I wrote recently about avoiding words with fluid or ambiguous meanings. I focused on the word “fulsome,” whose usage has changed over the decades and which has conflicting definitions across dictionaries.
Sometimes, however, a word has a very specific meaning and is still used incorrectly. If you’ve seen the movie The Princess Bride you may remember the scene in which the Wallace Shawn character is told he is being followed. He responds more than once saying, “inconceivable!” Finally one of his henchmen says, “I don’t think you know what that word means, boss.”
Even if one feels compelled to use jargon, most jargon terms have specific meanings.
I once had a manager nearly twenty years ago who picked up jargon like a chameleon adapts to its surroundings. We worked with a lot of engineers based in India and he picked up their the phrase, “at the earliest.” That is a highly non-grammatical construct used by engineers whose first language is not English. It means, as you might surmise, “as soon as possible.” Once in my performance review this manager used the phrase “just in time” regarding my providing feedback to an employee. That phrase has to do with the manufacturing process and getting parts to the factory right before assembly, and not any earlier, to save on inventory costs.
That’s obviously not what he meant. He meant I should provide feedback to this employee promptly, and simply stating “prompt feedback” would have made a lot more sense.
A little thought can frequently eliminate such simple errors.
Most people who love words and the English language are familiar with the book Alice in Wonderland and the character Humpty Dumpty. They are well acquainted with Humpty’s arrogant perspective on words:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
Most of us are not so presumptuous, but words can be tricky sometimes. I often think of the 2017 column about the word “fulsome” by Ben Yagoda in the Lingua Franca blog. Yagoda writes that the word at one time meant “excessive flattery,” but has now taken on a positive connotation.
Indeed, the Merriam-Webster Unabridged online dictionary lists the first meaning as “very full and abundant,” providing “copious” as a synonym. The second meaning is “notably or appealingly full or rounded in shape.” Only further down the list do the more negative meanings appear.
The more conservative online American Heritage Dictionary, on the other hand, lists the first meaning as, “excessively flattering or insincerely earnest,” offering “unctuous” as a synonym. The second meaning is “disgusting or offensive.”
The the approach of the online Oxford Living Dictionaries is to take the middle road, offering “complimentary or flattering to an excessive degree” as the first meaning and “of large size or quantity; generous or abundant” for the second definition.
All three dictionaries include usage notes which discuss the changing and ambiguous nature of the word.
My approach in such circumstances: avoid the word altogether. I will find a different word that conveys more precisely what I am trying to express.
I had the privilege for several months of writing customer success stories for an agency in Silicon Valley. I really enjoyed the work. It was interesting and it kept me on my toes. I also had to keep in mind which client I was writing for. All of the agency’s clients except for one used the Associated Press Stylebook (AP). The one holdout client used the Chicago Manual of Style, which I prefer.
There are differences between the two styles. Chicago supports the serial comma and says to spell out numbers under one hundred. AP tells us to omit the serial comma and to spell out numbers one through ten.
There are other style guides, of course. The Modern Language Association has its own style guide, but that is followed mostly in the academic world and not so much in business writing. The Council of Scientific Editors publishes the Scientific Style and Format guide, which I am told states that numbers are never spelled out.
There is much that all agree on with respect to proper grammar and syntax. It’s important to maintain those standards. But not everything is set in stone. As I hear from many experts, the important thing is to be consistent within a given work. I am partial to Chicago, but I can write to AP and I do.
I admit to being something of a style and grammar nerd. But then I enjoy being a style and grammar nerd.
I wrote a while back about having subscribed to the unabridged Merriam-Webster (M-W) dictionary online. It made sense, given the freelance writing work that I am doing. But then the thought occurred to me: have I gone over to the Dark Side?
I have been an advocate of the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) for decades. I have long loved its more prescriptive as opposed to descriptive approach (though that is a serious oversimplification). The usage notes with the AHD usage panel can be very helpful. In my B. Dalton Bookseller days in the 1970s and 1980s I was able to singlehandedly skew the sales reports in the stores in which I worked, increasing AHD sales at the expense of the whatever-current-at-the-time edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. I would chortle with delight when I saw those reports.
Even today the AHD sometimes includes details not found in the M-W unabridged. When looking up the word “bake-off” for a piece I was writing both M-W and AHD capitalized the phrase and said that it was a Service Mark. But only AHD added the note that it was sometimes used lower case and gener
ically. Similarly, the M-W unabridged does not list “podiatric,” while AHD does list it as an adjective under podiatry.
The problem is that it is not clear to me how much in the way of resources are being put into the AHD these days and whether we’ll see another edition after the current 5th, given that its publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is a struggling firm. M-W seems to have effectively made the transition to the digital world and appears to be healthily surviving if not thriving.
Yes, I paid for my subscription to the unabridged M-W and that was the Right Thing to do given the work I am doing. But I can’t shake the feeling that I am cheating on a long-time faithful lover.
Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries
Pantheon (March 14, 2017), 320 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $18.32
I should have been a lexicographer. That was what I thought when I began reading this book. After all, I love words and language. I certainly believe I have “sprachgefühl,” what Stamper say is “a feeling for language.” And I most certainly meet the qualifications:
At Merriam-Webster, there are only two formal requirements to be a lexicographer: you must have a degree in any field from an accredited four-year college or university, and you must be a native speaker of English.
Stamper says that many people are surprised that a degree in linguistics or English isn’t required. But, she says, “The reality is that a diverse group of drudges will yield better definitions.”
I realized as a made my way through this book, however, that maybe I didn’t want to be a lexicographer. Stamper describes the process she goes through in revising the definition of a word. She may spend weeks on one word. At one point she describes how she put her head down on her desk in frustration.
If you enjoy reading and thinking about words and definitions you will love this book. It is written in a witty, lively manner and is a delight to read. Long before you are finished you will have permanently reinforced in your mind the fact that dictionaries are written by real people sitting in a real office pouring over the evidence of how words are used.
I have been enjoying Kory Stamper’s new book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. She writes about her life as a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster. The book is thoroughly delightful.
Stamper quotes an article discussing a fundraiser held by Barbara Streisand at her home. The article hyphenates “fund-raiser.” Kory writes that this is an example of the transition of a phrase from an open compound to a hyphenated compound.
But wait. I always thought of fundraiser as a single word. I confirmed that by checking out my go-to dictionary, the American Heritage. One word. Then I checked the free online Merriam-Webster, which is based on the M-W Collegiate Dictionary. It showed only the hyphenated version.
I had occasion to sign up and pay for the full, unabridged Merriam-Webster, not on account of this quest, but because of the work I was doing for a client. I looked up the term in the unabridged. It is an interesting entry. The main spelling is two words. The second spelling is one word. The third spelling is hyphenated.
This reinforced for me something that I have long known but often forget. Dictionaries are not created by some omnipotent Language Being. They are compiled by real people making human decisions. While each dictionary publisher has its own rigorous rules and guidelines, producing a dictionary is an art, not a science.
At some point in the 1970s I bought a small vest-pocket book called 50,000 words. I don’t remember whether I was still in college or if I bought it shortly thereafter. In those pre-personal computer days I needed something to check my spelling when I was writing. I didn’t need to pull out a complete dictionary; I simply needed to find the correct spelling. It was a handy little thing and I used it a lot.
I haven’t really used it for many years since our computer applications effectively check spelling for us, but I recently had the impulse to pull it out of my center desk drawer where I had kept it for so many decades. It wasn’t there. I suppose I considered it expendable when we were moving.
It’s too bad. The book represented another era in my life. Copies are still around, however. Here’s one that I found on eBay which looks just like the one I had.
I get an email each time the folks at grammarbook.com publish a new blog entry. The pieces are often interesting and I have the opportunity refresh and review my knowledge of various grammar rules. Sometimes, however, the people there can get just a little too fussy and stuffy. Such was the case with a recent discussion of tautologies.
A tautology is, of course, a needless repetition of words. The Grammar Book crew tells us that we should eliminate all tautologies from our writing.
Some tautologies we can clearly do without. “Forward planning” is a good example. Can you plan for the past? However, the article also cites phrases such as “each and every one,” “above and beyond,” and “vast majority” as forms to avoid.
The piece admits that tautologies will always exist in spoken language. (When I was in the food service business in college the cook would say that he was going to “steam off” the vegetables. The unnecessary “off” is part of the rhythm and cadence of spoken English.) The story then goes on to say, “Careful writers, on the other hand, have the time and the will to infuse their linguistic diets with protein. They cut the sugar and carbs that add calories without nutrients to their thoughts.”
What the Grammar Book people fail to acknowledge is that 1) cadence and rhythm matter in written English as well as spoken and 2) the longer version can have a different shade of meaning than the simpler form.
To cite their examples, both “each and every one” and “above and beyond” have a cadence that a stripped down version would be without. They also offer a form of emphasis that would be missing in a simpler version. There are instances where “vast majority” is indeed appropriate. Fifty percent plus one is a majority, but not a vast majority. In a recent ballot initiative in the City of Lake Elsinore, California, the No vote was 3,320, while the Yes vote was 446. In this case, the vast majority of people casting their ballots voted No.
Here’s another phrase the blog tells us to avoid: “invited guest.” Again, there are times when “invited” might be appropriate. If you are driving down the interstate and are getting tired you might stop and check in at a motel. You are a guest at the motel, but not an invited guest. However, if you receive an invitation to a formal banquet on linen stock with raised ink and then are treated shabbily by the host, someone might write in your defense that you were, after all, an “invited guest.”
While there are plenty of situations in which tautology is best avoided (don’t you hate those signs that read “ATM Machine”?) tautology is nonetheless one of many components that makes English the rich language that it is.
Use it when appropriate.
Grammar nerds are delighted at the news story last week that the Oxford comma decided a court case. Being a grammar nerd who loves the Oxford comma, I got caught up in the excitement.
The Oxford comma, or serial comma, is the final comma right before the conjunction in a series of words. Some style guides favor it, others say to omit it. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage says not to use it. The Chicago Manual of Style tells us we should use it.
Here is an example: “I had eggs, toast, and orange juice.” If you omit the final comma (I had eggs, toast and orange juice) the sentence could be read as telling the toast and orange juice that you had eggs for breakfast.
In fact, eliminating ambiguity is one of the strongest arguments in favor of the Oxford comma. Take this example: “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” While this was probably never really a dedication in a published book, I love it nonetheless. The implication that the author is saying that his parents are Ayn Rand and God really strikes my funny bone.
And the court case? The court case was all about ambiguity. In Maine a group of dairy delivery drivers believed they were entitled to overtime pay. Their employer said they weren’t. The relevant statute states that workers involved in the following activities are not eligible for overtime:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.
Note the missing comma before the “or.” Because that comma was not there, the court read “packing for shipment or distribution” as a single activity, when in fact “packing for shipment” and “distribution” were probably meant to be understood as separate activities. Nonetheless, the judge sided with the (missing) Oxford comma and ruled that the delivery drivers were eligible for overtime.
Here’s to the Oxford comma!
I just finished my second time through the Great Courses lecture series Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage1 by John McWhorter. It’s an enjoyable and fascinating set of lectures about how language is used. Given that McWhorter is a linguist, he is as interested in how language is actually used as he is in how it “should be” used. (Yes, I do seem to have a fondness for linguists.)
In his lecture on texting he suggests that the practice is not as harmful to the language as some people might want to think. He points out that the same questions arose when the use of email first became common. He also suggests that the abbreviations used in texting do not carry over into everyday speech and formal writing. He uses the examples OMG, LOL, BFF, and WTF.
It seems to me, however, that sometimes people do say “o-m-g.” It’s a nice alternative, perhaps, in polite company to using the complete phrase it replaces. Someone might also say “b-f-f” I suppose. But people certainly don’t go around saying “lol” in everyday speech. In fact “w-t-f” might be a useful euphemism to introduce into casual conversation, but I’ve never heard anyone say it.
In any case, I think that McWhorter is correct: texting has not had an adverse effect on other forms of communication. He sees four boxes, as he calls them:
- Being a good conversationalist
- Having great formal writing skills
- Making a compelling and effective speech
- Crafting oneself as a “maximally clever e-mailer and as an aggressively clever texter.”
McWhorter tells us, “Cultivate your four boxes.”
That makes sense to me.
1If the course is not on sale, check back – the sale price will come around again