Thursday, January 04, 2007

A(n all-too-) common redundancy

Please, for the sake of mine and other fastidious ears, never say "3 AM in the morning." As I hope it's not exactly necessary to point out, it's a hideous redundancy.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Eschew 'i-shoo'

I don't usually comment on pronunciation, but the 'eschew' issue has recently been brought to my attention by a language-savvy friend. Here's my two cents: the word eschew is properly pronounced "es-CHOO," not "i-SHOO," "e-SHOO," or any number of other variants. The popularity of the "shoe" pronunciations may be due to jocular remarks (such as "bless you") when the correct pronunciation is used. I advise that readers ignore the smart-alecks and stick with "chew" for the forseeable future.

For the record, the word means "to shun, avoid," usually for moral or practical reasons. One should eschew ne'er-do-wells, the practice of touching one's tongue to metal when it's cold outside, and the use of improper pronunciations of the word eschew.

And, following my usual practice of restraining my punning instinct, I'll avoid ending this post with the phrase "Chew on that!"


Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Spelling of 'OK'

Now that I think of it, perhaps the title has given away my preference prematurely. This word, which arose from the phrase "all correct" (via the jocular respelling "oll korrect"), and has since attained international popularity, is sometimes rendered 'OK,' at other times 'O.K.,' and often 'okay.' The three major American desk dictionaries I have at quick reference--Webster's New World 4, Merriam-Webster 11, and American Heritage--all favor 'OK'; WNW 4 and M-W 11 list 'okay' as a variant, and American Heritage includes it in the main entry (OK or okay), but OK is listed first.

I have always used this form, and cast a lightly disapproving eye at those who use 'okay.' But an occurrence for which I have much less tolerance than the simple use of the variant spelling is when members of the 'okay' school correct others for using the dominant, preferred form 'OK.' This has happened to me, personally, several times within the past few years--each time at the hands of someone who, by my (admittedly fallible) judgment, had less knowledge of English usage than I do.

In The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations, Charles Harrington Elster discusses a similar phenomenon, which he terms "erroneous correction." He uses the example of a scene from a movie (Heartburn, 1986) in which a woman uses the word 'GONdola,' stressing it (laudably) on the first syllable, and her husband interrupts her with the "correct" pronunciation 'gon-DO-la.' Those who correct 'OK' with 'okay' are, at least given the weight of current usage authority, committing a similar error.

If you must use the form 'okay,' that's fine (though some discerning readers may think less of you for it). But please, don't act like your form is dominant or preferred. It's not. That distinction still belongs to 'OK.'

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Notes on 'etc.'

'Etc.' is an abbreviation of the Latin phrase et cetera, meaning 'and the rest.' Properly, it is used only for lists of things. Where people are concerned, 'et al.,' short for Latin et alia ('and others'), is the term of choice.

Also note that 'etc.' is not spelled 'e-c-t,' and not properly pronounced 'ek-SETera.' It's 'et-SETera.'

Sunday, July 16, 2006

I'd like 'doughnut,' please

The word referring to the kind of fried, ring-shaped cake one can buy at, for example, Krispy Kreme, is properly spelled 'doughnut.' 'Donut' is not standard, and, if it appears in anything other than comic-strip word balloons, is execrable.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

'That' vs. 'which'

To fully understand when it is appropriate to write 'that' vs. 'which,' one must first grasp the distinction between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. While this might sound a rather dry task to some, anyone serious about writing must undertake it--and for me and a probably select group of others, it's a positive joy. So here it is: Restrictive clauses define the noun they modify and are essential to the meaning of the sentence, while nonrestrictive clauses describe the noun and may be removed without a change in meaning. A pair of examples will help illustrate the difference:

  1. The cell phone that is stuck on Ted's roof is ringing. (restrictive)

  2. My cell phone, which is on Ted's roof, is ringing. (nonrestrictive)

In the first sentence, the clause that is stuck on Ted's roof plays a defining role. As such, it is essential to the meaning of the sentence, and therefore could not be removed without dire semantic consequences. Without this clause, the sentence tells us that a cell phone is ringing--but it could be any cell phone, anywhere. It is the restrictive clause that narrows it down to just one, and thus admirably performs the defining function that any good restrictive clause fulfills.

The second sentence, by contrast, contains a nonrestrictive clause. Nonrestrictive clauses are, in essence, parenthetical--that is, they function as asides, and can be omitted without changing the meaning of the sentence. To be sure, they often provide additional, and important, information (it certainly matters whether my cell phone is on Ted's roof or in my pocket!)--but they are not needed to clarify the essential meaning of the sentence. Sentence two focuses on the fact that my cell phone is ringing; the fact that it is on Ted's roof is incidental, and does not help the reader decide which cell phone I'm talking about.

Got all that? OK--now, the easy part: 'that' vs. 'which.'

That is used in restrictive clauses.
Which is used in nonrestrictive ones.

In most cases, it's really that simple.
I must add a couple of caveats, however:
(1) Do note that this distinction is largely American, and that in Britain, it's probably about as important as the distinction between 'shall' and 'will' in America.
(2) As with most rules, there are occasionally exceptions--and cases that could go either way.

Monday, June 26, 2006

'Uninterested' or 'disinterested'?

Question: Does the following sentence represent correct or incorrect use of the word 'disinterested'?

Though he had chased many a flock of gulls during the course of his boyhood, by age 17 Arthur had become entirely disinterested in this activity, and had instead taken up the study of advanced chemistry.

With one notable exception, the sources I've consulted on the 'uninterested'/'disinterested' debate have all agreed that the two words properly have distinct meanings. Of the two words, these critics argue, only uninterested should be used to describe indifference, whereas disinterested should be reserved to mean 'impartial, unbiased.' Some, like Strunk and White's The Elements of Style and Bill Bryson's Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words, state matter-of-factly that the two should not be confused; others, meanwhile (e.g., Follett and Burchfield) give some historical background, and then assert their preference for the preservation of the traditional distinction. Merriam-Webster 10, though, demonstrates its characteristic permissiveness, claiming that a "careful writer" may sometimes use disinterested in place of uninterested for emphasis. It then takes the issue a step further by noting that

disinterested has developed [another] sense. . .that contrasts with uninterested

--as if, just because a given usage exists, it should also be recommended (or at least condoned). Certainly, there is some grey area here, and discerning writers should preserve a bit of flexibility, perhaps occasionally substituting distinterested for uninterested based on contextual factors, including the rhythm of the sentence, and even what "sounds right." But the problem with being too flexible is that you can easily get pulled into vogue usages based on nothing more principled than the fashion of the moment or the negligent usage of the slovenly.

Therefore, I say, stick with the traditional distinction unless you have a specific, good reason to break it. And remember: if one day you find yourself in grammatical court, you should want the judge to be disinterested; if he's uninterested, though, he might fall asleep before he reads the sentence.