Two Furcates and Half a Nary

A prince was about to purchase a castle high on a rocky promontory, the perfect place to defend against marauding Visigoths. His princess loved the place because of the stunning view and the intriguing array of torture devices displayed in the dungeon. As the prince was about to sign, he noticed the term bimonthly payments in his contract to purchase. Wait! Hold everything! What does that mean?

This is the only question on grammar that sends all of my references into a tailspin.

The editors of Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage write, “The typical letter writer [to the dictionary staff] is outraged or distressed that bimonthly, for example, may mean either ‘every two months’ or ‘twice a month.’”

The Oxford American Dictionary defines biannual as “appearing or happening twice a year,” then notes: “‘Biannual’ and ‘biannually’ do not mean ‘every two years.’” Yet it defines bimonthly as “happening every second month” and also as “happening twice a month,” but warns that “careful writers” use semimonthly instead of bimonthly to mean “twice a month.” Semi is defined as “a prefix meaning half.”

Webster’s New Dictionary of Synonyms states,“The chief source of confusion is biannual, which is used to mean either twice a year or every two years.”

Theodore Bernstein in The Careful Writer holds, “Bimonthly means every two months, and nothing else.” But biweekly can mean “every two weeks,” or “twice a week.” He concludes, “Without question, man’s communication with his fellow man would be improved if semi- were used to mean half and bi- were reserved to mean two.”

Not one reference tries to explain how bi can mean “two” and semi can mean “half,” yet biannual and semiannual have somehow become synonymous. Here’s what I think happened: The prince buying the castle saw the term “bimonthly payments” and asked his lawyer and the seller’s lawyer if that meant “two monthly payments,” or “two-monthly payments?” and the lawyers said, “Yes!”

For realtors, bimonthly usually means “twice a month,” and biweekly means “every two weeks,” but buyers don’t know that and rightly assume that bimonthly can mean “once every two months.” Insurance brokers have to rely on HR people at client corporations to deduct insurance premiums from an employee’s wages, but the HR folks don’t know the difference between biweekly and semimonthly.

Hard Fast Rule: Never entrust to your readers the interpretation of any statement containing the prefix bi or semi coupled with “weekly,” “monthly,” or “annually.” What is in your head will not be in theirs. And lawyers, don’t try to define the words to mean whatever you want them to mean. Say it correctly in the first place. (Tip: Alice in Law-Law-Land.) I understand how this started; I don’t understand why it has to continue. The confusion has led to millions of misunderstandings and thousands of lawsuits. So I propose:

First, we stop using bi or semi with “weekly,” “monthly,” “annual,” “annually,” “ennially,” or “centennial,” at all, ever. We don’t have to remove bi or semi from other words, because no one will ever confuse half a bicycle with two bicycles or half conscious with twice as conscious.

Second, we just write what we mean (what a concept), like: every other week, on Friday, for a total of 26 payments each year. Or: twice a month, on the 1st and the 15th, for a total of 24 payments each year. HR people will weep with gratitude; realtors will high-five; malpractice carriers will lower premiums; judges will smile; and various peoples of diverse origin and ethnicity will live in peace and harmony forever and ever. Amen.

Third, we at least be consistent: semi always means “half”; bi always means “two.” So semiconscious would refer to all teenagers (including the ones we used to be); “semiintelligent” would describe those who are smart twice a week, or once every two weeks (not a big difference); “semiclassical” music would include “Theme from The Apartment.”

bifurcate would mean two furcates
Seminole would be half of a “nole,” as in Chief Osce
bikini would be two kinies
and seminary would be half of a nary

That should solve the problem. If you’re onboard, let me know. And stay tuned for more Writing Tips from WordRake, coming your way every bifortnight.

A Hacksaw to the Ear

It all happens so fast. If you remember, we ended last week with everything suspended: Criss on the side of the Chrysler Building, David upside down, handcuffed and straitjacketed, in a shark-infested tank. But the crowd has now turned back to me, wide-eyed and slack-jawed, to hear the rest of my story on how to write numbers.

Criss jumps down and slaps a spectator’s head under a guillotine! David nails his own hand to a door with an icepick! Both so desperate to wrest back the crowd’s attention! But to no avail (maybe a little avail, but not much), because I just keep pouring it on!


use words for numbers at the beginning of a sentence, including a date:

Nineteen sixty-eight was the height of student migration to the beaches of Ft. Lauderdale during Spring Break.

Eleven hundred twenty-nine students that year were arrested and jailed during the riots.

hyphenate numbers from twenty-one through ninety-nine, but only those numbers:

one hundred eighty-three

place a comma after the year, but only if the day appears after the month:

We will wait till October 14, 2015, to begin.

But: We will wait till 14 October 2015 to begin.

use the numeral with the word percent unless in a technical piece; then use %:

But 7 percent voted no.

Mix a 7% solution with . . . .

spell the number if you spell the currency:

twenty-five dollars

write the numeral if you use the symbol:



NOT add the numeral in parentheses after we have written the number in words (lawyers pay close attention):

seven thousand nine hundred fifty-two (7,952).

NOT use ordinal numbers in dates unless “of” appears between the day and the month:

8 May, or May 8, or the 8th of May

but not May 8th, or 8th May

NOT place an apostrophe before the “s” in a plural year or century:

the 1960s, or the 1800s

NOT capitalize a century:

the twentieth century, or the 20th century.


replace the century with an apostrophe:

the Class of ’64.

Wait, what’s happening? That last one apparently has pushed the crowd to the edge of hysteria! Excuse me, I have a crisis on my hands! David, drop the hacksaw! Leave your ear alone! I’m finished! You may have your audience back!

Hanging with Criss and David

The other day, I was hanging out with Criss Angel and David Blaine, walking across pools and through plate glass windows, all that typical stuff. While Criss set himself on fire and David hung from a crane in a block of ice, I wowed the crowd with this amazing trick where I make useless words disappear right in front of their eyes: no hands, no props, just a WordRake button. Pure magic. The crowd burst into applause, stunned.

When we hosed off Criss and thawed out David, they showed me another amazing trick, all based on nothing but numbers. I’m going to teach it to you: First, arrange a deck of cards in suits, each suit in order, deuce through ace. Stack the suits, alternating red and black (it’s prettier). Cut the deck thirteen times. Now, watch closely as I distract you by talking about something else: numbers.

Have you ever noticed how numbers govern our lives? From the 1s and 0s in our computers to the tide tables to the syncopation of jazz to the sunrise to the Golden Ratio to our monetary system? Everywhere we look are numbers, bringing order to the chaos, and it is good (mostly); the problem arises when we have to write those numbers. Whether we speak, “Nine” or “9,” no one knows the difference. But on paper we have to choose: words or numerals. Which do we use? Like all things profound, it depends.

Numbers are so precise, so predictable, we can hit the moon with a rocket in any language (as long as we remember to convert inches to millimeters); but English Language authorities cannot agree on how to write those numbers. The Chicago Manual of Style disagrees with the MLA Handbook, which contradicts the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, which never considers what college professors teach journalism students. The Chicago Manual of Style notes, “As soon as one thinks one has arrived at a simple rule for handling some category of numbers, exceptions begin to appear, and one realizes that the rule has to be made more complicated.” But we can follow a few conventions to bring sanity to our writing lives.

The Central Question: Should we spell a number or use the numeral? There are two answers, of course, one contradicting the other: Many texts suggest we spell only numbers from one through nine (and their multiples): so three and seven thousand, but 23; others suggest spelling numbers from one through ninety-nine (and their multiples): so fifty-six and thirty-nine million, but 102 and 5,329. I prefer the second method, but either is fine; just be consistent.

With that as our foundation, here are thirteen (or 13) exceptions; there are more, but unless you are a publisher, these will suffice. Note that most of the time, we use the numeral:

Use Numerals with:

Number Combinations: When you compare numbers, be consistent; if some should be words and others should be numerals, make them all numerals: In one year, Criss Angel walked through 108 concrete walls, 73 plate glass windows, and 2 iron gates.

Large Rounded Numbers: about 8 billion.

A Year: 47 B.C. (or B.C.E.).

Number Clusters: The ages of the six conscripts were 7, 9, 10, 12, 13, and 15.

Percentages and Decimals: percent, .62 miles.

Units of Measurement in technical writing: 3 pounds, 17 hectares.

Abbreviated Measurements in all writing: 5 mi, 55 mph.

Whole Numbers with Fractions: 8½-by-11-inch paper.

Page Numbers: page 4.

Use Words with:

Units of Measurement in nontechnical writing: The last time David Blaine stabbed himself, he lost three pints of blood.

Round Numbers and Approximations: about two thousand years ago.

Use Both with:

Numbers Modifying Numbers: 4 sevens, or three 10s.

“Ordinal” Numbers (numbers that express order): same rules as for “cardinal” numbers: first, second, twenty-third (or 23rd), but 137th.

Back on the street. After I cut the deck thirteen (or 13) times, I distracted you by talking about numbers, while I dealt thirteen hands. Now, I flip over each hand, and voilà, I have four-of-a-kind every time! Amazing! How does he do that? Ask David and Criss, and they will tell you: Nothing up our sleeves but numbers. See you in the streets again next week for more on numbers.

Sun Valley Serenade

After dinner in town, I returned late to the home on the lake. The other authors had been there for a good while. When I walked in, a nice woman asked if I would like a glass of white wine. I said, “Yes, I would like that.” She brought it to me, extended the glass, and as I reached for it, she pulled it back. “First,” she said, “you must sing.”

When I published Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea, I was invited to speak at the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference, one of about 30 novelists, poets, screenwriters, playwrights, and writers of narrative nonfiction. The three years I participated, it was a heady group: Jane Smiley, Robert Stone, Peter Matthiessen, David Halberstam, Dave Eggers, Anne Lamott, David McCullough, E. L. Doctorow, Anna Quindlen, W. S. Merwin, Dave Barry. In this august gathering, I knew not one person.

One of the authors, a delightful Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes), had come steeped in the Irish tradition of public singing. I came steeped in a tradition of never opening your mouth in public unless it was to speak or eat. About twice a month, we lip-synched in church.

In the green field that separated the house on the lake from the Sun Valley Lodge sprawled a white tent that held an audience of 700. My first year at the conference, I spoke to the large group in the big white tent about the story in Ship of Gold. The second year, I approached the conference organizers with a novel idea: Most of these 700 attendees came to Sun Valley every August to be inspired, to learn how to find an agent, to get the skinny on what publishers want, to know what to wear on an author’s tour; what if someone talked to them about…writing. That year, I taught a program on one of the great ironies in the art of storytelling:

We engage our reader not by giving information, but by withholding it.

If I give you the responsibility for filling in details, I engage you. Your details will differ from those in my head or the head of the person next to you, but that doesn’t matter. You will build the scene from your own experience and observation. All I have to do is give you a few clues.

About 50 people sat on folding chairs inside a small tent. I asked them to close their eyes and imagine what I was about to read, a simple scene I had written to illustrate the point. These are the three sentences; read them now and imagine the scene:

As I walked into the restaurant, my shoulder brushed the leaves of a potted palm. I gave my name and immediately I was seated by the window, where I could look out and think, until Kelly arrived. A napkin stood folded in front of me, but I made no attempt to place it in my lap.

They opened their eyes, and I asked, “Which shoulder brushed the potted palm?” At once, half the tent said, “Left,” half said, “Right.” “Who seated me, a man or a woman?” Two to one, a woman. “How was this person dressed?” I asked. “Where was this person standing?” “What is the time of day?” “Are other people in the restaurant?” “How pricey is the food?” “Who is Kelly?” “Who am I?” And my favorite, “What color is the napkin.” Half said, “White.” The other half said, “Sort of a creamy color.” Or, “Very pale pinkish-orange.” Or, “Kind of a light, mint green.” None of this information was in the three sentences, yet they saw it.

That night, in the house on the lake, in front of all those authors I didn’t know, I sang. But if I tell you what each person wore, the color of the walls, the weave in the carpet, the glow from the lamps, the art of the owner, the beams in the ceiling, you will have nothing to do, and I will not engage you. I have provided you with only a few clues: the occasion, some of the people there, and that it was night. I have also mentioned the wine and the nice woman. But that is all. And yet, you see me there, singing.

I will add one detail for your picture. When the nice woman handed me the glass of wine and told me I must sing, she said that everyone in the room already had sung, that I was the last one. It was a tradition. I thought, How ‘bout I be the first one to break the tradition? But then I thought, Maybe I should just blunder my way through some song, embarrass myself, and be a good sport. Twenty years from now, what difference will it make? So in front of all those people I did not know, I sang, and I sang with conviction, even passion. White wine in one hand, I felt nightclubby, like a Dean Martin or Sammy Davis, Jr. The song? “Scotch and Soda.” Why, I have no idea; it just popped out. Mud in your eye, remember? Baby do I feel high, o me o my, do-o I feel high. Dry martini, jigger of gin, o what a spell you’ve got me in, o my . . . .

Okay, one more detail: the nice woman lied; no one else had sung. I was the only one.


All I need is…one of your smiles, the sun…shine of your eyes, o me o my . . . .


L.A. and Confidential

If any CHP patrolman or Starbucks barista wrote this scene in a screenplay (everybody in California from San Luis Obispo to the Mexico border is writing a screenplay), even the 19-year-old Paramount Studios summer intern would groan at the desperate ploy for a laugh. It’s funny only if it’s truly accidental and innocent, as it was. And if you hear the story on a Saturday afternoon while wine tasting with a few friends in Sideways country east of Santa Barbara, as I did, you will snort the Pinot out your nostrils, as I also did. Although Nabokov once said there’s no such thing as a “true story,” this is a true story.

We find ourselves in the shoes of First Woman, who works for a big Public Relations firm in Los Angeles. Second Woman works for the same PR firm, and she needs constant reassuring that she’s okay, that she’s doing a good job, that she’s worthy, that she’s a good person. First Woman constantly reassures Second Woman that she’s okay, that she’s doing a good job, that she’s worthy, that she’s a good person. First Woman does this by telling Second Woman about her own shortcomings, how she even has out-of-date cottage cheese in her refrigerator. Oh my. This makes Second Woman feel much better, but it drains First Woman because it never stops. Finally, First Woman confides wide-eyed to Third Woman, “Whenever I’m around her, I totally exhaust myself. It’s driving me crazy that every time . . . .”

Let me pause here for just a moment to point out that the most dangerous of all English usage problems are word pairs that look and sound so much alike, they almost seem to be the same word, yet they’re not, and they have different meanings, sometimes radically different meanings. Three excellent examples:

A censor is a person who removes “harmful” words and images from books, letters, and films, like a Nazi librarian in 1938 Berlin; or a school board member who has never read Catcher in the Rye but is absolutely certain it has bad stuff in it. “Censor” can also be a verb to describe what this narrow-minded person does. But censure is “strong criticism” or “condemnation,” the kind we see when a Democrat demands a Republican’s head on a pewter plate. And there’s the verb version, to “blame” or “rebuke,” the kind we see where, instead of doing something, a Republican blames and rebukes a Democrat.

Incipient is an adjective that describes a thing at its “beginning” or in its “early stages.” We use it, for instance, to describe athlete’s foot that appears in but one toe crack. But insipient, although archaic (we rarely see it unless someone misspells “incipient,” which happens frequently), means “lacking wisdom,” or being “stupid” and “foolish.” I would like to start a campaign to resurrect this archaic word and keep it handy for when we need to describe the above censors, censures, and politicians.

A prerequisite is something “required as a condition,” but a perquisite is an “allowance” or “privilege” considered one’s “right” besides wages and salary, as in hot stone massages and $1,300 bottles of Roederer Cristal Rosé on company jets for certain bankers at certain publicly-bailed-out banks. The abbreviation for perquisites is “perks.”

You see what I mean? So close, yet not the same. Like a harmless scarlet king snake and a deadly coral snake. Now where were we? Oh, right. So First Woman is lamenting with Third Woman the constant need to reassure Second Woman’s fragile ego. She’s sick of it. “It’s driving me crazy,” she says to Third Woman, “that every time I’m around her, I have to be so, so self-defecating.” Third Woman nods in sympathy. The two women stare at the floor, shaking their heads.

Green Cherries in the Fruitcake

I have discovered why nobody in Congress wants to compromise: incest. If you don’t want to think beyond your own closed mind, you won’t want someone else’s ideas in there mucking things up. So that makes fertile ground for incestuous ideas—ideas that have affairs with other closely-related ideas—narrowing one’s perspective, until all the ideas in your head are first cousins.

However. No matter how recalcitrant, narrow-minded, and shortsighted our congressional members choose to be, they are mere pikers compared to the crowd-surfing, Wall of Death, verbal mosh pit that is the British House of Commons. An entire eight-hour session sounds like a British accent—against a din of curses, shouting, and laughter—yelling:


I hope when our Congress finally gives up its quest to exceed the House of Commons in the Guinness Book of Obnoxiousness, they will hug, make up, and find a way to say, “We agree.”

But they won’t, because even when they say it, they don’t say it. They have to poke it full of nut words, green-cherry words, and little-chunks-of-pineapple words, stretch it out, plump it up, and dust it with a few other words, like they’re baking a fruitcake. All that butter and rum just to say, “We agree.”

When they serve it up and fob it off, we get, “We never sought clarification about the status of coming to an agreement on the concept of,” or “We are in consonance with our colleagues on the other side of the aisle over,” or “We would also like to come to complete agreement on a resolution to this matter (but we have to appear combative, ridiculous, uncompromising, and therefore interesting, or we will never get our own TV reality show when we’re through with this gig, and why are we in this if not for that?).”

But they aren’t the only ones. The rest of us are just as guilty:

Despite the failure of the parties to arrive at a meeting of the minds on the equity concept . . . .

I have conducted many arbitrations where the parties’ agreement is that I must apply rules of evidence as if I were sitting as a trial judge.

I wanted to confirm this treatment with all of you, so we are all in significant agreement as to the proper tax allocations.

NOW, THEREFORE, it is agreed between the parties as follows:

We stand in agreement that this section has pertinence to any contract.

Here’s something on which we all can agree: WordRake is the only software in the world that edits for clarity and brevity. While I was writing this Tip, I blindly ran the sentences above through the WordRake editing software, and this is what it showed me:

Despite the failure of the parties to arrive at a meeting of the minds agree on the equity concept . . . .

I have conducted many arbitrations where the parties’ agreement is that I must apply rules of evidence as if I were sitting as a trial judge.

I wanted to confirm this treatment with all of you, so we are all in significant agreement as to all agree on the proper tax allocations.

NOW, THEREFORE, it is agreed between the parties the parties agree as follows:

We stand in agreement agree that this section has pertinence to pertains to any contract.

All I had to do was push a button. I’m sorry, two buttons. And wait three-quarters of a second.

Our WordRake editing software is available for Microsoft Word and Microsoft Outlook. If you’re not using it, you might be wasting precious time and precious words.

Eeyore Halfheartedly Hung His Tail

Many of you know about the exciting life I lead here in a cabin in the woods, surrounded by deer, raccoons, coyotes, rabbits (that tantalize the coyotes), and all sorts of words (that tantalize me). My life is so exciting, I can spend hours entranced by the word that. Talk about a good time. But that is not a simple word; it is a mystical word. It lurks in about half of our sentences, changing chameleonlike from conjunction, to pronoun, to adjective. (We’re not even talking about the difference between that and which in a relative clause (See Tip: “The Million-Dollar Comma”); that’s a different story.) That might be the most interesting word in the English language. I just made up this sentence with seven thats in a row, and the sentence is grammatically correct:

Angela piped up, after Ahmed mentioned that that, that that that that that professor removed was necessary.

Try that with any other word in the English language. But some people hate, and I mean hate, the word that. I don’t know why, but I have heard hundreds of stories about managers who would not allow that to appear in a report. Ever. About judges who refused to let their clerks write the word that. Ever. English teachers, senior partners, editors. Ever. Forbidding us to use the word that, ever, often means we have to write around the hole where the that used to be, and that usually means we have to stuff a participle into the hole:

This is the question that permeates permeating the product manager’s list.

Neither the participle nor the that works better than the that or the participle, so it’s merely a change, not an improvement. Because writing is so difficult already, we don’t need arbitrary rules that hamstring us even further, like abolishing ALL thats. But here are a few editing maxims about the word that that will help you:

We need a that appearing before a verb:

It is a pre-9/11 novel that delivers the sense . . . .

And we need a that appearing before a noun:

At that moment I knew he could really see me.
I wished I was out of that tree, but I dasn’t come down.

(unless a verb follows that noun, and then we usually can remove it):

An activity is anything that characters might be doing in a scene.
Ajax is also the basis of a package of programs that Microsoft is bundling.

But we rarely need a that before a pronoun:

When do you tell it that it’s not a sports car?
One of them that I came across sold a lot of Banksy’s original art.

or before this, those, these, or there:

But I am pretty sure that this would be their idea of a fitting memorial.
The latest health directives suggest that those numbers should be higher.

or before so, or after so:

It is a pre-9/11 novel that delivers the sense that so many of the . . . .
Eeyore halfheartedly hung his tail over the water so that Roo could grab hold.

In a classic book from 1965, The Careful Writer, Theodore Bernstein writes, “It is difficult to give precise guidance on when the conjunction that may be omitted and when it should be used. The reason is that in the vast majority of instances the inclusion or exclusion of that is optional and a matter of idiom – in short, how it sounds to one speaking English as a native tongue.”

Good advice. Let’s try Bernstein’s idea on the sentence below:

It is far enough along that I would like to ask for your brains in one regard.

If we remove the that, how does the sentence sound to your English ear? if it still sounds okay, leave it out; if the sentence now sounds awkward, put it back. You be the judge, and, yes, sometimes we will disagree.

Why are the editing maxims above true–that that usually works here, but often doesn’t work over there? I don’t know, but they are, and they’re all part of the complex patents underlying our WordRake technology. See for yourself in a free 7-day trial.

Alice in Law-Law-Land

The lawyers will understand. “Yeah, that’s pretty much where I live.” But I want to take the rest of you deep inside the world of law, where words get minced, teeth get gnashed, and Alice gets invoked. A world, where, if you don’t like the definition of a word, you just make up your own.

We begin on a sunny day in Ohio. A woman is walking her dog. Suddenly, a Ford Fusion crashes into her left knee, throwing her into the air. She lands on the Fusion’s hood. The driver’s insurance company, State Farm, stipulates that their insured driver caused the accident. They also stipulate that the impact threw the woman onto the Fusion’s hood, where she “sustained further bodily injuries.” So everybody agrees that the woman has a right to recover for her injuries; a simple case, one would think: Let’s just settle, shake hands, and head to yoga. But these are lawyers, and this is the law.

State Farm promises it will pay for the woman’s “bodily injuries,” but we have two sets of “bodily injuries”: one set sustained when the Fusion hit her, sending her into the air, and another set when she landed on the hood. State Farm will pay for the first set, but not for the second, because lying on the hood, the woman was not “occupying” the Fusion, and the policy pays for the second set of injuries only if the plaintiff “occupied” the car. You with me?

The court acknowledges that “Occupants are normally inside vehicles, not on them,” seeming to side with State Farm, and proving that, contrary to popular belief, judges have a sense of humor. Yet this three-judge panel rules that the woman on the hood did “occupy” the car. How can that be?

These are the cases that arise from the legal netherworld into the bright lights of the media and make people crazy. They make lawyers crazy, too, but we go to school for three years to learn how to deal with the insanity. It’s why every year thousands of us invoke Alice in Wonderland in our briefs as the only way to explain some bizarre twist of logic. (Ask any judge or judge’s clerk how often Alice appears in chambers.) State Farm’s lawyer calls the idea “ridiculous,” which of course it is; except it’s his own client’s fault. Here’s the key observation in the court’s opinion:

“[T]he parties to a contract can define its terms as they wish; and State Farm has done so here. Its policy for the Fusion defines ‘occupying’ as ‘in, on, entering or alighting from.’” (emphasis mine)

According to State Farm’s own wordsmithing, the woman is an “occupant” if she’s “on” the car, which she was, or “alighting from” the car, which I assume she did momentarily. No dictionary, legal or otherwise, defines “occupying” or “occupant” that way, but under the law, contracting parties may define any word to mean anything. (The legal profession’s contract drafting guru, Ken Adams, tells me he sees “endless dispute” over words like “vehicle” and “occurrence.”) The court concluded, “Per the policy’s terms, therefore, [she] was an ‘occupant’ of the vehicle and thus entitled to coverage for those additional injuries.” Sometimes we lawyers get so obsessed with defining words to mean whatever we want them to mean, we forget just to use the correct word and leave it alone. Like “occupying.”

As State Farm’s bonfire case faded to a pilot light, their lawyer argued that, whether the woman was an “occupant” of the Fusion really depended on whether she had an “intrinsic relationship” with the car. (I’m still trying to picture an example of that, but I can’t get it to hold still long enough.) After seeming to insinuate that something illicit took place between the woman and the car, the lawyer had the temerity to call the woman’s side of the case “ridiculous.” Even though we know better, sometimes we lawyers just can’t control ourselves. But the judges loved the word; they used it to open their opinion: “There are good reasons not to call an opponent’s argument ‘ridiculous’ . . . . But here the biggest reason is: the argument that State Farm derides as ridiculous is instead correct.”

Not even WordRake can help this lawyer. My question is, What happened to the dog?

Flaubert’s Pickles

I love the English language. So many words, so much nuance. We live in a lush vineyard of vocabulary. We stroll through, squeezing ripe, plump words, pondering. Carefully, we pick them and blend them into fine sentences that grow richer with age, deep and full-bodied or crisp and fruity, abounding with their own cherry and tobacco, pineapple and chocolate, blackberry and coffee, some with a peppery finish. Often the difference between words is so subtle, we’re not even sure there is one. Like a hint at the end: is that a soupçon of apricot or peach?

Flaubert described writing as “back-breaking, sweaty, time-consuming work” and once confessed in a letter, “Last week I spent five days writing one page.” His life was one long, uncompromising search for the perfect word to blend with other perfect words. While composing Madame Bovary, he would sometimes fall out of his chair in fits of apoplexy, lying on the floor, banging his temples. (Been there.) What is that single word above all others that expresses what I am trying to say?

Today, few of us can afford that luxury (few could afford it back then–Flaubert’s father was a physician), and we know that what we put on paper every day is not meant to stun the world as a new literary form. We just want to communicate clearly and concisely with our colleagues. But we still need to use words precisely.

Let’s practice. What word perfectly describes this situation: I’m about to quit a job I love, working with people I admire, to pursue a longtime dream of opening my own biodynamic winery. I want to stuff cow horns with manure and see the sparkle of morning dew on the vines. I confide in one boss, who empathizes but asks me not to tell anyone that I told him first. I promise I won’t. Now I confide in a second boss, who asks, “Does anyone else know?” To say yes would betray a confidence; to say no would be a lie. So I have a problem. But am I in a predicament, a dilemma, or a quandary? A plight, a pickle, or a jam?

Certainly, I’m in a predicament, because I can’t do what I want to do (which is nothing), I am deeply confused, and I worry I will make the wrong decision.

But I have only two choices, each equally unpleasant or unsatisfactory, which means I might be beyond confusion and facing a stark dilemma.

Could I be in a quandary? That differs from a dilemma when the situation so confounds me, I can’t even see the alternatives. But I can see the alternatives; I just don’t like them. So I’m still facing a dilemma. I think.

My situation is really not that confusing; it’s just an unfortunate, trying, and unhappy place right now. So it might be my plight.

Maybe the word that best describes my situation is a pickle, which is a plight, only particularly distressing. I am definitely in a pickle.

Finally, is there any way I could be in a jam, which is like a pickle, which is a plight? If I’m in a jam, I’m entangled and finding it difficult to extricate myself. That works, sort of. But what to do? I can use only one.

Flaubert was forever in a pickle over words, distressed and sweating for hours to find just the right one. What would he call my situation? I don’t know. But it’s Saturday night, the manure’s in the horn, the quartz is in the ground, the moon is full, the frost is nigh, and the time has come to pick . . . a word: Dilemma.

Parrot Skewers at Vilcabamba

Throughout history, whole societies almost overnight have gone the way of the dodo. For example, history records that the Pizarro brothers took down 10 million Inca with 168 men (plus confusing pale skin, a few blunderbusses, and a dollop of smallpox). But a little-known fact is that earlier in the 16th century, Inca society already had weakened internally, as whole segments of the population, from Machu Picchu to Vilcabamba, could not decide if they needed commas in the following sentence:

The Pleiadian who helped us carve those huge monkeys and hummingbirds across the Nazca Plain was a tall spindly alien fella with a large head and one green bulbous eye.

The rising angst amid the populace made the Inca easy prey, and precisely as that angst reached its peak, the Pizarros rowed ashore in clanking armor. If the Inca had known the answer to this question, they could have avoided the devastating plague of apoplexy that swept their empire and left them vulnerable: When do we separate two adjectives with a comma, and when do we leave them alone? You can understand their confusion.

With recent advances in modern society, we now know that to determine whether we need a comma between two adjectives, we must conduct a two-part test: first, separate them with and; second, reverse their order. If both tests still sound right, then those two adjectives are “coordinate” (bless the grammarians and their obsession with labeling), and we need to separate them with a comma.

We test the first string of adjectives, “a tall spindly alien fella,” by inserting and between the first pair: “a tall and spindly alien fella,” which sounds good; next we reverse their order: “a spindly tall alien fella,” which sounds okay, too. So the first two adjectives pass both tests, they are coordinate, and we must place a comma between them. Now the second two, “a tall spindly alien fella.” We put and between them: “a tall spindly and alien fella,” which doesn’t work; next we reverse their order: “a tall alien spindly fella,” which sounds even worse. So these two adjectives failed both tests, they are not “coordinate,” and we do not place a comma between them, so: “a tall, spindly alien fella” is correct.

We now test “one green bulbous eye.” First test: “one and green bulbous eye”; second test: “green one bulbous eye”; neither works, so no comma. Finally, we test “one green bulbous eye” with “one green and bulbous eye”; and “one bulbous green eye,” and both work, so they are “coordinate,” and we have to separate them with a comma.

Here is the proper sentence the Inca were looking for, one with two commas:

The Pleiadian who helped us carve those huge monkeys and hummingbirds across the Nazca Plain was a tall, spindly alien fella with a large head and one green, bulbous eye.

Back here in the 21st century, you might write:

Microsoft is a big international company.

Do we put a comma between big and international? Apply the two tests: Microsoft is an international big company; Microsoft is a big and international company. Both versions sound awkward, so we put no comma between them:

Microsoft is a big international company.

But in this example:

We are looking for an experienced creative motivated developer.

whether we say “creative experienced developer” or “experienced and creative developer” or “motivated creative developer” or “creative and motivated developer,” every example sounds right, so the adjectives are “coordinate” and each pair requires a comma in the middle:

We are looking for an experienced, creative, motivated developer.

If the Inca had only known, the masses would have remained calm, welcomed the Pizarro Brothers with bare feet and gold-dusted arms, fattened them on roasted parrot, and sacrificed them to the Pleiadians atop Machu Picchu.