Today’s usage lesson.

Maureen Dowd used the phrase “came a cropper” in her column today (TimesSelect link; don’t bother), and she used it correctly. It was almost punctuated correctly, too, but we should maybe not ask too much. I’ll settle for proper usage, particularly of phrases you see used incorrectly all the time.

A nit-picker who wanted to be absolutely correct would write “‘came a cropper,” if you’re interested. The phrase comes from foxhunting and means, literally, to fall off your horse and hit the dirt. You need the apostrophe to indicate the first word is abbreviated; it’s “became a cropper,” i.e. a farmer, by embracing the farmer’s workplace head-first. I never understood the phrase until I saw it, punctuated correctly, in a photo caption for a book about foxhunting. (I think it was the famous picture of Jackie Kennedy going off, headfirst, wearing white string gloves, looking fab as usual.) Anyway, that explained it for me, and ever since, I’ve been noticing how many people get it wrong. “Came a-cropper” is the usual screwup, which suggests bonny lasses walking through fields of rye, croppering or whatever.

“Hear, hear” — that’s another one. It means, “listen to what this person is saying, because it’s the truth” or, simpler yet, “I agree.” And yet, at least 50 percent of the time it’s used, it’s written “here, here,” and I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean, unless you’re summoning a waiter. I found it in a novel written by an author whose work I respect, and I sent him an e-mail pointing it out. No reply.

As usual, The Straight Dope gets it right.

Tack/tact — I sprout more gray hairs every time I see this one. It’s a sailing term, and refers to the zigzag course boats must make as they sail into the wind. If you’re approaching a port that lies directly in the eye of the wind, you have to get there via a series of 45-degree course adjustments. “Let’s take another tack,” means, “Let’s approach this from a different angle.” And yet, I always, always see it written “tact,” and who the hell knows what that means, because I sure don’t.

Please don’t get me started on the anxious/eager difference, which isn’t difficult to understand, and yet even editors can’t get it right, many days.

And people! The principles of one’s faith? Are TENETS! Not TENANTS!

Bookmark this site. It’s a good reference to keep handy.

UPDATE: A commenter in the Ruins thread points out that a “copse” is, by definition, a small group of trees, and so you don’t need to say “copse of trees,” as I did in that post. Hmm. Good point, but I’m calling poetic license on that one. I’ve never heard the word used alone before. My online dictionary tells me its roots are in the 16th century word “coppice.” I guess if you said, “Henry, amble over to that copse and fetch me a fern,” probably people wouldn’t know what you were talking about. As when you use the phrase “‘come a cropper,” perhaps. As my daughter says these days: what-evuh.

Couple bits of bloggage:

The Poor Man answers all your Mel Gibson questions. Including the one that most interested me: Q: Gibson apparently blew a 0.12 on a breathalizer, which is only 150% the legal limit. What is that, like 3 beers? I barely even mention the Jews until I’ve put away a 20-pack. Is Gibson a wuss?

This is perhaps of local interest only, but perhaps not: Jack Lessenberry appreciates Maryann Mahaffey, longtime Detroit City Council president, who died last week. A fine portrait of what old-school liberals are, in their Platonic ideal. Bonus, a four-paragraph summation of what’s wrong with newspapers these days, at the very end.

Amy Welborn linked to this interview on the other day, about the Gardasil HPV vaccine. Pay special attention to the questions. For the sort of smug tut-tutting we’ve come to expect from religious conservatives, it really can’t be beat: …not everyone who contracts cervical cancer does so through her own fault, so to speak. So to speak. Through her own fault. What a fine Christian. Most days I’m not for bomb-throwing, but I think this commenter on the issue over at Alicublog cuts right to the heart of things: The argument comes down to this. Both sides know that people are going to have sex before marriage, the difference is the so-called liberals believe that they shouldn’t suffer and die for it, whereas conservatives think suffering and death is exactly what the f*ckers deserve.


Another busy day today. Have at it in the comments.

Posted at 9:47 am in Popculch, Same ol' same ol' |

34 responses to “Today’s usage lesson.”

  1. Kirk said on August 2, 2006 at 10:19 am

    My current pet peeve is people who say, “All the sudden . . . ” What the hell does that mean? It’s “All of a sudden,” of course. I guess these are results of a society that gets most of its language training by watching TV instead of reading books.

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  2. Mindy said on August 2, 2006 at 11:06 am

    I absolutely hate to see the usage of “a lot” written as one word, “alot.” Makes my hair hurt.

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  3. ashley said on August 2, 2006 at 11:09 am

    Lately, in New Orleans, idiots are confusing “raising” houses and “razing” houses. A bit of a difference, that.

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  4. Connie said on August 2, 2006 at 11:45 am

    My big one is site(location) / sight (vision), confusion over which is all over the blog world.

    Cropper in the Rye?

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  5. Connie said on August 2, 2006 at 11:50 am

    My kid – off to college in a few, had the HPV vaccine and the meningitis vaccine a couple of weeks ago. She asked me why someone her age would choose not to have it, and I couldn’t come up with a good answer. Poor girl has her first ever pelvic coming up too. Another mother of a college bound kid told me she didn’t think the meningitis vaccine was necessary. Neither did the mother interviewed in the article I read, who said something like, “they never told me she might die of this at college.”

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  6. Connie said on August 2, 2006 at 11:52 am

    One more time…… the one that cracks me up, I see it all over email and blogs is: Walla! Took me a while to figure out it meant voila.

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  7. mary said on August 2, 2006 at 12:18 pm

    I love Walla! as well. I’ve seen it used in message boards all the time. It always reminds me of my younger son, at about age three, would show things with a sweep of his hand and say, ” La LA!”

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  8. nancy said on August 2, 2006 at 12:28 pm

    I often wonder if the people who oppose the HPV vaccine also remove the seat belts and airbags from their cars, once the children have learned the rules of safe driving. After all, such safety devices only encourage recklessness.

    As for “Walla,” you haven’t lived until you’ve heard someone say, “And then, viola!”

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  9. colleen said on August 2, 2006 at 12:54 pm

    Tow the line.

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  10. kathy t said on August 2, 2006 at 1:29 pm

    “Supposably, it’s comprised of….”

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  11. Dorothy said on August 2, 2006 at 1:36 pm

    “…irregardless…” RUN AWAY RUN AWAY!!!

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  12. Kirk said on August 2, 2006 at 2:01 pm

    don’t forget the yahoos who “could of done that”

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  13. mary said on August 2, 2006 at 2:06 pm

    I come her for solace after reading resumes of six sigma black belts all morning. I bet all these guys say irregardless.

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  14. Kirk said on August 2, 2006 at 2:28 pm

    and talk about how something will “impact” something else

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  15. Danny said on August 2, 2006 at 2:35 pm

    Question: “Under way” or “under weigh?” I’ve searched before and most sites agree with the former, but I can’t help but imagine that the latter could be correct if it relates to “make sail” or “under sail.”

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  16. nancy said on August 2, 2006 at 2:50 pm

    It’s under way. And I’ve never heard of “under weigh” as a synonym for being under sail. You weigh anchor, and then you’re under way.

    And impact! My teeth grind! But even worse is “impactful,” which actually makes my molars dissolve into dust.

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  17. Scout said on August 2, 2006 at 2:56 pm

    Your right, bad grammar makes me loose it.

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  18. Kirk said on August 2, 2006 at 2:57 pm

    how do you stand on “staff (or faculty) are”? i wouldn’t say “army are” or “team are.” my theory is that bureaucrats purposely use obfuscatory and twisted language, and lazy reporters pick it up and regurgitate it. i still change these, though i’m sure a lot of people whose copy i change don’t understand why.

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  19. Kirk said on August 2, 2006 at 3:04 pm

    aaaaggghhhh!!! and i just started editing something that includes something about an article in a game program “referencing” something or other. not real big on the bible, but i continue to believe the Tower of Babel story

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  20. kathy t said on August 2, 2006 at 4:01 pm

    SO! You don’t “reverence” the Bible, eh?

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  21. Dave B. said on August 2, 2006 at 4:07 pm

    I’m not a wordsmith like most of you folks, but I don’t like to hear “irregardless” and “phenomenal” missused by our president. Nor do I like “nucular” weapons.

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  22. Kirk said on August 2, 2006 at 4:17 pm

    i already feel the flames of the underworld licking at my butt

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  23. colleen said on August 2, 2006 at 4:52 pm

    Thought of another one….”he was a real trooper, coming to work while he was sick”

    Um. Yeah. If he’s a police officer….

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  24. Danny said on August 2, 2006 at 4:58 pm

    Yeah, I meant to say that weighing anchor came to mind and that was the loose connection (not synonomous) with “under sail.”

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  25. Connie said on August 2, 2006 at 5:01 pm

    I heard that Colbert managed to get his viewers to crash wikipedia the other night, and managed to invent another word as good as truthiness: wikiality, when “he suggested to his viewers that they replace “reality” (frequently maligned on the “Report”) with a user-created “wikiality” where something is true if enough people believe it.” The article is at

    And Scout, didn’t you mean bad grammer?

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  26. Andy said on August 2, 2006 at 5:30 pm

    Please see my post on a very similar topic posted July 10, 2006.

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  27. Bill said on August 2, 2006 at 6:23 pm

    For the Colbert video, go to:

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  28. treepeony said on August 2, 2006 at 6:30 pm

    When somebody says “irregardless” to me, I reply, “Do you mean “disirregardless?” Disirregardless of your argument, Nancy, I see “copse” in British literature, including British children’s fiction, all the time, and often in American fiction. Your column is the first time I ever saw the redundant “copse of trees.”

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  29. alex said on August 2, 2006 at 7:31 pm

    Here’s one I’ve wondered about: “All told” just somehow strikes me as wrong, as if it’s a corruption of “all tolled,” which would make more sense. “All tolled, more than 200,000 Iraqi lives were lost,” for instance.

    Some misusages become accepted as the norm over time. Till is what you do to the earth; ’til is until without the un. Likewise, you can say you’re nauseous when you’re nauseated, but as an old-time copy editor I’ll find you sickening.

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  30. mary said on August 2, 2006 at 7:43 pm

    At the end of the day, I’m tired of “at the end of the day.”

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  31. Dorothy said on August 2, 2006 at 8:34 pm

    One that I hate: “at this point in time” That used to be simply “now”

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  32. nancy said on August 2, 2006 at 9:11 pm

    Maybe I should stick with the journalese tried-and-true: “A wooded area.”

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  33. Carmella said on August 2, 2006 at 9:33 pm

    My pet peeve…when someone says, “I was gonna say…” and then they go ahead and say it. Makes my eyes hurt from rolling them.

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  34. basset said on August 2, 2006 at 10:55 pm

    I produce auto-mechanics videos… and made it a point today to thank our closed-captioning guy for correctly using “braze” instead of “braise.”

    wouldn’t want to confuse anyone into welding their dinner, y’know…

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