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Word Nerd: F is for Funny-Lookin'

Written by Rebecca Christian

At Traditional Home, we adhere to traditional rules of grammar and usage, but we also follow what some of us call the "Looks Funny" rule. For example, if we were to write a story about an engaged couple taking a course at one of the cooking schools we feature, I would avoid a sentence like:

"James chops beets for the arugula salad while his fiancee, Anna, purees squash for soup."

A fiance is male and a fiancee female -- the word comes from the French, where the extra "e" indicates the feminine -- but enough people now use fiance for both that fiancee looks a little funny, almost as if it could be an error. One could get into a gender debate about such usage -- some female performers  dislike the word actress, for example, and would rather be called actors. Funny how the word poetess has almost fallen out of usage, and when it is used, it has a faintly mocking tone. The wonderful Kay Ryan is officially the Poet Laureate of the United States, not the Poetess Laureate.


Poet Laureate of the United States Kay Ryan


Proprietress and sculptress look funny, to, but not so much waitress, which is kind of odd.

Remember the movie Fargo, in which the intrepid pregnant cop, Marge, interviews witnesses about the inept and highly talkative thief and murderer played by Steve Buscemi? Almost every witness tells her he's a funny-lookin' little fella, but they can't be more specific. "In what way?" Marge asks a bartender.


"Oh, just in a general kinda way," the man answers. That's what we're trying to avoid, being funny-lookin' in a general kinda way.

Collective nouns are tricky, and they can also be funny-lookin' when paired with verbs. That's because a collective noun, say when we are talking about a family who owns one of the homes we're featuring, is a unit but is made up of members, like a team or the army or a department in a business. Usage depends on whether we're using the collective noun as a single unit or its individual parts. You pretty much have to rely on what makes sense and sounds natural. There's a reason the old saying is,  "An army marches on its stomach," not "An army marches on their stomach." In our magazine, it looks funny to say:

"The family is collectors of all things Edwardian."

"The family are collectors of all things Edwardian" looks a little funny, too, don't you think? Better to avoid it with:

"The family collects all things Edwardian."

Ditto with "The couple do everything together." Why not just describe them as inseparable and save yourself a headache, which that couple is certainly going to get, glommed on to each other  all the time like that.

Possessives can look peculiar, too, especially when a surname ends in S and you're talking about more than one member of the same clan:

"The Harrises' house, nestled in a valley between two rivers, looks as if it has been there for centuries, but is, in fact, new."

Some people would rewrite that as "The Harris's house," but to avoid arrest by the grammar police, I'd rewrite the sentence:

"The Harris home is nestled in a valley between two rivers and looks as it it has been there for centuries, but is, in fact, new."

The Chicago Manual of Style belaborses the heck out of it with all kindses of exceptions having to with whether the ending S is sibilant ("Berlioz's opera") or the ending S, Z, or X is silent, as in "Margaux's bouquet."

While we're on the subject of F,  don't forget that forego has to do with what has happpened before, as in a foregone conclusion or foregoing events, whereas forgo means to do without:

"Jessica decided to forgo wallpaper in the snug, under-the-eaves  bedroom because she thinks a spare look is more restful."

Enough already. Let's move forward or forwards -- take your choice. Either is correct, although  forwards is a little more cazh, a slangy abbreviation for casual which isn't in most dictionaries. That makes cazh okay to use in a blog post, but not in the pages of Traditional Home unless it is part of a direct quote. It would be funny lookin' there.


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