It’s just a hyphen. Right?

It’s just a hyphen. Right?

Adjectives describe something in more detail. A green car. A first job.

A compound adjective isn’t any fancier, it just takes two words to do one job. A blue-green car. Some first-hand experience. Really, we intend it to be a single descriptor—one word, really—so we use the hyphen to make it so. Without the hyphen, the reader can me misled: is a wild animal trainer someone who trains wild animals? Or an animal trainer who goes crazy at parties? Calling her a wild-animal trainer tames the sentence. It’s really a single description: what kind of trainer? The wild-animal kind.

So if you see a man eating chicken, ask for a bite. If it’s a man-eating chicken, you’re the one who’s going to get bit.

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?

Font vs typeface: you’re all right

Font vs typeface: you’re all right

National Public Radio shared an interesting story about the redesigning of Helvetica. By far, Helvetica is used more often than any other face, so why redesign? Technical reasons, mostly to do with changing times. It’s a great story, but not for here.

Whew, what a relief. That made all the difference, huh?

Naturally, there were thousands of comments on their website, for and against. Next came the passive-aggressive “oh you said font when you meant typeface.” Then, like they do, the design snobs turned on each other like wild dogs in a feeding frenzy of who-knows-more.

Perhaps my favorite was the woman who said, “As a type designer, you should have said know-it-alls, all hyphenated with no apostrophe, not know it all’s.” She was right about the grammar, but her comment was as weird as if she had suggested, “As a plumber, I say you should get your tires rotated.”

I’ll bet my lunch that she’s not even a type designer. She works on page layout. Maybe a typesetter. You’re a type designer if you’ve created your own typeface from scratch. Maybe named it after yourself, like “Mr. Helvetica.” And if so, you’re way too cool to be scrapping it out with the rest of us in the comments of NPR’s website.

Font and typeface used to be very different. Like all things typographic, we snobs love to go back to terms used in the letterpress days, when everything was set by hand and made of metal and needed oil. But they’re not anymore, and those differences aren’t helpful. Back then, a font was a box of letters. You got them out and put them in a row to make a sentence. If you needed bigger or bolder letters, you pulled out another font from another box.

Nobody will jump you if you say typeface, because it is a general term for what you’re looking at. Do you admire the lettering on a magazine cover? Nice typeface! Proud of how your kid wrote on the sidewalk? Nice typeface!

So if there’s a a hair to split today, it’s here: a font is the tool you use to express your typeface. If Helvetica Regular 10pt exists as a different document on your computer than, say, Helvetica Regular 24pt, you have two fonts. (Back in the early Mac days, I had a unique font for every type size available.) Thanks to modern computer pixel fairy dust, we now use a single font to make any type size. But still, the font is the individual file on your computer.

Back in caveman days, Macs required a separate font for each size available. Cool!

So if you want to differentiate font from typeface, think of them this way: the lettering your kid drew on the sidewalk is a typeface made without a font. It was made with chalk, and your kid.

Zapf Dingbats is a computer font full of useful symbols—but it’s not a typeface.

My brilliant friend Frank is a linguist. I love this kind of stuff and pester him often with such questions. Because I actually listen to his answers, I know this is what he would say about font vs typeface:

“If two or more people use one word and they all understand what it means, it’s the right word. Words aren’t inherently right or wrong — they’re the tools we use for communicating. If they communicate successfully and reliably, they’re the right words.”

Can you imagine how disappointed I was? But I must admit, his wisdom is liberating.

So if you say “Helvetica is a great font and doesn’t need redesigning,” and all of your officemates know exactly what you mean, “font” was the right word.

I just can’t work with you.

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.