Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Principal vs principle

This may come as a surprise to some, but a lot of writers can't spell worth beens [sic].

Flannery O'Connor, one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century, described herself as "an innocent speller." She barely passed spelling in school. Certainly there's no malice intended, it's just not a skill some writers possess.

One of my favorite writers--and colleagues--is a poor speller. I don't mind a bit, though. She's so gifted at her craft, that I love everything she writes. And her bad spelling affords me job security.

But I do have to pay special attention to her spelling. This came in recently:
"The principle researcher for the study..."
Make that principal, as in the lead researcher.

Usage here can be confusing. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary has the following unhelpful note:
Although nearly every handbook and many dictionaries warn against confusing principle and principal, many people still do. Principle is only a noun; principal is both adjective and noun. If you are unsure which noun you want, read the definitions in this dictionary.
Principal often means the head of a school, so some think of the Principal as your "pal." (Where did they go to school?) Principals lead schools, so it makes sense they would also lead research or study groups or be the main item on a list. Principal also refers to the amount of a loan that draws interest.

Principles are generally rules, doctrines, or precepts, as in the principles of mathematics. One also hears of the fundamental principles of human rights, for instance.

Principal misspellers haven't mastered the principles of spelling, that's all.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Comma Comment

Commas can be quite controversial. 

Some copy editors like lots of them. Others, like myself, try to keep them to a minimum. So I was delighted to receive the following note today from one of my favorite authors:

"I love the way you don't sprinkle commas over everything like pepper."

That warms my punctuated heart.

(T-shirt pictured available at Zazzle.com)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Of Dogs and Snow

Sorry that the weather and pictures of pups have taken over this blog lately. That's not my intention, it just shows my preoccupations this past week.

Here's the last picture of Argos I will post. It's in Logan Circle, taken on Wednesday, February 10, 2010.

What's a limn? Part II

Leave it to The New Yorker.

I was catching up on some recent issues yesterday and read Peter Schjeldahl's terrific review of the Bronzino exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. ("Then and Now," February 1, 2010, The New Yorker.)

Schjeldahl is a wonderful writer whose prose remains accessible while giving glimpses of his genius. Since he writes about the art world, it makes complete sense for him to use the word "limn." (See this previous posting for a definition.)

Sure enough, about three-quarters of the way through his article, talking about the Italian Mannerist Bronzino's drawings on paper, Schjeldahl writes:
A telltale feature is the thin, continuous line that contours his figures, divorcing them from the negative space of the paper: they were limned to be integrated elsewhere.
This is a case of the right word for the right subject by the right writer. My hat is off to Schjeldahl.

(Cover image copyright The New Yorker)


You know the saying, "Second verse same as the first."

Yet on the heels of Snowmageddon comes Snowpocalypse, a second verse even worse than the first.

The storm that hit the mid-Atlantic region last night and is heading north is worse than the storm over the weekend. We're experiencing blizzard conditions outside, and the snow has piled on another foot or so on top some two feet of accumulated snow.

Other names for this winter of discombobulation are SnOMG, Snowtorious, Snoverkill, Snozilla, and Snofecta.

That's S'now joke.

(Photo of Logan Circle, Washington, DC, taken on February 10, 2010)

Monday, February 8, 2010


They predicted a huge snowstorm and it arrived. That's the surprising part of this week's historic storm that struck the mid-Atlantic region. Everything else played out in slow-mo on the news, radio, and online.

When it started snowing Friday afternoon, the streets were nearly vacant, since the federal government closed early and most schools in the D.C. region didn't bother opening in dreadful anticipation of "Snowmageddon"--the blizzard of 2010. The snow didn't stop for 24 hours, and by the end, more than 20 inches had fallen. Schools and the federal government are closed today. Metro and buses are on limited schedules. Cars are buried in snow. It'll take a long time to dig out, and more snow is on the way.

This time the hype was real: Snowmageddon struck hard. I'll enjoy it while it lasts.

(Photo of Logan Circle, Washington, DC, taken Sunday, February 7, 2010)

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What's a limn?

One of my first published articles in U.S. News & World Report, where I was a financial reporter, was a book review. 

I don't recall the book. In fact, the only thing I do recall is the word "limn" that the editor inserted into my pristine prose. (As a young writer, I believed my prose was pristine. I'm sure if I dug that clip out and a copy of what I submitted to the editor, I'd see how much he improved it.) 

When I read the edited copy, I asked, "What's a 'limn'?" I knew it was a verb, since the passage read, "the book limns the experiences of a financial analyst caught in the vice grip of corruption" or some such purple prose of majesty. At that point in my career, I considered myself a wordsmith and was surprised I hadn't run into that before. 

To limn, I soon learned, is "to draw or paint on a surface; to outline in clear sharp detail: delineate; describe," according to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. The word comes from Latin illuminare, to illuminate. 

Even then, I thought it was a pretentious, ten-dollar word when "tell," a perfectly clear Anglo-Saxon word, worked just as well. I queried the editor and was rebuffed. When I complained to colleagues, they said "limn" was one of the editor's favorite words and that he often inserted it into book reviews. It seemed he was on a mission to spread "limn" far and wide. I wasn't convinced. 

As I limn this experience, I can tell you that more than a decade later, this is the first time I've used that word in my writing. It's likely the last time, too. 

(Image of rug, above, from Limn.com, an interior design studio and art gallery in San Francisco)