Our November of Discontent Continues: Brass Tacks and Random Numbers

When I first announced plans to spend a month discussing flawed usage and mangled idioms, my friends and relatives were quick to give me their input. It wasn’t quite what I had expected. Almost without exception, they said some variation of, “Yeah, I always wanted to know: what the heck is an idiom, anyway?”

Okay, that’s a fair question. The term idiom is used in at least two different but related senses to refer to a cluster of words often appearing together.

  • An idiom can be an arbitrary combination of words with a special meaning beyond the literal interpretation of the terms. Custom and convention determine the special meaning. Often, one of the terms is an adverb or (less commonly) a preposition. As an example of how the idiomatic meaning swallows the original definition of the words, consider this: what happens to the meaning of the word up when you call out to a friend to “wait up”? What happens to on in the sentence “I was embarrassed to have my mother-in-law wait on my table at the Lonelyheart’s Lounge?”

    Idioms are notorious for confusing people trying to learn English as a second language. Somebody who has begun to master an English vocabulary could, for example, figure out what’s meant by “put down the pencil” or “put down the laundry basket” readily enough. But put down as an idiom meaning “criticize in a humiliating manner” (“Jane, don’t put down your sister just because she’s not passing Algebra class”) or put down meaning “euthanize” (“We had to have the ferret put down because it wouldn’t stop biting the baby”) must be learned as exceptions to the usual rules of meaning. If we’re familiar with the idiom, we recognize when someone uses the wrong words—for instance, saying “put over” when she means “put down.”
  • In another sense, an idiom can be a conventional figure of speech that derives its meaning from a proverb, metaphor, parable, or cliché. Again, the understood meaning of the phrase goes beyond the literal meaning of the words. Examples include white elephant, to see eye to eye, straight from the horse’s mouth, stiff upper lip, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and to make hay while the sun shines.

More Mistakes for Your Amusement and Education

Throughout this month, we’ll be looking at twenty usage errors that sometimes rear their ugly heads (Note: “to rear its ugly head” is an idiom, type 2) in content writing. Yes, I have seen examples of each of these over the last six months, honest to goodness (another type 2 idiom). Because it’s so important to keep your business website on a professional footing, business managers and owners must train their writing staff to avoid these common mistakes. Good luck!

9. “Get down to brass taxes”

Here’s a good example of a misused idiom. Everyone generally agrees that this expression means to clear away the extraneous details in order to concentrate on the most important core issues. The dispute is over whether the expression is “get down to brass tacks” or “brass taxes.” I side with the majority view favoring “brass tacks,” even though the origin of the phrase isn’t clear; it may be rhyming slang for “facts.”

Some who favor the “brass taxes” phrase explain that coins used to be collectively called “brass.” Others claim that there was a law passed by the U.S. Congress in 1854 that imposed a nationwide excise tax on brassworks, from construction fittings to musical instruments. Those interpretations sound fanciful to me, and neither of them explains the customary meaning of the phrase.

10. “Everyday” versus “every day”

“It’s not everyday that a person suffers from a serious injury,” wrote one content writer whose work I recently saw. That sentence brought to mind a variety of similar expressions that act as adjectives when written as a single word, and as adverbs when written as two words. “Everyday” is an adjective that must describe a noun phrase; it means “commonplace” or “regularly occurring,” as in “Receiving annoying phone calls from telemarketers is an everyday occurrence in my household.” Note how the word everyday clings to and describes the noun occurrence.

By contrast, every day works as an adverb to modify a verb, adjective, or another adverb—but never a noun. It means exactly what it says: “daily; each and every day.” It is used in a sentence such as, “My podiatrist wants me to take a low-dose aspirin every day.”

The example at the start of this section? Well, it demands an adverb, not an adjective, because there is no noun phrase being modified. So the correct usage would be every day, rather than everyday.

11. “Overwhelm”

Another recent submission from a writer (cleverly disguised to protect the guilty) was this disaster: “Knowing the steps you will have to take through the disability application process can help alleviate some of the overwhelm.”

The word overwhelm is a verb. You can see it used properly in this sentence: “The wrongful death of a beloved family member due to nursing home neglect can overwhelm you emotionally and unexpectedly.” It hasn’t been widely accepted as a noun, even though there are a few references to it being used that way over the centuries. Lately, though, “overwhelm” as a noun has become sort of trendy in business school and psychology jargon. I’m sure we have all noticed how b-school buzzwords quickly show up on professional websites. My advice: resist this usage, and use overwhelm only as a verb.

12. “Whether or not”

Grr. This one always makes me a little prickly.

“Whether” is a conjunction that is used in two ways to indicate a choice. In the first way, there is an explicit list of the available choices, presented using parallel construction. For example, “Having found a $20 bill in the street, Rodney now was agonizing over whether to buy milk for his children or to spend the afternoon at the movies.”

The second way applies when there’s only a simple yes-or-no choice for the one option presented. When this happens, the word whether does double duty: it means “if or if not.” You can see this function at work in the sentence, “Dr. Thorson had to decide whether amputating the patient’s remaining toes would be likely to improve her quality of life.” You could swap the phrase “if or if not” in place of whether in that sentence to get the same meaning.

But what are we to make of this piece of content writing from an attorney’s website? “Before you can make an informed decision about whether or not to pursue a personal injury case, it is important that you understand the benefits of such a case and what you risk by failing to take action.” There is only one course of action, and a simple yes-or-no decision is required, but if we substitute “if or if not” in place of whether, we get “an informed decision about if or if not or not to pursue a personal injury case.” Pure drivel.

“Whether” should never be followed with “or not.” The idea of “or not” is implied whenever you use “whether.”

13. “Random” versus “arbitrary”

“Random” has become a trendy word lately; it seems to have crawled from informal teenage speech into common adult usage. “Random” correctly means “unpredictable, left to chance, without reason or purpose.”

Much of the time, writers who use “random” really should be using “arbitrary,” which means “selected by whim or impulse, rather than by reason.” A crucial distinction is the matter of agency: when objects, courses of action, or events are chosen by people, it’s not proper to call them random. When natural forces are driving the action, it’s not right to call them arbitrary. Radioactive decay is a random event. Selecting the color for the new living room drapes is arbitrary (but please, not paisley again).

14. “No one”

English has the compound words somebody, anybody, someone, anyone, and nobody, but the two word phrase no one did not evolve the same way. Actually, that’s not completely true: British English has accepted the hyphenated version no-one, although that usage is now viewed as stuffy and old-fashioned. So don’t try to use the compound word noone, because it doesn’t really exist.

“None” is not a contraction of no one; the word evolved separately, and still has a distinctive meaning. No one can only refer to people, but none can also refer to animals, objects, and even concepts (“None of the windows,” “None of the moral rules of pre-Socratic philosophy”).

Note that both “none” and “no one” are each treated as singular words in almost all circumstances.

Just Wait! Half a Dozen Errors Remain to Be Inspected.

Our list of classic usage mistakes will conclude in a future blog posting very soon. If you find you disagree with a usage recommendation given here—or if you want to sound off (idiom type 1) on other syntax foibles—we would like to encourage you to use the comments box on this page.

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