“Style is, among other things, a product of what we avoid as well as of what we do.”
— Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage: A Guide (1966)
The Latest Outrageous Accidents of Style
Good Advice on How Not to Write Badly, with Blunderful Examples Drawn from Published Prose
The December 2014 issue of The Atlantic featured a cover story called "The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis" by Jonathan Rauch that contained the sentence, "[S]he had learned not to act so precipitously," which the author clearly meant to be understood as meaning "She had learned not to act in such a rash or impulsive manner." The problem is, "precipitous" means "steep, like a cliff or precipice." The adjective "precipitate" (pri-SIP-i-tit) means "sudden, abrupt," or "rash, impetuous." The misuse of precipitous for precipitate is a regrettably frequent accident of style that I have found in novels and in other reputable publications, such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
"His mother had already emigrated to the United States . . . and he didn't see her again until 1945," writes Harvard professor Louis Menand in the March 24, 2014, issue of The New Yorker (p. 92). That sentence contains one of the most common accidents of style in edited prose: the misuse of emigrate with to instead of with from. The initial e- of emigrate stands for ex-, which means "from" or "out," and the proper way to put it is to say or write that someone emigrated from somewhere to somewhere else. Likewise with immigrate, in which im- is equivalent to in- and means "to" or "into": you immigrate to somewhere from somewhere else. Menand and The New Yorker should have used immigrate in that sentence instead of emigrate.
In "The Dark Power of Fraternities," Caitlin Flanagan's cover article in the March 2014 issue of The Atlantic, she writes, "Roth also asserted in his statement that nothing had changed in regards to Beta" (page 90). I'm frankly a bit flabbergasted that this error made it past that magazine's normally scrupulous copyeditors. The proper form is in regard to or with regard to, and to use the plural regards in these phrases, according to Garner's Modern American Usage, "is, to put it charitably, poor usage."
"It is a so-called 'fringe' event because it takes all comers," writes Joe Mathews in an op-ed piece published in U-T San Diego (February 21, 2014, p. B9). Can you spot the error in that quotation? "A word or phrase preceded by so-called should not be enclosed in quotation marks," says the 15th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style. "The expression itself indicates irony or doubt." So either make that "a so-called fringe event . . ." or drop so-called and use the quotation marks.
"He sung it five months later in a stirring return appearance," writes Michael Hill of The Associated Press in a syndicated obituary for the indomitable folk singer and activist Pete Seeger (published January 29, 2014). Did you catch the irregular usage? The past tense of the verb to sing is sang, so it should have been "He sang it five months later." Sung is the past participle, which means it must be preceded by a helping verb (has, have, had), as in "He has sung that song before."
Here's another irregular accident of style that made my ears tense up. The other day a newsreader on my local public radio station informed me that "the average price of gas in San Diego creeped up several cents last week." That use of "creeped" creeped me out. The standard past tense of the verb to "creep" is "crept" (the price of gas crept up last week), and "crept" is also the past participle (the price of gas has crept up before). Only in the slang verbal phrase "creeped out" is "creeped" acceptable.
I recently emailed the United States Postal Service inquiring why the certified letter I had sent had not yet been delivered almost a week after its promised delivery date. The response I finally received, almost another week after I made the inquiry, began with this appropriately existential question: "Thank you for contacting the United States Postal Service?." (That period after the question mark is also their typo, not mine.)
To say I was stunned to find not one but two accidents of style in a single paragraph of The New Yorker would be an understatement. Blunders in that obsessively copyedited periodical are rare indeed. But in a one-paragraph review of the novel Orfeo by Richard Powers that appeared on page 75 of the January 20, 2014, issue, the unnamed reviewer first wrote "to splice a musical score into the DNA of a bacteria," and then wrote "the media becomes fixated . . ."
As any usage guide will tell you, bacteria is plural: "these bacteria are." The singular is bacterium, so the phrase should have been "the DNA of a bacterium." Likewise with media, which is traditionally a plural, so the phrase should have been "the media become fixated." As The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage explains, media "is often seen doing duty as a singular. But The Times, with a grammatically exacting readership, will keep it plural for now; the singular is medium. Ordinarily expand the term, at least to news media."
And speaking of The New York Times, the lead article by Maria Konnikova in the January 12, 2014, SundayReview section (yes, that's how they style it now, as a single word with a midcap) begins with this paragraph: "Sleep seems like a perfectly fine waste of time. Why would our bodies evolve to spend close to one-third of our lives completely out of it, when we could instead be doing something useful or exciting? Something that would, as an added bonus, be less likely to get us killed back when we were sleeping on the savanna?"
Did you spot the problem in the last sentence? A bonus is something added or given over and above what is expected or due, so "added bonus" is redundant, a pleonasm. Good stylists eschew the padding of "added" and let "bonus" do its work alone.
"Shocking video shows why doctors think this one weird ingredient can stop heart disease dead in it's tracks." That ad, with its deadly contraction "it's" (it is) instead of the possessive pronoun "its," appeared on my email homepage today (1-13-2014).
In his syndicated column "Produce Picks" (published in the U-T San Diego, January 4, 2014), Michael Marks writes, "You will find most of the hard winter squash varieties selling for 69 cents to 89 cents per pound, and most of what is available now are California grown." Houston, we have a verb-correspondence problem here. At the end of the sentence, Marks switches from the singular is to the plural are. The verbs should both be singular: ". . . most of what is available now is California grown."
U-T San Diego staff writer Mark Walker, in the lead article for the local section (October 15, 2013) on the race for a mayor to replace the disgraced Bob Filner, wrote, of candidate Nathan Fletcher, "Throughout the noontime debate, the Qualcomm executive and former assemblyman sought to deflect the attacks by portraying himself as not beholding to anyone." Beholding is the present participle of the verb to behold ("They stood in awe, beholding the spectacle.") The proper word for that context is the adjective beholden, obligated, indebted.
Pleonasm Watch: Last year, San Diego's mayor, Bob Filner, resigned because of multiple allegations of sexual harrassment and generally pigheaded, lecherous behavior. So the subhead in my local fishwrap (U-T San Diego, Friday, August 23, 2013), referring to the deal Filner hashed out with the city, says, "Possible pact may be unpopular with public, but would likely keep costs down, lawyers say."
To begin with, there's way too much alliteration in "possible pact . . . unpopular with public." Second, and far more egregious, is the pleonasm "unpopular with public." The headline writer forgot that "popular" and "unpopular" already refer to public opinion, so who else could the "possible pact" be unpopular with but with people in general: aka the public? Finally, some journalists object to the use of "likely" as a shorter synonym of "probably," but this complaint is now merely a crotchet; Garner's Modern American Usage says that "likely" meaning "probably" is now "fully accepted."
In a feature syndicated by The Associated Press and published in my local paper July 29, 2013, Candice Choi opened with this sentence: "It seems that not even Beyoncé or new, lower-calorie options can convince Americans to drink more soda."
We'll ignore the fact that "new, lower-calorie options" are inanimate and therefore do not have persuasive powers, and instead get right to the crux of the problem: the verb to convince is misused here for the verb to persuade. The distinction is not hard to remember or master, yet writers and editors blow it all the time. The simple rule of thumb is that if an infinitive follows convince (as in "convince Americans to drink"), it should properly be persuade.
To convince is to make someone believe something. To persuade is to make someone take action. You can convince someone of the truth, or convince someone that you are right. But when action is involved, you have to persuade someone to do it.
On Saturday, July 13, Tim Lincecum, a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants, threw a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres. Or did he? According to the account in U-T San Diego the next morning, the Padres' bats were indeed silent in that game because the team was apparently taking the night off and the Giants were having some intrasquad fun. In a prominent pullout, the paper printed the score as Giants, 9, Giants, 0.
Here's a sentence that I found in the health section of the July 9, 2013, issue of U-T San Diego, my town's sad excuse for a newspaper: "The study observed 4,577 men diagnosed with non-metastic prostate cancer between 1986 and 2010."
Did you see the error? It should be metastatic (pertaining to metastasis, the spread of disease to other parts of the body), not metastic. And while we're at it, the hyphen in that word isn't necessary: make it nonmetastatic.
My wife is reading Freedom, Jonathan Franzen's latest novel, and the other day she showed me this subset of a larger sentence: "he saw in his oldest son a nearly exact replica of himself" (page 453). Now that's what you'd call a splendid example of pleonasm (PLEE-uh-naz'm), "the use of more words than are necessary to express the bare idea" or "the use of words whose omission would leave one's meaning intact" (Webster 2).
A replica is an exact reproduction or copy, and, strictly speaking, one produced by the artist or creator of the original. So "a nearly exact replica" is like "an almost unique copy." It would have been more precise, and more concise, if Franzen had written "a near-replica of himself" or just "a replica of himself" instead.
In the June 24, 2013, issue of The New Yorker I found a classic fender bender in an article by Harvard historian Jill Lepore called "The Prism." Here's the offending sentence: "The suppression of the uprising had been followed by a wave of anti-Semitism, leading to the Brandeis family's decision to emigrate to the United States."
Did you catch it? You don't emigrate to; you emigrate from. The e- in emigrate stands for ex-, which means "out of, from," and the im- in immigrate stands for in-, which means "in, into." So, properly, you emigrate from your native country to another country and you immigrate to a country from your native country. The Brandeis family should have immigrated to the United States or emigrated from Europe. (For another recent accident in The New Yorker, scroll down a few paragraphs.)
Want to know how not to place an adverb? Read this sentence by sportswriter Dennis Lin in the June 22, 2013, issue of U-T San Diego: "These days the utility tag loosely could be applied to nearly half of the Padres' position players."
Oh, how I earnestly wish that journalists would stop teaching each other that it's wrong to place an adverb between the parts of a compound verb! (In this case, the compound verb is "could be applied.") Idiom, centuries of good usage, and the unanimous opinion of stylists and grammarians all favor splitting the compound verb with the adverb, not putting the adverb beforehand. Thus, the natural and proper way to phrase it is "could be loosely applied," not "loosely could be applied."
Say it ain't so! The rampant confusion of lay and lie has infested the pages of The New York Times Magazine. In "A Caveat or Two About the Greatest Generation" by David Margolick (June 16, 2013), I found this: "Despondent over the state of his career, he deliberately drank himself into a stupor, laid out too long in the sun and willed himself to die" (page 33).
That sentence should have willed itself to die or been kavorked (after Dr. Kavorkian, who infamously euthanized terminal patients). To lay is to put or place; it requires an object (i.e., you lay something down; it doesn't just lay there.) To lie is to come to rest or recline, and the past tense of lie is lay, so it should have been "[he] lay out too long in the sun."
I'm not sure precisely what I feel when I come across an accident of style in the venerably (and, as legend has it, obsessively) copyedited pages of The New Yorker. A mixture of shock and schadenfreude, perhaps? In the June 10 & 17, 2013, issue, in Ian Parker's "Talk of the Town" piece ("Here to There Dept.: All Hail!"), I found this sentence: "Sozan said that he had driven without incident . . . up until the parking."
Until means "up to the time of," so it's redundant to write up until. The copyeditor should have deleted up or made it "up to the parking."
A full-page ad for the Kindle Paperwhite, appearing in The New York Times Book Review, May 26, 2013, shows a hand holding the device, on whose screen is displayed the opening of Matthew Quick's novel The Silver Linings Playbook. The chapter title reads, "An Infinite Amount of Days Until My Inevitable Reunion with Nikki."
Not having read the book, I can't say if this is an intentional or unintentional accident. But accident it is, nonetheless, and it's a bonehead one. The wreckless writer knows that amount should be used only with mass nouns, such as time, money, and space, while number is used with count nouns, ones that denote things that can be counted or enumerated, such as minutes, dollars, and rooms. Thus, it should be "an infinite number of days," not amount.
In the "Modern Love" column of The New York Times, May 26, 2013, Augusten Burroughs writes, "So in addition to rings, our wedding was about sugar. And one name fewer by which we can refer to each other." Can you tell what's wrong with that?
The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, which sanctions "one vote fewer," gets it wrong. While it is generally known (though oft-forgotten) that less applies to mass nouns like sugar and fewer applies to count nouns like beets, few people are aware that idiom requires that we use fewer with plural nouns and less with singular nouns. Since a singular noun will always follow one, you should properly have one less of whatever it is, not one fewer. Thus, it should be "six votes fewer" (or "six fewer votes") and "one less name" (or "one name less").
After some 29 years, the editors (if there are any editors left) at The San Diego Union-Tribune (recently renamed U-T San Diego) have still to learn how to spell the adjective renowned. After discovering, in this morning's edition (May 20, 2013), this subpar subhead, "Renown attraction has top gate price in nationwide survey," I took a peek into Garner's Modern American Usage to see if he had written about this bonehead error, and whaddayaknow! Garner had selected his illustrative citation for the mistake from the U-T, March 15, 1984: "Michaels became reknown for 'The War Song.'"
In the April 2013 issue of The Atlantic I found several slipups in the cover story, "The Touch-Screen Generation," by Hanna Rosin. (The Atlantic is one of the most carefully copyedited publications around, so this came as a surprise.)
"A couple researchers from the Children's Media Center at Georgetown University show up at my house," writes Rosin. And a few paragraphs later she writes, "I smile with the inner glow of a mother who knows her child is about to impress a couple strangers." In both sentences the word couple is used informally, as an adjective followed by a noun. But the circumspect sylist knows that in careful usage couple is properly a noun that requires the preposition of to link it to a following noun: a couple of people, a couple of miles.
Later in the article Rosin writes, "Some educational apps, I wouldn't wish on the naughtiest toddler." I have a hunch that comma after apps may have been interpolated by a meddling copyeditor who misconstrued the first three words as an introductory phrase that needed setting off. But however that comma got there, it's unnecessary and disrupts the flow of the sentence, which does not need a pause in the middle and is merely a Yiddishy inversion of the usual comma-less syntax: "I wouldn't wish some educational apps on the naughtiest toddler."
Finally, Rosin writes, "I have to admit, I had the exact same experience with SpongeBob." This accident is an example of thoughtlessly reproducing the graceless informalities of speech in one's writing. The exact same is a venial sin in conversation, but in print it's a clumsy way of adding unneeded emphasis to the word same. Sentences are always stronger when exact is deleted and the stress falls on same: "Then I flipped to MSNBC, and . . . they had the [exact] same clips" (that example is also from The Atlantic). On the rare occasions when special emphasis is called for, the proper phrase to use is exactly the same: "The twins were exactly the same weight and spoke in exactly the same way."
Here's a sentence from an opinion piece called "The Slow Death of the American Author" by Scott Turow, bestselling novelist and president of the Authors Guild, which was published in The New York Times, April 8, 2013: "There is only a handful of publishers left, while e-publishing is savaged by instantaneous piracy that goes almost completely unpoliced." Can you tell what's wrong with it?
I'm a longtime member of the Authors Guild (I rent this website from them) and Turow is a hardworking advocate for writers' rights, so I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that an overzealous copyeditor was responsible for the problem.
Did you think the problem was beginning a sentence with there? Though doing so can sometimes clutter or weaken a sentence, there are times when beginning with there is the only way to say that something exists without tortuous or verbose rewording. The problem is also not the phrase "that goes almost completely unpoliced," which could be expressed in leaner language with less adverbiage (e.g., "that is rarely policed").
The problem is in the opening: "There is only a handful of publishers left . . ." The singular verb is should be the plural are. Because of a grammatical curiosity called synesis (SIN-uh-sis), where "agreement in form is replaced by an agreement in meaning" (Random House Dictionary), the verb should modify publishers and not handful: "There are only a handful of publishers left." If you're having trouble wrapping your head around that, look how is doesn't work if you recast the syntax: "Only a handful of publishers are left."
Maureen Dowd, the longtime columnist for The New York Times, slipped on a big stylistic banana peel in her contribution for March 3, 2013. In the second sentence of her piece (which appeared on the front page of the SundayReview section) she writes, "The lyrical Irish author [Colm Toibin] wrote 'Brooklyn' about the aching loneliness of a young Irish woman who emigrates to New York in the '50s to find work."
Even a bleary-eyed copyeditor could have saved Ms. Dowd the embarrassment of this classic accident of style. It's a matter of keeping the direction of your prepositions straight. You immigrate to a country (the im- stands for the prefix in-, so you are migrating in). And you emigrate from a country (the e- stands for the prefix ex-, out, so you are migrating out). Properly, that young Irish woman emigrated from Ireland and immigrated to New York.
"What do you think to yourself when you see me?" asks Dave Bry in the "Lives" column of The New York Times Magazine (March 10, 2013). Want to know what I think when I see a sentence in which someone thinks reflexively? I think: Cut the reflexive pronoun. You always think to yourself, unless perhaps you are thinking aloud, in which case you are merely giving voice to thoughts that would otherwise have been kept to yourself. An alert copyeditor would have changed Bry's question to "What do you think when you see me?"
Does anything make you sick about this sentence? "He [Padres pitcher Cory Luebke] was throwing up until two weeks ago when he felt pain in his surgically reconstructed right shoulder" (Bill Center, U-T San Diego, March 11, 2013).
The first problem is the pleonasm up until. Because until means "up to the time of," it's redundant to pair it with up. The second problem is also caused by the unnecessary presence of up in the sentence, making it appear that Luebke had been regularly vomiting until two weeks ago ("He was throwing up until two weeks ago . . ."). If someone had chucked that up, there'd be no suggestion of upchucking.
From an online "special offer" I received from Southwest Airlines: "Oh Yes You Tan! Mexico & The Carebbean On Sale." The headline has three accidents. You probably noticed that Caribbean is misspelled; of course, if it were in fact spelled Carebbean maybe we wouldn't have to endure the pompous pronunciation kuh-RIB-ee-in (the stress should be on the next-to-last syllable, -be-). But did you also notice that The and On shouldn't be capitalized? A zealous copyeditor might also insist on a comma after Oh, but I'm okay without it.
From the cover story in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times ("Sought by Police . . ." by David Segal, December 2, 2012): "He later acquired property in Rodeo, N.M., and founded the Southwest Aerotrekking Academy, a school where people learned to fly motorized ultralights that screamed low over the dessert at 70 to 80 miles per hour."
I'm not sure even hardcore foodie survivalists would welcome a small aircraft screaming over their dessert at high speeds. In the unappetizing and arid desert, however, such activity would not be inappropriate. What a difference one letter makes!
This just in (November 26, 2012) from the customer service department at my local paper: "If you’re traveling during the holidays, you can still access U-T San Diego with our eEdition. The eEdition is an exact replica of the print edition, and is available to all UT San Diego subscribers."
Did you catch the pleonasm? A "replica" is an exact copy, duplicate, so pairing "exact" with "replica" is redundant. And strictly speaking, a replica is a copy (as of a work of art) produced by the maker of the original, so in the many contexts where the meaning is simply a copy or model of something, the better word choice would be "copy," "model," or "duplicate."
Alert reader Paris Dee of Oceanside, CA, notified me recently of a capital crime she found in the back jacket copy of Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic). “Sparks are igniting. Flames are spreading. And the Capital wants revenge,” it reads. A capital is a city where the seat or center of government is located. A capitol is the building where a state or national legislature convenes (make it Capitol if you're talking about the building in Washington, D.C., the nation's capital). Sometimes (as in this case), capitol is used metonymically to mean the government itself. Curiously, the last sentence of the next paragraph of the jacket copy gets it right: “And there are whispers of a rebellion against the Capitol – a rebellion that Katniss and Peeta may have helped create."
In the November 5, 2012, edition of Newsweek, I found this sentence by Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University, whose rudimentary accident of style eluded the magazine's editorial staff: "Jodi Kantor, in The Obamas, reports that he retreats to his office after Michelle and the girls have gone to bed to pour over information on the issues of the day."
Did you catch the misuse of pour for pore? When you pour something, you cause it to flow in a continuous stream: She poured the sour milk into the sink. When you pore over something (note the obligatory over), you read or study it carefully: Before delivering her speech, she pored over her notes.
Also in the November 5, 2012, edition of Newsweek, in the article "Doin' It 'Gangnam Style,'" Marlow Stern, the associate culture editor of the magazine, commits one of the most common redundancies to be found in print when he writes that "it was discovered that Psy hadn't completed the necessary requirements of his military service." All requirements are by definition necessary, so the word necessary is superfluous.
Some people believe that the English language is going to the dogs. I think the language is just fine, thank you, but I am often dismayed by the incompetence of those who use it, especially in a professional context. So when I come across a catachresis (kat-uh-KREE-sis, a misuse of one word for another) as egregious as the one I'm about to share, I have to wonder whether, to squeeze a few more pennies of profit out of their enterprise, the gradgrinds who run the news industry have replaced writers and editors with trained dogs.
When the San Francisco Giants baseball team won the World Series, sweeping the Detroit Tigers, at the top of the front page of the next day's edition (October 29, 2012) of the U-T San Diego, as my local fishwrap now calls itself, the editors ran a photo of an exultant Sergio Romo, the Giants' closer, bellowing heavenward with his arms outstretched. And to the right of Romo's head was this shocking caption: "Sergio Romo exalts after the Giants complete their sweep of the Tigers."
That someone who gets paid to put words together and present them to the public could confuse the verbs exult and exalt boggles the mind. That no one else caught the mistake before it appeared in such a prominent place is astonishingly unprofessional. To exalt is to glorify, elevate, raise to a great height in rank or honor: "Pablo Sandoval was exalted as the most valuable player of the World Series." To exult is to rejoice greatly: "Romo and the Giants exulted over their victory."
What's wrong with this sentence from Chuck Klosterman's column "The Ethicist" in The New York Times Magazine (October 28, 2012, page 14): "As a potential president, you don't like him anymore than you did in the past"? If you guessed it should have been any more, you're right.
The two words any more apply to quantities ("Got any more doughnuts?") or degrees ("She didn't have any more interest in the food than he did"). The single word anymore refers to time and is used in negative constructions ("She doesn't like him anymore"). Here's hoping the Times won't have any more accidents of style anymore.
But alas, on page 16 of the same edition of the Times Magazine, I found this: ". . . if you compare a smaller athlete to an athlete who has the same exact build but is 30 percent bigger, the bigger athlete will be only about 20 percent stronger. . . ."
The constructions the same exact and the exact same are clumsy and pleonastic ways of adding unneeded emphasis to the word same, which can almost always stand alone (as in the above example, where exact could be deleted with no effect upon the sentence). On the rare occasions when special emphasis is called for, the proper phrase to use is exactly the same: "The psychologists were surprised to find that the twins spoke in exactly the same way."
And while we're at it, there's another accident of style in that passage: compare . . . to should have been compare . . . with. This is one of the most common mistakes in all levels of writing today. "When the purpose is to liken two things or to put them in the same category, use to," says Theodore M. Bernstein in The Careful Writer. Thus, Shakepeare's "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" But, says Bernstein, "when the purpose is to place one thing side by side with another, to examine their differences or their similarities, use with." Writers invariably misuse to when it's with that's called for.
Now here's an unbelievable whopper from the October 22, 2012, issue of Newsweek. In the cover story, "Lincoln Plays to Win" by Sydney Blumenthal, I found this passage: "The first Union officer killed in the war, [Lincoln's] Springfield law clerk Elmer Ellsworth, was shot through the heart after taking down a Confederate flag waving above an Alexandria, Va., tavern. . . . [Lincoln] insisted that Ellsworth's body lay in state in the White House" (p. 35).
OMG, as my 15-year-old daughter would say. Lay in state? The context so obviously calls for lie (to come to or be at rest) that it's hard to believe this elementary blunder slipped by everyone in editorial. Or maybe it's depressing: Should we now conclude that even professional writers and editors can't distinguish the verbs lay and lie? Please, everybody, take a look at Accident 13 in my Accidents of Style — or open ANY style guide and bone up on this one!
And here's an unbelievable lapsus calami (LAP-sus KAL-uh-my, Latin for a slip of the pen) from an email written by United States Attorney Laura Duffy, which was reprinted in The San Diego Union-Tribune (October 19, 2012, p. B4):
"Our apologies that Filner had to be admonished about his uncivil . . . remarks," Duffy wrote. "If it is any consultation, (sic) I heard . . . that he embarrassed himself and that [people] thought Carl appeared far more mature and capable. . . ."
Early onset of Alzheimer's, perhaps, led to this misuse of consultation for consolation. That's the only explanation I can think of.
"A major league baseball . . . weighs five ounces," writes Don Norcross of The San Diego Union-Tribune (October 4, 2012, page D1). "The ball is comprised of 108 red stitches and if stretched from end to end, the yarn covers almost one mile."
Norcross messed up his tenses there and should have written "if stretched from end to end, the yarn would cover almost one mile." But I'm more concerned with his misuse of comprise. Do you know what he did wrong?
More and more these days, to comprise, to include, contain, is misused for to compose, to make up, constitute, probably because writers think it makes them sound more intelligent to use a fancier word where an ordinary word would suffice.
Traditionally, as Garner's Modern American Usage explains, "the parts compose the whole; the whole comprises the parts. The whole is composed of the parts; the parts are comprised in the whole." So Norcross should have written that "the ball is composed of 108 stitches" or that "the ball comprises 108 stitches."
Can you find the catachresis in the following sentence? (A catachresis, pronounced kat-uh-KREE-sis, is a misuse of one word for another.)
"Juicing . . . is not new, but it seems to have gained a certain cache of late in detox regimens and celebrity diets" (Caroline Dipping, San Diego Union-Tribune, September 18, 2012, page E1).
Cache is misused for cachet. A cache (pronounced in one syllable like cash) is a secret storage place or secretly stored items. Cachet (pronounced in two syllables like cash hay) means "prestige, superior status," and is the proper word for the context.
Maureen Dowd, the veteran political columnist for The New York Times, and her copyeditor share blame for a spelling accident in her column in the Sunday Review, September 16, 2012 (page 11). "Now, amid contagious Arab rage sparked on the 11th anniversary of 9/11," she wrote, "they have captured another would-be Republican president and vice president, both jejeune about the world." Did you catch it? That should be jejune, with two e's, not three.
"When David Foster Wallace committed suicide on September 12, 2008, at the age of 46," writes Lee Konstantinou in the opening sentence of an essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books (September 9, 2012), "it was inevitable that we’d eventually read a biography of his life."
The writer is barely off the ground before he skids and slams into a sticky pile of pleonasm ("the use of words whose omission would leave one's meaning intact"). A biography is by definition an account of a person's life, so "a biography of his life" is redundant. It should have been " . . . we'd eventually read his biography."
This running list of recent accidents has not concerned itself, yet, with pronunciation. But misspeaking can sometimes come back to bite you just as badly as miswriting, especially if you are a personage orating on the national stage.
So I am compelled to call out former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice for two salient mistakes she made in her speech to the Republican National Convention (on August 29, 2012) — mispronunciations so peculiar that they would have caused an epidemic of violent head-scratching at a convention of the American Dialect Society.
First, Condie gave the in- of ingenuity a decidedly faux-French twist, pronouncing it like "on." Here she was probably seduced into error by the common mispronunciation of the first syllable of ingenue as AHN- instead of the proper AN-. Then she gave us an eccentric take on the word scourge, pronouncing it to rhyme with gorge when the only recognized pronunciation rhymes with urge. Such strange deviations from standard usage have to make you wonder: Could she have picked them up from her fearless leader, that White House wordmeister George Dubya Bush?
Referring to celebrity journalists and sought-after public intellectuals such as David Brooks, Tom Friedman, and Fareed Zakaria (the last the subject of the column in Newsweek, August 27, 2012, pg. 5), Tunku Varadarajan wrote, "Recognizable across all the mediums, the branded few become mini-industries unto themselves."
As my high school soccer coach used to say when someone tried to kick the ball and missed badly: HUNYA! Mediums are people who help you connect with the spirits of the dead, or who tell your fortune. The word he should have used was media, the plural of medium. Radio is a medium, TV another medium, and print another medium. So these "branded few" are properly recognizable across all media.
On "To the Point," the syndicated public radio show (August 20, 2012), Wayne Slater, a reporter for the Dallas Morning News, opined that to succeed in the November elections the Republican party would have to "both motivate and enervate the base." Did your oxymoron radar just start flashing?
Motivate and enervate are antonyms. Slater apparently thought (as many do) that enervate means "energize, stimulate," but in fact it means the opposite: "to drain of energy or force, weaken."
In the July 9 and 16, 2012, issue of The New Yorker there was an ad (on page 49) for a recording by the lovely classical pianist Xiayin Wang on the Chandos label. "Hear these dazzling Rachmaninoff solo works," the ad copy said, "performed by one of today's leading young interpretors."
Interpretors? Sorry, that's not a standard (or even an attested) spelling. In Middle English it was interpretour, and in Late Latin it was interpretator, but this is modern English and the only acceptable spelling is interpreter.
Do you, as a person who expects at least minimal adherence to standard English in the news reports that you read and hear, ever wonder how some of these scribblers and squawkers manage to stay employed given the atrocious, rudimentary accidents of style they so often commit?
The latest lapse to make my jaw hit the floor, yet again, occurred, not unexpectedly, in the sports section of my city's unremarkable newspaper, The San Diego Union-Tribune. "Of course this is not an entirely new phenomena to San Diego," writes Chris Jenkins (July 5, 2012, p. D5), showing his readers a most unfortunate phenomenon: a professional writer who cannot distinguish between singular (phenomenon) and plural (phenomena) and make the number of his verb (is) match the number of his noun, which should have been phenomenon.
"The motto rustic on purpose, healthy on accident, is the perfect way to describe her food," says an email announcement from Great News Cookware and Cooking School in San Diego (I'm an avid home cook).
Sorry. On accident is a fourth-grade Bozo no-no that has been creeping into adult writing. Things don’t happen on chance or on accident; they happen by chance and by accident.
And while we're at it, there are some punctuation and capitalization problems with that sentence too. It should be "The motto 'Rustic on purpose, healthy by accident' is the perfect way to describe her food."
And if you really want to get nitpicky, the language would be more healthy (in good health) if people would use healthful instead of healthy when they mean "good for or promoting health."
"Your preferences can not be read." So saith the popup message from Google Chrome, master of the passive voice (not passive tense: see Katie Roiphe's accident in Newsweek below).
I have no idea why Google couldn't read my preferences, and I can't see why they didn't put that message in the active voice instead ("Google can't read your preferences"), but I do know that can not should have been one word: cannot.
In the July 2012 issue of Costco Connection (yes, I read everything), in an article about Costco members who operate gourmet food trucks, Teri Cettina writes, "Food trucks appear to be more than just a passing fad."
Did that redundancy jump out at you? A fad is by definition temporary, something people follow or do for a time until they lose interest. So the word passing is unecessary and repetitive. (By the way, this redundant phrase is so common, even in edited prose, that it has almost achieved the hackneyed status of advance planning, new innovation, general consensus, and free gift.)
Here's a sentence from my local fishwrap, The San Diego Union-Tribune, which reportedly, in a cost-cutting effort, has gotten rid of its copyeditors: "As early as puberty, muscular development between boys and girls diverge as a result of hormonal changes" (June 26, 2012, E-1). Somebody apparently thought the subject of the sentence was the plural boys and girls; hence the plural verb diverge. But the subject is muscular development and the verb should be singular: diverges.
Why do so many people say there's when they mean "there are" or "there have"? On NPR's All Things Considered (June 21, 2012), I was flabbergasted to hear a reporter say "There's been international conferences . . ."
I'm sorry, but that's semiliterate — a fundamental, tone-deaf error of number, using a singular phrasal verb (has been) with a plural noun (conferences). What's wrong with "there have been" or "there've been"?
Of course this headline on the front page of The New York Times (Sunday, May 13, 2012) caught my eye: "In E-Book Era, Rule for Writers Is Type Faster!" ( by Julie Bosman). And toward the end of the article (which continued on page four) my eye was arrested by a big accident of style in this sentence: "But some authors said that even though they are beginning to accept them [digital-only short stories] as one of the necessary requirements of book marketing, they still find them taxing to produce."
A requirement is something necessary, and something that is necessary is required. So it is a hackneyed pleonasm to append necessary to requirement. The Times's copyeditor should have deleted the unnecessary necessary.
In the April 23 & 30, 2012, issue of Newsweek, I came across two doozies.
First, this sentence from a column called "Henry Comes Home" by Niall Ferguson (page 20): "Yet in 1985 Oxford dons voted against giving the then-prime minister [Margaret Thatcher] an honorary doctorate degree, an unprecedented snub."
You may call a Ph.D. a doctoral degree or, less commonly, a doctor's degree, but it's an accident of style to call it a doctorate degree because doctorate is a noun that means "a Ph.D." The phrase is therefore redundant (the word degree being unnecessary). It should have been an honorary doctorate or an honorary doctoral degree.
Now for a less common but more egregious accident of style. In the cover story for the aforementioned issue of Newsweek, Katie Roiphe explores the hot topic of female sexual submission and quotes a researcher as saying, "It's the wish to be beyond will, beyond thought." Then she asks, "Why, for women especially, would free will be a burden? Why is it appealing to think of what happens in the passive tense?"
As I am not a sex researcher (just a lowly married practitioner), I have no idea why that would be appealing, especially because there is no such thing as a passive tense. It's called the passive voice, and it happens when the subject of a clause does not perform the action of the verb (for example, Her words were heard by all is passive while Everyone heard her words is in the active voice). What's more, the sentence that seems to have inspired the writer's question about "passive tense" (the quotation from the researcher) is not even in the passive voice.
In his "Language Log" (http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002926.html), Geoffrey K. Pullum bemoans the widespread ignorance of grammar among professional wordslingers that has spawned this confusion of tense with voice. Complaining about a sentence that appeared in The Economist, in which the writer Max Barry was called (now that's passive voice) "a master of short sentences and the passive tense," Pullum writes, "I don't really relish the role of pedant, and I can guess what the writer meant; but the passive involves a voice contrast; it has absolutely nothing in common with tense. I am astonished, all over again, at how educated people can commit blunders as extreme as this one in print, and editors don't even notice."
CHARLIE'S NEW BOOK IS HERE!
"Another great book from Elster."
— T. Dreiling, in a five-star review at Amazon.com
"Yet another gem from the inimitable Charles Harrington Elster."
— Noor-Allah Noorani, in a five-star review at Amazon.com
"Charles Harrington Elster is a master of the English language and the top authority on vocabulary building. You won't find anything nearly as helpful as Word Workout. His interwoven advice on usage and style is also invaluable." — Jeremy D. Sexton, in a five-star review at Amazon.com
"Word Workout, by America’s most respected vocabularian, encourages you to make vocabulary growth a lifelong adventure. In the process, you will expand your thoughts and your feelings, your speaking, your reading, and your writing—everything that makes up you." — Richard Lederer, author of Amazing Words
"Engaging narrative . . . fun mental flexing for those seeking alternatives to sudoku and crossword puzzles." — Library Journal
Of the audio edition of Word Workout, blogger Sara Strauss says that "Charles Harrington Elster's soothing and professorial voice . . . makes it easy to pay attention and makes it seem like you're taking a fun college class."
CHARLIE'S PREVIOUS BOOKS
The Accidents of Style:
Good Advice on How Not to Write Badly
New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2010.
Click on the title to read the introduction to the book.
"Sensible advice for both aspiring writers and word lovers."
— Joanne Wilkinson, Booklist
Here's what my colleagues are saying about The Accidents of Style:
“Charles Elster shines a bright light on 350 potholes, pitfalls, and pratfalls that pock the road of writing. His sage advice on how to avoid writing badly points the reader in the direction of a smoother journey toward writing well.”
— Richard Lederer, author of Anguished English and The Write Way
“The Accidents of Style is eminently readable. And if you’re one of us who can’t always remember the difference between eminently and imminently—and more than 350 other thorny usage questions—you’ll want to buy it and keep it near. It is useful, nuanced—and funny, too.”
— Constance Hale, author of Sin and Syntax
“This book is perfect for people who want to take their prose from the pothole-filled side streets to the Autobahn. You’ll learn how to avoid errors, barbarisms, redundancies, and other drags on your style. It’s an essential addition to any language lover’s collection. After I read it, I felt like I’d just had my writing engines tuned by a master mechanic. The Accidents of Style is essential for anyone who’s serious about the written word.”
— Martha Brockenbrough, author of Things That Make Us (Sic)
What in the Word?
Wordplay, Word Lore, and Answers to Your
Peskiest Questions About Language
New York, San Diego: Harcourt, 2005.
Click on the title to read the book's introduction.
"Entertaining as well as informative. . . . Fun reading for verbomaniacs." — Booklist
Are you so sure about the plural of octopus or the difference between i.e. and e.g.? Do you know which word in the English language has the most definitions, or who put the H in Jesus H. Christ?
If you don't, be assured that Charles Harrington Elster does, and he tells all in this entertaining collection of provocative questions and authoritative answers about word and phrase origins, slang, proper style and usage, punctuation, and pronunciation. Every chapter features original brainteasers, challenging puzzles, and a trove of literary trivia, so be prepared to play while you read.
"Delightfully funny and informative. Every page is filled with amazing and amusing facts about our quirky language. The Wordbook of the Year!"
— Sol Steinmetz, author of Semantic Antics and coauthor of Meshuggenary: Celebrating the World of Yiddish
"This book is at once authoritative and lively. Elster knows how to have fun."
— Bryan A. Garner, author of Garner's Modern American Usage
"A cornucopia of linguistic fun. Fill your horn!"
— Anu Garg, creator of wordsmith.org
The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations:
The Complete Opinionated Guide
for the Careful Speaker
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999, 2005.
(ISBN-13: 978-0-618-42315-6 ISBN-10: 0-618-42315-X)
Click on the title to read the introductions to the first and second editions.
"The best survey of the spoken field in years."
— William Safire, The New York Times Magazine, writing of the first edition in 1999
"The most readable, sensible and prescriptive guide to the words that trip us up . . . bang your shoe on the bookseller's desk until he orders it."
— William Safire, The New York Times Magazine, writing of the second edition in December 2005
This book is one man's informed opinion, based on a variety of reputable sources, about the proper pronunciations of hundreds of commonly mispronounced words and names. Here you will find some straight talk on where the stress should fall in harass(ment). You will find out why so many say nucular instead of nuclear, why you should think twice about sounding the "t" in often, and why the pronunciation for-TAY for forte (strong point) is a pretentious blunder. Words that unnerve or trip up many educated speakers—deluge, heinous, milieu, niche, plethora, clandestine, machination, philatelist, unequivocally, assuage, and zoology are but a few examples—you will pronounce hereafter with quiet confidence. In short, you will see how to air is human, to ur divine.
Test of Time:
A Novel Approach to the SAT and ACT
New York, San Diego: Harcourt, 2004.
Click on the title to read an excerpt from the book and
a review by Glenda Winders of Copley News Service.
Q: What's better than a whole pile of loathsome test-preparation books?
A: The captivating SAT and ACT vocabulary-building novel Test of Time.
That's right. High school students can painlessly prepare for the SAT and ACT by reading this comedy-adventure novel featuring the inimitable Mark Twain transported via the Internet from 1883 to the 21st-century campus of a prestigious New England university. More than 2,000 essential test words are used in context, highlighted in boldface, and defined in a convenient back-of-the-book glossary.
"TEST OF TIME is a delight — an engaging, imaginative, beautifully written tour de force that pays homage most appropriately to the author who knew that 'the difference between the almost right word and the right word' is 'the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.' As lively and entertaining as it is educational, this is a book Mark Twain himself would have enjoyed."
— Shelley Fisher Fishkin, professor of English and director of American Studies, Stanford University, editor of The Oxford Mark Twain, and author of Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture
"I am an SAT tutor and have found this book . . . valuable to my students. Charles Harrington Elster is a master of his craft; unlike some other books of this type, his vocabulary and grammar are impeccable. As a result, this book is very well written. What a great idea for a book — Mark Twain in 21st-century college America. Test of Time is informative and entertaining."
— posted at www.teen-books.com
"This compelling story . . . cleverly illuminates more than 2,000 essential test words by using them in context. If there's a college-bound youth in your life, this book will enable their comprehension by incorporating frequently encountered vocabulary words in a fast-reading story about the exploits of four college students and a garrulous, time-traveling Mark Twain. Exercises and a comprehensive glossary are incorporated, but the brilliance of this test aid is the fun, fast-reading tall tale. Highly recommended!"
Tooth and Nail: A Novel Approach to the SAT
Written with Joseph Elliot.
San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1994.
Click on the title to read an excerpt from the book.
Say goodbye to word lists and read your way to a stronger SAT vocabulary!
Tooth and Nail is a full-length mystery novel designed to teach the words that appear again and again on the SAT. The book's "novel approach" represents a complete break from the boring SAT-preparation methods of the past. Instead of struggling to learn SAT words by rote, students can easily learn them the natural way, in context. A handy glossary in the back of the book allows the reader to instantly check definitions.
Tooth and Nail offers high school students a creative, innovative, and entertaining way to build their vocabulary, improve their reading comprehension skills, and enjoy a good story all at the same time. Since 1994 this book has been a consistent bestseller, enjoyed by students, recommended by parents, and endorsed by teachers all across the country.
In fact, the "novel approach" to learning vocabulary that Joe Elliot and I invented proved so effective and became so popular that other writers and publishers rushed to imitate it. One audacious person (whose lame idea of writing a vocabulary-building novel was to paraphrase all of L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz using SAT words) even tried to steal credit for the innovation. And one lazy publisher — Kaplan, the test-prep outfit — took the parsimonious shortcut of reprinting 19th-century novels in the public domain, such as Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights, with definitions inserted for the literary words.
With Tooth and Nail, and its companion novel, Test of Time, you're not getting paraphrases, gimmicks, or knockoffs. They're the real deal — original stories filled with hundreds of test words (gleaned from dozens of tests) and fun to read.
New York: Random House, 2000. (ISBN 0-375-70932-0)
Click on the title to read an excerpt from the introduction.
This is a graduated, comprehensive vocabulary-building program for adults who are serious about using the English language correctly and with confidence. Mr. Elster takes you on an edifying and entertaining tour of the language, coaching you along the way on how to use words with greater clarity, precision, and style.
Here's what they're saying about Verbal Advantage:
"I bought your Verbal Advantage program earlier in the year. It has had a profound effect on my life. I never realized how many words I did not know. . . . You have opened up a wonderful world to me and I find myself the new connoisseur of words at the office and at home. . . . I want to thank you for changing my life."
— Shane W. Doyle
"I’ve been reading your book Verbal Advantage and I’ve enjoyed every word of it. It helped me improve my GRE verbal score by 160 points, and I was only in Level 4 by then!"
— Carlos Anderson
"I can’t tell you how much Verbal Advantage has changed my life by giving me confidence to interact with people everywhere in business and in my personal life. My husband is a golf pro and he feels the same way! We just love YOU to death!" — Antoinette Janeczko
"I want to thank Charles Elster for his book Verbal Advantage! I have been reading it for 6 months now and I can honestly say this has been one of the BEST investments of my life! I read it more than my college textbooks!"
— Glen Walden
"I just completed all ten levels of the Verbal Advantage program. It was even more edifying than the advertisements promised. I enjoyed every minute of it, and I review some of the disquisitions from time to time. I'm obsessed with words!"
— Reuben Wagler
"Verbal Advantage . . . revolutionized the way I think and communicate in English. I am a 24-year-old man, originally from a small town in India. Currently, I am a graduate student at USC. For a man who spoke no English until the age of 10, I feel very happy when people compliment me on my ability to use words with style and confidence. . . . We all know that there are several language improvement courses on the market. But, I can unequivocally contend that the program devised by you is emancipating people from the shackles of low vocabulary, mispronunciation and misuse of the English language."
— Aditya Moitra
"I'm a 22-year-old immigrant from Guatemala who lives in Sunnyvale, California and goes to college. I'm writing this letter to thank you for making the Verbal Advantage program. Building my vocabulary was a struggle at first, having to admit I don't know the exact meanings of words I hear at school. But, I am motivated when I remember what you said in Verbal Advantage, so I don't give up. Thank you, thank you, thank you! What your program has given me is like a second chance. I don't know how I can hold tears of gratitude inside."
— Danilo Salguero
"I love your Verbal Advantage program and it has helped me immeasurably in my day-to-day endeavors. I have seen a marked difference in the way I communicate orally and in writing."
— Stuart Mushala
“I am a Venezuelan graduate student in physics who is pursuing a Ph.D. program in the U.S. For this I have to take the GRE, which requires having both a large vocabulary and full command of the words you know. Last year I took the GRE and sadly I scored 360/800 in verbal (percentile rank 22). I knew I had to work on my vocabulary if I wanted to attain a better score. Some months ago I came across Verbal Advantage in a bookstore here in Venezuela. . . . No other vocabulary builder gave me more knowledge and insight into words than VA. After a year I took the GRE again . . . and I scored 700/800 (percentile rank 97). And so, I wanted to thank you for publishing such a comprehensive and entertaining book!”
— Pedro Montuenga
"[Verbal Advantage] has brought priceless personal and professional enrichment to my life. . . . I've sampled many, but Verbal Advantage is still #1 in my book."
— Ken Nero
"I won't importune you with some kind of magniloquent blandishment, but I want to give you credit for your inimitable program Verbal Advantage. I have listened to it four times in the last five months. I've also scrutinized such programs as Million$ Vocabulary, Executive Vocabulary, a complete series of Word Smart, Vocabulary Booster, Word Master, Barron's 550 Words You Need to Know, Verbal Success, Confidence in Context, and many others. All of them offer something useful, but they can only eat the dust of Verbal Advantage. Your program is much better than all of them put together."
— Roman from Ukraine
"Thank you for creating a wonderful masterpiece." — Theresia Thurman
There's A Word for It!
A Grandiloquent Guide to Life
New York: Pocket Books, 1996.
Revised & Updated Edition published July 2005.
Click on the title to take a grandiloquent quiz and read a selection of light verse from the book.
"Those who devour words will feast on it."
— Diane White, Boston Globe
"Charming and at times hysterical." — Booklist
"Words you never knew you needed—until now."
— San Diego Magazine
This is not simply another book about obscure English words. It's an open-armed invitation to go on a mischievous, quirky, madcap expedition through the depths of our unabridged dictionaries, where you will learn about all the exceptional words you never knew you needed to know to live a fuller, more verbally enriched life. There's a Word for It! will help you plug gaping holes in your vocabulary and apply vibrant color to the blank spots in your picture of the world. The book also contains a dazzling selection of light verse by such famous (and fabulous) scribes as Hogden Gnash, Anais Numb, and G. B. Pshaw (click on the title above to read a selection).
The Curious Corporate Who
In the cover story for the October-November 2013 issue of Copyediting, Charlie looks at how the relative pronoun who is taking over the traditional role of that and which.
Pleonasm: A Word Every Writer and Copyeditor Should Know
Read Charlie's amiable rant on redundancy, which appeared in the August-September 2012 issue of Copyediting.
Seven Steps to Word Power
Timeless tips for aspiring vocabulary builders.
A Way with Words:
Charlie explains why he resigned as cohost of the popular radio show on KPBS-FM.
The Wrong Pro-NOUN-ciation
Read one of Charlie's guest language columns for the Boston Globe, in which he takes the dictionaries of Merriam-Webster to task for "promiscuously sanctioning questionable pronunciations."
The Grandiloquent Gumshoe
At a loss for words? Give the P.V.I. (private verbal investigator) a call.
Read one of Charlie's guest "On Language" columns for The New York Times Magazine.
Things Are Against Us
Did you know there's a word for "seemingly spiteful behavior manifested by inanimate objects"? Read Charlie's guest "On Language" piece about resistentialism.
Charlie's Dictionary Recommendations
Looking for a new dictionary? Click here for some sage advice.
Charlie has some brave new words for our wireless world.
A Little Latin Is a Lovely Thing
Read one of Charlie's articles on language in SPELL/Binder.
Read Bill Manson's entertaining profile of Charlie in San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles magazine.