Category Archives: Grammar and Usage Errors

The misplaced “only”

“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.

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No problem

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.

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Three pronunciation blunders

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.

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Sure up

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.

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Sooner than later

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.

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On the one hand

It is idiomatically preferable, in my view, to include the in both parts of the correlative expression On the one hand/on the other hand. I know that many competent writers omit the first the, so that the expression reads On one hand/on the other hand. And I understand the argument in favor of omitting it: after all, we do not normally insert the in comparable expressions. We would not typically say, in describing the contents of two grocery bags, In the one bag/in the other bag.(Or maybe we would; I certainly would not object to that expression.) I also acknowledge that On one hand may be at least as popular (in American English, though not in British English) as On the one hand.

But I nonetheless believe, for several reasons, that On the one hand is the better choice:

1. It has history on its side. On the one hand is the traditional idiom. It sounds familiar and natural. Why omit the when it is doing no harm?

2. Authoritative dictionaries treat On the one hand as the standard expression, meaning “from the first perspective” or “from one point of view.” Look it up (under the entry for hand).

3. There is a comforting balance and rhythm to the expression that is sacrificed when the is omitted.

4. The expression is figurative, not literal. We’re not talking about actual hands the way we might about actual grocery bags, so resort to comparable expressions does not carry much weight.

5. On the one hand is likely to be less noticeable, less jarring, than On one hand. Every time I see On one hand, I feel the need to insert the after on (just as I cannot keep myself from adding a missing of after couple in the expression couple of). Why risk calling needless negative attention to your writing?

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Long story short

I am not fond of the hackneyed phrase to make a long story short (or its many trite cousins, including to cut to the chase and to get down to business). But it does not bother me all that much if used sparingly. What does grate on me is the truncated, slangy version long story short, as in these annoying examples:

From Time — Long story short, he quit his job to become a musician.

From The AtlanticLong story short: our system of finance is irrational and disorganized and presents perverse incentives to doctors, hospitals, and communities.

Perhaps I’m being overly rigid: the shorthand version of the phrase, after years of irritating repetition, may have become idiomatically acceptable (like the even more irritating push the envelope). It certainly has the advantage of brevity. But I cannot help thinking less of writers who compound their banality with slovenliness.

My advice: avoid the phrase entirely, but, if you cannot help yourself, at least use the standard idiomatic expression and stay away from its bastard offspring.

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