Valentine's Day, if you hadn't heard, is Thursday.
This would be a splendid time to talk about the origins of "love" and how, every single day of the year, the word is among the top 20 most frequently searched online, according to Merriam Webster.
What's that? You'd rather hear people complain about grammar? Oh, fine.
• "Language and words are one of my hobbies," writes Rick Huff, loyal Words Work reader. "One thing that I hear people 35 and younger say is 'on accident,' rather than 'by accident.' To me this is incorrect and sounds funny. What do you think?"
I think "What do you think" are the four most romantic words in the English language, Rick. I think if you close all of your correspondence with that query, you will go far in both life and love. I think that stupid saying about love meaning never having to say you're sorry should be re-worked to say that love means always asking "What do you think?"
Whoops! We're supposed to be complaining here. Sorry.
You are correct, Rick. (Also, incidentally, very romantic words.) Mignon "Grammar Girl" Fogarty (grammar.quickanddirtytips.com) found a research paper on this very topic, written by Leslie Barratt, a professor of linguistics at Indiana State University. In her paper, Barratt reveals that "on accident" is used almost exclusively by young people.
"'On' is more prevalent under age 10," Barratt writes. "Both 'on' and 'by' are common between the ages of 10 and 35, and 'by' is overwhelmingly preferred by those over 35."
Writes Fogarty: "An interesting conclusion from the paper is that although there are some hypotheses, nobody really knows why younger people all over the U.S. started saying 'on accident' instead of 'by accident.' For example, there's the idea that 'on accident' is parallel to 'on purpose,' but nobody has proven that children all across the country started speaking differently from their parents because they were seeking parallelism."
As for whether one is more correct than the other, Barratt's study found that most of the country considers "on accident" perfectly acceptable.
• David Knorowski wrote us to inquire about addressing cards to an entire household.
"You'll see them addressed to 'The Smiths,' and you'll see them addressed to 'The Smith's,'" he writes. "'The Smiths' is going to the house occupied by many people named Smith. The card addressed to 'The Smith's' can be considered a shortened version of 'The Smith's House,' although I suspect those addressing that card haven't thought that out. I opt for 'The Smiths.' What say you?"
I say it's a good time to check in with ace copy editor Pam Nelson, author of the American Copy Editor Society's Grammar Guide blog.
"I think people who use The Smith's are creating a plural with an apostrophe, which is wrong," Nelson says. "If they mean to send it to The Smiths' house, then they should use the plural possessive. I would address such a card, though, to The Smiths—simple plural."
• Finally, from Tribune colleague and fellow word nerd Cheryl Bowles: "Neither here nor there: Who said it first, and what is it supposed to mean, anyway? If you think about it, it seems to mean exactly nothing."
That's exactly what it means. "Unimportant, irrelevant, as in 'You pay for the movie and I'll get the dinner check, or vice-versa—it's neither here nor there," according to "The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms," the new release from prolific reference book author Christine Ammer.
The expression dates to 1583, says Ammer, and is ever so slightly different from "neither fish nor fowl," meaning "not one or the other, not something fitting any category under discussion."
The "fish nor fowl" idiom, according to Ammer's guide, is a variation of "Neither fish, nor flesh, nor good red herring," from John Heywood's 1546 proverb collection, which alludes to "food for monks ('fish,' because they abstained from meat), for the people ('flesh,' or meat), and for the poor ('red herring,' a very cheap fish)."
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