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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins

The Careful Writer's Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears, and Outmoded Rules of English Usage

Theodore M. Bernstein

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins

Witchcraft in Words

Carrying out my promise to indulge in a one-sided correspondence, I would now like to have words with you. Words and the strange sorcery that has been visited upon many of them will form the subject of this letter. Not syntax, not idioms, not style--all of which I hope to take up with you in later letters--but just words.
Probably the most prolific source of word bogies is the stubborn notion that it is only the "original" meanings of words that can be permitted to exist. An editor of my acquaintance objected to using ghetto to describe urban Negro slums. I am certainly no radical when it comes to usage, but I made the point that although the word originally meant the Jewish quarter of a town, it had been justifiably extended to refer to any section in which a racial or national or religious group lives or to which it is restricted. Justifiably, because the word is appropriate and because there is no other single word that conveys the new meaning. Applying new meanings to old words is one of the ways in which the language is kept viable and adequate to its tasks. Usually we notice changes in meanings only when they occur within our own lifetimes. We are not aware that such changes occurred far back in many words that we don't give a second thought to today. It would not be known to most of us that a simple word like nice began with the meaning of foolish or stupid and has since undergone perhaps half a dozen mutations. Or that a more complicated word likesophisticated in its early stages meant such things as wise, adulterated and corrupted. Sometimes, of course, the changes arise from ignorance, but the fact that the ignorant usage catches on and hangs on indicates that it is filling some need, large or small.
Occasionally such a need is supplied by the coinage of a new word. And that, too, often meets head-on resistance. When convicts were first put to death in the electric chair, the word electrocute, combining the ideas of electric and execute, came into being, but instantly and persistently it encountered hostility, which was overcome only after the passing of many decades. There can be no doubt, however, that new things frequently require new words to describe them. In this age of startling scientific developments we have grown somewhat more accustomed to the advent of such terms.
Still another bugbear arises whenever common usage employs a word as a different part of speech from the one we are accustomed to. Above and following are now frequently used as nouns whereas they previously were adjectives, and there has been a great deal of hubbub about that development. (See ABOVE.) But such conversions are not unusual: In medicine we have prophylactics and sedatives, in military life we have privates, regulars and offensives, and more recently in broadcasting we have documentaries, visuals and specials. The list could go on and on. Nor would it be confined to the conversion of adjectives into nouns. It is just as common to find nouns doing duty as adjectives, beginning with such inconspicuous ones as rail road and stock yard and going on to population explosion and atom bomb agreement. The conversions are not always felicitous, but they cannot be forbidden as a class.
And then there are the attacks on words that seem to have been dreamed up by people suffering from insomnia.(Don't ask me how insomniacs can dream, but if they can invent such attacks on words, they are capable of anything.) I am thinking here of such objections as the ones raised against all-time and bipartisan, which you will find in the appended list. Those objections can only be devised by trouble-trackers--people intent on making mischief.
Now that I have mentioned the appended list, Miss Thistlebottom, why don't I just append it? The words speak for themselves. And that is what words are supposed to do.

Yours, etc.

Many teachers have adjured their charges to avoid the use of above in such phrases as "the statement appearing above," "the above statement," "the above-mentioned statement" and "the above is a definitive statement." Obviously they were not giving vent to personal prejudices because purists have long been condemning such employment of the word. Indeed, Partridge comes out with a flat command, "Avoid it," followed by a terrifying exclamation point. Nevertheless, the preponderance of evidence is that those various uses of above are quite legitimate and aboveboard. The revised Fowler says: "There is ample authority, going back several centuries, for this use of above as adverb, adjective or noun, and no solid ground for the pedantic criticism of it sometimes heard."
Grammatical criticisms aside, however, a valid objection is made against such uses of above: that they convey a legalistic or commercial flavor, which is inappropriate in normal prose. That is unquestionably true, just as it is true that said, aforesaid and the same convey a similar flavor. I have an additional objection, which may or may not be peculiar to me. Unless you are reading the original manuscript of the Declaration of Independence, there is a fifty-fifty chance that a reference to something above will be an incorrect statement; it is not unlikely that you will be reading at the top of a page and the something above will prove to be below, at the bottom of the preceding page. But perhaps I am being literal rather than literary.



Here we have another attempt by the driven-snow purists to restrict a word to its primary meaning. Administer means, to be sure, to manage or direct or superintend, but it also means, and for a long time has meant, other things, too. The Cowles book tells us not to use it in the sense of to deal, as in to administer blows. But Webster II says it means to give and, by extension, is used of a blow, a reproof or the like. What more is needed to administer a fatal blow to those purists?

It is true that "-ly" is used to make adverbs out of adjectives (gladly), participles (lovingly) and sometimes nouns (totally). That does not mean, however, that to be an adverb a word must end in "-ly," as is believed by those who are irritated by signs that read, "Go slow." Nor is the use of slow as an adverb a recent innovation; the OED dates it back as far as 1500. Like slow, many other adverbs have two forms. There are, for example, bad, badly; bright, brightly; cheap, cheaply; clear, clearly; close, closely; even, evenly; fair, fairly; hard, hardly; high, highly; late, lately; loud, loudly; right, rightly; sharp, sharply; tight, tightly; wrong, wrongly. It should be noted that although the words of some of these sets can be used interchangeably--"go slow" or "go slowly"--others cannot be so used. We cannot say, for instance, "The defendant was wrong imprisoned." When there is a real choice and idiom does not require one form or the other, the tendency in reputable writing is to use the "-ly" version.

Bierce frowned on this word as a synonym for advertently or intentionally, observing that "'It was done advisedly' should mean that it was done after advice." Nothing of the kind. Anyway, very little of the kind. The notions in the words advice and advised are quite different, though the words are not unrelated etymologically. Advice and advise, of course, have to do with the giving of counsel, but advised and advisedly have to do--and for centuries have had to do--with deliberation, careful consideration. Advice is something you get from outside, but when you are well-advised or ill-advised or when you do something advisedly your counsel is self-contained.

Hands have been wrung over the latter-day secondary meaning that has been attached to alibi. In its original meaning it is a legal term denoting a plea that an accused person was elsewhere than at the scene of the crime when the offense was committed. Its newer meaning refers to an excuse, often an invented excuse, to shift responsibility. The hand-wringers suppose that it is merely a synonym for excuse, but it is more than that. It carries a connotation of slight or outright dishonesty and it represents a plea to get out from under. It is not, therefore, a pretentious and needless synonym, but rather a useful word with its own peculiar meaning. If it were likely that the newer meaning would drive the original one into oblivion, the complainers would have a case. The revised Fowler fears just that contingency: "The mischief is that, if this goes on, we shall be left without a word for the true meaning of alibi." There is no reason to believe, however, that such a situation will come to pass. Lawyers and the courts continue to use the word in its juridical meaning, the press continues to reportit in that sense and the public continues to understand it in the legal context. We may with some confidence expect that the two meanings will coexist amicably.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and the journalistic use of alleged comes right out of the womb of necessity. Bierce quite rightly objected to such phrases as "the alleged murderer," saying: "One can allege a murder, but not a murderer; a crime, but not a criminal." Nevertheless, newspapers, in the interest of fairness, do not wish to state anything beyond what they know to be the fact, and, in their own self-interest, wish to set up some kind of protection, no matter how flimsy, in any legal action that might result from their characterization of a defendant. Therefore they introduce alleged as a softener. It is quite true that the word is no defense against a charge of libel. But it could be used to demonstrate an absence of malice and thus reduce or eliminate damages. Bierce recognized this reason for the use of the word and he was aware of the lack of any other single word that expresses the desired meaning, but he objected to the word nonetheless and suggested getting around it. Although such an evasion might be possible in the text of a news story, it is not usually feasible in a cramped headline. In any event, the word has been so widely and frequently used that it is recognized in all the newest dictionaries.
Two other words whose meanings have been similarly distorted are accused and suspected. An "accused spy" is not, of course, a spy who has been accused, as the words would suggest, but a person accused as a spy; a "suspected robber" is not a robber who is under suspicion but a person suspected of being a robber. But these journalistic uses of the adjectives are also now accepted, though because of their ambiguity it would be better to avoid them.

Newsmen could hardly get along without these words, but Follett could. He finds them lacking in the characteristics of a respectable adverb and adds that in general adverbs made by adding "-ly" to past participles are deplorable. Then he sets forth a formula: "The test of legitimacy for an adverb made from an adjective is that it fit the formula in (x) manner. Thus wisely = in a wise manner; forbiddingly = in a forbidding manner." Naturally, on the basis of this formula allegedly or reportedly will not wash. "In an alleged manner"? "In a reported manner"? No. But plenty of other natural English adverbs could not meet so strict a test: admittedly, formerly, mostly, hardly, presently, previously, recently, repeatedly, reputedly, shortly, supposedly. The trouble is that the test is too narrow and too rigid. Although the "-ly" suffix does in general denote "in (x) manner," that does not mean that those words must be used literally in defining the adverb. However, leaving etymology aside, we may observe that allegedly, reportedly and many other adverbs formed by adding "-ly" to past participles are recognized parts of the language and often quite useful parts. Especially to newsmen.

An editor of my acquaintance used to object to the term all-time in such a sentence as this: "The volume of trading on the Stock Exchange yesterday set an all-time high." His objection, if I understood him correctly, was that all-time includes the past, the present and the future and that of the future we can know nothing. It always seemed to me that if the argument against the word was to be presented in those philosophic terms, the answer might well be in equally philosophic terms: We do not know for sure that there is going to be any future and time can be reckoned only up tothe present second; therefore, all-time refers only to the past up to the knowable present second. That, indeed, is what a writer means by all-time. The additional argument was advanced, if my recollection still serves, that when a writer spoke of "an all-time high," all he really meant was a record and he should say just that. The trouble with that contention is that the word record often needs qualification. There are records for the current month or the current year, for the past decade or for the first Tuesday of the month provided there is a full moon. All-time is perfectly acceptable provided it is not superfluous, as it is in a sentence such as this: "Jones set an all-time pro-football record for completed passes in one season."


The Cowles book declares that alone means unaccompanied and only means there is no other. The implication is that that is that. The book gives the examples "He suffered alone" (no one with him) and "Only he suffered" (no other person), as if to say that alone cannot be used as a synonym for only. That is incorrect. Alone can indeed be used to mean only, and an interesting fact is that word order, so important in English, can often determine when the use is proper. Let's work the variations on the Cowles three-word example:
Alone, he suffered = all by himself He suffered alone = all by himself He alone suffered = and nobody else
There is nothing esoteric about this demonstration; anyone who is familiar with English instantly recognizes thedifferent meaning that is conveyed by the variation in word order. And the conclusion here is that alone can in fact be used as a synonym for only.

Purists point to the Latin alter, meaning other (of two), from which alternatives is derived, and insist that the word can apply only to a choice between two possibilities. That position, says Fowler, is a "fetish." The word has been used reputably to apply to more than two possibilities since at least the middle of the nineteenth century. Who are we to dishonor our forefathers?

It is unquestionably true that America takes in a great deal more territory than just the United States and it is also true that technically American should apply to Indians and Peruvians as well as to citizens of the United States. All of which does not alter the irreversible fact that in usage America means the United States and American means either one of its citizens or pertaining to that country. As far as the adjective is concerned, there is no word that refers exclusively to the United States. It's not a matter of presumptuousness; it's rather a linguistic fact of life.

No, a blessing will not be put on these words here. In Great Britain they are definitely disapproved; in the United States they are accepted in spoken English, but not fully accepted in good written English. But if so reputable a writer as Edmund Wilson has used anyplace, as Webster III says he has, the graffito is clearly evident. The objection to these words seems to be that a noun, place, is being usedas if it were an adverb. No objection is raised, however, to a similar use in such phrases as "no place to hide" and "a place to live." Other nouns have been used acceptably with adverbial force and it is quite possible that in a couple of decades anyplace and someplace will not provoke the slightest grimace. Let it be noted also that "I'd like to go to some place warm" is acceptable because the noun is being used properly as a noun, governed by a preposition.

In its primary meaning appreciate, used transitively, means to evaluate truly. Bierce says it does not mean to evaluate highly. Follett says it is too late to try to hold the word to its primary meaning, but grows sadly wistful about its expansion. Follett is nearer the truth than Bierce. The word has come to mean more than merely to evaluate justly; it connotes to esteem highly or even to be grateful for. So if someone says, "I appreciate your ability," accept it modestly as a compliment and don't try to correct his English.


This is another Bierce-ism. Under the heading "At for By," the following appears: "'She was shocked at his conduct.' This very common solecism is without excuse." And so, one might add, is the designation of that use as a solecism. Webster II offers as one meaning of at, this definition: "Indicating a relation of source, cause, or occasion." It then presents as an example: " ... surprised or angry at this rudeness." And Webster's New World gives the meaning "because of: as, terrified at the sight." All this is not tosay that at and by are always interchangeable. We may be surprised at Bierce's position, but we should not be cowed or intimidated at (x) him.

Literally an audience is a group of listeners, and in most instances it is well to be literal about the word. But there are, and should be, exceptions. Those in attendance at a pantomime show or a circus or a silent movie can also be called an audience and no one can validly object. However, we should not speak of an audience at a sports event or at the scene of an airplane crash. On the other hand, is there an audience for this book?

If you were to start with the word prognosis and decide that it must be derived from an actual word, in the same way that analysis is derived from analyze, and then you were to come up with the verb prognose, you would be indulging in back formation and the word you had coined would be a back formation. A back formation is a word invented in the erroneous belief that an actual existing word is derived from it. You would expect--and there are those who would contend--that such coinages must be outlawed because they are too ridiculous for words.
Examine, however, the perfectly acceptable word diagnose. It came into existence in 1861 in precisely the way that prognose was devised in the foregoing fanciful example. Since it served a useful purpose, it has won its way into respectable usage. There are many others like that: scavenge, grovel, laze, peddle, drowse. Other back formations linger in an indeterminate state between reluctant and full acceptance: enthuse, commentate. Still others are purelyjocular or otherwise not yet acceptable: burgle, emote, gruntled, butle.
One cannot rule out back formations as such. Much depends on whether there is a genuine need for them and whether reputable users of the language employ them.

Some purists who seem to think that the primary literal meaning of a word is the only acceptable one rule out the use of balance in the sense of remainder or rest. This is too rigid an attitude. The bookkeeping term may be legitimately extended when there is a real parallel to bookkeeping--that is, when two amounts are involved. Thus, it is acceptable to say, "Of the $150,000,000 appropriation, $100,000,000 will go for school construction and the balance for salaries." It is not entirely acceptable, however, to say, "The pupils were excused for the balance of the day."

Most newspaper editors recoil in horror if a reporter writes about a banquet given by the Volunteer Firemen's Battalion of East Dudsville. And they are right to do so. The frozen pizza pie main course, the dreary beer and the drearier speeches by the Captain and the Head Selectman do not qualify such an occasion as a banquet. That does not mean, however, that the word must never, never be used. True enough, it is most properly applied to a gala, sumptuous feast of food and drink accompanied by elaborate entertainment, speeches and ceremony. But these days the sumptuousness of the food and drink is less important than it once was, so that if the occasion is elaborate enough, the fact that the entree is embalmed chicken might not disqualify the affair. A four-course dinner in a prestigious hotel attendedby the Governor and at least one Councilman (there will probably be more if the Governor is there) might rank as a banquet. The word should not be ruled out. But in general the editors are right.

If Bierce had had his way, the past tense of bet would always be betted. He would also have had us use the "-ed" past tense for wet, wed, quit and "others that are misconjugated." He has not had his way in any of these instances and is not likely to have. Americans often seem to prefer short forms when there is a choice, and bet as the past tense is far more common--and just as valid--as betted. (But see FIT, FITTED.)

Grammar teachers have long been insistent that between should be used only when two elements are involved and that if more than two are involved the preposition should be among. By and large and for the purposes of the great majority of pupils that position was correct. Indeed, the very derivation of the word suggests that the "two" idea is inherent in it: The "tween" has a kinship to the word "twain." But just between you and me and the lamppost, exceptions to the rule should be noted.
What the careful writer must ask himself is not how many elements are involved but rather what is the relationship they bear to one another. If the relationship involves sets of two, the word between is appropriate, no matter how many elements are involved. For instance, it is proper to speak of a treaty between the four powers that have nuclear weapons because the treaty binds every power to each of the three others. Among would not be improper, but it is a vaguer, more general word. Likewise it would be proper tosay that a triangular plot of land lies between three points and not entirely proper to say it lies among three points. As another example, there is a helicopter service between (not among) Kennedy, La Guardia and Newark Airports. And a speaker could quite correctly say to two companions, "Let's keep this a secret between ourselves," meaning, if you want to analyze it, between himself and A, between himself and B and between A and B.

One editor I know objects to a sentence such as this: "Legislation to keep the dinosaur extinct has bipartisan support." His point is that partisan means something like blindly favorable to a cause and that therefore bipartisan must mean the same kind of unreasoning devotion to a cause by two parties. His premise is correct, but his conclusion is faulty, because the meaning of partisan changes when it acquires the prefix. Perhaps this does not seem logical, but it is the fact. Bipartisan means merely representative of two sides. If he prefers the word bipartite, he is at liberty to use it, but he must not censure the rest of us for using bipartisan.

This is another journalistic superstition: the notion that a person can have only one birthday, namely, the day on which he is born. Those gripped by the superstition insist that a subsequent recurrence of the date must be called a birthday anniversary. Utter nonsense. Birthday has meant either the actual day of birth or an anniversary of that day just about as long as the word has been in existence.

The objection to bogus, meaning spurious or counterfeit,is that the word is slang. It was indeed a cant word when it first cropped up in the United States a century and a half ago, but it has since won its way into reputable usage. As a noun it is printers' jargon referring to type that duplicates material already in printable form and that is set in a newspaper composing room only because of a union rule. See also FAKE.

Originally a low word meaning a person who commits sodomy, bugger is now an acceptable term used humorously or even affectionately to describe a fellow, a chap, a guy. The original coarse meaning has either been forgotten by or is not known to users of the word, just as the origins of nuts, bollix and jerk have largely faded into obscurity.

Although some dictionaries label burglarize colloquial, they very likely will not continue to do so for long. The reason is that the word fills a need; there is no other way to describe the action short of a cumbersome phrase such as "break into to commit theft." On the other hand, with burglarize well on its way to acceptability, the verb burgle, a back formation from burglar, will undoubtedly continue to be labeled colloquial and humorous. Who needs it?

Undoubtedly there are those who, because they know that the root of cavalcade is a word meaning horse, would restrict the term to a procession on horseback. But they are too literal. Now that horses have become rare outside of racetracks, the word has, in a way, outlived them; it is applied to any ceremonial procession.
Oddly enough, folk etymologists apparently thought the"-cade" part of the word meant a procession and so they then came up with the word motorcade, meaning a procession of automobiles. Proceeding from that point, other folk etymologists coined the word aquacade, which, though not exactly a procession of swimmers, was an exhibition by swimmers. The first thing you know, someone is going to decide that a procession of ten years is a decade.

If a newspaper reporter interviews a cigar-smoking subject, the chances are that at some point in his story he will have the subject chomping on his cigar. When the word appeared in one newspaper in two proximate stories on a single day, a reader wrote to the editor asking whether people didn't ever just puff on their cigars and saying that he could not find the word chomp in his desk dictionary. The word does appear in five larger dictionaries, but only grudgingly; in each instance it is dismissed as a variant of champ. In a way this is odd. The word is undoubtedly a variant of champ, but by giving it the backs of their hands the dictionaries suggest that it is uncommon and that champ is the normal and dominant word. True enough, a horse (as well as an impatient person) "champs at the bit," but once you have said that you have just about exhausted the uses of champ. No one ever champs on a cigar or on his walnuts or on his well-done toast. Nor does he chump on it--five dictionaries give that as another variant. The dominant word these days is chomp. And the suspicion is strong that the dictionaries have been looking over one another's shoulders.

As time-savers and breath-savers, clipped words defy the pedants and win their way to respectability. This has been true for a long time--witness piano from pianoforte andcello from violoncello--and it is even truer today when technical words seem to grow longer and more complicated and the patience of speakers grows shorter--witness strep for streptococcus and recap for recapitulation. Thus, anyone who tries to battle against phone, taxi, cab, auto, plane or copter may be assured that he is waging a losing fight.

On many newspapers the use of Congressman to denote a member of the lower house in Washington is verboten. It is true that dictionaries are just about unanimous in defining the word as "a member of Congress" (or "a congress"), but they are also unanimous in going on to say "especially of the House of Representatives." The fact is that although a Senator is a member of Congress, no one would dream of referring to him as a Congressman, and still less would one do so in his waking moments. Therefore, Representative may be a trifle more precise, but Congressman is wholly acceptable.

As a verb meaning to communicate with, contact has drawn objections from conservatives. The only ground on which valid objection can be registered to it is that it is an overworked fad word. But it is by no means unusual for a noun to be verbed. Moreover, the word is often useful either because it replaces a longer locution, such as "get in touch with" (which, by the way, is precisely what contact means), or because it is intentionally less specific than some other word such as phone, write, call on, meet or find. The objectors to contact are fighting a losing battle and may as well surrender.

Using a couple of in the indefinite sense of a few or several is frowned upon by judges of reputable writing; dictionaries tend to label it "informal." But that does not rule out the use of the phrase in the exact sense of two, as in "A couple, of horses were nuzzling each other in the pasture." Let it be noted also that what is definitely substandard is the omission of the word "of" in the phrase. You cannot say "a couple horses" and retain the esteem of your cultivated fellows.

"Only God can create something," an old-time editor must have told his intimidated hirelings, some of whom went through the country spreading that gospel. The linguistic fact is, however, that to anyone but the most fundamentalist zealot create means simply to originate or bring into being and it is something that can be done by mortal man.

It is true that criticism does not necessarily entail an adverse appraisal. That is especially true when one is speaking about criticism of plays, paintings or books. Still a coordinate meaning of criticize is to appraise unfavorably or to censure, and that is by far the more common meaning. If we talk about criticism of a play, the judgment could go either way, but if we talk about criticism of the school system, we are thinking of disapproval; if we speak of critics of the arts, we are referring to appraisers, but if we speak of critics of the Administration, we are referring to disparagers.

One book on usage says that the use of culminate as atransitive verb is "a popular error," adding that the word is an intransitive verb only. That dictum would rule out such a sentence as, "His election culminated six months of strenuous campaigning." Although the OUD calls the transitive use rare, that use is nothing newfangled; it dates back to 1659. Virtually all other dictionaries find it completely acceptable and so do hosts of skilled writers.

There are those who tend to imagine a distinction between words where none exists or where the distinction is so minute as to defy definition. People who ask about the difference between somebody and someone fall into that category. And so do those--and there are a few--who inquire about the difference between cultured and cultivated. Both words pertain to urbanity, development of the intellect and aesthetic appreciation. It may be that cultivated contains a faint connotation of the process by which culture is achieved, but for all practical purposes the two words mean the same thing.

The original meaning of decimate was to kill one in ten and it referred to the punishment meted out to Roman legions for cowardice or mutiny whereby those to be put to death were chosen by lot. About the same proportion of present-day users of the language take one look at that "deci-" prefix and decide that the word simply must refer to one-tenth or it is being misused. Such insistence is no more valid than to demand that testify be used only where there is some reference to the testicles. Actually the broader use of decimate to mean the destroying of a large part dates back to the mid 1600's and is completely reputable. The only thing to guard against is employing the word in connectionwith some other numerical proportion, as in this ridiculous sentence: "Half the corn crop was decimated by parasites."

Sentries at the door of the empty barn would have us restrict demean to the sense of to behave or comport (oneself). But the use of the word in the sense of to debase or degrade is far more common than the other one and established its credentials as far back as the start of the seventeenth century. Most likely the secondary meaning arose from a mistaking of the "-mean" part as denoting lowness and the drawing of an analogy with debase, or perhaps from confusion with bemean. But whatever the origin, the horse is now out of the barn and thriving in green pastures.

The principal meaning of diction is the selection and use of words or the manner of expression. But this fact does not rule out, as some purists would like to do, the companion meaning of mode of speaking or enunciation. Indeed, since the word traces back to a Latin root meaning to say, the companion definition is obviously legitimate and it is well established.

Diplomat has always been the preferred form in the United States in referring to one skilled in or engaging in diplomacy. In Britain, however, diplomatist was, until fairly recently, the more common version, and Anglophiles did their damnedest to foist it on their fellow Yankees. The trend of things is reflected in Fowler's Modern English Usage. The original text said: "The longer English formation is preferable to the un-English -mat ... ." The secondedition, revised by Sir Ernest Gowers and published in 1965, says: "The shorter formation, standard in U.S., is increasingly used in Britain." First thing you know, they'll be drinking bourbon in London.

A back formation from donation, the verb donate reared its ugly head in the nineteenth century as a formal synonym for give. Ayres branded it an abomination, and other authorities denounced it. Still it has survived and won recognition. It is primarily an Americanism, but it is used to some extent in Britain, too. Although one may reasonably ask, "Why not use give or grant or bestow or present?" one may not reasonably say, "Don't use donate." It may be noted, moreover, that in at least one context none of those synonyms will do: An actor, for example, donates his services at a charity performance; he doesn't give them or grant them or anything else. See BACK FORMATIONS.

What some pseudoscholars, learned in French, if not in English, would wish us to say is double entente. That, however, is ancient French and the modern English phrase--modern, that is, since the seventeenth century--is double entendre, signifying a double meaning, one sense of which is slightly blue.

Some authorities, including Fowler and Gowers, maintain that when the verb doubt is used it should be followed in an affirmative sentence by whether or if ("The doctor doubted whether the patient would live") and in a negative sentence by that or but that ("The doctor did not doubt that the case was hopeless"). With the second preceptthere is no argument. The first, concerning affirmative sentences, is subject to at least one exception, however. In affirmative statements that may be used when the intention is to express unbelief rather than a kind of negative uncertainty of opinion. Uncertainty: "He doubted whether the bill would be passed." Unbelief: "He doubted that the bill would be passed."

James Gordon Bennett cautioned his reporters and editors not to use during for in because "during means throughout the continuance of." That caution has been long-lived enough so that you will still hear it in a few newspaper offices. Bennett's definition is, to be sure, the original meaning of the word, but modern dictionaries give the additional meaning of at some time in the course of. During is not only proper but indeed preferable to in when used in such a sentence as, "We played tennis twice during our stay at the resort."

Is it a four-engined plane or a four-engine plane? Is it a teen-aged girl or a teen-age girl? If any observer of English usage besides me has been bothered by this problem, I have seen no evidence of it, and quite honestly I see no reason why anyone should be bothered by it. Nevertheless, it is a safe bet that at some time in the near or distant future someone will uncover a bugaboo about it.
There seem to be no rules about when to use or not use the "-ed" ending; it is a matter of, shall we say, idiom. In the questions posed above, either form is correct, and that is true of a good many compounds. However, most nouns formed into adjectives take the "-ed." But there are some that never do: loose-leaf, paperback, three-ring, five-room.If there is anything even approximating a rule that can be set forth, it is that a nounal adjective describing a characteristic of an animate creature in most instances ends in "-ed." Thus we have a left-handed man, a yellow-bellied sap-sucker, a grim-faced statesman, and a floppy-eared dog. It is true that we also have a barefoot boy, but despite that Whittier, but not necessarily better, phrase, barefooted is just about as common. We also speak of a bareback rider, but that phrase does not describe a personal characteristic of the rider; it's not his back that is bare, but the horse's. And anyone who says otherwise is a barefaced liar.

In the sense of each of two, either has been criticized by some authorities. The original Fowler, for example, says: "The sense 'each of the two' as in 'the room has a fireplace at e. end,' is archaic & should be avoided except in verse or in special contexts." Gowers, who later revised and updated Fowler, says in his own Complete Plain Words that there does not seem to be any good ground for Fowler's dictum. As a matter of fact, the meaning each of two was the original one in Old English, as Fowler undoubtedly knew since he classed it as archaic. That it was the original sense should not invalidate it; indeed, it should reinforce the fact that it is still in wide and reputable use to make the meaning completely acceptable.

Both Bierce and Fowler were almost made ill by electrocute. Said Ambrose: "To one having even an elementary knowledge of Latin grammar this word is no less than disgusting, and the thing meant by it is felt to be altogether too good for the word's inventor." Said Henry: "This barbarism jars the unhappy latinist's nerves much morecruelly than the operation denoted jars those of its victim." The word may be tainted by bastardy when viewed as a Latin derivation, but it is legitimate as a centaur word blending electricity and execute. When Sir Ernest Gowers got around to revising and updating Fowler he recognized this and said that "as it is established, protest is idle." It became established, of course, because when the New York State Legislature approved this form of carrying out the death penalty in 1888 and when the method was first put to use at Auburn state prison in 1890 there was no other word to describe it. And no substitute has come forward since. Fortunately, as things are going these days both the word and the operation it denotes seem destined to become obsolete. But there will always be accidental electrocutions, of course.

In the entry headed THE (as in "Motherwell, the painter") in the Spooks of Style section there is a footnote directing the reader to this entry. Whether you arrived here as a result of that direction or whether you just chanced on this page, let it be confessed at once that there is no such word as ellipsize, so that its appearance here provides an opening for another taboo by the witches who distill such taboos. But how the language has survived all these centuries without a verb denoting the creation of a grammatical ellipsis staggers the imagination. As was noted in the entry mentioned, when you speak of "Motherwell, the painter," you are ellipsizing "famous" or "noted" or some other such word. It won't do to let the guardians of the language say, "Why ellipsizing? You are omitting the word." But omit usually has the connotation of deliberately not including something. In ellipsis, however, there is no deliberation or intention. When you say, "The girl I love," you are not deliberatelyor intentionally dropping "whom" after "girl." When you write, "Three persons were killed and two injured," you are not deliberately or intentionally not inserting "were" after "two." Nor does anyone in either instance expect you to insert those words. In most such instances the missing words do not even enter the mind of either the writer or the reader. Therefore, the words have not been omitted; they have rather not been inserted. In short, they have been ellipsized.

Engineers are rather touchy about the indiscriminate use of their professional designation--and not without cause. In an age in which we have insurance engineers, bakery engineers, plumbing engineers and maybe, for all anyone knows, hot dog engineers, the gentlemen who take prescribed courses and are awarded licenses have a legitimate complaint. But occasionally the complaints are illegitimate, as, for example, an objection to calling the man who runs a railroad locomotive an engineer. In this country that fellow has been termed an engineer since at least 1839. In Britain, of course, he is an engine driver, but there, as well as here, the man who manages a ship's engines is an engineer.

On the off chance that some present-day reader may have come into possession of a little book called "Slips of Tongue and Pen," by J. H. Long, M.A., LL.B., published in 1896, a word should be said about et cetera and its abbreviation etc. Mr. Long says that "Etc. means 'and others of a different kind'" and he goes on to contrast it with and so forth, which, he says, means "and others of the same kind." In so saying Mr. Long has made a slip of either tongue orpen. The truth is that etc. connotes "and others of the same kind."
There are three things about etc. that authorities on usage are agreed upon. One is that it is not appropriate to any kind of literary writing. A second is that it should not be used if a "such as" precedes it, since it then introduces a redundancy. A third is that it should not be preceded by and because the et means just that.

In its strict meaning, eve denotes the evening or the day before a holiday or some other special day, and there are strict people, including some editors, who would confine the word to that meaning. But, as is true of so many other words, this one may be used in a metaphorical as well as a literal sense. The only limitation is the need for discretion in employing the figurative meaning. If schools are scheduled to open on Sept. 7 and the teachers on Sept. 6 threaten a strike, it is of course proper to write, "On the eve of the opening of the schools the teachers threatened a strike." That is an instance of the literal use of the word. However, if the teachers on Aug. 10 threaten that strike, the sentence would not be proper, because the word could not be taken literally, nor could it be taken figuratively since the context is too commonplace, too matter-of-fact, to support a metaphor. On the other hand, in writing about the signing of the Soviet-Nazi nonaggression treaty on Aug. 24, 1939, preceding the beginning of World War II on Sept. 1, it would not be inappropriate to say, "On the eve of the outbreak of the war the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed a nonaggression treaty." Obviously no flat rule is possible for determining when the figurative use is proper and when it is not. In general the main event should be large enough--notnecessarily world-shaking, for it could be a birth or a death --to warrant metaphorical treatment.


Some editors used to command their headline writers to attach the prefix ex- only to the principal noun in a phrase of two or more words. Thus they would have to write "Army Ex-Captain" or "British Ex-Official." Perhaps this bugaboo derived from Fowler, where it is written in the original edition, "the ex-Tory Solicitor-General for Scotland (i.e. the Solicitor-General who formerly was but no longer is a Tory)," and in the revised edition, "Ex-Prime Minister suggests a minister who is past his prime." To say that it takes a deal of perversity to derive those meanings from the hyphenated phrases is not to deny that they are a wee bit awkward. But the solution is not the one decreed by those editors; otherwise the first thing you know we will be reading about a "lightweight ex-champion" or a "female ex-impersonator." The difficulty in either version lies in the illogicality of coupling the ex- to the part when the intention is to couple it to the whole. Of the two choices the preferable one is to put the ex- at the head of the phrase. That advice is addressed to headline writers. For the rest of us the best course is to change ex- to former.

One school of thought (if that is the right word) didn't like the use of execute to mean put to death. The contention was that it is the sentence that is executed, not the man. It is true that execute originally meant--and in one of its definitions still means--to carry out, to put into effect. Yet in the sense of put to death, execute was in use, though rare,according to the OED, as far back as 1483. Today that is a principal meaning of the word.

A letter writer asserts that an executive is one who makes policy and has the authority in an organization to see that it is carried out. Everyone else, says he, is an administrator, a supervisor or something else. That may be true in his organization, but it is not generally true. The word is from a Latin root meaning to follow out or put into effect; therefore an executive, strictly speaking, is one who executes or puts into effect a policy or program, although he may also have something to do with framing it. Anyhow, in the business usage of today an executive seems to be anyone above the level of office boy.

Undoubtedly in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred a witness to an occurrence is someone who has seen it. Therefore, some editors have said, eyewitness is a redundant word and it should be consigned to the dustbin. But hold; let us not be too precipitate in the dumping process. To begin with, there are such things as "earwitnesses." In addition, there are in legal cases witnesses whose testimony concerns neither what they saw nor what they heard. Therefore, there is sometimes need to specify eyewitness. Frowning on the word is a species of nit-picking.

It is true that fail should not be used to express a mere "not" idea as in "He failed to enjoy his dinner" or in "The Soviet Union has failed to cross the border for fear of touching off a nuclear war." It is not true, however, to assert, as one writer does, that "failure carries always the sense of endeavor;when there has been no endeavor there is no failure." That narrows the meaning of the word far too much. In addition to presupposing a goal or an intention, fail also may presuppose a requirement or an expectation. Thus it is perfectly proper to write, "The sentry failed to sound an alarm" or "He was scheduled to speak at the meeting, but failed to appear."

Both as a noun and as a verb, fake, which a decade ago was classed as colloquial, is now in reputable use. Likewise, bogus, an Americanism that was originally slang, has won complete acceptance. See also BOGUS.

FAULT (verb)
Such a sentence as "One cannot fault his performance" is acceptable to only 52 per cent of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. The dictionary says the use of fault as a transitive verb "has been much censured in its more recent vogue." It is difficult to see why this should be so, especially since that use has been in the language since the sixteenth century, though admittedly it has been considered "rare." In the sense of to find a flaw in, the word is not readily replaceable, nor is it unusual to find a noun used as a verb. Why, then, all the fuss? Three other recent dictionaries can't see why, any more than this taboo destroyer can.

Four variants coexist: faze and phrase (both pronounced just the way they look), feeze (pronounced with either a long "a" or a long "e") and feaze (also pronounced both ways). A few dictionaries classify all four as either colloquial, informal or dialectal. Other more recent ones admit the words togood standing. As for pronunciation, the preference here is for faze, because that is what speakers usually say. As for the standing of the word, the opinion here is that it is legitimate, chiefly because it provides a meaning that synonyms don't quite match. The synonym that comes closest is daunt, but that has too high-flown a sound for most contexts. You would not find it appropriate to write, "The champ took two heavy smashes on his chin, but they didn't seem to daunt him a bit."

To say that "the newspaper featured an interview with the President" used to get backs up wherever there were backs burdened with maintaining the purity of the language. But, as is so often the case, if a noun used as a verb serves a real need, such as employment of a single word instead of a phrase, the new meaning gains entry into the list of the legitimate.

There are some who would restrict the word feel to some relationship to the tactile sense or to the emotions, sentiments or sensitivity. They would rule it out as a synonym for think, believe or consider. In its foggy past, feel derives from a root meaning to grope. That should provide a clue to its proper use: it denotes thinking based on some interior awareness. Therefore, the rulers-out should not be allowed to rule out; nevertheless the word should not be used indiscriminately. It may be quite proper to write, "The jury felt that the defendant was guilty," but not, "The dean felt that students should attend classes punctually."

Here is another word that brings to arms the members ofthe OMIOM academy (Original Meaning Is the Only Meaning). They contend that fey properly means doomed to die and that anything else is a perversion of the word. Actually the word has had an unusual progression in which the doomed idea was only one step. It moved from cowardly, hostile, to outlawed and therefore doomed, thence and hence to having a sense of imminent death, then and therefore to otherworldly and thus to visionary, "tetched in the head" or slightly daft. One meaning of the word, of course, remains doomed to die, but words, like men and trees, grow and sometimes change, and fey has taken on new, additional aspects over the years.

For some reason, there have been grammarians in the past who have objected to firstly, though they have never objected to secondly, thirdly or seven-hundred sixteenthly. Even a recent liberal book, Jerome Shostak's Concise Dictionary of Current American Usage, says that "firstly is at present accepted only on the colloquial level." Oddly enough, the older Webster II is not that restrictive. "Many," it says, "prefer the word first in this use"--and lets it go at that. There is no logic to the arbitrary proscription; if secondly is acceptable, so should firstly be. And it is. However, it should be noted that first is as much an adverb as firstly. Why not, then, use the simpler sequence first, second, third, which incidentally will obviate the need to say thirty-fourthly?

No doubt you have seen the entry BET, BETTED, in which Mr. Bierce was spanked for insisting on using the "regular" ("-ed") form for the past tense and participle form of several verbs. If you have, this is a good place to forget it--butfor this entry only. Although in ordinary speech it may be acceptable to say, "The role fit him like a glove," in careful writing it would have to be fitted. The same goes for befit and outfit.

FIX (noun)
Four nounal uses of fix have come into being and they represent different gradations of reputability. In the sense of the ascertained position of an airplane or ship the word is standard. In the sense of a predicament there is some disagreement among dictionaries, but the latest ones rank it either as acceptable or at worst informal. In the sense of a case of bribery or collusion two dictionaries find it standard and one labels it slang. The vote here would go for the ranking of standard (which is inevitable sooner or later in any case) because it is a necessary word for which there is no substitute. In the sense of an injection of heroin the unanimous opinion is that the word is slang.

FIX (verb)
An all-purpose word, the verb fix has something like two dozen meanings and though most of them constitute loose or imprecise usage there is no reason to banish them. The Latin root of the word means fasten, and most of the present-day senses are related to the notion of establishing, securing, giving stability, repairing or rendering definition, a notion that is not too remote from that of fasten. However, the line might well be drawn somewhere. A good place to draw it is around the neck of the man who writes, "I'll fix you for this" or, still worse, "I'm fixing to go to Chicago tomorrow." In general, though many meanings of fix may be tolerable, it is often preferable to use a less nebulous, more precise word.

Following began life as a participle and some grammarians insist it must stay that way: "Following the guide, the hikers trudged through a thick wood." More and more, however, the word has taken on the aspect of a preposition: "Following the bomb explosion, three men were arrested." Is this, as some maintain, a dangling participle? Not at all. Many participles have graduated to the "absolute" class or the prepositional class: "Barring accidents, the trip should take an hour," "Speaking of flowers, how do you like this orchid?" (See DANGLING AND NONDANGLING PARTICIPLES in Syntax Scarecrows.) Following has graduated to this class. The updated Fowler reluctantly concedes the point, but tries to attach a string to it thus: "Its prepositional use ... can be justified only if it implies something more than a merely temporal connexion between two events, something more than 'after' but less than 'in consequence of.' It can do so in the newspaper report 'Following the disturbances in Trafalgar Square last night, six men will appear at Bow Street this morning.' ..." This is a fine distinction to make and it is safe to say that writers are not likely to make it. The Fowler text points out that often following is merely a formal word for after, implying that the simpler word would be preferable. No dissent here.

This was another Bierce bugaboo. Here is what he said about the phrase: "'Washington wrote the following.' The following what? Put in the noun. 'The following animals are ruminants.' It is not the animals that follow, but their names." The first half of the passage concerns the transformation of an adjective into a noun. It may well be that in Bierce's day the transformation of the adjective followinginto a noun had not yet been accomplished. But it assuredly has been accomplished in our day. Nor is such a conversion unusual; it is a process that has been going on in the language since the earliest times. The word adjective itself is an example, as are general, private, local, express, documentary, spectacular, sedative, prophylactic and a host of others. As to the second half of the Bierce pronunciamento, it is best dismissed as pure nit-picking.

The point is sometimes made that since ninety-nine one-hundredths is as much a fraction as one-tenth, we should not use the word to describe a small part of something. The point is pedantic. Through generations of usage fraction has taken on the meaning of a small part. Still, in the interest of precision it is better for the careful writer to say exactly what he means.

Strictly speaking in the sports sense, a front runner is one who does well in a race when he is in the lead (with the implication that he doesn't do so well when he is behind). But in a derived and perhaps more commonly used sense, a front runner is simply one who is in the lead in a political or other kind of contest. There is no reason why the term cannot be extended legitimately to take in this secondary sense.
Pinch hitter is another sports term that is occasionally the subject of a caution from the strict speakers. In baseball, where the term was coined, a pinch hitter is a player sent in to bat, not merely as a replacement, but as a batsman that the manager thinks will do better than the man he is replacing. In a derived sense a pinch hitter is anyone hastily substituted for the regular performer and usually notexpected to be even as good: an alderman asked to make a speech in place of a Senator who broke his arm reaching into a pork barrel or a stage manager recruited to play the part of the clergyman in place of the actor who showed up drunk. Here, too, there is no objection to the extended meaning, aside from the fact that it is a tired old cliche.

The authorities who write about have got agree that it is more common in colloquial, i.e., spoken, language than in literary language. Bierce, however, confuses the issue by citing the example, "I have got a good horse," which, he says, "directs attention rather to the act of getting than to the state of having, and represents the capture as recently completed." The trouble here is that in spoken language the statement "I have got a good horse" is about as unlikely to be uttered as "Why did I not listen to you?" What a speaker would almost certainly say in the horse example is "I've got a good horse," and that version nullifies Bierce's comment.

Perhaps the revised Fowler is more illuminating on the subject: "'Have got' for 'possess' has long been good colloquial English, but its claim to be good literary English is not universally conceded. The OED calls it 'familiar,' the COD 'colloquial.'It has, however, the authority of Dr. Johnson ('He has got a good estate' does not always mean that he has acquired, but barely that he possesses it), and has long been used by many good writers. Philip Ballard in a spirited defence, citing not only Johnson but also Shakespeare, Swift and Ruskin, concludes, 'The only inference we can draw is that it is not a real error but a counterfeit invented by schoolmasters.' Acceptance of this verdict is here recommended."
Here, too. When an American uses have got, or morecommonly the contracted form of have, he is referring to mere possession. When he uses have gotten, he is referring to the act of acquisition. (See GOTTEN.) That does not mean, however, that in written English either form is necessarily desirable; both have a decidedly informal flavor.

One turn-of-the-century stickler said that gotten for got had gone out of good use. Whether it had even in his day is dubious, but as of today in America it has not. It may not be the best usage, but it is surely acceptable. In Britain this is not so. The British still frown on the word and in doing so have deprived themselves of a linguistic distinction that is perhaps not indispensable but is sometimes useful. On both sides of the Atlantic a person would be likely to say, "The candidate has got the votes to win," meaning he has possession of them. (Admittedly, on either side of the ocean omission of got would lend a slight literary improvement.) But whereas an American might say, "The candidate has gotten the votes to win," meaning he has acquired them, the Briton would feel compelled to substitute acquired or obtained or garnered or collected or something else for gotten. Notice that we have been treating here of spoken English. In written English substitution of the more precise word is to be preferred.

A letter writer tells me: "I have been taught that the expression grammatical error is a contradiction in terms. If something is grammatical, it is correct in so far as the grammar is concerned. Is that right?" No, it is wrong. If a specter can be a chestnut, this supposed error is one. It appears as an entry in at least two books on usage, and this one makes three. The word grammatical can mean in conformity withthe rules of grammar, but a much more common meaning is pertaining to grammar and that is the sense in which it is used and understood in the cited phrase. There is no more reason to question this phrase than there is to question the combination ill health.

In designating a man about to put his head in the marital halter, groom is less common in Britain than it is in this country, although the OED dates its use to 1604. In either country it is regarded as unrefined, perhaps because of its association with a manservant who cares for horses. But just as the use of horses in everyday life has dwindled, so the obloquy attaching to groom has diminished. Nevertheless, bridegroom is still to be preferred in reputable writing.

Trouble-trackers have been known to object to grow smaller on the basis that if something grows it gets larger, not smaller. They may be safely ignored, nay, scorned. Just about every dictionary gives as one meaning of grow to become.

Some newspaper editors have objected to describing persons who patronize hotels or restaurants as guests, on the ground that they pay for the hospitality received. There is nothing in the derivation of the word or in the way in which it has been used over the years to support the notion that a guest must be nonpaying. The underlying idea of the word is stranger, not freeloader.

Is it all right to say, "He works in a healthy outdoor occupation"? No matter how much the purists kick and scream, the answer would have to be yes. Strictly speaking, healthy denotes good physical condition and healthful applies to that which is conducive to that condition. But there can be no doubt that healthy has taken over both meanings in reputable usage. Anyone who wishes to speak strictly is at liberty to do so, but he is not at liberty to rebuke those who choose to use healthy in both senses. A third sense of the word, however, is open to question. The meaning sizable or vigorous, as in "He got a healthy kick in the pants," is approved in a couple of dictionaries but has an unmistakable flavor of slang about it.

Despite the resistance of some authorities, such as Fowler and Partridge, hectic in the sense of feverish or fully packed and excited is now admitted to the ranks of standard words. In its primary meaning it pertains to a wasting physical condition like tuberculosis, but its association with chronic fever led to its application to feverish conditions and continual excitement, activity, confusion.

Some obscure editor on some obscure newspaper, speaking out of an obscure mind, once must have told his hired hands not to write, "Jones is 6 feet 2 inches in height." His reason remains just as obscure as everything else about him. Perhaps he believed that one does not think of a man in terms of height, as one does a mountain or a building, or perhaps he was merely intent on saving a word by using tall instead of in height. In any event, his prejudice is largelyforgotten these days. The most that can be said is that tall is more commonly used.

Here we have a comedy of errors. The King James Bible, in Genesis ii, 18, referring to the need for providing a better half for Adam, has the Lord saying, "I will make him an help meet for him." Help here meant a person who affords assistance and meet meant suitable. Early dictionaries, committing Error No. 1, hyphenated the two words to produce help-meet. Later users dropped the hyphen and married the two words. Then came Error No. 2 when some writers apparently thought that helpmeet didn't make any sense--which it didn't--and decided the proper word must be helpmate. And so today we are stuck with two corrupted words. Of the two, helpmate is the more common, though helpmeet cannot be tagged archaic, as Partridge classifies it.

Originally slang, the verb hijack, together with the nouns hijacking and hijacker, may now be considered a standard English word or something very close to it. It came into common use in the 1920's during Prohibition, when it meant to steal bootleg liquor or other contraband in transit. When Prohibition was killed, the word remained alive because it conveyed a meaning not provided by any other word. Indeed, it entered upon a broader career: It now denotes the illegal taking over of a land, sea or air conveyance or its contents in transit. Sometimes its meaning is further expanded to include action beyond the takeover, as in "The plane was hijacked to Cuba." The word has achieved respectability, even though the deeds it describes have not. Ithas even had an offspring: The seizure of airplanes has introduced, now and again, the word skyjack.

For many years I thought I must be suffering from hallucinations when I recalled editors who objected to the use of hold in relation to a dinner, a benefit or a meeting. In one moment I was certain an editor had once said that to hold a dinner meant that it was not thrown up, but in the next moment I was equally certain that I must have imagined it because the contention was too absurd. Not long ago, however, Roy H. Copperud reported in his column in Editor & Publisher that he had received a letter from a P.R. man saying: "Some 50 years ago when I began newspapering, I worked for a managing editor who was--happily--a stickler for style. One of his rules was that to hold is to grasp. In other words, a meeting is never held. Neither is a fair, an election, a dinner, and on and on." So I was not imagining things after all. But I wish I had been. The verb hold, which, like fix and get, is a word of many parts, is completely acceptable in the sense of celebrate, conduct, observe or arrange for, and has been for a good long time.

Sentimentalists contend that what the builder constructs is a house and that the occupants then make it a home. But in spite of the sentimentalists that distinction has all but disappeared. Real estate operators selling houses lure prospective buyers with the word home, and prospective buyers go along with that designation because they picture themselves as purchasing not structures but abodes. On the other hand, when they get around to selling their structures they are more likely to say, "I am selling my house," than to say,"I am selling my home." In most uses, however, the words are interchangeable.
In the adverbial sense of at home the British frown on the word home. They do not say, "She is remaining home tonight," as Americans often do, but insist on at home. Nevertheless, they do not boggle at saying, "She is going home." They do seem inconsistent.

Some conservative newspaper society pages rule out the use of honeymoon and replace it with wedding trip, apparently on the basis of Bierce's objection to the word. "Moon here means month," said he, "so it is incorrect to say, 'a week's honeymoon,' or, 'Their honeymoon lasted a year.'" Moon does bear a relationship to month, but the etymological evidence suggests that honeymoon originally referred not to that period but rather to the waxing and waning of the affection of the newlyweds like the waxing and waning of the moon. Be that as it may, there is no reason to be as literal-minded about the word as Bierce was. For centuries it has referred to the holiday spent just after marriage, regardless of the time period. Literal-mindedness of that kind would forbid the common figurative extension of the word to mean a new period of harmony, as in "the President's honeymoon with Congress." Heaven forfend. Presidents have enough trouble with Congress without denying them a honeymoon.

On the door of her home in The Springs on Long Island, N.Y., Jean Stafford, Pulitzer Prize writer, has the following notice posted: "The word HOPEFULLY must not be misused on these premises. Violators will be humiliated." Onecan sympathize with Miss Stafford's attitude. In its logical and primary meaning hopefully denotes in a hopeful manner. And yet ... And yet ... More and more the word is being used--and no doubt overused--to mean it is to be hoped. The reason is evident: No other word in English expresses that thought. In a single word we can say it is regrettable that (regrettably) or it is fortunate that (fortunately ) or it is lucky that (luckily), and it would be comforting if there were such a word as hopably or, as suggested by Follett, hopingly, but there isn't. And so writers produce such sentences as, "Negotiations have now begun, hopefully with peace as the outcome." The question then arises whether the arbiters of usage would not be well advised to yield. In this instance nothing is to be lost--the word would not be destroyed in its primary meaning--and a useful, nay necessary, term is to be gained. There are plenty of precedents in English for the acceptance of "distorted" meanings of words: internecine, fruition, alibi, nice and shambles, to cite a few. The newer dictionaries are beginning to open their arms to the "incorrect" meaning of hopefully (with the strange exception of the permissive Webster III, which ducks the issue altogether). The American Heritage says in its first edition that the new meaning is acceptable to "only 44 per cent" of its usage panel, but there are indications that that figure will rise in the next edition. Webster's New World in its Second College Edition says of the latter-day meaning, "regarded by some as loose usage, but widely current." And the Random House accepts it without question. The word is in common use and perhaps in reputable use and one wonders whether attempts to resist it are not exercises in futility. It would be well to keep in mind Louis Kro-nenberger's perceptive passage about published guides to usage: "Handbooks clearly have their place, and when theyput their finger in the dike rather than bid the waves stand still, have a very real value as well." 1 Note especially the phrase about bidding the waves stand still. (P.S. At the moment of going to press Miss Stafford made it clear she was not giving in.)

The OED labels human used as a noun as "Now chiefly humorous or affected." Partridge, writing a couple of decades later, says: "As a noun, human is either a jocularity, or an affectation; it may, however, make its way as a convenience." Hmm, the authorities seem to be giving ground. Webster II and all recent dictionaries accept the noun completely. The authorities have indeed given ground. And there is every reason why they should. The conversion of adjectives into nouns is an ancient process in the English language. There is no more cause for rejecting the noun human than there is for rejecting the noun anthropoid.

Identic, as all agree, is not in use outside the world of diplomacy, and even there the present-day tendency is to replace it with identical. Most authorities insist that identic implies exactly the same wording if a diplomatic note is being spoken of, or exactly the same form if an action is involved. Of course, even in an identic note there will be variations in "trim"--the names of the addressees, the salutations, the pronominal references, the signatories--but everything else will be precisely the same. The revised Fowler, however, says that identic means "the same in substance rather than completely identical in wording." That is not the view in diplomatic circles, but the difference is admittedly minuscule.

At one time grammarians maintained that the conjunction if had to be restricted to introducing clauses of condition or supposition; it could not be used as a synonym for whether, they said. If this was ever true, it surely has not been true in modern times. Doubt is expressed here about its ever having been true because we find in the King James version of Genesis viii, 8, "Also he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground." The dove, says the Bible, "found no rest for the sole of her foot." Those old-time grammarians are in the same situation; maybe in the same boat.
There is one situation, however, in which whether is definitely to be preferred. When the noun clause begins the sentence, if might be momentarily confusing because it could suggest a condition: "If he planned to run for reelection was the information sought by the questioners."
See also WHETHER OR NOT under Syntax Scarecrows.


How can one line be straighter than another? If a line is straight, then by golly it's straight, and if it isn't straight then it isn't straight, and that's that. That's what? That's the way some nigglers attempt to handcuff us in our use of language. They contend that many words are absolutes that do not admit of comparison. Partridge, for example, has drawn up a list of about eighty such words, with the implication that there are quite a few more. He includes certain (but I am less certain about that one than he is); he includes complete in a list that is more complete than any compiled elsewhere; he includes obvious and that is almost the most obvious misfit of them all.
If one wishes to niggle, almost any adjective can be regarded as an absolute. But common sense tells us to avoid any such binding position. The proper course is to respect the absoluteness of words that become ridiculous if comparative or superlative degrees are attached to them (Orwell's more equal, for instance) or of words that should be preserved in their pristine meanings because they are irreplaceable (unique, for instance). A list of such words could be quite short: equal, eternal, fatal, final, infinite, perfect (despite the Constitution's "more perfect union"), supreme, total, unanimous, unique and probably absolute itself, though it is conceivable that one dictator's rule could be more absolute than another's.

Says Bierce: "Obviously an asylum cannot be unsound in mind. Say asylum for the insane." Shall we, then, also banish foreign correspondent, madhouse (dating to 1687), dramatic critic, juvenile court, criminal lawyer, psychiatric clinic and civil engineer? To pose the question is to expose the ridiculousness of the objection. Adjectives are not always confined to a single narrow meaning. Many of them have coordinate meanings, such as characterized by, used by, designed for, derived from. It is one of the conveniences of English, and especially American English, that thoughts can be compressed into a couple of words instead of requiring elaborate phrases; thus, insane asylum rather than asylum for the insane. Of course, insane asylum is avoided these days for a quite different reason: It is too harsh, it does not meet the euphemistic requirements of the day. And so we are more likely to say mental hospital or home for the mentally disturbed.

Time was when insignia was exclusively a plural, the singular being insigne. But no more; the old Latin singular has just about vanished. Insignia is now regarded as a singular noun and has even given birth to a plural of its own--insignias --in the same way as has agenda. Insignia can still be used as a plural, but usually isn't.

There is a sufficiency of words meaning deadly or bloody or characterized by slaughter, which is what internecine in its original sense means, since it derives from the Latin root necare (to kill). But in its later sense of mutually destructive or pertaining to conflict among members of the same group it is just about irreplaceable. Hence, in this sense it not only is completely established but also has taken precedence over the original meaning.

Both forms are acceptable. Probably because of disapproval of preventative in favor of preventive some of the blackening has brushed off on interpretative. Webster II characterizes preventative as an "irregularly formed doublet," but that does not apply to interpretative.

The superstition taken up here is not at all a common one but it perhaps illustrates the kind of thinking that gives rise to such things. A newspaper publisher once questioned the sentence, "The driver of the car was killed instantly in the crash." "Killed instantly?" he said. "How else can you be killed?" Well, for one thing you can be killed by inches (the phrase appears in Webster II) as, for instance, by torture. Or, for another thing, people can be killed by famine,a process that might take a year or more. Some will argue that death, at any rate, is instantaneous, that one instant a person is alive and the next he is dead. But even that point is not completely resolved, as the debates surrounding heart transplants have demonstrated: Is a patient dead when the heart stops beating or when the electric impulses in the brain drop off or when?
So much, then, for killed instantly and that much should also take care of any similar objection to sudden death. The next question that will be raised is entirely foreseeable. Someone is going to ask, "Instead of instantly, don't you mean instantaneously?" Ho hum.

Over the decades the pedants have attempted to pose two problems. One involves last versus past and the other involves last versus latest. They will be taken up in that order.
Long asserted that you should prefer "last two weeks, last six months &c., to past two weeks, past six months, &c." Bierce disagreed. He said: "Neither is accurate: a week cannot be the last if another is already begun; and all weeks except this one are past. Here two wrongs seem to make a right: we can say the week last past. But will we? I trow not." You know where he can trow that, don't you? If ever an argument set up a straw man, that one does. Since the days of Middle English the words last and past have been used interchangeably to mean gone by immediately before the present. They still may be so used.
As to last versus latest, Long again had an opinion: "Last is used of place or order; latest of time." Here, too, an attempt is made to draw a distinction that, however much it may appeal to logic, ignores usage and the history of the language. Since the days of Middle English last has beenused to mean most recent. As we are told by Follett--and no permissivist he--the distinction between the two words "has virtually disappeared." If it ever existed.

There are those who disparage this word; one critic says it is "no better than breadthy or thicknessy." That may well be. Still the word has been in the language for almost three centuries and rash would be he who tried to get rid of it at this late date. True enough, it says more than long; it connotes overlong or tedious or prolix. The mere mention of those equivalents shows how unnecessary lengthy is. But if a writer wishes to use it, let us not gainsay him.

Despite objections that are heard from time to time, lit is usually just as acceptable as lighted. Evans in CW says this has always been true. "Lighted seems much commoner," he adds, "when the past participle is used as an adjective. It would seem more 'natural' to most Americans to refer to 'a lighted match' rather than to 'a lit match.'" That is right, but, if he will hold that match for a moment, in the simple past tense it seems more natural to say "He lit the match" than to say "He lighted the match."

Although most expert users of English dislike loan as a verb ("I loaned him my pen"), except in financial contexts, it must be acknowledged that the usage is sanctioned by dictionaries. If you are not offended by "Friends, Romans, countrymen, loan me your ears" or by "Distance loans enchantment," you may go along with the dictionaries and you will always have a defense.


If mad is not completely acceptable in the sense of angry, it is the doing of some of our teachers. Evans points his finger right at them when he says that the word's "familiar sense, 'moved by anger,' has been in use so long and so universally that it would unquestionably be accepted as standard had not purist teachers made it the special target of their disapprobation." As Evans indicates, the "angry" meaning is not a recent development. In the Bible, the 102d Psalm says, "They that are mad against me, are sworne against me," and Acts xxvi, II, offers, "And being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities." Shakespeare, in The Merchant of Venice, writes, "Now, in faith, Gratiano, you give your wife too unkind a cause of grief; an 'twere to me, I would be mad at it." Back in 1882 Ayres disputed an Englishman who thought that the Americans, by using mad to mean angry, had "manifestly impaired the language." The impairment, if any, is certainly not manifest. In any event, unscientific observation indicates not only that the angry sense of mad is in widespread use but also that it is more common than the insane sense, among both educated and uneducated speakers and writers. The prohibition of the purists is not likely to last long.

An uncle of mine who was a civil engineer2 by profession and a nit-picker by obsession used to object to the locution "map a plan," which appears occasionally in newspaper headlines. He found it a redundancy, since essentially a plan is a map. He had half a point, but the exigencies ofheadline writing being what they are, the locution cannot be condemned very strongly.
This same uncle also disliked the expression "make a motion," used in the parliamentary sense. He would say that a Senator doesn't make a motion; he moves. It seems reasonable to suppose that underneath the nit-picker's engineering façade he was really a copy editor and couldn't tolerate the use of three words where one would do.

The objection, it must be confessed, was an isolated one, yet an editor did question the word midair. "Why say 'The planes crashed in midair'?" he asked. "What's the matter with plain air?" He went on to ask where midair was. The answer according to Webster II is "neither very close to nor very far from the ground." There! That should enlighten the editor. To be sure, the word is not very specific nor very informative. Yet it is in good use. So let's ignore the editor.

Perhaps it would have been well to cling to the distinction whereby momentarily means for only a short time ("He lost his footing momentarily") and momently means at any moment ("He will arrive momently"). Unfortunately, however, the use of momently is becoming rarer and rarer as the years go by. Momentarily is now reputably used in both senses and there is no use in fighting it.


Perhaps the distinction is subjective, but naked seems to be, shall we say, the barer word. Indeed, nude in the sense of unclothed did not come into common use until the mid-nineteenthcentury, which suggests it was a euphemism for naked. Nowadays, except in the specialized use in the art field ("Michelangelo enjoyed painting nudes"), the words are just about interchangeable.

Long attempted to draw a distinction between these two words on the basis that nearly applies to quantity, time or space, whereas almost generally applies to degree. Well, maybe. Frederick T. Wood in Current English Usage suggests that almost is "what we might call a 'minus' word; it subtracts from the idea of the word it modifies. Nearly, on the other hand, represents an approach towards it, and therefore gives it more emphasis." Again, maybe. Usually the distinction between the two words is so subtle that a speaker would have to retreat to the next room and cogitate before deciding which to use. The answer is that normally the distinction is not worth the trouble. Wood does make one useful point, however: In denoting feeling or state of mind almost is used. Thus you would not use nearly in such sentences as, "I am almost afraid to make the trip," and "He almost wished he had never met her."

After pointing out that necessaries means essentials or requisites, Partridge goes on to say that "in this sense, necessities is obsolete--or, at the least, obsolescent." The truth is almost the reverse so far as American usage is concerned. Necessities, the stronger word of the two, is crowding out necessaries in the United States. One reason may be, as Evans suggests, that until fairly recently necessary was a euphemism in some rural areas for a privy or a chamber pot.

It probably wasn't Warren Harding but his speech-writer who unfurled the word normalcy in 1920 in a Harding speech that provoked derision among the intelligentsia. But it wasn't Harding (or his speech-writer) who coined the word; according to the OED it dates back at least to 1857. It thus has some credentials of a standard word. But whether it is a needful variant of the more common normality is another question.

Here again is a word that has departed from its original meaning but that in most quarters has been cheered on its way. It derives from Greek words meaning "return home" and "pain" and thus, in its original sense, means an almost painful yearning for home--acute homesickness. But writers searching for a word meaning a pleasant-painful or perhaps poignant longing for a past time or for something recalled from a former time found no word that conveyed that thought. They turned to nostalgia, which did seem to communicate the idea, and it is now well-established in the derived meaning. Nor is there any loss to the language: The writer who wishes to speak of homesickness can always write homesickness, and qualify it with an adjective if that seems necessary.

Objections have been raised to the use of nouns as adjectives, but set forth in that fashion the objections are misguided. Objections can be validly raised only against the overuse of nouns as adjectives. Any noun in English may be employed adjectivally and there can be no doubt that such alterations of function have enriched the language andmade it more flexible. There can be no questioning of population explosion or storm warnings or stock market. There could be objection, however, to atom arms proliferation ban or trade report leak inquiry. With the introduction of those phrases one cat has crept out of the bag: Newspaper headlines have exerted a large and sometimes deplorable influence on the language. But it should be said by way of extenuation that the headline writer is forced into his noun-adjective pile-up by the inflexible space restrictions he faces. A comparable extenuation may be granted to today's scientists, astronauts and technicians, who are compelled by the complexity of their endeavors to resort to the kind of shorthand that gives us, for example, descent orbit insertion burn. But the extension of this practice to other fields in which it is scarcely necessary is more difficult to excuse. Manufacturers and their advertising minions take it up in the hope that some of the aura of science and technology will rub off on their products. Thus you may find that your television set contains something called a perma-set tuning control or that your motorcar is equipped with 6-plunger fuel injection and 7-main-bearing crankshaft. This is the sort of thing that has gone too far, not the mere use of nouns as adjectives.

Just as nouns may be made into adjectives (see NOUNS AS ADJECTIVES), so they may be converted into verbs. Such conversions have been going on since the thirteenth century, and the language has been the better for them. Objection can be raised to transformations of this kind only if they are introduced solely for the sake of novelty and result in totally unnecessary words. It is unobjectionable to take the noun garden and convert it into a verb so that one can say, "When he is in the country he reads and gardens,"instead of having to say, "reads and cultivates a plot of ground." That is an example of a useful word. On the other hand, it is sheer affectation and novelty-hunting to say, "The novelist has a house in the country where he authors his books." Authors says nothing that the common word writes does not say; it is as superfluous and tasteless as monogrammed toilet tissue. Let us not, then, arbitrarily rule out all noun-to-verb conversions (see CONTACT, for example), but let us not burden the language with needless novelties.

Fowler, writing from a literal mathematical point of view, finds to the nth degree "wrong" when used to mean to the utmost or to an extreme. Mathematically speaking, it is wrong because it connotes lacking specification, indefinite. However, in nonmathematical common usage it is generally sanctioned, though it bears the faint aroma of a cliche. Even the conservative Webster II accepted it years and years ago.

From a Latin root meaning to marry, nubile in its primary meaning denotes a suitability by age or condition for marriage; it usually applies to females. But many words grow from their roots, just as a tree does. If they did not, a homely girl would be one who merely stayed at home, and many a homely girl wishes it were so. Just as homely has expanded to mean more than that, so in recent years nubile has expanded to mean sexually attractive. A place can be found for that meaning, unless you prefer sexy, which is a casual word that many dictionaries frown upon.

Here we have another of the many oddities of Bierce. His entry under this word says: "Numerous for Many. Rightlyused, numerous relates to numbers, but does not imply a great number. A correct use is seen in the term numerous verse--verse consisting of poetic numbers; that is, rhythmical feet." He could hardly have been more wrong or more perverse. Numerous to mean many was in good use as far back as 1622, according to the OED. On the other hand, his "correct" use has for some time been labeled either archaic or rare.

For some mysterious reason Cowles characterizes onto as colloquial and implies it is not to be used in reputable writing. The facts are (a) that it has been in the language since 1581; (b) that it bears the same relation to on that into, assuredly a respectable word, bears to in; and (c) that it is a necessary word because it often means something different from on. Item (c) is readily demonstrated when you consider that a person walking onto the terrace is not doing the same thing as a person walking on the terrace.

Some books on usage condemn orate as either facetious or a humorous barbarism. The word is, to be sure, a back formation from oration, but that fact in itself is not enough to condemn it; diagnose, scavenge, donate and drowse are also back formations and their credentials are not questioned these days. The worst that can be said about orate is that it has a disparaging connotation: It implies pomposity or pretentiousness. (See BACK FORMATIONS.)

Fowler worked himself into a thousand-word lather over what he deemed misuses of otherwise. Starting from the premise that the word was an adverb ("He decided, sensiblyor otherwise, to take a chance"), he denounced its extension to adjectival use ("No further threats, economic or otherwise, have been made") and to nounal use ("The electorate may be consulted on the merits, or otherwise, of a single specific measure"). One may borrow a bit of the Fowler lather to shave off into discredited oblivion the nounal uses--first, because they do sound unnatural, and second, because they are usually readily replaced: e.g., "the merits or demerits." As to the adjectival uses, they have become so common and accepted that the "correct" form, using other rather than otherwise ("No further threats, economic or other"), has an almost pedantic sound to modern ears. It may be added that, according to the OED, the adjectival use was standard as far back as 1400.

Some copy editors in all parts of this country and perhaps in other parts of the English-speaking world consistently change "over $150" to"more than $150." The origin of this bit of superstitious tinkering is not clear, but it may be friend Bierce again. He objected to over in this sense and found upward of equally objectionable. He gave no reason for the objection and it is difficult to see how there could be any. Since the days of late Middle English the meaning in excess of has been in reputable use. Strangely enough, those who dislike over do not hesitate to write"above $150." Nor do they boggle at just over, probably because just more than won't do. The only objectionable use of over is an instance in which it is used illogically:"Profits declined 13 per cent over the previous year." Here the word would have to be from.
As to upward of (which is preferred in the United States to upwards of), the perfectly valid phrase means more than. But, unbelievable as it may seem, the OED says that since1613 the phrase has also meant rather less than. In some parts of the United States that meaning, together with the meaning approximately, is extant, but Webster II properly labels it "erron. & dial."

The word partially has two meanings: (1) with bias or partiality; (2) in part. Both meanings have been in standard use for centuries. Nevertheless, among some editors the word is taboo in its second meaning. Those editors are right if, and only if, there is some chance of ambiguity. That kind of chance might arise in a sentence such as, "The judge ruled partially for the defendant." It would not arise in a sentence such as, "The sun was partially eclipsed." It must be acknowledged, however, that the simpler word partly would serve at least as well in either instance.

A few journalistic comma-chasers forbid the use of pass to denote the approval of a resolution by a deliberative body and insist on adopt. The reasoning, if any, behind this is not apparent. It may have something to do with the kind of resolution the individual shapes in his mind; for example, he adopts a resolution on New Year's Eve not to beat his wife any more. But obviously an individual could not pass such a resolution in any event. A deliberative body, however, can and does pass resolutions. Indeed, the illustrative quotation that appears in the OUD reads: "The passing by the House of Commons of such a resolution as this."

It used to be passed master, which, in truth, makes more sense because that version would seem to denote someonewho has passed his tests to become a master. Past master would seem to mean a former master (and does, indeed, mean that, as well as one who is an expert). However, in referring to the expert it is best to put aside logic and accept the version that has now passed muster: past master.

Around the turn of the century, grammarians adjured writers not to use people for persons individually. Since then usage has changed a little so that people has gained greater latitude. The emphasis should still be on the connotation of individuality, however. If you write, "Fifty people were present," you are thinking of the group, but if you write, "Forty-nine persons were injured," you are thinking not of the group but of forty-nine individuals. A general rule might be: Use people for large groups presented in round numbers, use persons for an exact or small number. In spoken language the latitude for the use of people is perhaps somewhat wider. We might well say, "Thirteen people were present," whereas we might more properly write, "Thirteen persons were present."

Late in the last century Cobbett declared that "10 shillings a bushel" was far preferable to "per bushel" because "the per is not English, and is, to the greater part of the people, a mystical sort of word." Later on Long wrote in the same vein, "Do not use per before English nouns: use a." And so newspapermen, following these injunctions, occasionally write, "In Belgium the yield a cow a year is 3,760 kilograms of milk," or, "The delay in getting to the convention floor was running 25 to 30 minutes a newsman." The word per is no longer a mystical sort of word and these daysis quite appropriate in statistical or economic contexts--in short, in any context, such as the sentences just cited, in which a is ludicrous.


It was during one of those big wars, it matters not which, that some editors decided that it was improper to speak of poison gas and that the only proper form was poisonous gas. But it is another of those instances in which a noun is legitimately used adjectivally. (See NOUNS AS ADJECTIVES.)

"This word is often incorrectly used for part," said Ayres. "A portion is properly a part assigned, allotted, set aside for a special purpose; a share, a division." That pronunciamento was issued in 1882 and to this day there are editors and writers who subscribe to it. Ayres's definition of the word was correct as far as it went. The only trouble is that since the days of Middle English the word has also meant simply a part. Thus it is not incorrect to use it in that sense, but the meaning of a share should also be kept in mind.

By strict definition practically means, or should mean, in practice or for practical purposes, whereas virtually denotes as good as, in effect or almost. By common usage, however, practically has practically come to mean virtually the same thing as virtually. All authorities do not sanction this overlapping, but they are waging a losing battle, chiefly because attempting to distinguish the meanings usually requires close study of the context. There can be agreement, however, on ruling out the use of practically in the sense of "almost"where it is obviously out of place: For example, in speaking of a student who completed the required work for a Ph.D. but failed in his final examination you would not say, "He practically got the degree."

What's the connection? To the modern mind, none. To some minds of 1896, a very definite one: Both words are incorrect. In particular, to the mind of J. H. Long, M.A., LL.B., who wrote Slips of Tongue and Pen, the words are as good (or as bad) as nonexistent. About presidential he wrote: "The adjective--if formed at all--ought to be presi-dental. Presidential campaign is a very inelegant and ill-constructed expression." About scientist he wrote: "Use scientific man, savant, &c. If a noun with this meaning is to be formed from science, it ought to be sciencist, not scientist ." Today we are not even aware that the two words are malformations. Nor are they rarities; there is ample precedent for the complete acceptance of malformed words. All of which proves, perhaps, that what "ought to be" is not always what "is," and that if one is too doggedly dogmatic, unorthodoxies may grow up to hound one's dogmatism.

It is not proper, said one critic in the early 1900's, to say, "I propose to go to Europe," because a mere intention is not a proposal. Apparently this was one of the delusions of the day (which in some quarters has persisted to the present) because Ayres, addressing himself to the same distinction, said, "Propose, correctly used, means to put forward or to offer for the consideration of others." How this notion arose is difficult to determine. As far back as 1500, according to the OUD, propose had in addition to that idea, the meaning of "to put before one's own mind as somethingthat one is going to do; to design, purpose, intend." Oddly, however, Partridge, citing the Oxford dictionary, says that "propose is encroaching far too freely on the territory of purpose." The fact is that the "encroachment" has gone so far that purpose as a verb has almost become a rarity.

Although proved, as the participle, is the preferred form in written English, proven is widely used in the spoken language and cannot be set down as incorrect or improper. Even in the written, more formal language, proven is frequently used as the participial adjective preceding a noun, as in "a proven oil field" or "a proven fact."

For generations teachers have insisted that the subordinating conjunction is provided, not providing. No doubt the reasoning behind this distinction was that provided is an elliptical form of "it being provided," whereas nothing similar can be said about providing. However, nothing similar can be said about supposing either, and that word has won acceptance as a conjunction. Because of their early training, many of the pupils of those teachers are conditioned to rejecting providing, but the rejection is baseless. The only caution to be sounded about either word is that it should not be used as a straight synonym for if; both provided and providing imply a stipulation of some kind, which if does not always imply. For instance, you would not say, "He would not have been injured provided he had taken more care," but you could very well say, "He will not be injured, provided (or providing) he takes all the prescribed precautions."

Strictly speaking, quite means completely ("He was quite wrong") or emphatically, positively ("It is quite the thing to do"). Not quite so strictly speaking, quite is used to mean rather or somewhat ("It is quite foggy in London") and quite a is used to mean a substantial but indefinite quantity ("Quite a number of dissenters were present"). These secondary, unstrictly speaking meanings may not yet be standard, but they show every sign of thriving and becoming acceptable.

Under the word quotation Follett devotes a fat paragraph to declaring that "it is worth recalling to the exact-minded that speakers make statements, not (quotations--unless they repeat other speakers' statements. Thus the New York Times feature 'Quotation of the Day' should properly read: 'Statement of the Day.' The words become a quotation only when the newspaper reader repeats them to his fellow commuter. If it is argued that the Times is quoting the notable words, then every article in the paper is a mosaic of quotations from known and unknown authors, which is absurd. A newspaper reports statements that its readers may turn into quotations, spoken or written." The point being made here does not even qualify as pedantic. What this quodlibet simmers down to is the question, At what remove does the repeater of words have to be from the originator for the words to qualify as a quotation? Follett says at second remove. But why? Deponent saith not. Of course "speakers make statements, not quotations," but as soon as those statements are relayed, whether for the first time or the thousandth time, they are quotations. When the reporter relays them to the reader, they are quotations, enclosed in quotation marks. Let the "exact-minded" consultthe basic meaning of the verb quote. One definition, in the OUD, is: "To copy out or repeat (a passage, statement, etc.) from a book, document, speech, etc., with some indication that one is giving the words of another 1680." No indication there that the passage has to be repeated to a fellow commuter.

RAISE (noun)
Some newspaper editors used to maintain that workers did not get a raise; they got a pay rise or an increase in pay. (Clearly they were not referring to newspapermen, who in those days got neither.) The point seems to have been that except for a few dialectal or technical uses raise was not a noun. For a good many years now, however, raise has legitimately meant an increase in remuneration.

RAISE (verb)
In a bygone day it was not uncommon for some authorities to insist that you do not raise children; you bring them up. Others said you could bring them up all right, but still better, you rear them. Well, today hardly anyone rears children, except pedants over sixty--and what are they doing having children anyway? Plenty of people bring them up, but probably the majority raise them. Perhaps a qualification is necessary here: Both Fowler and Partridge indicate that in Britain children are not raised, but reared, the suggestion being that raise in this sense is an Americanism.

This is one of those odd instances in which the wrong word has been nudging out the right word and nothing can (or should) be done about it. The dish of melted cheese and beer or ale poured over toast was originally and euphemistically and jokingly called Welsh rabbit just as codfishwas called Cape Cod turkey, or sheep testicles were called mountain oysters or the hangover remedy of a raw egg with Worcestershire sauce, etc., was called a prairie oyster. But someone didn't get the joke and apparently thought rabbit was a slurring pronunciation of rarebit and the damage was done. Today most menus, if not cookbooks, list rarebit.

Here is a puzzler. The Newswire Stylebook, issued jointly by The Associated Press and The United Press International a few years ago, turned thumbs down on redhead (and redheaded) for no discernible reason. Roy H. Copperud, writing in Editor & Publisher, said: "Although I have searched assiduously, nowhere else have I been able to find any question raised about redhead and redheaded. The terms have been standard at least since the turn of the century, as indicated by the Century Dictionary." Much longer than that. According to the OED, they date back to Middle English.

Taking the redundant remand back as an analogy, some nit-pickers have questioned refer back, as in, "The bill was referred back to committee." The word back may in some instances be superfluous, but it is not normally redundant, as it is in remand back, reply back or return back. The notion of back is not at all prominent or even necessarily present in the word refer, which has as its primary meaning to direct attention to.

Under the foregoing heading, Partridge has only this to say: "The writer is one of those who prefer relative to relation in the sense 'kinsman.'" To which this book can onlysay, "Ditto." On the face of it there is something strange here. Many people have the same preference, but dictionaries regard the words as interchangeable. We may keep our preference for relative, then, but we can advance no reason for it and surely we cannot foist it on others.

In legal parlance the word rob implies the use of force, and on that basis some trouble-trackers contend that a person cannot rob a bank or a church or a store. In nonlegal parlance, however, it is quite possible to rob all three. In addition to the legal definition, Webster II says the word means "to strip or deprive by stealing; to plunder; to steal from," and then quotes as an example a line from Shakespeare: "To be executed for robbing a church." And, of course, one can rob a man of his good name. It would be interesting to ask the trouble-trackers what verb they would use to replace rob in describing the act of illegally taking something from a bank, a church or a store. What should be borne in mind, however, is that one cannot rob money or jewelry, and it will be borne in mind if you think of rob as meaning Relieve Of Booty.
Burglary does demand adherence to legal parlance; it is a particular kind of nonlegal-parlance robbery, involving breaking and entering. See BURGLARIZE.

Despite the fact that it is an utterly meaningless word when you stop to examine it, rooftop now has crept into two dictionaries: Webster III and the Random House. This can only mean that enough people have been going around shouting it from housetops to give it some appearance of legitimacy. For some people and some dictionary-makers that is enough.

Forget the apostrophe. In addition to being a legitimate adjective and noun, round is a legitimate preposition and adverb. Therefore save space and ink and write, "the year round" and "we showed the visitors round." Needless to say, "around" is perfectly good, too.

Sir Alan Herbert objected to employing sabotage as a verb, "for the robust verb to wreck will always do the same work better." Sir Ernest Gowers (in The Complete Plain Words) disagreed. He said that words such as wreck, destroy or damage have not the same implication of disloyalty as sabotage has. Up to a point Sir Ernest was right, but he did not go far enough in defining the word. Disloyalty is not always the distinguishing element in sabotage. It is not, for instance, when enemy agents wreck a factory. It is the underhandedness of the wrecking or undermining operation that separates the saboteurs from the ordinary wreckers. The saboteurs may indeed be disloyal, as when disaffected workers damage machinery in a factory, or they may not be, as when a nation's negotiators obstruct an international conference. In any event, Herbert's cause has become a lost one, because the verb sabotage is recognized in all dictionaries.

In its older and primary meaning, scan denotes almost the opposite of its later and more prevalent sense. The older meaning is to scrutinize, to examine closely. The more common and now accepted meaning, which the old OED hasn't heard of and Webster II labels colloq., is to view hastily, to examine superficially.

Sometimes the pedants trap themselves in their own pedantry. Bierce, for example, repudiated the use of score in such a sentence as, "He scored an advantage over his opponent," arguing that "to score is not to win a point, but to record it." It is true that an early meaning of score is to make a record. But if we are going to look backward, why stop there? By its derivation from the Old Norse, the word refers to notching. Why not confine it to that meaning? The answer, of course, is that words acquire additional meanings that in time become standard. The point-winning sense of score is more than a century old.

Objection is validly raised to the use of secure as a straight synonym for obtain or get. But that does not mean that something that is obtained is never secured. The connotation of secure is obtaining with certainty. Thus if it had been uncertain whether there were any seats remaining on Flight 812 to Goosepimple, Iowa, the proud travel agent might well and acceptably say, "I secured two seats for you on the plane," even if he didn't quite know how right he was.

"The second half saw Princeton come back with a three-touchdown rally." Stanley Woodward, who was the sports overseer on the old New York Herald Tribune, once told the underling who wrote that, "If you ever use see again in connection with an inanimate object, I'll fan your tail." The underling never forgot and never had his tail fanned. But he need not have been so timid so far as correctness is concerned. For a century or more see has been acceptable in the sense of to be marked by; the OED gives the example,"Eighteen rivers have seen their navigation improved." Mr. Woodward's point should have been that journalists tend to overuse the word in that sense, but when he dragged in the inanimate object notion he had no point at all.

If there are any Englishmen around suffering from flu, they will probably shrink from using sick to describe their condition. As Fowler explains it, English dislike of the blunt word vomit has made them substitute sick for it as a euphemism, leaving them with the word ill to denote the generalized sense of an ailing condition. Americans seem to have stronger stomachs; they may not say they feel like vomiting, but they would not hesitate to say that they feel nauseated (or more likely nauseous, one fears) or even that they feel like throwing up or upchucking. Then they have no difficulty in using either sick or ill for the more generalized meaning.

Dictionaries don't seem to have heard of it, but sidewipe was the version some editors used to demand. Apparently they were trying to lend respectability to the useful word sideswipe, which was originally a railroading term but contained that slangy-sounding swipe. The editors succeeded for a time on some newspapers, but their word has now been just about wiped out. The word for a swinging blow is sideswipe.

In at least one book sideways is branded a corruption of sidewise and endways a corruption of endwise. Unadulterated nonsense. If anything, the "-ways" versions are the more dominant and their respectability was achieved four centuries ago.

Follett notes that "there is a groundless notion current both in the lower schools and in the world of affairs that since has an exclusive reference to time and therefore cannot be used as a causal conjunction." The notion is indeed groundless, otherwise how explain such Shakespearean lines as, "Since mine own doors refuse to entertain me, I'll knock elsewhere," or "Since it is as it is, mend it for your own good"? The fact is that since in the sense of because was in use for a century before Shakespeare set quill to paper.



James Gordon Bennett the younger, who for long was the owner of The New York Herald, was a stickler for what he considered to be the proper use of words. Among his many dicta was one that said, "Don't say a man spends time; he passes time." It is true that the primary meaning of spend is to pay out, but the derived meaning of to pass, as time, has occupied a reputable place in the language since the days of Middle English. Therefore don't expend too much time worrying about Mr. Bennett's dictum.

There is no more reason to insist that a city square has to be square than there is to demand that a T square or an L square has to be a rectangle. Yet Bierce, in a warning about the word square, remarked that "a city block is seldom square." Whether you use block or square depends on where you live or work; in New York it is always block, except for open plazas at the intersections of two or morestreets, but in Philadelphia the rectangular spaces bounded by streets are squares. Incidentally, even the legitimate New York squares are seldom square, but those didn't seem to bother Mr. Bierce.

Without seeming to take a position, Ayres noted that standpoint is "a word to which many students of English seriously object, and among them are the editors of some of our daily papers, who do not allow it to appear in their columns." Long not only took a position but also offered an explanation for it: "Point of view is preferable to standpoint; as the latter expression is logically absurd: one cannot stand on a point." The West Point cadet would be interested to learn that and so would the Senator who stands on a point of order. The point of this is that the "point" included in the word is not a physical point, much less a geometric point, which has position but no dimensions. It is usually a mental position, although it can also be a physical one, from which one views an idea or an object. The word was taken from the German Standpunkt more than a century ago. (All that has been said here applies also to viewpoint.)

Resistance exists in some quarters to the word statistic as a false, new and unwarranted singular. False it may be, as any back-formation is. New it certainly is when compared with the similar shortened word tactic, which dates back to 1638. But it is hardly unwarranted, considering the wide use that is made of it by statisticians and by less specialized writers, who seem to find it needful. If you write, "To most people yesterday was unbearably hot, but to meteorologists it was just a statistic," you can't very well substitute numberor figure for statistic. There is a shade of difference in the words; number or figure stands in isolation, whereas statistic is part of a pattern.

STICK (verb)
Here is a word that has almost as many informal, colloquial or slang uses as it has standard uses, and it is not always easy to distinguish between them. There is no dispute about sticking to one's subject or sticking with one's party; they are completely acceptable uses. Likewise it is all right to stick by a friend, though you may not, according to some authorities, stick up for him. The authorities are not unanimous about whether you can stick someone for a bill or about whether you can be stuck by a word in a crossword puzzle. Stick is almost as much of an all-purpose word as fix. The most that can be said about its many uses is that one by one they seem to gain respectability. Stick around for a while and maybe even stick around will become standard.

At least two authorities decided some years back that you don't stop at a hotel, you stay at it, because to stop means to cease to go forward and to stay means to abide, to tarry. That distinction may have been true a century ago, but it has had no validity in more recent times. Americans not only have used stop to mean abide but also have tacked adverbs onto it to get stop off, stop over, stop by and stop in. And this development has generated the noun stopover.

The use of such as an adverb has aroused grammarians over the decades. Typical is this passage from Ayres: "'I have never before seen such a large ox.' By a little transposing of the words of this sentence, we have, 'I have neverbefore seen an ox such large,' which makes it quite clear that we should say 'so large an ox' and not 'such a large ox.'" In instances of that kind we may well bow to the strict grammarians. But there are other constructions where the adverbial-such idiom is so common and so natural that it would be quite unnecessary to yield to the purists. And to do so would often mean changing the word order and producing an undesired formal effect. Forget the ox for a moment and let's concentrate on girls. If we were to say, "I have never before seen such beautiful girls," the purists would have us change it to "girls so beautiful." But that would be tainted with stiltedness and we would be justified in ignoring the purists. The idiomatic adverbial such is so well entrenched that at least two of the newer dictionaries designate the word as an adverb.


When a newspaper reader thinks he has caught the paper in a solecism, he is sometimes insufferable. "Since when," he will write, "do you allow your reporters to say, 'As is true of many other individuals that the President has appointed ...'? Since when is that rather than who permissible in referring to persons?" The answer, of course, is: since the language was in its infancy. Centuries ago the King James version of the Bible gave us many instances, such as, "Blessed is the man that sitteth not in the seat of the scornful." What critics like the newspaper reader may have caught a glint of in the dark corridors of their minds is the undisputed fact that which is not used to refer to a person. That, however, is used to refer to either persons or things. As between who and that, Fowler offers the distinction that who suits particular persons and that generic personsand he offers as examples, "You who are a walking dictionary," but "He is a man that is never at a loss."


Those who maintain that the original or primary meaning of a word is the only true meaning would do well to ponder the word truculent. Almost every dictionary, in an unusual case of multiple blindness, defines the word as meaning savage, cruel, barbarous or something of the sort. But it is difficult to find the word used in that sense. Some authorities go on to say that it is sometimes erroneously used to mean base or mercenary. It is even more difficult to find examples of that use. American Heritage and Webster's New World, however, have seen the light. Heritage says that 86 per cent of its Usage Panel approves the "newer and milder sense synonymous with pugnacious, defiant or surly." That, of course, is just about the only sense in which the word is used these days, regardless of its derivation or original meaning.

One book on usage says that as an adjective underhand is preferable to underhanded, although it concedes that the adverb is underhandedly and the noun is underhandedness. Oddly enough, most dictionaries, although they do not come right out and express a preference, indicate that they agree with that view since they define underhanded as meaning underhand. The explanation apparently is that underhand antedates underhanded historically, but nowadays the words are at the very least equivalent and the probability is that underhanded is more commonly used. Ninepersons would say, "His manner was underhanded," to one who would use underhand. See -ED.

If the mayor of Limping Horse, Wyoming, stands on his head for fifteen minutes to boom a charity campaign, some devotee of the gee-whiz school of journalism is sure to tag it unprecedented, only to have a newspaper reader write in the next day, saying in effect, "Pshaw, when I was a kid in Czechoslovakia the mayor of Krakup did that." The older the world gets the less likelihood there is that a given event is unprecedented. Does that mean that an editor should put a rigid ban on the word and threaten to tar, feather, draw and quarter any reporter using it, as one editor of a metropolitan paper did? The answer is no. All that any editor should do is demand that a reporter make a careful check and be sure he is right before he uses the word. Obviously it is a word to be employed cautiously.

The general tendency is to think that until can be used indiscriminately in the sense of up to the time that. However, caution is required in one context: When until follows a negative statement it implies a reversal at the time expressed. For instance, if it is stated that "He never even looked at another girl until he married Jane," the implication is that he began to look then. The use of the word can become ridiculous if it occurs in a statement such as, "He took no active part in the business until he died."
While the subject of until is before the house, let it be said that till is a perfectly good word meaning the same thing. Therefore, the contraction 'til is superfluous and unrecognized in good usage. See also 'ROUND.


Regrettably, verbal, which means in the form of words, has invaded the territory of oral, which means in the form of spoken words. It would be well if writers kept the two meanings distinct. But there are rare occasions when verbal can be used to encompass both meanings. For instance: "In contrast with yesterday's fistfights and rioting, today's demonstration was completely verbal, taking the form of speeches and petitions."


A species of misguided overrefinement impels some pedants to assert that one should not say, "Do you want your Scotch straight?" but rather "Do you wish your Scotch straight?" Apparently they base this preference on the fact that want derives from an Old Norse word meaning to lack. But the sense of wish or desire is centuries old. What is to be avoided is the phrase want for except where the meaning is have need, as it is in "He does not want for wealth."

Used as an adverb ("He is way behind in his work") the word has not quite become standard, yet is so close to it that a writer who uses it can hardly be faulted. So common is the word--at least in spoken language--that the accepted word, away, sounds unusual in some contexts such as, "In the field of moon exploration the United States is away ahead of Russia." Of course, far is a more acceptable synonym.

The usual past tense of weave is wove, and the participle woven. Usual but not invariable. When the word is used to mean to make a path or to move from side to side, the past and participle forms are weaved. Therefore, one says, "The car weaved swiftly through the traffic," "The boxer weaved steadily toward his opponent" and "After the halfback had weaved forty yards down the field he was dropped just short of the goal line." Have we woven a tangled web?


By its very derivation while is related to the notion of time and some authorities demand that it be used only in contexts in which a time relationship is present. ("The sentry stood watch while the other soldiers slept.") Still, as an adversative conjunction it has long had the sanctioned meaning of whereas or but ("The Russians had nuclear devices, while their neighbors had only conventional arms") and the sanctioned meaning of although ("While force is outlawed in general, it is sanctioned as a means of self-defense"). Less acceptable is the use of while in the mere sense of and ("The French flag is blue, white and red, while the Italian flag is green, white and red"). The thing to watch out for, even in the sanctioned uses, is ambiguity ("While he had his full strength he was reluctant to use it").

Many teachers have maintained that whose could refer only to animate things. But they were too dogmatic. Common sense, as well as long usage, permits the employment of whose to refer to inanimate things, too. Yes, it iscommon sense to avoid the tortured cumbersomeness of a sentence such as this: "The new law, the durability, the value and indeed the constitutionality of which are in doubt, was applied for the first time." Is it not common sense to say, "The new law, whose durability, etc."? No one who uses whose in that way intends to show any disrespect for grammatical laws; the point is that the framers of the laws neglected to give us a genitive case for which.

Three stages of this word may be noted. Stage 1: Ayres (1882) says there is good authority for using the word in speaking of men as well as of women (and the OED in general concurs). Stage 2: Webster II (1959) defines the word as state of being a widow or, Rare, a widower. Stage 3: Webster III (1961) says it means the quality or state of being a widow; period. And that's where it stands; a man does not go through widowhood these days.

As a word that has undergone a kind of reincarnation, the verb worsen has suffered a little from the fact that some pedants have not been aware of the reincarnation. Centuries ago it was a standard word. Then it dropped out of good literary use, but persisted in dialectal use. The common people apparently did not know about or understandably did not like deteriorate and presumably saw no point in using two words, such as get worse or become worse, when one would do. As they continued to say that "Brother Ethelbert's condition has worsened," respected writers took the word up again in the early 1800's. It is still up.
Copyright © 1971 by Theodore M. Bernstein