The Vocabula Review

December 2006, Vol. 8, No. 12 Monday, May 2, 2016

Letters to the Editor
Web version

The Vocabula Review welcomes letters to the editor. Please include your name, email address, and professional affiliation. Send your letters to We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity.

Heaven Help Us

Occasionally even the sleepiest of us can be presented with linguistic gems that can't be overlooked. I wanted to share this one with you:

One of my colleagues at a major U.S. corporation — an engineer, of course — constantly used the expression "disirregardless." I worked with the man for fifteen years and never dreamed of correcting him. It was far too entertaining. There he was, glasses, pocket protector, pencils and all, slaughtering the language without a clue in the world. The same individual also used the expression "disapproportionate." I loved him as a brother.

Frank Boccia

Epicene Pronoun

I enjoyed Michael Berger's article about epicene pronouns and thought you might be interested in an L.A. Times editorial (Oct. 1, 2006) in which D. N. DeLuna at Johns Hopkins University introduces "hu" (pronounced "huh") as a substitute for "he" and "she."

Footnote: in Hebrew, "hu" (pronounced "hoo") means "he," "he" (pronounced "hee") means "she," and "mi" (pronounced "mee") means "who."

Nancy Friedman

We already have epicene pronouns in English. The problem has been that somewhere along the line they have been seen as sexist. This is the problem which needs solving.

What I'm finding, more and more, is that people write such nonsense as "The Board of Supervisors has expressed their dismay at the proposal." This problem isn't one of reaction to sexist language, it's not recognizing that the subject is Board and that this is a singular and neuter noun.

This is a problem of logic, something which is less in evidence today in the USA than it was when I grew up. It may be that the real problem is that more writing is in evidence, but I seem to discern a decline among journalists.

Since what we hear repeated frequently is what sounds correct [remember the Winston ad?], I've written PBS about its current ad for itself which repeats "Who do you trust ...?" loudly and frequently. The response indicated that the organization doesn't care about correct usage even though one of the goals stated is "to educate your children." So, in my mind, PBS is part of the problem.

Beth Oscanyan
(a feminist who doesn't have a problem with he, him, and his or with man, mankind, or human)

Corey on Linguists

Even though I have subscribed to Vocabula for some time, I have only now stumbled upon Peter Corey's wonderful work. ... The latest issue (November 2006) of Vocabula is outstanding.

Geoff McInnes


My subject is the adj. "personable." Its original meaning, "physically attractive, of a pleasing appearance," has vanished. It's now accepted meaning is "having a pleasing personality." It is obvious how this shift took place, and the shift is well within the tradition of "our ever-changing language."

But I find it an unfortunate loss. Personable was very useful as a gender-neutral way of describing a good-looking person without sexual overtones. I keep trying to revive this usage, but it seems hopeless.

Norm Brust

The WSJ Article

Having discovered your website through Joseph Epstein's article in the Wall Street Journal of Thursday, December 7, I was prompted to write to you concerning my pet language peeve, viz., the irritating use of the present tense to describe events which took place in the past.

This dreadful habit is now the accepted norm in most film and television documentaries. It appears to be championed by historians who, perhaps insecure in their knowledge, or lack of same, attempt to lend credence to their reports by speaking as if they were present at, or at least living at the same time as, the events they are describing, e.g., "At this point, Napoleon is less concerned with royalist troublemakers than he is with feeding his army" (my own made-up sentence).

Such a sentence would be acceptable if published in a newspaper current during Napoleon's lifetime, but it is simply wrong at any time since then.

Two days ago I discarded Tim Parks's book Medici Money because he not only employs this technique, but switches back and forth between the past and present tenses in the same paragraph!

The whole business make me want to commit murder.

Alan Shuback

I read the WSJ article and have already told several of my friends about your website. One of the things that annoys me most about the English language is the way people now use "There's" all the time regardless of what follows. For example: "There's 26 letters in the alphabet."

Whatever happened to "There are"?

Newscasters, advertisements — they all use that contraction and it drives me crazy!

Am Tobin

I am a recently retired CEO of a non-profit health care organization. When I was employed, I was the proud owner of the "protect the language" banner to such an extent that most of my associates called me the resident poet. Now that I am no longer around to nurture precision in communication, I would like to provide a way to keep my former colleagues on point.

I see that institutions can purchase bulk subscriptions; but since I am not technically with an institution any longer, I wonder if I might still be allowed annually to purchase 20 subscriptions at the bulk rate for my former executive group.

Jeff Wadsworth

So glad to have rediscovered Vocabula! Years ago I was head of corporate communications for a, and the unrelenting geek-speak was rubbing off on my staff. I read about the Dimwit's Dictionary and purchased a copy for each staff member. Aside from the title, which took some explaining, the book made a noticeable difference in the quality of our writing.

Today, I am hosting a holiday lunch for the public relations staff of Corinthian Colleges, and they will receive access to Vocabula as a gift, along with a copy of the recent WSJ article. What could be a better gift for a group of professional communicators?

Thanks for fighting, as you so aptly put it, against the "devolution of language". It matters.

Anna Marie Dunlap

Book News

I am a member of your unofficial (non-card-carrying), silent fan club. It is a good club because it has no meetings, no dues, no member list, and no agenda. I purchased The Dictionary of Concise Writing and The Dimwits Dictionary a month ago and have found them enjoyable and helpful. I keep your books at my workstation and refer to them frequently. Because of your books, I have become a fanatical editor of my own work. I say that as I write a horribly constructed e-mail message at 4:30 in the morning (e-mails, at this hour, are exempt from editing.)

I gave the subscription to my friend, who has six novels to her credit and is an instructor at Long Ridge Writer's Group. She received your welcoming email and is now happily reading Vocabula back issues.

Thank you for the rapid response to my order and for introducing me to conciseness.

Ken Williams

Factiva and Dimwitticisms

It will not surprise you to learn that writing is my top priority. I am first and foremost a writer. It remains to be seen whether writing will pay off for me at the end of the day, but I intend to stay the course. I'm no quitter. I don't earn much in the way of money by writing, despite the fact that I'm very good at it. My ongoing project is to improve as a writer, basically by writing every day. My writing hero is Barry Holstun Lopez. In terms of how I feel about him, he is awesome. I'm tempted to be proactive and write to him for advice, but if he ignored me it would be devastating. At this period of time, therefore, I'm going to forgo his input and move forward. What do you think? Should I lay my cards on the table? Writing to Lopez would help me, while at the same time bringing my name to his attention. Then again, he is busy. It would take a cooperative effort on the part of many people to get him to read my work.

Keith Burgess-Jackson

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