Tag Archives: nitpicking

AOL’s “You’ve got mail!”—let’s change it . . .

I recently found the comment below on a web site that promotes proper use of the English language. I visited both sites, the one from whence the comment came as well as the one that received it. As do all such sites (including mine), both have flaws. I believe that perfection in any endeavor is desirable and should be sought, but I concede that perfection is impossible. One can always find, via the nitpicking process, something to cite and criticize, albeit constructively, as is this posting. The site commented on is seriously flawed, but I am pleased to give the teacher’s site an overall rating of excellent, simply because it is superior to many others of that ilk.

First a disclaimer: I must state, with all seriousness aside, that the following diatribe is presented in an effort to change something that is probably unchangeable. Any attempt to effect that change is comparable to a situation in which an unstoppable moving object collides with an unmovable stationary object—nothing will change.

This is the comment that prompted my posting:

escher dax Says:

January 2, 2010 at 5:47 am

Glad to have found your site! As a teacher, I’m always looking for examples of what not to do. I’ve got you bookmarked now — very useful site!

dax (

Oh, please, tell me it isn’t so—I’ve got you bookmarked now?

And you are a teacher!

Long, long ago in the first one-third of the past century, in a time shrouded in the mists of antiquity, in a time during which the first six links in the chain of education were called grammar school, I was taught (forcibly) that the verb to have does not require a helper.

It accomplishes its task admirably without one iota of assistance.

I realize that I am swimming upstream in my quest to help others understand that simple statement—nay, what I am doing is hissing—oops, I believe I misspelled that word—into the wind, an act that accomplishes nothing more than soiling my clothing.

I am struggling to resign myself to accept the almost universal misuse of the verb to have,” the use of which distorts my vision and sears my hearing, but I’m having difficulty accepting it. I realize that my struggle, my battle to restore law and order to the proper use of that verb, is probably futile.

My enemies in this battle are legion.

They include such worthies as AOL (America On Line). The exclamation You’ve got mail! has resounded loudly and clearly ever since the inception of AOL—that erroneous use of the verb to have has corrupted several generations of English-speaking listeners and is still counting. The same erroneous use is reflected in the speech of our nation’s mayors, governors, senators, representatives, our president, in speech used in the hallowed halls of our ivy league institutions and even in the speech used by persons of tremendous intellect (none of the afore mentioned persons qualify for that distinction).

How can one possibly win over such an opponent as AOL? I realize that the company is presently on the ropes, but it has shown resilience in the past and will probably survive. I have little hope that it will ever change its trademark signature—You’ve got mail!

I can’t do this alone—I need help, so I am calling on our nation’s English-speaking population (including bilingual persons) for assistance. Let’s use the power of our numbers to effect this change. Let’s work to correct AOL’s misuse of the verb to have from You’ve got mail! to You have mail!

If we are successful in our efforts, its proper use may not spread rapidly but it would be a good start.

Let’s use the concentrated power of our millions. Let’s contact AOL and threaten to cancel our membership. Let’s bring pressure to bear on family members. Let’s contact our local friends and neighbors, our e-mail recipients, our Facebook friends, our senators, our representatives, the members of the Supreme Court and our president—in fine, let’s contact everyone that is subjected to the improper use of the verb to have (and that’s everyone), and specifically to the notice that, You’ve got mail!

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.


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A letter to Laura . . .

This posting was prompted by a comment made by a viewer on one of my previous postings (see at’s-reeling/).

The original posting was prompted by an apostrophe placed in the surname Obama. It was meant to form a contraction, “Obama is,” an other-than-normal contraction and somewhat misleading. Obama’s is the possessive form of a singular noun, and the apostrophe thus implies that the president possesses a reeling, whatever that might be. “Obama’s reeling” was the heading of a letter to the editor of San Antonio’s Express-News, the only daily newspaper (and fading fast) in the seventh most populous city in the United States. The subject of the letter was Massachusetts’ recent  election to fill the Senate seat held by the late Senator Edward Kennedy. The race was between a Democrat and a Republican. Would anyone want to hazard a guess as to which candidate won?

You’re right!

I felt that this venue was more appropriate than replying directly to the viewer’s comment on that posting—any reply I made would have been buried and would have rarely, if ever, been exposed to the brilliant light of a separate posting.

As an incidental but closely related thought, I recently encountered this phrase on a blog: “I’d have,” meaning “I would have . . .” I consider “I’d” to be an improper contraction, and ambiguous even if it were proper—it could also mean “I did have” or “I should have,” etc. Would anyone want to hazard a guess as to whose website it was on?

You’re right!

And now on to Laura’s comment and my letter to her:

From: (

William Strunk, Jr. (1869–1946).  The Elements of Style.  1918


1. Form the possessive singular of nouns with ’s.

Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. Thus write,

Charles’s friend

Burns’s poems

the witch’s malice

This is the usage of the United States Government Printing Office and of the Oxford University Press.

Note: (The italics and bolding in Strunk’s rule above are mine).

This is Laura’s comment on my posting:

“The Chicago Manual of Style agrees with Strunk and White re: forming the possessive of a proper noun ending in S by adding an apostrophe and S. Also, I’m wondering if you meant “feign” and not “fain,” which doesn’t seem to fit neatly in your sentence. — Laura.” (

Letter to Laura . . .

Hi, Laura,

Thanks for visiting, and thanks for the comment. Please note that I approved it exactly as you posted it—I’m sure you are aware that I could have edited the comment to fit my taste, and had I chosen to do so I could have deleted it in its entirety. You, however, cannot edit your comment after it is posted, nor can you edit my reply—that leaves me free to change, rebut or delete any comment that is less than complimentary. I chose to let your comment stand as submitted in order to expand my response via this posting.

As used in that sentence, the phrase fain to know means if one desires to know, or is inclined to know or is willing to know (desirous, inclined and willing are three of fain’s many definitions). Had I used the word feign, it would have meant pretend to know. I know that fain is archaic and sparsely (if ever) used in today’s writings, but I do not feel that I misused it in my posting. As for my choice of a word “which doesn’t seem to fit neatly” in the sentence, I am satisfied with its fit and its neatness—nay, I’m more than satisfied—I am proud of both attributes.

On your trek through a flourishing crop of words in the process of nitpicking, you managed to harvest only one nit, and that one nit apparently prompted you to rate the posting with a negative thumbs down. I say apparently because I can’t be sure that the thumbs down is yours. However, this I know with certainty—yours is the only comment on the posting, and of the five votes existing at this time four are mine, so I must surmise that the thumbs down vote is yours.

A grammatical note—I realize that the graphic for the voting process shows only one thumb up and one thumb down. I use the plurals (thumbs up and thumbs down) because I cannot remember ever hearing someone giving someone a singular thumb up or thumb down—sounds a bit naughty.

Yes, I vote on my own postings, and I always give myself a thumbs up vote—to do otherwise would be self-defeating, so to speak. Please let me know whether the lone negative vote is yours, and if it is not I will willingly—just willingly, not humbly—tender a public apology.

I give nothing less than excellent ratings to any posting, whether items posted by me or by other bloggers (I suspect you would agree with me that consistency is a desirable trait). I strive mightily to adhere to the adage that says, “If you can’t say anything positive, don’t say anything.”

As an aside, I believe the practice of one voting on one’s own posting is widespread, a belief that is supported by a comprehensive poll of several (three) bloggers. Such actions are simply the result of writers tooting their own horn, a perfectly normal and common practice that is neither prohibited nor restricted by rule or law.

As regards your statement that The Chicago Manual of Style agrees with Strunk:

I do not agree with your statement, nor do I trust or agree with anyone or anything related to Chicago, whether that person or thing be animal, vegetable, mineral, publication or president. I visited the Chicago Manual of Style online, but went no farther than the second page (the result of a search phrase) because I was unwilling to subscribe and pay for the “privilege” of going farther. However, the results of my search (admittedly brief) appear to contradict your contention that the Chicago Manual of Style agrees with William Strunk’s The Element of Style, circa 1918. In fact, the Chicago Manual of Style appears to leave a fair amount of choice for ways to show the possessive forms of words ending in ess—Strunk offers no alternatives and states that we should “Follow this rule whatever the final consonant.”

Check it out at I used the search phrase possessive of words ending in s and it returned eight entries dealing with that subject.

Here are the first two entries:

7.21:   Words and names ending in unpronounced “s”

To avoid an awkward appearance, an apostrophe without an s may be used for the possessive of singular words and names ending in an unpronounced s.

The following is a personal note, intended to clarify the term unpronounced: The ess is pronounced, but it takes the sound of ze, the twenty-sixth (and final) letter in the English alphabet.

7.23: An alternative practice

options outlined above may prefer the system, formerly more common, of simply omitting the possessive s on all words ending in s

Those entries do not show agreement with Strunk—they show that there are alternatives that may be used to “avoid an awkward appearance,” and they give the option of “simply omitting the possessive s on all words ending in s” in stark contrast to Strunk’s imperative to “Follow this rule whatever the final consonant.” Two of the examples given are Charles’s friend and Burns’s poems, both wrong and neither in complete agreement with the Chicago Manual of Style.

Laura, I spent some time on your site at I enjoyed my visit, and had you provided a counter for votes similar to the one I use on my blog, I would have rated your work excellent. You are quite thorough and successful in your quest to find errors in the writings of others, and you effectively use humor in pointing out the errors albeit, in my opinion, humor tinged with a certain measure of contempt for the inept writer.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.


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