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Text Messaging: Not Killing English

Here’s another newsletter from A Way with Words!

Is text messaging a sign of the destruction of English? No! On this past weekend’s show, we talked about it, as well as the names of your toes, “recombobulation,” word blends, and “au jus sauce.” Listen:


On this week’s online-only minicast, Martha did a run-through of reader mail about regional food such as “whoopie pies,” “pretzel salad,” and some “hot tamales” that aren’t Mexican. Dig in:


Dan writes from San Diego about this week’s slang quiz, in which we talked about “0-dark-thirty,” a humorous and unofficial way of saying “sometime after dark.”

He writes, “The significance of ‘dark’ isn’t that the time is sometime after the sun goes down, and the significance also is not that it’s an indeterminate time — at least not from my experience in the military. The significance of ‘dark’ is that it’s a time before the sun comes up, i.e. ungodly early and when you would normally be sleeping, I would say generally between midnight and sunrise. In other words, 0-dark-thirty means a distasteful time of day more than it means an indeterminate time of day.”

Janet in Wisconsin wrote to ask if the expression is “lay of the land” or “lie of the land.” She thought it was “lay of the land” but she recently saw a British author use “lie of the land,” which now has her confused.

In American English, it should be the “lay of the land” in all cases! It’s a pat, set expression and has a very specific meaning that does not follow any of the rules that belong to the verbs “lay” or “lie.”

You will find some people using “lie of the land,” but it’s only really appropriate in British English; however, nobody is going to misunderstand an American who uses “lie” instead of “lay,” especially since in American English we have the noun “lie,” meaning “the way, direction, or position in which something lies.” That “lie” is known to most of us from golf: “He nudged the ball with his foot to improve its lie.”

Tom in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, writes, “I’m thoroughly frustrated in finding a word to describe a practice of always answering a question with a question. […] In psychiatry, it’s called ‘mirroring,’ but you don’t call the person using it a ‘mirror,’ do you?”

The answer is not very exciting. It’s called “counter-questioning.” When you respond to a question with another question, then you “counter-question.”

You can find a brief discussion of someone else having asked this question here:


Larry wrote to ask why we don’t capitalize the “w” in “A Way with Words.”

Well, it depends upon the writing style you prefer. Most modern style and writing guides say that prepositions should not be capitalized in titles, although a few make exceptions for prepositions that are five letters or longer.

You can find a pretty good summary of how the different authorities suggest it be done here:


Finally, we’d like to welcome our new listeners who are tuned in to KRCC’s HD2 channel in Colorado Springs, and to WHRV’s SpeakEasy HD2 channel in Norfolk, Virginia. Don’t forget to read the frontmatter!

Writing and speaking with our best wishes,

Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett

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