A monthly column in which we attempt, however futilely, to defend the English language against misuse and abuse
The following are all from the Wilmington News Journal. The first two demonstrate a nicety of the English language —one the NJ apparently isn’t familiar with. The possessive is needed in these sentences because it is the act, not the person, that is being discussed (correct word in parentheses):
• From a subhead on an editorial—“The creepiness factor; Apps that can determine where you are—without you (your) knowing it.” (And “apps” shouldn’t be capitalized following a semi-colon).
• From a story quoting the mayor’s spokesperson: “Coppadge also said that Ciotti’s support of Kelley two years ago was not a factor in him (his) not being selected for a promotion.”
• In a column strewn with otherwise literate words such as “métier,” “locus” and “abhorrent,” Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg surprisingly committed this all-too-common error: “Why do I find this incident to be more disturbing then, say, reported attacks on…” Spellcheck notes the misuse of then for than in this sentence.
• And finally, three readers sent us this from an NJ Sunday edition: “Representatives for the second- and third-largest water providers in the state, Tidewater Utilities and United Water, tow the same line.” The term is “toe the line,” and is used either in the metaphorical sense, meaning to conform to a rule or standard, or in the literal sense, meaning to stand poised at the starting line in a footrace. No pulling or towing of a line is implied.
More on Homophones
Tow/toe are homophones. As noted in the August column, homophones are words that are pronounced the same but differ in meaning and often differ in spelling. Defuse/diffuse doesn’t quite qualify as a homophone, since the pronunciations are slightly different (dee fyóoz, di fyóoz, respectively), but they are close enough to confuse many writers, such as the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Matt Gelb, who recently wrote: “Sandberg diffused the situation [with Cole Hamels] with his talk.”
Defused, the word Gelb should have used, means to remove a fuse (from a bomb, for example) or to make a situation less dangerous, harmful, or tense.
Diffuse means to spread out or scatter. As an adjective, it means widely spread or wordy.
How Long, Oh, Lord, How Long?
(In which we document the continued abuse of that most misused punctuation mark, the apostrophe). As was the case last month, we have a missing apostrophe, and once again, the always reliable News Journal provides our example (correct word in parens): “‘I think its (it’s) more of a campaign finance façade,’ said Senate Minority Whip Greg Lavelle.”
And a reader sends in the photo at right, from a thrift store in Central Pennsylvania. Notice the word “cart’s.” Got a “How Long, Oh, Lord?” photo you’d like to share? Send it in.
Department of Redundancies Dept.
One of the winners at the Emmy Awards thanked her “fellow comrades.” And she’s a writer!
A reader points out that “withdrawal” often becomes “withdrawl” in the hands of many in the news media. As in so many of these instances, the simple solution would be to use spellcheck.
Another common error is the mangling of the age-old idiom “I got a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach.” It means the middle of one’s stomach; the location of a visceral response. Many writers seem to think it involves eating a peach. Take, for example, Tom Pelissero of USA Today: “It has to be a pit in your stomach that you haven’t been to the playoffs since 2009.”
Literally of the Month
ESPN’s Chris Fowler, reporting from Wimbledon: “Djokovic has picked himself up off the canvas, literally.” Yes, the world’s number one tennis player fell down and got up, but the courts in Wimbledon are covered with grass, not canvas.
Word of the Month
Impecunious. Pronounced im-pi-KYOO-nee-uhs, it’s an adjective meaning having little or no money.
Quote of the Month
“When established idiom clashes with grammar, correctness is on the side of the idiom. Put another way, if sticking grimly to rules of grammar makes you sound like a pompous pedant, you are a pompous pedant.”
—William Safire (1983), quoted in The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing.
(To which we respond, guilty!)
Seen a good (bad) one lately?
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