I ended a sentence with a preposition? Oh, crap!

I ended a sentence with a preposition? Oh, crap!

“America”, a fully-working solid gold toilet, created by artist Maurizio Cattelan, is seen at Blenheim Palace on September 12, 2019 in Woodstock, England.

In September 2019, Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, installed a solid gold toilet. Two days later, it was stolen.

The pretty potty is the creation of Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, and was meant to be his comment on excessive wealth. It had spent the previous year on display at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where it was intended to be, um, used. The toilet, worth about 1.25 million dollars, was titled, “America.”

Investigators report they have nothing to go on.

Okay — that’s a really old joke, stolen from a story about a toilet that had gone mysteriously missing from a police station. In the actual Golden Toilet Caper, the thieves were caught in just days.

What is all this talk about prepositions for?

This story isn’t about toilets or art or Churchill. It’s about ending a sentence with a preposition, just like I did there in the subheading right above this sentence. Or in the sentence, they have nothing to go on. There’s a rule against it. Some people spit and snarl and gnash their teeth when they see one, others say it’s fine in certain contexts.

The punchline above: “they have nothing to go on” — how else are you going to say it? They have nothing on which to go? Ugh. Get outta here. Grammatically it’s better, stylistically it’s worse. There are idioms — ways we say things — and it’s no fun to mess with those.

I suggest you get out of the jam this way: throw out the whole sentence and start over. If you find yourself struggling over good grammar versus sounding right, you’re already in trouble. In the punchline above, you might say instead, “They have no clues to follow.” Of course, you’ll ruin the joke, but you get the idea.

“From now on, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”

— Winston Churchill

Of course if you’re one of those who think there’s nothing wrong with ending a sentence with a preoposition, try this — a sentence that ends in no less than five prepositions. With a little mental calesthenics, it makes sense too:

On his way upstairs for bedtime, a little boy asked his mom, “What are you bringing that book that I don’t want to be read to out of up for?

The $156 Million Typo

The $156 Million Typo

Before we went to the Moon, we went to Venus. Sort of, anyway. We sent an unmanned probe there in 1962 to have a look around.

Venus welcomed Mariner 2 on December 14, 1962, with a brisk 760 degree day. But that’s nothing compared to the heat generated when its predecessor, Mariner 1, was blown up with the push of a button (okay, two switches) right in the middle of its launch.

Mariner 1 cost 18.5 million dollars, which is about 156 million today. And we blew it up on purpose. This didn’t look good to the Mercury astronauts who were scheduled to ride atop the very same Atlas booster rocket. To make things worse, it was the third probe explosion that year alone—the first two, intended for the Moon, never made it past the launch pad. So how did NASA go from such fiery failure to sunny success with Mariner 2?

They fixed a typo.

Back then, smart people wrote on a piece of paper all the math needed to guide a rocket in space. Then other smart people created computer guidance systems, referring to those notes, to steer the rocket on its own when it got out of range of the Earth. One guy, whose job it was to translate the paper math into programming, made a typo. A really big, fat, explosive typo. A 156 million dollar typo.

See that big capital R at the top of this story? In smart-guy math, that R stood for radius. The dot above the R symbolized a derivative of the radius. I know, you’re thinking—pleading—don’t go there. I won’t. This isn’t about the math.

The typo: he forgot to transcribe the bar above the dot above the R. Without the bar, wild and spectacular things happened in real life.

In movies, rockets shudder and shake and wiggle during a launch. They do that in real life too. It wouldn’t be good—or even possible—for a rudder to correct every wiggle and twist and bump the rocket makes. The ground guidance system is instructed to average all those little data points (I’m leaning this way, now that way, now another way, hundreds of readings per second) and instead go with a general idea of which way the rocket is heading, and make general corrections when necessary. When we drive a car, we do the same thing without even thinking: we generally keep our car more or less in its lane, but we don’t micro-adjust for every puff of breeze or pebble on the road.

264 seconds into the launch, Mariner 1’s Atlas rocket temporarily lost contact with the Earth. No problem! NASA was prepared for that. Mariner was supposed to fly itself to Venus, after all, without any steering from Earth. The rocket’s own guidance system kicked on.

The ground control system didn’t have the typo. The rocket’s computer did.

When the ground crew back on Earth re-established contact with the rocket, they found the fins steering it wildly, frantically, this way and that, because guidance was reacting to every single data reading, and some of them were waaaay off. The more the fins tried to correct things, the worse things got, until the rocket was entirely out of control and pointed back to Earth at full throttle.

There’s a guy on the ground called the Range Safety Officer. He has one job: if things look bleak, he can blow up the rocket in the air so it doesn’t hit anybody on the ground. The detonator is in the huge first stage of the Atlas booster rocket, so once that stage is used up and jettisoned, Mr. Range Safety Officer can’t do anything. With only six seconds to go before Mariner 1 spent its stage one booster, he hit the button. Ka-boom.

The Mariner 1 probe itself was blown clear of the rocket. True to its intrepid nature, it continued sending information for 64 long seconds, until it was swallowed by the Atlantic Ocean.

The typo was easy enough to find and correct—so easy that in just five months Mariner 2 launched without a hitch and found its way to Venus, pretty much all by itself.

Some people (including the New York Times!) referred to this as the 18 million dollar hyphen. But it wasn’t a hyphen—that was just an easier way to say it. We typesetters call it a bar. We almost never get to use it, except in stories like this.

George Mueller, head of the Office of Manned Space Flight, thought the typo was so symbolic he kept a framed image of a hyphen hung over his office desk. Astronauts felt this was an important lesson too: get the little things right, so you don’t blow up up the big thing.

156 million dollar hyphen? We call it the space bar.

Glass houses: if you’re going to call out grammar…

Glass houses: if you’re going to call out grammar…

This screen shot came from our local TV station. Take it from me: if you’re giving advice about spelling and quality, maybe you should spring for a proofreader.

That said, I had to look up “counterfeit” to see whether it was spelled correctly. That word looks wrong even when it’s right. (It is. That’s not the problem here.) I have the same problem with “foreign.” No matter how many times I write it, I have to double-check the spelling.

And then there’s “fair.” I can’t spell it correctly on the first try even when I’m writing this paragraph about how I can’t spell it correctly on the first try. I know how to spell it, but my fingers insist on typing “fiar.” (And holy craziness! When I went to spell it wrong for you, my fingers spelled it “fair.” C’mon!


What words trip you up?

Is it ketchup or catsup?

Is it ketchup or catsup?

Words matter. You want to get it right. So when it comes to ketchup versus catsup, which should you be using?


See? See? I can get to the point. But I’m still going to ramble on about all the fun background bits. Like this, from our Department of Repetitive Redundancy: is “tomato” a needless modifier in tomato ketchup?

Actually, it isn’t. Tomato flavored ketchup is so much more popular in the United States that we forget about the original flavor: fish.

Funny that fish ketchup didn’t catch on here. It was the original flavor of ketchup for hundreds of years in China. Called ke-tsiap (as best we can spell it), it was a salty fermented condiment usually just called “sauce.” Like so many things, traders brought it to Europe and manufacturers began tinkering with the ingredients. There are a few other flavors available today, which nobody eats. But catsup is a little closer to the original pronunciation.

Tomato catsup became a popular staple in England, appearing in ads in the 1800s, using both spellings. Heinz began marketing it in the U.S. as Tomato Ketchup, then Catsup, then back to Ketchup again. Del Monte came out with a similar product, but labeled it Catsup so as not to be too much of a copycat. Consumers were left to figure out which was correct, and to discover the two were pretty much the same thing.

Sometime around 1988, Del Monte, seeing that most people were using the spelling ketchup, switched their labeling to match. Some companies go so far as to drop the word tomato from the label, since no one seems interested in any other flavor. I suppose you could count Heinz “Mayochup Saucy Sauce,” a mix of mayonnaise and ketchup—and apparently, sauce that is saucy. (Seriously, how much do their marketing folks get paid?) But in the end we’re all leaning hard toward ketchup, so if you want to run with the popular kids, that’s your spelling.

How to catch typos

How to catch typos

Typos heading, spelled "typoes"

I got an email from my beloved Alamo Drafthouse movie theater. A new location was about to open, right in my neighborhood. Hooray! Right after that email, I received this emergency follow-up:

Just as an update, the $5 tickets was a miscommunication and we will be charging FULL PRICE tickets for Soft Opening except on $5 Tuesday. We apologize for the type and lets push forward!

Un-hooray. But I had to laugh: one typo in the message, but dang — what an exquisite typo. They misspelled typo.

It’s bound to happen when you rush out a correction, and it’s double-painful. So, Alamo, want some tips to help you mind your p’s and q’s?

Minding your p’s and q’s

That catchy phrase makes sense. Lowercase p and q look a lot alike. But the cliché originated in letterpress days where it was especially appropriate. When setting blocks of type, a printer has to remember that all his letters are backwards. If it looks like a p on the block, it’ll be a q when it gets printed to paper.

letterpress block including p and q
Nope. That’s q on the left, and a p on the right.

Ooo-ooo-oooo! And let me digress some more! Letterpress days also gave us the description uppercase and lowercase. Capital letters were generally kept in the top drawer — called a case — while the matching lowercase letters were kept in a lower case.

So cliché

Did I say cliché? That word has printing roots too, although it’s a long walk. When a big block of type was to be used often, printers would save time by setting the whole thing in a single metal casting. Then they could release all those individual letters for other jobs. This was called stereotyping, and you were sure to get predictable, cookie-cutter results. While most of Europe used this technique for full pages of text, the French experimented with using smaller blocks of repetitive or useful phrases. They called these clichés, which literally means click, because a typesetter could just click the phrase into place without having to redo all the individual letters.

Oh yeah. Typos.

That’s where I started with this, huh. I promised to give you some tips to catch all your typos so I don’t spot them and make fun of you.

It’s just that I love a good typo. To prove I’m not just being arrogant, I’ll share with you my most impressive goof. Years ago I released an album of 13 original songs, titled Used Without PermissionIt had been out for two weeks before a friend called to tease me that I had spelled my own name wrong on the album cover. Besides being a musician and a graphic designer, I’m a professional proofreader. I know how to spell my name, so I just called him a liar.

Then I looked. There it was. It was such an exquisite mistake that I decided to leave it. (You can go look. It’s still there.) Oddly, not one person has noticed it since.

Oh yeah. Typos!

So here are my suggestions (finally) to help you catch more typos:

  • Use your spell-checker first. One in four manuscripts I proofread have mistakes an automated checker would have caught. Spell-check doesn’t get everything right, but it can tease most typos out in an easy flash round, leaving you more brain energy to catch the trickier stuff.
  • Don’t proof your own work. You know what the words are supposed to say, and your brain will help out by subconsciously fixing misspelled words. Like your own name.
  • Read in incandescent or LED light. Flourescent light has a very slow flicker rate, which wears out your eyes faster. That’s why everyone in your office is happiest sitting by the window.
  • Follow with your finger. Or use a ruler guide. I’m a little dyslexic, so my eyes have to really focus. But you more perfect mortals tend to read in chunky blocks. Your marvelous brain processes all that data in a Gestalt kind of way that forgives errors. A pointer keeps your focus on a smaller spot.
  • Read aloud. It slows down your brain and keeps you from scanning.
  • Proof backwards, or from the bottom up. This won’t catch grammar errors, but it’s a great way to keep your brain from auto-correcting, by forcing you see each word individually.
  • Put it to paper. Nobody knows why. Editing on screen is convenient, but people are far more effective when proofing from a real live sheet of paper.
  • Knock it off after 40 minutes. Proofing is terrible on your eyes as well as your brain. After every half hour, give yourself a break for ten minutes or so. Focus on something distant, preferably something moving, like traffic or that protest across the street. This resets and stretches your eyes back to a more natural state. Cave men didn’t proofread.
  • Sleep on it. This is the best way to catch clumsy or unclear sentences. Things make sense when you know what you meant. Come back later and you’ll find yourself saying, “Wait — what?”
  • Publish it. Nothing makes a typo jump out at you like seeing it in the final product.

Follow this advice, and if you’re careful, and prepared, and skilled, and don’t have any typos, you’ll make a good impression.

Yep, that’s another phrase from the printing industry.

[ Happy sigh. ]
Is roman type really Roman?

Is roman type really Roman?

Aldus Minutius
Renaissance type designer Aldus Minutius

You know what an italic font is. Bold type is simple enough to understand. Bold italic? Easy-peasy. But what if a font isn’t any of those? If it’s just straight-up normal, like the text you’re reading right now?

We call that roman. (Normally I’d put a new term in italics, but that’d be a little confusing here, eh?) The type you’re reading right now is roman.

Bring on the machines

Before Johannes Gutenberg invented moveable type, fonts were all over the place. Sometimes a lowercase e had a bar through it, sometimes it looked a whole lot like the letter c. Everything was done by hand, individually, by artists. And you know how artists can be.

The printing press had limited fonts available, and from that necessity was born the invention of type designers. There were a handful of great ones during the Italian Renaissance, like Aldus, pictured above. They went a long way to standardize how type should look, so we mere mortals could all learn to read easier. Since they invented it, they got to name it. And they were all Romans.

They defined three general font categories: roman, italic, and blackletter. Blackletter is the proper name of what we often call Old World or Old English, the big swirly medieval-looking calligraphic style, like this:

Before you start yelling at me, we don’t capitalize roman when referring to letters. That’s so we don’t confuse roman letters with paper letters written by Romans.

Renaissance: the rebirth

Why didn’t they call the non-italic non-bold non-blackletter font regular, or normal, or standard? Who knows — except it helps to remember that during the Renaissance nothing was regular or normal or standard. Everything was new. This was the era of Michelangelo and da Vinci and Machiavelli and Galileo and Columbus, all upending the world order. Besides, Times New Roman probably sounded a lot cooler than Times New Normal.

Originally, blackletter, roman, and italic were never used together. It took another hundred years before it occurred to anyone to mix and match. Not long after that, those crazy nuts came up with bold italic, probably while drunk.

And in confusion

In web design, italics are summoned by the name emphasis, and bold is called strong. That’s what what you get when you let computer geeks name things. What are you supposed to say? “Make it strong, but without emphasis.” Get outta here with that.

Oblique font styles are like italics, but they’re not. Done right, italic is a uniquely designed font that complements its roman sibling. It’s quite different — very scripty — yet belongs in the same font family. Oblique fonts are just roman fonts skewed over. They’re the font equivalent of the Leaning Tower of Pisa: same, just crooked.

From the top: Garamond roman, oblique and italic.

You can see how much more elegant a real italic is. Faux italic was invented by Web designers to help you get italic whether it existed in the original font family or not. If it was there, great. If not, they bent over the roman letters. So — computer geeks again. Sheesh.