Thank You, English
Traditionally, this is the time of the year when we take a few moments to reflect on the many people and things that enrich our lives. My list of things for which I am grateful has been especially long this year. However, I still need to express my appreciation for one or two special items on my list.
This seems to be the right forum to talk about my love of the English language. As I may have mentioned before, the written word has always been important to me. Even more, I feel particularly blessed to be able to work with extraordinarily creative and talented writers.
Every day I rejoice that I get to work with English, arguably the most resource-rich language that has ever existed. Sure, now and then I run into a complication in grammar or usage, but those little annoyances are more than offset by the richness, diversity, and nuance that English offers. Because English borrows words wholesale from other tongues, it abounds with synonyms offering subtle shades of meaning from all other words. That’s a boundless wealth we all share.
Of course, one result of the richness of the English language is that some users will spend their patrimony unwisely. Bad English usage has been our theme this month, and today we conclude our review of twenty all-too-common mistakes. Enjoy, and let’s hope one of your favorite expressions isn’t on the table for today’s feast.
15. “Imply” versus “infer”
A lot of people use these verbs as synonyms. A lot of people are wrong to do so.
In fact, they are nearly opposites; they both describe a particular reasoning process, but from differing perspectives. To imply means to leave little hints, consciously or not, that can indicate the truth below the surface. To infer is to draw a conclusion by assembling the tiny clues that have been left behind. Metaphorically, to imply means to shed a trail of breadcrunbs as you travel through the woods; to infer means to follow a trail of crumbs to the wicked witch’s gingerbread house.
You want examples? Try these:
- By calling attention to the new ring on her finger, Betty implied that she had accepted Jughead’s proposal.
- After looking around the apartment and noticing the badly dented tire-iron, the shattered vial of poison, the pockmarks of bullets embedded in the wall, and the bloody Civil War saber under the sofa, Detective Sgt. Hack inferred that foul play may have occurred.
16. “Off of” (and other stacked prepositions)
Let’s look a three examples of recent content writing. As always, a few details have been changed to protect the writers from shame:
- “Accidents can happen any time someone takes their eyes off the road, takes their hands off of the wheel, and/or takes their mind off of driving.”
- “It’s often useful to keep information about your accident, injuries, or recovery off of social media because anything you post on Facebook may later be used by insurance companies in ways you did not intend.”
- “Smartphone users may have to take their eyes off of the road longer, while Google Glass users may still see at least part of the road while they read messages.”
The difficulty here is not that “off of” is hands-down incorrect—it isn’t. One can find citations back to Shakespeare and his contemporaries. No, the complaint here is that it’s redundant. In almost all circumstances, off of can be replaced by a simple off with no change in meaning. As a result, many usage guides now suggest that business writing use off whenever possible, and save off of for informal occasions only.
“Off of” isn’t the only culprit when it comes to stacked prepositions, however. Look at these two recent examples:
- “Unfortunately, your workers’ compensation claim sticks you in between your employer and the insurance adjuster.”
- “Crush injuries occur when body parts are subject to extreme force or pressure, usually after being squeezed in between two objects.”
It’s the same principle with different words. Here, the common phrase is in between. To eliminate the redundancy, just use “between.”
17. “Cut and dry”
“Legal precedent means this matter is cut and dry,” one content writer has written to me. The writer used the phrase cut and dry to mean “settled, completely decided, or not subject to review or revision.”
Well, perhaps the legal matter isn’t subject to further changes, but the writer’s words ought to be. They show a mistake in the idiom based on a reluctance to use the past participle. Most authorities agree that the correct phrase is cut and dried, based on a metaphorical reference to flowers or herbs that have been cut down and dried for preservation.
In recent years, we’ve seen a number of phrases in which the past participle form of a verb is being replaced with a present tense verb. Now, that doesn’t make sense. Past participles can serve as adjectives; present tense verbs cannot. My personal belief is that phrases such as “ice tea” for iced tea and “whip cream” for whipped cream began as sloppy spoken articulation of the correct phrases. Soon, those misspoken words were recorded as acceptable written usage. You may, of course, do as you like with the written content for your professional website, but I would advise hewing to the past participle forms that are most widely accepted as correct.
18. “Whilst” and “amongst”
The conjunction whilst and the preposition amongst are identical in usage and meaning to while and among, respectively. Whilst and amongst are completely legitimate and acceptable words—in British English. They’re also okay to use in U.S. English, but many people think they seem pretentious, old-fashioned, or twee. Overusing either word will make readers question whether you are a native speaker of American English.
My advice is to avoid whilst and amongst unless you are striving for a special emotional reaction to your writing.
19. “Begs the question”
This idiom is often incorrectly used to mean “raises the question; brings up the topic for debate.” For instance, consider this sentence from a news report: “The recent Supreme Court decision begs the question of when would the Court exclude evidence from a warrantless police search merely because the search violates the Fourth Amendment.”
Unfortunately, that’s not what “begging the question” means at all. To beg the question is to engage in circular reasoning—to assume that the conclusion you want is true and use that assumption in order to “prove” the conclusion. It’s one of the large classes of fallacies of reasoning handed down to us from ancient Greece.
For an example of begging the question, let’s consider the situation of a medical device manufacturer confronted with a personal injury lawsuit based on a claim that its Surgeon Pro 6000 device inflicted horrible wounds when it was used in an abdominal operation. The CEO of the company, when called as a witness, says the device is safe because the Food and Drug Administration permitted it to go on sale. But under cross-examination, the CEO is forced to admit that the FDA must label a medical device safe and allow its sale when the manufacturer says the new device is basically similar to an older device—in this case, the Surgeon Pro 300—that had previously been sold, even if the older device was recalled. Circular reasoning? Oh, yeah. The CEO is saying the new device is safe because the FDA called it safe, and the FDA called it safe because the manufacturer promised it was.
Writers should bear in mind that quality is a noun, not an adjective. Look at these real-world examples:
- “Call us TODAY to get started on your case and see what a difference having a quality, skilled New Orleans criminal defense lawyer can have on your future.”
- “Robust website content will answer specific customer queries with well-planned, quality content.”
Ah, sure. But is this a high-quality New Orleans lawyer, or a low-quality one? It’s nice to know the content is well planned, but is its “quality” any good?
The word “quality” provides a yardstick for evaluation, but it doesn’t suggest any particular measurement along that range. For that, you need adjectives that provide descriptive color for “quality.” Time to crack open the thesaurus.
Giving Thanks to You, Loyal Reader
It has been great fun this year playing the role of crotchety grammarian, and I look forward to another year of playing in the vast sandbox that is the English language. I hope you’ve found these columns both entertaining and useful. Thank you for your attention and your time.
I would be shirking my responsibilities, however, if I failed to remind you that promoting more effective, dynamic, and grammatical writing is only a small part of what we do at Foster Web Marketing. We’d like to encourage you to explore other articles on our website, to learn the breadth of our operations. And when you decide you need a question answered or a little additional help on your professional marketing plan, please use the instant chat buttons or the contact forms on any page to get priority attention.