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April 05, 2006

Strunk and Light VI: Incorrect (biatch)!

... *sigh* continuing continuation of continuity ...

VI. Incorrect!
erstwhile: does not mean “false”. You’re thinking of ersatz. Ersatz (from the German, meaning “replacement”) means “false” or “fake” or “imitation” or “substitute”, as in No Postum for me, thanks. I don’t drink ersatz coffee. Erstwhile (from the German “erst”, meaning “first” or “once”) means “former”, as in When my erstwhile husband remarried, I sent him a dozen dead roses, the bastard.
prophesized: the past tense of “to prophesy” is prophesied, pronounced “PROFF-eh-SIGHED” No “z”.
travesty: does not mean “outrage”. “Travesty” means a mocking imitation of. So something can’t just be a travesty. It has to be a travesty of something. People use “travesty” to mean “outrage” because of the overused expression “travesty of justice”, which means “mocking imitation of justice” and is used to express moral outrage. Best not to use the word at all.
enormity: does not mean “enormousness”. It means “extreme wickedness”. The enormity of the crime therefore means the extreme wickedness of the crime and not the enormous size of the crime.
to hone in on: the expression is “homing in on”, as in using a homing signal to find your way home. To hone means to sharpen, as in honing a knife or honing a skill. The fact that so many people get this wrong means that the metaphor is gone. Don’t use it.
to jive with: the expression is “jibe with”, meaning “agree with” as in His notions don’t jibe with mine. Jive is a type of music and dancing, or an archaic slang term for bullshit, as in Don’t hand me that jive, honky.
to step foot: the actual expression is “to set foot”, as in The moment he sets foot in this house, all hell will break loose. Think about it. To “set a foot” down = to “step”. The verb “to step” is intransitive, which means that you can’t give it an object. You can’t step a foot, you can only step. You either step into the house, or you set foot in the house, not both.
to wax: used for “to speak” as in I waxed eloquently, or the unintentionally hilarious I could wax on about the late nights…, both of which I’ve read recently. “To wax” means to increase, to grow or to become. Think of the moon waxing and waning. You know what “wane” means, right? To decrease? So “wax” means the opposite: to increase. The incorrect use of “to wax” for “to speak” comes from the expression “to wax eloquent” (not “eloquently”!) which means “to become eloquent” or “to grow eloquent”. Think of a waxing moon: someone beginning to speak and then becoming full with their own eloquence as they speak. Since so many people are getting this wrong, the original meaning is dead. Don’t use it.
startled: don’t use “startled” to mean “surprised” or “astonished.” These are not the same! The surprise meant in “startled” is very specific: it is a sudden shock. Someone jumps out at you and yells “boo!” or you hear a gunshot outside. You “start” or jerk in surprise. You are not “startled” by how good that novel you are reviewing was. You are surprised. You are not “startled” by how enormous and expensive the Boeing Company’s executive toilet is. You are astonished. This started as a startling way of saying surprise. It was so startling that everybody started using it and now no one starts at it. Stop.
one in the same: if you think about it, this expression doesn’t make any sense. That’s because the expression is “one and the same”. Clark Kent and Superman are one. Clark Kent and Superman are the same. Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same.
the reason is because: “the reason is” is the same thing as “because”. Why do people have such bad grammar? Well, the reason is that American schools suck. Why do people have such bad grammar? Because American schools suck, dude! “The reason is because” is redundant. Use either “the reason is that”, or “because”, not both.
whilst: just means “while”, only it’s a British English version. If you’re American, you shouldn’t be using it at all, because American English uses “while” and the only reason an American would use it would be to sound more British and that’s just pretentious, unless of course you’re writing in “dialect”. If you’re a Brit, you shouldn’t be using this guide, because some of the spelling and grammar don’t apply to you.
“it’s” and “its”:
---it’s: is a CONTRACTION of “it is”. It’s a shame that I have to spell this out.
---its: is the possessive of “it”. Every apostrophe should be in its proper place
And while you’re at it, the possessive of “her” is “hers”, no apostrophe. Likewise, the possessive of “our” is “ours”; of “your” is “yours”; of “their” is “theirs” No apostrophe. Why? Dunno. Don’t care.
“kind of” and “should’ve”:
---“should have” is contracted to “should’ve”. It sounds like “should of” but it’s not spelled that way. Same with could’ve, would’ve, etc.
---“kind’ve” on the other hand, is wrong. It’s “kind of”. This is a colloquialism that arises from the construction: A pretzel is a kind of bread or Goulash is a sort of soup. You say “kind of” or “sort of” to mean “in a way”.
“discrete” and “discreet”: don’t mix ‘em up. They’re two discrete words. Be discreet rather than use them incorrectly.
---“discrete” means “separate” or “individually distinct” as in He funneled the funds into two discrete off-shore accounts: one under his name and one under his wife’s name.
---“discreet” means “tactful” or “circumspect” as in I want my off-shore banker to be discreet about the way I handle my funds.
“averse” and “adverse”: I most commonly hear/see people using “adverse” when they mean “averse” as in: “I am not adverse to going shopping with you using your credit card.” The correct word here is “averse” as in: “I am not averse to going shopping with you …”
---averse means “opposed” or “disinclined” and is related to “aversion” as in: I am averse to the practice of misusing language.
---adverse means “contrary” or “hurtful” and is related to “adversity” as in: I find that misuse of language in published texts has an adverse effect on readers’ writing skills.
phenomenon/phenomena: “phenomenon” is singular, “phenomena” is plural. Misusing words of Latin origin is a common phenomenon. Such phenomena occur everywhere that English is spoken.
criterion/criteria: see above. Same deal.

Well, that's all (for now) folks. I hope you have enjoyed this public service announcement. Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.


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I think I've taught my composition students almost all of those above. And yet, so many people out there still make these mistakes. Thanks for the post, Claire. You rock.

yes, nicely done, seelight. i have two comments.

1) "an archaic slang term for bullshit?" while this really does make me laugh, i can't believe you mean to suggest that something that was young and fresh in the 1970s is now archaic! do you really? i mean, i haven't even recieved my aarp recruitment material . . . yet . . . *shudder*

as an aside, have you read harry frankfurt's brilliant monograph, "on bullshit?" if not, get thee back to the library, seelight! it is must reading . . . and, appropriately enough, comes from new jersey! but now i'll step off my soapbox to ask . . .

2) with respect to phenomenon, which, in my mind, is also an easy question, i now pose you with something a bit more difficult: we both know that data is the plural of "datum," but how often do you use "datum" when talking about one piece of information, such as a digit in a phone number, address, or any other granular statement? i mean, if you used "datum" in its most precise sense, shouldn't you reasonably expect the listener to be a bit confused? hence my query: we've, by practice, eliminated datum from our lexicon, whether we like it or not. at what point does an error become standard??

jason: thanks, but ... sigh ... it seems that there's no one on these blogs but us chickens. the illiterate fowl aren't reading us. bok.

dennis: i consider anything "archaic" that was once and is now no longer in use. i could be misusing the word. have not read "on bullshit", but fully intend to ... once i get through my other fifty piles of intended reading ;)

fortunately, it's not up to me to decide when something becomes standard. the one that's really sticking in my craw right now is "mediums", as in artists using two different mediums. i think this, like with "data" is more about the plural becoming a singular of another meaning: "media" meaning news media. i think even the new york times is using "milleniums". why?

as far as "data" and "datum", i think the situations in which one would use "datum" (like the sitches in which one would use "criterion") are few. generally you don't record a datum in your cell phone, you record a number. you don't make a note of the datum in your head, you make a note of the person's name. it's only when there are a lot of data that you call them data.

well, i'll concede the point on "datum," but i think you're confusing "archaic" with "obsolete." i'll even cop to being something of the latter, but again, i'll let aarp tell me when i'm among the former (or do i have my versas vice-ed?)

and again, you're not quite right: it's up to all of us to decide when something becomes standard. it's a communal thing. or would you rather the dictionary dictate to us?

Two things. No, three!

(1) You rock!
(2) You missed out my favourite one: "prolly" for "probably". Agh! And finally,
(3) I don't think I agree with you that we un-Americans ought not to be guiding ourselves by your wisdom. So far I've agreed with everything you've said (and winced at some. And vowed to run everything I edit past the Clairometer in future!)

Cheers! W

dennis: here's one definition of "archaic" from american heritage

Of, relating to, or characteristic of words and language that were once in regular use but are now relatively rare and suggestive of an earlier style or period

i think that's what i meant. of course, the other definitions were all "ancient" and "antediluvian" and "really, really old", so it's a toss-up.

also, i know it's a communal process deciding what's in and what's out. that's what this post is about. i said that about it not being up to me as a polite demurral, before actually taking up the question. figure of speech.

i think i've posted this before, but orwell wrote in "politics and the english language":

Silly words and expressions have often disappeared, not through any evolutionary process but owing to the conscious action of a minority. Two recent examples were explore every avenue and leave no stone unturned , which were killed by the jeers of a few journalists. There is a long list of flyblown metaphors which could similarly be got rid of if enough people would interest themselves in the job

i felt that that was a call to arms, frankly, though i'm not really a journalist.

wendy: **blush** ... why, thank you ... wait. do you mean you expect me to copy edit your mag for free?

(see? you are a manager!)

If you're offering...

fair enough claire . . . on a second or third reading, i fear my post might have sounded snarkier than i intended. sorry 'bout that.

but as to the communal process, well, i'll just let the quantity of comments speak (for itself) directly to that topic . . .


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