With Christmas past us, I no longer have to be good (for a while, anyway), so now seems like a great time to pick some more nits over language and its current (mis)usage with the help of my hero, Washington State University Professor Paul Brians.

Let’s begin today’s column with a few thoughts about numbers. “It’s cheesy to spell ‘hundreds’ as ‘100’s,’” he writes, “‘100’ doesn’t mean ‘hundreds,’ it specifically means ‘one hundred.’”

That reminds me of my seventh-grade arithmetic teacher, Mr. Berry, who made sure we knew it was “one hundred,” not “a hundred,” and that we never made fools of ourselves by saying that 101 is “one hundred and one” when it is clearly “one hundred one.”

And while we’re on the subject, have you ever changed your mind and done a complete 360 about something? Well, Dr. Brians points out, when you do a 360 you end up exactly where you started. “If you want to describe a position that’s diametrically opposed to another,” he says, “the expression you want is ‘180 degrees away.’”

Let’s now do a 90 and take this quiz: What’s your favorite character from those public service announcements the federal government puts out?

What? You don’t have one? Well it’s high time you did. There are lots to choose from including: McGruff the Crime Dog, Quinn the Quarantine Fox (yup, that’s a real thing brought to us by the Consumer Product Safety Commission), and of course Smokey the Bear.


Well, that’s what YOU think. Actually, while the others are correct, our ursine friend is just “Smokey Bear” — no definite article (the) needed. According to a statement from the U.S. Forest Service, “It’s Smokey Bear, not Smokey the Bear. ‘The’ was added when songwriters penned Smokey’s tune. It helped with the rhythm of the song. It’s the only time Smokey Bear has had a middle name.”

What’s that, you’d like to hear about some more words and phrases that people routinely get wrong? OK, how about a couple of book (and, later, movie) titles that frequently trip up even some of the brainy contestants on “Jeopardy!” such as: Oscar Wilde’s novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” which is often incorrectly identified as “The Portrait of Dorian Gray,” and Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” not “All’s Quiet on the Western Front.”

Sometimes apostrophes and S’s like the one above in the incorrect title cause other holiday heartburn, thank you very much. For instance, many people wonder if the correct name of the federal holiday is “Veteran’s Day” or “Veterans’ Day?”

Actually it’s neither. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, “The holiday is not a day that ‘belongs’ to one veteran or multiple veterans, it’s a day for honoring all veterans – so no apostrophe needed.” Veterans Day it is.

As for that same pesky S, it has no business hanging out at the end of the second word in “Daylight Saving Time” no matter how much we use it in conversation. According to grammarcops.wordpress.com, the words “daylight saving” act as a compound adjective, together being a descriptor for the word “time.” In other words, think of the two words as having a hyphen in between: daylight-saving time. It is a time change that is saving daylight.

Other examples of how an incorrectly used letter can send a normally rational Word Guy over the edge abound. For example, you don’t “get a beat” on a target you’re trying to hit. You are actually “drawing a bead” on it; “bead” being the former name of that little metal bump or sight on the end of a gun barrel, according to Brians.

He also reminds us that “You home in on a target (the center of a target is ‘home’). ‘Honing’ has to do with sharpening knives, not aim.”

Finally, speaking of incorrectly used letters, how about redundant ones? You know, things like “ATM machine” and “VIN number,” where the M already stands for “machine” and the N already stands for “number”? In today’s fast-paced world why waste time uttering unnecessary syllables when they’re already accounted for? Harrumph! And happy new year!

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at jlwitherell19@gmail.com.

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