped using the long s (which looked more like an "f") before the turn of the 18th century.

Double negatives have their places.

Think for a moment about the old Sara Lee jingle: "Nobody doesn't like Sara Lee."

Brilliant. In the ephemeral world of advertising, you want a jingle that hangs in the air for a moment.

And who would dare correct Mick and Keith for writing the double negative "(I Can't Get No Satisfaction)"?

It's clear they were being colloquial.

Both of those rockin' codgers certainly have had their share of satisfaction.

Write 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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