By Bob Yearick
•Reader Debbie Layton submits the first two from Delaware Online, both by veteran reporters who should know better — as should their editors.
•“According to Clawson, one of the biggest factors was they were not convinced about its safety, a tenant of DuPont.” The word is tenet — meaning guiding principle.
•“. . . found high levels of lead in the home’s baseboards, door jams, and windows.” Later in the same story: “. . . jams, interior casings and sills.” A jamb — the word needed here — is a structural piece or surface forming the side of an opening (as for a door, window, or fireplace).
•CNN Congressional reporter Lauren Fox said that there had been “a number of incidences” of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell falling during the last few months. She meant incidents. Incidence is the rate at which something happens, usually something negative: “The incidence of diseases transmitted by food has increased.” An incident is a single event or episode.
•Another CNN reporter said this about a WNBA star who was taking time off for her mental health: “The team doesn’t know how long Brittney Griner could be gone for.” To repeat: There is no rule against ending a sentence in a preposition, but inserting one where it’s unnecessary is sloppy.
The past tense of the verbs lead and sink and the past participle of drink are frequently misused by the media. Recent examples, with corrections in parentheses:
•From The News Journal: “In 2000, sonar used by Navy ships during a training session in the Bahamas likely lead (led) to the deaths of six whales.” Lead is the present tense of the verb.
•Scott Lauber, in The Philadelphia Inquirer: “File it away among the many miscues that sunk (sank) the Phillies.” Sunk is the past participle of sink.
•Pardon the reference to bodily functions, but we have this from a WDEL interview about hydrating during hot weather: “Check your urine; if it’s brown, you haven’t drank (drunk) enough.” Drank is the simple past tense of drink.
I recently came across two not uncommon problems having to do with comparisons.
•From a Facebook group discussing the Paramount+ series 1883 and the merits of oxen vs. horses for pulling covered wagons: “Oxen are more hardier.” This is an example of a double comparative, which is usually committed when someone uses “more” followed by a word ending in “-er.” In this case, the right choice is simply hardier. No need to intensify the comparison with more.
•From a CBS News report on the ranking of the world’s happiest countries: “Afghanistan is the least happiest.” You can say “least happy” or “unhappiest.” A CBS reporter (as opposed to someone on Facebook) should know better.
In last month’s column, I admitted to being gobsmacked by the ridiculous redundancy former predecessor in the current season of Prime Video’s Jack Ryan. Another show — Modern Family — had a similar impact on daughter Danielle.
While watching a re-run of that show, she heard Mitchell Pritchett, the supposedly giftedly intelligent attorney, say this after his encounter with a high school bully at his nephew Luke’s school dance: “That kid Damian Warmiak is so mean, honing in on these poor kids’ insecurities and then lacerating them.”
While some “authorities” now claim that the two phrases mean the same thing, the preferred phrasal verb here is homing in on, which means focusing on or making progress toward a target, metaphorical or otherwise. Hone means to sharpen, refine, or perfect something, and the careful writer never follows it with in on.
After rewatching the episode with closed captioning and confirming that the scripted words were actually “honing in on,” Danielle says her reaction was identical to mine when Jack Ryan referred to his former predecessor : “I thought, the writers actually wrote this line, it survived however many rounds of editing, re-writes, and read throughs, the actor then said the line in front of the director and a dozen others, and then the footage went through editing, and everyone still signed off on it. Sad.”
Word of the Month
Pronounced pwisnt, it’s an adjective meaning having great power or influence.
Follow me on Twitter: @thewaronwords
Need a Speaker for your Organization?
Contact me for a fun presentation on grammar: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Buy The War on Words book at the Hockessin Book Shelf or by calling Out & About at (302) 655-6483.