Oh, the dilemma!

Rock Hard PlaceI was recently asked by a friend about the difference between ‘choose’ and ‘decide’. She felt that ‘choose’ implied more personal agency and that ‘decide’ is what you do when you have less personal agency and you’re left with having to select between someone else’s choices. She asked this specifically with regards to how animals in captivity might be limited in their choice of opportunities, such as where they might like to rest. She told me that animals in the wild have a high degree of agency and choose from a wide range of opportunities such as exactly how much dappled light they might lie in. Confined animals have notably less options, often having to decide between sun or shade, inside or outside, the rock or the dirt. I love that these questions of word choice come up in the most interesting fields!

Anyway, my linguistics study, many moons ago, included the topic of semantics, where we had whole assignments on the difference between a cup and a mug, between happiness and joy. For those assignments we needed to look carefully at the evidence of how both these words are used, starting with definitions.

Macquarie has this for ‘decide’:

–verb (t) 1. to determine or settle (a question, controversy, struggle, etc.) by giving victory to one side. 2. to adjust or settle (anything in dispute or doubt). 3. to bring (a person) to a decision: *The appearance of the woman decided me at once –oliné keese, 1859. –verb (i) 4. to settle something in dispute or doubt. 5. to pronounce a judgement; come to a conclusion.

and this for ‘choose’:

–verb (t) 1. to select from a number, or in preference to another or other things or persons. 2. to prefer and decide (to do something): she chose to stand for election. 3. to want; desire.

Neither definition mentions agency, although ‘decide’ has more meanings that imply an external party.

After looking around a bit further, I think the word that conveys the lack of freedom of choice is ‘dilemma’. There are a number of different types of dilemma (including, but not limited to ‘ethical dilemma’), but the main definition is ‘a problem offering two possibilities, neither of which is unambiguously acceptable or preferable’.

The problem with ‘choose’ vs. ‘decide’ is that while ‘choose’ definitely conveys the possibility of two or more choices, it can equally be used to describe limited choices. We have a lot of expressions for this (from that wiki page linked to above): ‘Damned if you do, damned if you don’t’; ‘Lesser of two evils’; ‘Between a rock and a hard place’, since both objects or metaphorical choices are rough; ‘Between the devil and the deep blue sea’.

But none of these tell us if we would use the verb ‘choose’ or ‘decide’ for them. For that we can go to ngrams, which track word and phrase usage over time. Here are the links to where I ran a couple of these.

  • lesser of’ shows ‘choose between’ on the chart; ‘decide between’ doesn’t even appear.
  • between the devil’ is the same.

If you accept that ‘between’ means that the choices are only two (and therefore limited), then you can run an ngram on ‘choose between’ and ‘decide between’, which shows that ‘choose between’ is far more common than ‘decide between’. All this suggests that ‘choose’ can be used even when agency is limited.

The other problem with putting ‘decide’ as the option where an individual doesn’t have agency is that while some of its meanings are about external authority, the meaning also specifically includes instances of personal agency. We also have positive connotations in English for that word; for instance, you might prefer to read a job application where the applicant describes themselves as decisive rather than indecisive. It has strong connotations of personal agency.

Also, ‘choose’ and ‘decide’ are in many instances interchangeable, and only in some instances not:

  • ‘humans choosedecide what possibilities are available and the animal must decidechoose which to utilise’
  • ‘animal had agency then it may choose [maybe interchangeable here? but less so] something completely different.’
  • ‘tripe or brains for dinner? I wouldn’t choose [can’t change this one] to eat either … I must decidechoose between what’s available’.

All of this makes me want to spend days gathering a ton of data from various corpora about exactly where these phrases are used and exactly how much agency is implied in every usage and do a comparison over time … but instead I will choose to keep going on my more immediate editorial tasks. Happy new year!

Help me to assist you

One of the hallmarks of formal writing in English seems to be that it uses Latin words even where there is an Anglo-Saxon (Old English) synonym; in fact, changing Latin words to their Anglo-Saxon equivalents is one of the tools in the ‘paramedic method’ of editing. The push to plain(er) language in business and science writing means that we’re seeing much less of ‘annum’, ‘sufficient’ and ‘employment’ and more of ‘year’, ‘enough’ and ‘work’.

But it seems that ‘assist’ is really hanging in there. Macquarie Dictionary defines it as ‘to give support, help, or aid to in some undertaking or effort, or in time of distress.’ The Anglo-Saxon equivalent ‘help’ is defined as ‘to cooperate effectively with a person; aid; assist’. They definitely mean the same thing.

Yet I almost never see ‘help’ in the reports I edit, whereas ‘assist’ is very common. There seems to be reluctance by writers to use the more direct word, as if perhaps the Latin word keeps a polite distance and an assumption of equality between the giver and recipient of the aid. This view seems to be borne out in other articles I found, such as this from a coaching company (they did not link to their source of this definition):

When we give or offer to ‘help’ someone, we are generally working from the assumption that the person in question is unable to resolve their own problems. We may take on the solution to the problem when we offer help … On the other hand, when we make ourselves available to ‘assist’ another person, they continue to own the project, goal, or problem – we simply make ourselves available as an additional resource that they can make use of along the way.

and this from a business communication site:

In a strict sense, ‘assistance’ implies a subordination of the assistant in a way that ‘help’ does not … Webster’s describes the difference in this way: “HELP carries a strong implication of advance toward an objective (every little bit helps)…. ASSIST distinctively imputes a secondary role to the assistant or a secondary character to the assistance (a deputy assists rather than aids his superior).

Macquarie Dictionary does not make this distinction; nor does Oxford Dictionaries. That description from Webster’s given in the quote above isn’t online anywhere (but that’s not to say it isn’t in a paper copy), and the standard Webster’s online dictionary doesn’t say anything about subordination being part of the meaning of ‘assist’. Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English says that ‘assist is a formal word, and means to help someone by doing part of the work for them, especially the things that are not very important’, but this still doesn’t say anything about whether ‘help’ assumes helplessness of the recipient or a patronising attitude of the helper.

Is this a word undergoing meaning shift? Or is it just that people feel they should use the more formal word in more formal contexts? In this case, the message is clear with ‘help’. ‘Assist’ doesn’t add anything that ‘help’ doesn’t already have. No need, however, for ‘help assist’, as in this, from George Bush in January 1990: ‘I informed President Endara that we’d arrived at an economic assistance package to help assist Panama in its economic recovery.’ That’s just too much.

Thanks to Pleated Jeans for the image, which originally came from Izifunny, and probably from somewhere else before that.

Substance abuse

Image

Sometimes the meanings of two words are very close and it’s easy to confuse them. Two such words are ‘substantial’ and ‘substantive’.

According to Macquarie (Australia’s dictionary), the meanings are:

substantial: real or actual, of ample amount, of solid character, of real worth, having to do with substance, having to do with the essence of a thing.

substantive: having independent existence, belonging to the real or essential part of a thing, essential, real or actual, of considerable amount or quantity.

Obviously they’re very close in meaning. Sometimes Macquarie includes usage notes about words that might be easily confused, such as in the entry for ‘effect’, where the usage note says ‘not to be confused with affect’, but it does not for these two.

Searching a little broader (read: trawling the great google) was a little more useful. In fact, given the ease with which the internet erupts in apoplexy about infinitesimally subtle shades of meaning, it’s eerily quiet out there on this topic. (I have, however, learned from the interwebz that ‘Substantial’ is the name of a Maryland rapper. Yes, that’s him in the pic.) That tells me that either most people have a feel for it and get it right, or that most people don’t know the difference between them and so don’t know when they’ve been used incorrectly, or that the meanings are so close that to a large extent they are interchangeable. It seems from Macquarie (and from what you’ll see below) that it’s mostly this last reason.

Many lists aim to educate people about easily confused words, and these two do not appear on the most common ones:

Even Grammar Girl didn’t have an entry about this.

But the formal sources do: Fowler’s Modern English Usage and the Australian English Style Guide (Peters).

Fowler’s has a couple of paragraphs on it: both words mean ‘of substance’, but they have become differentiated to the extent that ‘-ial’ is now the word in general use for real, of real importance, sizeable, solid, well-to-do, etc, and ‘-ive’, is chiefly used in special senses: in grammar, in parliamentary proceedings, in law, in the services. This is in the 2004 edition, by the way; the difference between ‘substantial’ and ‘substantive’ was not mentioned at all in the 1926 edition.

Peters also discusses this issue, saying that the two can appear in the same context but have a different focus. ‘Substantial’ is the more common of the two, by a factor of 14:1 and has more of a physical meaning, being about size or proportion. (This difference is usage would be explained by the narrower uses for ‘substantive’ given in Fowler’s above.) ‘Substantive’ is more abstract, and is to do with there being real issues. If a document is long and important in its content then it will be substantial and substantive; but a reader will prefer to get the substantive component without having to wade through substantial pages for it!

So ‘substantial’ has more to do with the amount of a change, and ‘substantive’ to do with affecting the substance itself. You might say that reducing a document by 20% through (for example, the paramedic method) was substantial but not substantive if the content was essentially the same, but that the document had undergone a substantive change if three new chapters were introduced while keeping the length the same by reducing the size of other chapters.

As to a memory device for this? I suggest the near rhymes of “a substantial meal is plentiful;a substantive argument is illustrative” could help. Now, put that into a rap.

___________________________________________________________________________
Burchfield RW. 2000. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Revised 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
Peters. P. 1995. The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Image from: http://substantialmusic.wordpress.com/2012/07/03/music-free-download-sweet-dreams-1-spot-from-fanomm-chew-fu-x-substantial-x-j-cast/

Special effects affect me

Many people have trouble remembering when to use ‘affect’ and when to use ‘effect’. The basic rule is that ‘affect’ is a verb, and ‘effect’ is a noun (except for some less common usage, which is described later).

Affect – verb: to influence           Cold weather affects me.

(‘Affect’ as a verb is also used sometimes to mean ‘to put airs on’ – ‘She affected a sophisticated pose with her little finger.’ – Fowler’s says that this usage is of quite different origins to the more usual meaning of ‘to influence’.)

Effect – noun: the thing that causes some change    One cold weather effect is a numb nose.

There are a number of memory devices you can use for this one – the one that seems to have stuck in my head is to use the opposite of the obvious word trick: there is an ‘e’ in verb, so that should go with ‘effect’ but it doesn’t (because they’re opposite), so the verb is affect. This is somewhat laboured and possibly not very intuitive, but it has worked for me all these years.

Another way is to remember some example sentences, like the title of this post. You would know that in basic English sentences the word order is ‘something does something to something’. This is called subject, verb, object word order and it means that basic sentences have the structure of noun/verb/noun. Don’t worry if all that grammar terminology is meaningless; have a look at the table below:

Subject (noun or noun phrase) Verb (verb or verb phrase) Object (noun or noun phrase)
The boy kicked the ball.
Mary wrote a letter.
The brilliant Mets won the game.
Special effects saved the film.
Happy people influence everyone.
Happy people affect me.
Special effects affect me.
Cold weather affects me.
One cold weather effect is a numb nose.

So the special ‘effects’ (noun) have some influence, or ‘affect’ (verb) on people. Remember also that nouns are words that take plurals, so you’re often going to see ‘effects’ (more than one effect). Verbs are words that show tense and how many people are taking the action, so you’ll see ‘affected/affecting’ and ‘affects’ (I affect them; it affects me).

This is the most common use of these words. But in formal use they can occur as the opposite part of speech – and this complicates things and confuses people.

‘Effect’ can be a verb meaning ‘to bring about’: ‘The aim of the government policy on ice-cream is to effect change in eating habits of summer-stressed Australians.’ This one is usually used with the word ‘change’, but not necessarily. For example, you could say:

‘The medicine will effect her recovery’ (i.e. bring about her recovery)

which is different from:

‘The medicine will affect her recovery’ (have some influence on, but for better or worse is not known).

And ‘affect’ can be a noun used in psychology to describe a mood or how a person presents: ‘She arrived with a happy affect.’ This is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable (AFF-ect) as opposed to the pronunciation of the verb (aff-ECT).

Effect as a noun occurs 10–15 more times than effect as a verb, so there’s a good chance that’s the one you want. And affect as a noun occurs now only in psychology.

What about idioms? Some common expressions make use of ‘effect’: my personal effects; to take good effect; the after effect; the butterfly effect; in effect; something to that effect; snowball effect … these are all nouns, and all of them are ‘effect’ with an ‘e’.

Sources:
Burchfield RW. 2000. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Revised 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
Peters. P. 1995. The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/effect
Grammar Girl: http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/affect-versus-effect.aspx
And last, but not least, wikimedia commons for the image: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alfred_Hitchcock%27s_Vertigo_trailer_-_Vertigo%27s_Effect.png

Spot the difference

 

Do you prefer your books similar to your movies, or different from them? What about different to them? Or even different than them? In Australian usage, ‘different’ is usually paired with ‘from’, at a rate of about 6 to 1 (and ‘similar’ is usually paired with ‘to’), but it’s not the case that one is considered right and the other wrong. Fowler, in 1926, said it was a superstition that ‘different’ could only be followed by ‘from’. (He was rather acerbic in this entry, actually, saying this was a mere pedantry, a hasty and ill-defined generalisation … made by mistaken critics.) The modern edition gives more detail about usage, giving ‘different to’ as occurring from 1526, ‘different from’ occurring from 1590, and ‘different than’ occurring from 1644. The trend has been for ‘different from’ to be more accepted in British usage, and ‘different than’ to be well accepted in American usage. Even though Australians may cringe to hear ‘that red car is different than the blue one’, they will be happy with ‘that result is different than we expected’ where a conjunction, rather than a preposition is required and where ‘than’ neatly replaces the repetition of the noun in ‘that result is different from the result we expected’.

The argument that we should say ‘different from’ because we are bound to say ‘differ from’ is also a furphy as it is not extended to other similarly derived pairs. For example, we must say ‘accords with’, but we accept, indeed require, ‘according to’.

Your dictionary may well say different, however. My Macquarie says that ‘different from’ is traditional but ‘different to’ is increasingly common and that ‘different than’ is widely deplored. I wish Macquarie had space or attitude enough to nod to Fowler on this, even as I find myself preferring the ‘different from’ construction.

That which does not kill me …

I recently heard that someone had been advised against ever using the word ‘that’ in their writing. Editors are often asked to clarify rules for people who were terrorised at some point in their education about prepositions, pronouns and prose, but this one was new to me. ‘That’ has many functions in English, so many that I felt anyone trying to speak or write without it would come across as if the reception were breaking up.

‘That’ can be all kinds of trouble to a writer because it can function as:

  • a demonstrative adjective (you’ll see in that magazine)
  • a demonstrative pronoun (hey, look at that!)
  • a relative pronoun (I had dinner at the restaurant that everyone was raving about)
  • a conjunction (we know that she is in cahoots with him)
  • an adverb (she was that mad!)

It turns out that the advice was about preferring ‘which’ over ‘that’ in the case of relative pronouns, under the assumption that the former was more correct in writing, and the latter should be reserved for speech. This idea was described as ‘a supposed, & misleading, distinction’ by Fowler in 1926. He explained the different frequency of their use as evidence of more complex structures in writing, where more peripheral information is packed into a single sentence, than is usual in speech, where people tend to keep sentences simple and add information by making new sentences.

The most common problem with that/which is in defining versus non-defining relative clauses. Consider these two sentences:

The women in my class, who are doctors, are left-handed.

The women in my class who are doctors are left-handed.

Non-defining clause

The first of these is an example of a non-defining clause. That is, the part in the middle that is set off from the rest by the commas does not ‘define’ the first part. It’s just an extra piece of information. My main statement is that ‘the women in my class are left-handed’. As it happens, they are also all doctors. Non-defining clauses are always set apart from the main clause by a pair of commas.

Defining clause

The second example shows a defining clause. In this case, there are some women in my class, but only some of those women, the ones who are doctors, are left-handed.

When you’re talking about people you use the relative pronoun ‘who’. But what if you’re talking about inanimate objects? Then you have a choice between ‘that’ and ‘which’:

Non-defining: The books in my house, which are fiction, are very old.
(can only use ‘which’ here, and the additional information is set off with commas)

Defining: The books in my house that are fiction are very old.
(can use either ‘which’ or ‘that’)

In the first example, my main statement is that all of my books are very old. It happens that they are also all fiction. In the second example, I’m making a statement that only the fiction books in my house are very old.

The rule is that you can’t use ‘that’ for a non-defining clause, but you can use ‘which’ in either defining or non-defining clauses. So in that second example we could have said ‘The books in my house which are fiction are very old’ and it would have meant the same thing. Fowler lamented in 1926 that it would be much clearer if we all agreed to use ‘which’ only for the non-defining clauses and always use ‘that’ for the defining clauses, but it’s just not the way the world is.

After editing many reports with complex sentences that contain relative clauses, which can make a sentence long and unwieldy, I agree with him completely.

References and other sources

Fowler HW. 1926. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1st ed.). Clarendon Press. Oxford.

Grammar Girl on ‘that/which’

OWL at Purdue on relative pronouns

For the love of verbs

It may seem an odd thing to name a favourite part of speech. They’re all necessary, aren’t they? It would be like saying, ‘My favourite position in football is striker,’ or ‘My favourite ingredient in chocolate cake is cocoa.’ Although editing is as much about the game as the individual players, as much about the cake as the ingredients, I find that in fiction writing I am engaged by verbs and in corporate writing I often reinstate verbs to give them back their power.

In fiction

One thing I love about verbs is how quickly they can capture an image and convey it to a reader.

Take this example:

Ron had to leave. All the aunts and uncles begged him to stay, but he slowly extricated himself from the lounge chair, made his way into the kitchen where he left his cup and saucer on a bench, then out to the passageway. Some of the aunts followed him, and the uncles, having risen more slowly, took the shortcut from the lounge room out to the front door. Ron put his hand on the doorknob and turned as his relatives bottlenecked behind him, all reaching for a kiss or a handshake or shoulder clap. He opened the door a wedge, squeezed through and burst out into the sunlight.

In this piece the word ‘bottlenecked’ evokes the sensations of crowding together into a narrowing space, and of still more people coming from behind, adding to the pressure that results in Ron ‘bursting’ out of the house.

Another example comes from Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2011. The main character, Tony, is describing his teenage years and how his parents and those of his friends repeatedly warned them about the dangers of drugs and peer group pressure and of getting girls pregnant, when they can barely hope to have girls look at them and are getting up to none of the shenanigans their parents are worried about. He says:

How far their anxieties outran our experiences.

The verb ‘outran’ here evokes two streams of action: the one that is actually happening in the lives of the boys, and the one that is happening in the minds of their parents. Had Barnes said, ‘How much worse were their anxieties than our experiences’ (using the verb ‘to be’) the image would have been shapeless and powerless.

In corporate writing

Understanding how verbs work can improve corporate writing too. Although a verb is just one of the links in the chain that is a sentence, this part of speech does have some special qualities. To start with, you can have a one-word sentence consisting only of a verb. ‘Run!’

But most sentences consist of at least a subject and a verb. A subject is a noun or noun phrase: it’s what we’re talking about; and the verb (marked here in italics) is saying something about the actions or state of that noun.

‘Imogen runs.’

Here ‘Imogen’ is the subject of the sentence.

A subject can be longer than this and include all kinds of other information about Imogen.

‘The girl named Imogen runs.’

‘The girl with the dark hair named Imogen runs.’

‘The girl with the dark hair named Imogen, whose brother rides a bicycle beside her, runs.’

The problem of long subjects

You can see that subjects can be very long, and a reader can soon feel lost until they get to the bit that tells us what is going on here: the verb. For this reason I like to think of the verb as the pivot in a sentence. All the time we’re reading the subject we’re having to store information in our minds to make sure we can relate it to the verbal pivot that we know is coming up.

This kind of structure is very common in corporate writing:

‘The government committee for the awarding of corporate citizen medals and other social engagement activities was disbanded.’

We don’t get to the verb here until close to the very end of a long sentence. It would be an easier sentence to understand if we moved the verb closer to the front:

‘The government disbanded the committee that was for the awarding of corporate citizen medals and other social engagement activities.’

(The other problem with this sentence is the passive structure, a topic that deserves its own post.)

The problem of nominalisations

In corporate writing, verbs are often nominalised, or turned into nouns. A weak verb is inserted to replace the strong verb, and the whole sentence is weakened. You can often remove a lot of superfluous words when you trade a weak verb for a strong one.

‘The job of the representative is promotion of our corporate brand.’

Here the verb in the sentence is the weak verb ‘is’. The noun ‘promotion’ is a nominalisation of the strong verb ‘promote’, and this structure requires adding in ‘the job of’, making the whole subject ‘the job of the representative’.

‘The representative promotes our corporate brand.’

Now there is a short subject, ‘the representative’, and a strong verb instead of a weak one. The whole sentence is more succinct.

This isn’t a recommendation to change all sentences in corporate writing to this kind of structure; to do so just introduces a new type of monotonous structure. The variety of structures possible in language is what gives it richness and subtlety. But the problems of long subjects and nominalisations are common in corporate writing and a swing back to shorter structures and strong verbs can only strengthen the communicative power of corporate writing.