“The word only is probably misplaced more often than any other modifier in legal and nonlegal writing.” So says preeminent grammar-and-usage expert Bryan Garner, whose cogent lesson on the subject deserves our careful attention. Check it out here.
UPDATE: I’ve fixed the broken link.
Carlos Lozada, editor of The Washington Post‘s Outlook, has published a priceless collection of clichés that are favored by journalists but are banned in Outlook. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if these words and phrases could truly be exterminated? I would not rule out involuntary application of electroconvulsive therapy as a means to that worthy end.
At least 90% of restaurant personnel routinely commit one or more of these uncivilized provocations:
1. “Hi, my name is Amy, and I’ll be your server this evening.” This strained, robotic introduction, which so many restaurants misguidedly force their waiters to utter, is intrusive and unnecessary. I truly don’t care what your name is, and it is perfectly obvious that you will be my server. Let’s just get on with it.
2. “How are we enjoying everything so far?” First of all, who is this “we”? When you mean “you,” just say “you.” Second, this blatant fishing for culinary compliments, typically timed to interrupt a perfectly pleasant table conversation, is annoying to those who are actually doing their best to enjoy everything. Either leave us alone or find a more refined way to ask the question. I’ve noticed, for example, that at better restaurants with well-trained personnel a waiter may ask, “Is everything prepared to your liking?” Phrased that way, the question is inoffensive, perhaps because it bespeaks a genuine concern for the diner’s satisfaction. And when the diner says that “everything is excellent” or the like, please do not feel the need to exclaim “Awesome!” Artificial expressions of waiter enthusiasm depress my appetite and put me at risk of indigestion.
3. “Are you still working on that?” It is difficult to imagine a less dignified way to ask whether a diner would like his or her plate to be removed. “Working on that” implies that eating in this restaurant is a chore akin to cleaning the bathroom or taking out the trash. Nor am I fond of a common alternative, “May I get that out of the way for you?” That question suggests that what is in front of you on the table is interfering with your quality of life. A more refined approach is to ask, “Are you still enjoying your pasta?” Even that question, though, is problematic: it implies, perhaps falsely, that the diner has enjoyed the pasta already consumed. The direct approach is probably the best: “May I clear your plate?”
4. Clearing plates too aggressively. It is rude to clear plates sequentially, denuding the space in front of each diner in turn the instant he or she has finished the meal. First, it suggests that the restaurant is overly eager to free up the table for other guests. Second, it exerts subtle pressure on the diner’s companions to rush through the balance of their meals. The last one done often feels the need to apologize for being so slow. The more polite course is to wait until everyone at the table has finished and then clear all plates at the same time.
When did “no problem” worm its way into casual discourse as a response to “thank you”? It is such an inelegant substitute for “you’re welcome” or “my pleasure.” Please just avoid it. Thank you.
1. Substantive is properly pronounced SUB-stant-iv, with the accent on the first syllable, not sub-STANT-iv, with the accent on the second syllable. If you listen, you will hear even well-educated, sophisticated speakers commit this annoying error.
2. Homogeneous consists of five syllables: ho-mo-JEE-nee-us. This is the word we use to describe something composed of parts or elements of the same kind — for example, a homogeneous population. Homogenous (without the e) is also a word, but it has a different meaning and a different pronunciation. It is a biological term that means corresponding in structure because of a common origin. It is pronounced ho-MODGE-uh-nus. It is increasingly common to hear — and see — the word homogenous when the speaker or writer obviously means homogeneous. Perhaps the confusion can be traced to the word homogenize, which means to make homogeneous and which sounds more like homogenous than homogeneous. Is the language evolving so that the distinction between the two words may someday disappear? Maybe. But until then (long after I’m gone, I hope), careful writers and speakers must take care to spell homogeneous with that critical e and pronounce it with the required five syllables.
3. Those who insist on using the French term chaise longue should pronounce it correctly as shays-long, not as shays-lounge. Look at the second word: the u comes after the g, not before the n. Decades of misuse may someday lead to broad acceptance of the boorish shays-lounge, but we should conscientiously object at every opportunity. The best path, of course, is avoid the French term altogether. There’s nothing wrong with lounge chair or even (if you find French terms irresistible) chaise without the longue.
This trivial usage error barely warrants comment, but it crops up so frequently, and causes me so much irritation when it does, that I think it deserves a short post of its own. The correct expression for reinforcing or securing support for something is shore up, not sure up. This gross malapropism can be found regularly in the sports pages, which I suppose is not so surprising, but I am always shocked when I see it in presumably well-edited news articles on serious subjects. For example:
From the Washington Post: “Yes, a Petraeus pick would sure up questions regarding Romney’s expertise (or lack thereof) on matters of foreign policy and national security.” [The error here is compounded by incoherence: what the writer meant to say is that the pick would shore up Romney's expertise, not that it would shore up questions regarding Romney's expertise, which is the opposite of the writer's intended meaning. And the parenthetical or lack thereof makes the entire sentence unintelligible.]
From the Hartford Business Journal: “The FDIC’s consent order demands that the bank take several steps to sure up its financial position . . . “
Those who make their living as writers should do a better job of writing prose free of embarrassing mistakes.
I agree with Bryan Garner that the hackneyed expression sooner rather than later is redundant and should be avoided in favor of a simple soon. See Garner’s Modern American Usage, p. 759-60. But what I find truly annoying is the bastardized version sooner than later, which is not only redundant but also incoherent. Though it may be too late to eradicate this verbal weed, we should at least avoid propagating it ourselves, and we should condemn those who allow it to invade their speech or writing.