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Words May 19

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“That is precisely why programs like ‘The Newshour with Jim Lehrer’ and ‘Washington Week’ are so important — because they offer in-depth reporting about the real issues rather than focusing on celebrities or offering fast-paced sound bytes.” Those are sound bites — short and provocative quotations — not sound bytes. The name comes from bite-sized, not from computer terminology. “A. Tenenbaum Co. is 115 years old, but a year and a half of sky-high steel prices have made these the salad days.” Salad days are a period of youthful inexperience. I don’t understand how a 115-year-old company is only now getting around to its salad days, but maybe I just don’t have a head for business. “A Dumas couple on Thursday was awarded $1 million by the state Claims Commission for severe injuries suffered when a state police cruiser struck their vehicle three years ago.” Whether you treat couple as singular or plural, you’re stuck with your choice at least until the end of the sentence. Both verbs and pronouns have to match the noun in number. So, if a couple was (singular) awarded, then the police cruiser struck its (singular) vehicle. The sentence reads better if you go plural all the way. “A Dumas couple were awarded … when a police cruiser struck their vehicle.” Most of the time, you can’t go wrong treating couple as a plural. Speaking of couple, is it correct to say “Give me a couple of doughnuts,” or should it be “Give me a couple doughnuts”? Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage says: “Omitting the of is slipshod in such a construction as this: ‘Is a used toilet seat worth $1 million? Or even a couple [read couple of] hundred thousand dollars?’ In other words, using couple not as a noun but as an adjective is poor usage: instead of a couple days ago, say a couple of days ago.” A colleague asks if it’s toward or towards. I think they’re pretty much interchangeable these days, but some authorities still say that in American English, the preferred form is toward, while towards is preferred in British English.

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