Monday, January 14, 2008


A comment has poured in to GrammarSnot with this provocative question: "What's your call on the use of 'surveil' as a verb?"

Surveil is a big fave among law enforcement and other authoritarian types, who love to sound way cool and no-nonsense. It is a back-formation from the perfectly legitimate surveillance, which comes to us courtesy of la belle francaise, and we should probably give it a fair hearing--we use hundreds of other back-formations daily, without giving them a second thought. Burgle comes to mind, along with enthuse and scavenge.

No less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary recognizes it, citing 1960 as its date of first use: "1960 Federal Suppl. (U.S.) CLXXXII. 750/1 The plaintiff also stresses that the store as a whole, and the customer exits especially, were closely surveilled."

According to both the Random House Unabridged and Webster's 10th Collegiate (based on Webster's Third, published in 1961 to general approbation), surveil is legit.

That said, we at GrammarSnot are not in favor of surveil. Our reasons are as follows:
  1. It's jargon--i.e., in use in a very specific and limited community and not shared by the wider English-speaking public.
  2. It violates the cardinal principle of good writing and speaking: clarity. Observed, watched, and kept under surveillance are all clearer and the first two are more concise.
  3. It's ridiculous. Anyone using it immediately brands him- or herself as both pompous and of limited imagination.
So there you have it, Grammies: There'll be no surveilling for you tonight!

Sunday, January 13, 2008


Pity the poor apostrophe. It is abused, misplaced, misunderstood, and unloved.

Washington Post, January 13, 2008, furniture ad: Sofa's, dinette's 50% off!
CBS, January 12, 2008, playoff game between Green Bay and Seattle: Favres' Stats
MSNBC, January 5, 2008: Iowa Caucus Voter's Give Obama the Lead

Is it that "sofas" or "dinettes" just doesn't look right ? Is that it, snookie? Well TOO BAD--the plural of sofa is sofas. The plural of dinette is dinettes. Unless I am completely misunderstanding and some copy is missing, i.e., the object that the sofa or the dinette possesses (the sofa's arms, perhaps), the apostrophe has no place in this home.

Now, as to Mr. Favre: although his performance in the game might have led some to think that there are two of him, in point of fact he is singular (in more ways than one) and therefore the apostrophe goes before the "s," not after.

And so to Iowa, where one busy bee apparently voted 82,536 times.

The plural of a singular noun adds just a plain old "s" (sofa/sofas, dinette/dinettes, giraffe/giraffes, voter/voters); singular nouns that end in "s" or "ss" (arras, compass, Adams) take "es" (arrases, compasses, Adamses [NOT, please God, Adam's]). No apostrophes. Ever.

A singular noun takes an apostrophe and "s" to indicate possession: Favre's stats.

A singular noun ending in "s" or "ss" also takes an apostrophe and "s" to indicate possession: arras's, compass's, Adams's (please, please not Adam's).

A plural noun takes an apostrophe after the "s" to indicate possession: voters', Adamses'.

You have not heard the last of this.


Thursday, January 3, 2008

Impactfully Impacting the Impact of the Transitive Verb has a page entitled "Impact Your World." It states under the heading: Take action! When disaster strikes or horrible events unfold, these are opportunities to effect change. Bad things happen in the world every day. But good can result and one person can impact the world.

I'm taking this opportunity to weigh in on the controversy (!) over the use of the word "impact" as a verb. provides definitions for both the verb and noun forms. The American Heritage Dictionary entry reports that the use of the word as a verb constitutes a "Usage Problem." I could not agree more.

While it is reported there that the word has been used as a verb since 1635, this word has colloquially and publicly occupied a perfectly respectable position as a noun. opines that the use of "impact" as a verb is an attempt by public figures to gain intelligence-respect by using the word in new or fresh way. Again, I agree.

My objection to use of impact as a verb is NOT that the use is incorrect grammatically, because esteemed sources list the word as a verb. I object to the ego-centric audacity with which people claim a new use or create a word out of thin air ("impactful," for example, in a recent car commercial). This ego-pumping, acquisitive, and unacceptable trend of colonizing nouns to become verbs started at least ten years ago but proliferated during the dot-com boom/bust ("incent" is another one with a target on his back). I hoped that the bursting bubble exploded this practice, but it has not. Who is CNN to say that I can impose my will on the world? I'm not the target audience but I appreciate the brash, fresh, youthful, hip, enabling message this sends to a bunch of people who already believe they are entitled the spoils of the entire world.