Grammar Moses: Why doesn't an ambassador work in an ambassy?
In light of the nearly endless column I -- with great help from you -- wrote a few weeks back comparing my column writing skills to that of ChatGPT, I decided to treat you to some bite-size nuggets today.
Gobble them up at your own peril; many of them are months old.
I'm ambarrassed to say
My wife and I were giving Netflix's "The Diplomat" a spin the other evening, and something beyond the farfetchedness of the plot occurred to me: Why doesn't an ambassador work in an "ambassy?"
I consulted the ever-handy Online Etymology Dictionary for an answer.
Turns out, the French "ambassade" -- still in use today to describe the residence and retinue of an ambassador -- was spelled beginning with an E or an A interchangeably in English for a couple of centuries until the current spelling "embassy" was settled on in the late 1800s.
In the U.S., ambassadors didn't exist until 1893, so we probably didn't worry ourselves too much with the spelling until then.
In French, the masculine form of ambassador is "un ambassadeur"; the feminine is "une ambassadrice."
And now you know, too.
Who or that?
Phyllis Scanlan pointed out to me (last year) that teachers are people, too.
"In the article about increased staffing, your paper states, 'Teachers that normally have stuck around for a few years ..." I believe it would have read better, had the writer used 'who.'"
Correct, Phyllis. We even write "journalists who," if you can believe that.
When do we treat animals -- linguistically speaking -- as people? When we treat them in other ways as people.
"Barkley is a cockapoo who greets me every day with a tail wag and my lightly-chewed slippers."
My cats are my children. Unless Ollie shreds the arm of the sofa, at which point he no longer deserves to be referred to as a member of my family with a "who."
Ordinarily, you would say, "I was freaked out by a colony of tarantulas that had taken up residence in my basement."
Now, if your daughter has a tarantula named Bob living in a terrarium in her bedroom, you might use "who" instead of "that."
I, however, will not, because I simply cannot anthropomorphize a spider.
Opposed to what?
Jane Carmelo wrote with a question about a story in which our jumphead (the abbreviated headline over the continuation of a story) read: "Guns: Village inundated with opposing emails."
"It implied (to me, at least) that the village received emails both in favor of, and against, a gun range being allowed in the village," Jane wrote. "I immediately went back to the front page, curious to read both pro- and anti-range opinions. However, there was not a single sentence in favor of a gun range. I can only presume that the writer meant 'Village inundated with opposition emails.'"
I can certainly see why she might read it that way. The problem, Jane notes and I concur, is one of space.
If you think headlines are too short, try writing a jumphead with nuance. It's a real challenge.
You saw what?
Last weekend my true-crime-loving wife and I were en route to a crowded festival, and the exit I intended to take was cordoned off.
As we passed over the empty stretch of roadway, I spied a clot of colossal black birds feasting on something in the middle of the road.
"I just witnessed a murder on the highway," I told my wife.
Thankfully, she did not murder me.
• 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
grammarmosesthebook.com. Write him at email@example.com and put "Grammar Moses" in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at facebook.com/baumannjim.