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The simple past tense of the word to slay is slew.  The past participle is slain.  The word itself is archaic, and I suspect it’s in our colloquial vocabulary only because of fantasy novels and role-playing games, in which slaying is so much more fantastical than mere killing.  For some reason, I keep coming across writing by people who don’t know how to conjugate to slay, usually on Wikipedia, where most of the writers appear to be high-school students.  But here’s a college professor:

‘We’ve now seen that you can package the complexity of a large brain in a tiny packet,’ said Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist at Wits University in South Africa and an author of the paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. ‘Almost in one fell swoop we slayed the sacred cow that complexity in the hominid brain was directly associated with increasing brain size.’

(“Wits University”, by the way, is the University of the Witwatersrand.  A bit like calling the University of Connecticut “Yukon” in the Newspaper of Record, don’t you think?)

Wikipedia says Prof. Berger is American-born, so I presume he’s a native speaker of English and has no excuse.  Maybe he was misquoted.  I doubt it.


Sure Hope So!

Top News: Might reviving Woolly-Mammoth genes struggle the results of worldwide warming?

This headline appeared on Google News, attributed to something called “Standard Republic”, but I couldn’t visit the actual site because I use an ad-blocker.  The web page put up its own ad-blocker-blocker asking me to “consider” disabling my ad-blocker.  There was no way to make that go away, other than disabling my ad-blocker, so what the owners mean is, “Disable your ad-blocker!”  I plan to keep struggling the results of worldwide web advertising.

Long-lived, Short-lived


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People who say “short-lived” or “long-lived” nowadays generally pronounce “‑lived” as [lɪvd]; that is, as if it were the past tense of the verb, to live ([tə lɪv]).  They (or whoever taught them that pronunciation) first encountered those words in print, rather than in conversation, and naturally guessed that they should be pronounced like the similarly-spelt word most familiar to them, “lived”:  [lɪvd].  They guessed wrong.

Long-lived and short-lived have nothing to do with to live (that is, [tə lɪv]) in any tense.   They rhyme with wived (a verbal adjective [? or possibly an adjectival verb] used by Shakespeare, meaning, possessed of, or having obtained, a wife) and hived (a verbal adjective [? ditto] that might be used by beekeepers, meaning, possessed of, or put into, a hive).  They are analogous to long-leaved and short-leaved—verbal adjectives that apply, inter alia, to trees.

To say that, for instance, some politician’s success was [ʃɔɹt lɪvd] makes no more sense than to say that a shortleaf pine is short-left.




For decades now, real estate agents have been calling houses “homes”.  Presumably, they believe that customers would prefer to buy a home over a mere house.  A home, after all, is where somebody lives, whereas a house is just a building.  I’ve always thought that was absurd, but it’s none of my business.

Today a headline from TV station WRIC in Richmond, Virginia, caught my eye:

Neighbors fed up with abandoned home, want answers from City of Richmond

(Warning:  clicking on the link above will open a page that very rudely plays a video without asking your permission.)

Now, if a home is where somebody lives, how can an abandoned building be a home?  This is just a house!


Whom is it?


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Early on, as they discussed whom Mr. Comey’s point of contact should be at the White House, Mr. Trump said that ‘Reince doesn’t know we are having dinner’ but that Mr. Comey should plan to go to him.

Michael S. Schmidt, “6 Takeaways from the James Comey Memos“, New York Times, 20 April 2018.

We struggle with the pronoun whom and the verb to be.

In colloquial speech, the verb to be is frequently transitive. “It’s me,” we say, though we’re all at least dimly aware that in formal speech or writing it’s intransitive. We’re taught to say, “This is he,” or “This is she,” when somebody on the phone asks to speak with us, even though it sounds odd.  Most of us recognize “‘Tis I” as a correct, if very archaic-sounding, way to announce oneself.

King saying "It is we" into the telephone.

The French solved this problem ages ago: “L’etat c’est moi,” is bad politics, but good French. You cannot correctly say, “C’est je,” in French, even though proper Spanish requires the equivalent “Soy yo,” and Italian, “Sono io“. (These are not strictly equivalents to the French expression. In French, “C’est je,” literally would mean “It is I.” In Spanish, “Soy yo,” literally means, “I am I,” and the same for Italian “Sono io;” but they’re functionally equivalent to “C’est moi,” and “It’s me.”) The British have apparently decided definitely to side with the French (!), and both say and write “It’s me,” “It’s him,” “It’s her,” in all cases.

The pronoun whom is supposedly on its way out, and has been for a hundred years, but it refuses to die, at least on this side of the Atlantic. It shouldn’t be hard to cope with, but it seems to be. The choice between who and whom is analogous to that between he and him. In the excerpt quoted above, the question, as posed by the writer, is “Whom should Mr. Comey’s point of contact be?” If we turn that into a statement, we get “He should be Mr. Comey’s point of contact,” not “*Him should be . . . ;” so the writer ought to have known not to write “whom”.

If we changed the verb to one that’s unambiguously transitive, like accuse, then the writer’s use of whom would be correct: “Early on, as they discussed whom Mr. Comey’s point of contact should accuse . . . .” (I make no comment for now regarding the use of “point of contact” in the sentence, other than to observe that the skin crawls.)

Unfortunately, the business is complicated by our ambivalence about the verb to be.

It is perfectly acceptable to say, “Mr. Comey’s point of contact at the White House should be him.” (No, it isn’t, but for the moment we’re leaving aside the question of whether or not a human being can be a point.) Whether or not it’s acceptable to write “. . . should be him,” in the Newspaper of Record is perhaps a different question, but the spirit of the times (not to mention, if you’ll forgive me, the policy of the Times) seems to favor it. Perhaps that’s why the writer imagined that whom was the correct pronoun for his sentence.

He was wrong. Our flexible language permits either a transitive or intransitive use of to be in this context; but if the writer is going to be colloquial and make to be a transitive verb (“It is him.”), then he must maintain the same colloquial style throughout the sentence (and the article): he can’t suddenly get formal and start using whom. The problem here is thus not only one of grammar but also one of style.

Let me just observe in closing that it is always wrong to begin a sentence, a title, or a headline with a numeral. Always.