Let there be lightning

Maybe it’s the writer in me, but I’m fascinated by words and their usage, even grammar. Take the tale about the missing comma in a contract that could mean millions of dollars. An Oxford comma, no less, a comma that goes before the word “and” in a series such as “a bear, a girl, and a bowl of porridge.” You usually see the Oxford comma only in books, not in newspapers or magazines.

To be sure (there’s a phrase you only find in magazines), along with still, both used to create the sense of a transition between one paragraph and the next. Ask an editor for a synonym for “still” and s.he is likely to say “still.” Did you note the politically correct usage of s.he, rather than “he or she”? Just another recent update in our language.

Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” The right meanings are important, too. I spent my life so far thinking that “peruse” meant scan something without looking too closely. I only recently learned the correct meaning is just the opposite: to look at something thoroughly.

And then there is the fashionable word. My favourite current example is “famously.” In yesterday’s New York Times it appeared in at least five different stories. Here’s one of the usages: “Travis Kalanick, the famously combative chief executive of Uber ….” Is his combative nature really all that well known? Could you have even told me who’s the boss at Uber? I think what happens in these situations is that writers try to lord over us lowlifes their supposed insider knowledge that could only come from being part of the cognoscenti. I, famously, would never do that.

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