“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
Pleonasm Watch: In case you haven't heard, San Diego's embattled mayor, Bob Filner, is set to resign because of multiple allegations of sexual harrassment and generally pigheaded, lecherous behavior. So the subhead in today's local fishwrap (Friday, August 23, 2013), referring to the deal Filner hashed out this week 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."
Now here's a sentence from the obituary for actor Ben Gazzara that was syndicated by the New York Times News Service and ran in my local paper, The San Diego Union-Tribune, February 4, 2012: "Both his parents had immigrated from Italy."
Did you catch the accident of style? Immigrated should have been emigrated. Why? Here's how I explained the distinction in my book Verbal Advantage:
The im- in immigrate means “into,” and the word means literally "to go into a new country, migrate in." The initial e- in emigrate is short for ex-, which means “out”; to emigrate means "to leave or go out of one’s country, migrate out." Immigrate is followed by the preposition to. You immigrate to a country, go into it to resettle. Emigrate is followed by the preposition from. You emigrate from a country, go out of it, leave it to settle in another. When you emigrate from your native country you immigrate to another.
"Wouldn't you like a job that fulfills you both professionally and personally?" asks an ad in The San Diego Union-Tribune (November 29, 2011) that plugs the paper's online want ads. "With our new filtering tools, you can quickly hone in on the job that's right for you."
The choice of hone in here disturbs me both professionally and personally. As Bill Walsh notes succinctly in Lapsing Into a Comma, "You can hone a skill, but you can't hone in on something. The term is home in" (as in to home in on a target).
This just in via email from the Yale Club of San Diego (I'm an alumnus):
Robin Sheretz-Morgan, Founding Director of the San Diego Ballet will be on hand to guide us through the process of producing "The Nutcracker".
There are three flagrant accidents of style in that sentence, and one questionable point of diction.
First, "Founding Director" should be "founding director." No need for capitals. Second, the phrase "founding director of the San Diego Ballet" is appositional (it adds information to the sentence), so it should be set off by commas on both ends; thus, another comma after "Ballet" is needed. Third, in American English periods always go inside quotation marks, so the sentence should end like this: "The Nutcracker."
Finally, we have the diction (word choice) problem. The phrase "guide us through the process of producing 'The Nutcracker'" implies that the audience is producing the ballet and the speaker will offer guidance in how to do it. But the intended idea is that the audience will learn how the speaker produced the ballet, so a revision is in order, something along the lines of "show us how she produced 'The Nutcracker'" or "take us step by step through a production of 'The Nutcracker.'"
Now for three accidents that I found in my reading over the 2011 Thanksgiving weekend. The first is from the Sunday Review section of The New York Times (November 27, 2011, p. 7): "But apparently, he felt badly about Arthur."
We don't say I feel gladly or I feel sadly, so why do so many people say and write I feel badly? Linking verbs such as feel, look, smell, taste, seem, and be should be followed by an adjective, not an adverb. That's why things look different, taste good, seem strange, smell nice, and why you should, properly, always feel bad.
By the way, that comma after apparently also doesn't sit right with me. It creates an odd bump in the sentence. Either apparently should be set off by commas ("But, apparently, he felt bad about Arthur"), which seems overpunctuated, or there should be no commas at all ("But apparently he felt bad about Arthur"), which seems more natural and readable.
The second smashup is from The New York Times Magazine (November 27, 2011, p. 35): ". . . Wang suggests that we may now be at another historical moment." All moments in time are historical because historical means "part of or pertaining to history." But the writer wanted to say that Wang thought this moment in time was going to figure significantly in history, and the proper word for that is historic. Thus, a historical event is part of history, while a historic event makes history.
I found the third smashup on the back of the Times Magazine, in a full-page ad for Mount Sinai Hospital. Here's approximately how the copy was laid out:
Son Bond So Close,
They're Joined At
Do you see the problem? Something important is missing. There should be a hyphen between father and son because the two words constitute a phrasal adjective modifying bond. They should have laid out the copy like this instead:
A Father-Son Bond
They're Joined At
(In case you're wondering about the elliptical subject here — the words they have should begin the sentence, but are instead implied — I'm giving the copywriter a pass on that because that's the kind of annoying stuff that copywriters love to do.)
Now for some commakaze commentary. In reckless writing, which these days includes an astonishing amount of journalism, the most common abuse of the comma is the comma splice, which occurs when complete sentences (independent clauses) are linked by a comma. Take a gander at this glaring comma splice that I found in a pullout quotation that appeared smack dab on the front page of the The San Diego Union-Tribune, November 15, 2011: "'We've had hybrid-electric cars for a while, now you are starting to see the all-electric cars come in.'"
Any half-drunk copyeditor could tell you that the comma in that spliced sentence should be a period, or the word but or and should be inserted after it. But guess what? The U-T doesn't have any copyeditors anymore because, good English be damned, management fired them all to save money.
See if you can find the error in this lengthy sentence by Katie Roiphe, a journalism professor at New York University, which appeared in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times, November 13, 2011: "If this language was curiously retrograde in the early '90s, if it harkened back to the protection of delicate feminine sensibilities in an era when that protection was patently absurd, it is even more outdated now when women are yet more powerful and ascendant in the workplace."
As I explain in The Accidents of Style, it should be hark back, not hearken back or harken back. When you hark back, you refer to or recall an earlier topic, time, or circumstance. The archaic word hearken (harken is a variant spelling) means "to listen, give one's attention to." Perhaps because hark by itself is an old-fashioned synonym of hearken ("Hark, the herald angels sing!"), people became confused and began writing hearken back and harken back instead of hark back. Whatever the reason, take care to hearken to my advice and use the preferred form, hark back.
"And its more than just this one fee," says an emailed letter to me from Consumers Union (November 1, 2011) regarding Bank of America's decision to rescind its usurious fees on debit cards. Writing its for it's (or the other way around), especially in professional correspondence, is no itsy-bitsy error. It's a fatal accident of style. That's why Constance Hale, in Sin and Syntax, writes, "Learn this [distinction] or die."
Now one from the ne supra crepidam sutor iudicaret department (that's Latin for "Cobbler, stick to your last"). In her emailed language tip of October 25, 2011, Grammar Girl (aka Mignon Fogarty) counseled her readers not to confuse the exclamation voila with the noun viola (does anyone really do that?) and noted that voila is "pronounced roughly 'wallah.'" Oops! "Wallah" is a beastly mispronunciation not recognized by dictionaries; the proper pronunciation is vwah-LAH, with an audible V in front.
To her credit, Grammar Girl appended a correction to her next emailed tip, to wit: "Last week, in an attempt to stop people from spelling voila w-a-l-l-a-h, I wrote that the word is 'pronounced roughly wallah.' As some of you pointed out, it may be roughly pronounced wallah, but it is properly pronounced vwah-lah."
Want to find an accident of style fast? All you need to do is consult your local newspaper's sports section, where stylistic whiffs and bogies and own-goals abound.
Here's one example of a sportswriter-related injury to the language, from an article on the San Diego Padres by Chris Jenkins that appeared in the September 15, 2011, issue of The San Diego Union-Tribune: "Neither the rotation nor the bullpen are as strong as they were in 2010."
In a neither . . . nor construction the verb should be singular when the second of the two nouns referred to is singular. If Jenkins had written "Neither the rotation nor the bullpen pitchers" he could have followed with the plural verb are. But as is, the sentence requires a singular verb: "Neither the rotation nor the bullpen is . . ." And the rest of the sentence should be emended to conform with the singular: ". . . is as strong as it was in 2010."
Some people think that The New Yorker is the be-all and end-all of well-edited prose, and that the magazine is virtually incapable of error. If you believe that, think again. In the September 12, 2011, issue I found two common accidents of style.
Here's the first, by theater (not, as The New Yorker perversely prefers, theatre) critic Hilton Als: "As the subject of Julie Salamon's excellent 'Wendy and the Lost Boys,' Wasserstein is heart-wrenching" (p. 11). It may come as a surprise to you that the word heart-wrenching does not appear in any current dictionaries. It is a confusion of heartrending, the proper word, and the fairly recent word gut-wrenching. And it appears with astonishing frequency—more often now than the proper heartrending—in edited prose. Here's another example from The New York Times Book Review (September 18, 2011, p. 10): "In these three pages lies the loveliest and most heart-wrenching description of a child I've read." For more on this misrendering, see accident 263 in The Accidents of Style.
Now here's the second New Yorker fender-bender, from a "Talk of the Town" piece by Ian Frazier in the same September 12 issue. Writing of a certain John Miller, Frazier notes that he "became a well-known journalist and one of the only Americans to interview Osama Bin Laden" (p. 24). Notice anything amiss with the phrase one of the only? When you're referring to several or a few, you can't properly use only because it means "being the single one; without others of its kind or class." The New Yorker copyeditor should have stopped worrying for a minute about where to insert unnecessary commas and changed Frazier's one of the only to one of the few.
And now, horribile dictu, for yet another piece of accidental prose from The New Yorker . . .
What is it with the distinction between the words bring and take that so confounds even the best writers and editors among us?
In the August 15 & 22, 2011, issue of The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert (and her copyeditor) slid off the road into the ditch of incorrect diction with this faulty sentence: "We visited the church where Bach is buried, and ended up at Auerbachs Keller, the bar to which Mephistopheles brings Faust in the fifth scene of Goethe's play" (p. 71).
Bring denotes motion toward the speaker or actor in the sentence while take denotes motion away. So Mephistopheles cannot bring Faust to the bar; he has to take him there.
The Atlantic — which used to call itself The Atlantic Monthly before the recession hit and words were no longer cheap — is one of the best-edited magazines I read regularly. Several issues can survive my withering scrutiny without yielding an accident of style.
So it was quite an eye-opener to find, in an otherwise unblemished and excellent piece by Matthew McGough called "The Lazarus File" that appeared in the June 2011 issue, two fender-benders in a single sentence: "Within hours of receiving the DNA results, Bub and Nuttall brought the four binders that comprised the Rasmussen case file to Stearns and Jaramillo at Parker Center" (p. 88). Did you catch them both?
Once again, brought should have been took because bring denotes motion toward the speaker or actor in the sentence while take denotes motion away. Because Bub and Nuttall went from wherever they were to the Parker Center, they took the files to Stearns and Jaramillo.
The second error concerns the oft-misused comprise. The whole comprises the parts, not the other way around; comprise means to include, contain, be made up of — not to make up or constitute. So the four binders do not comprise the case file. Properly, the case file comprises four binders.
Another prestigious publication that I read regularly and that you'd think would have squeaky clean copy is The New York Times Book Review. But once in a while I'll come across a slipup. Here's one from a pullout quotation on page 10 of the July 3, 2011, issue: "English sympathy for the South lingered up until Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox." Until means "up to the time of," so it's redundant to write up until. The correction for this sentence is simple: delete up.
And once in a while I'll come across a real doozy in The New York Times Book Review. The front page of the May 22, 2011, issue featured a review by Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the Book Review, of The Anatomy of Influence by Harold Bloom, the prolific professor of literature at Yale.
Imagine my surprise when, in the second paragraph, I came upon this sentence: "This may surprise some who think of Bloom primarily as a stalwart of the Western canon . . . or as a self-confessed Bardolator, swooning over 'Hamlet' and 'Lear.'"
There are two errors here, one glaring and one obscure. The glaring error is adding self- to confessed. It's redundant. As Theodore M. Bernstein points out in Dos, Don'ts, and Maybes of English Usage, "Only the person who is confessing can confess, so why the self-?"
Did you find the obscure error? Bardolator is misspelled. George Bernard Shaw coined this word for a worshiper of Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon, in 1903. But he spelled it Bardolater (because it's a blend of Bard and idolater), and for the past half a century dictionaries have preferred a lowercase b: bardolater.
Later in the same review, the venerable Prof. Bloom is quoted driving his stately sedan into a tree. Christopher Marlowe, he writes, "is one of those teachers who is always convinced his auditors are not quite attentive." Ouch! This is one of those grammatical errors that trip up [not trips up] even the pros. When one of is followed by a plural noun and who or that, the verb that follows must agree in number with the plural noun (meaning it must also be plural): "[Marlowe] is one of those teachers who are always convinced their auditors are not quite listening." Invert the notion of the sentence and the logic is clear: Of those teachers who are always convinced . . . Marlowe is one.
Here's another example of this common accident of style from the sports section of the Union-Tribune, committed by one of the paper's best writers, Tim Sullivan, in his column of September 7, 2011: "[I]t is one of those awards that defines [define] a career and earns [earn] prominent mention in obituaries."
While we're on the subject of Mr. Sullivan, here's another of his rare accidents, this one from his column of February 26, 2011: "Loathe to take the bat out of Gonzalez's hands, particularly in the late innings, the Padres tended to play more conservatively as games progressed."
Did you catch the mistake? It's in the very first word: loathe, which is a verb meaning to despise, abhor, should be loath, which is an adjective meaning reluctant, disinclined. This is a regrettably common accident that I have found in the pages of some of the most reputable and best-edited publications. It is probably the result of a mispronunciation — many educated speakers mistakenly say loathe, which has the th sound of clothe and bathe, when they mean loath, which has the th sound of cloth and bath.
When The New York Review of Books offered me an 18-week subscription for just ten bucks, how could I refuse? At that price, at least I could be confident I wasn't paying for the ink to print all those pretentious and ponderous footnotes that clog the reviews. As it turned out, though, I was unwittingly subsidizing the occasional redundancy.
In her review "Mind Control and the Internet" (June 23, 2011), Sue Halpern writes, "Chorost suggests that the reason the Internet as we now know it does not foster the kind of empathy he sees coming in the Web of the future . . . is because it is not yet an integral part of our bodies."
As Patricia T. O'Conner points out in Woe Is I, "because means 'for the reason that,'" so if you write the reason is because you are writing that the reason is for the reason that. In her book Word Court, Barbara Wallraff calls the reason . . . is because "a notorious little waste of words."
To fix the redundancy, simply recast the sentence using either the reason . . . is that or, even better, just because: "Chorost suggests that the Internet as we now know it does not foster the kind of empathy he sees coming in the Web of the future . . . because it is not yet an integral part of our bodies."