Mythbusting: To boldly split infinitives

To Boldly GoIf I had to pick a side in the descriptivist/prescriptivist non-war, I’d say I’m on the describers’ side. It’s not that I don’t like writing to vigilantly follow that follows the rules vigilantly – I do, in the same way I like to follow traffic light rules. Running reds isn’t good for anyone. And being in the business of encouraging wayward texts back to their original purpose means applying a little bit of ‘thou shalt’ and ‘thou shalt not’ to most things I see.

But unlike traffic light systems, writing has infinite capacity for subtle expression. The rules of writing should be understood and then applied with varying degrees of pressure, so that the ideas of a text are revealed rather than suffocated.

Enter: do not split infinitives.

This is one of those rules where people who were taught it believe it inviolable. While grammarians have long said there’s no requirement for this rule in English (see comparison with Latin, below), there are some good reasons to carefully split to be careful when splitting your infinitives.

What is a split infinitive?

An infinitive is the base form of a verb, the form that doesn’t change depending on which and how many people are doing the action. On its own it appears with the infinitive marker ‘to’: to eat, to run, to write. It can also appear with other verbs, in which case it can occur without its ‘to’ and is then called a ‘bare infinitive’: she did eat, they will run, he could always write. (Note that the prescriptivists never worry about splitting bare infinitives: ‘they will steadily run’, for some reason, doesn’t raise their hackles, whereas ‘to steadily run’ does.)

Infinitive here contrasts with finite verbs, which do change according to who and how many people/things are the subject of the verb. Compare ‘I do not agree’ with ‘he does not agree’, where the verb ‘do’ changes depending on the person, but the verb ‘agree’ stays the same no matter who or how many people are not agreeing.

A split infinitive is what happens when you split the word ‘to’ away from its verb by putting an adverb between them. The most famous example is Star Trek’s ‘to boldly go’.

What the writing guides say

Fowler (1926) divides the world into five classes of people, defined by what they know and what they do about split infinitives. One of his classes is made of the people who condemn the split infinitive without fully understanding it; these ‘bogy-haunted creatures’ think ‘to be really understood’ is a split infinitive (it’s not, because the verb ‘to be’ has not been split; ‘understood’ is the complement of the verb).

Less colourfully, the modern edition of Fowler describes the history of the split infinitive, saying that despite the earliest examples of it dating from the thirteenth century, some writers remain so reluctant to use it that they contort their sentences into painful ambiguity to avoid it. This edition says that while adverbs are most commonly placed before the full infinitive, examples abound of where they can be used to split infinitives to improve clarity for the reader or for stylistic reasons.

Strunk & White suggest avoiding split infinitives unless you want to unusually stress to put unusual stress on the adverb. But they also say that ‘the split infinitive is another trick of rhetoric in which the ear must be quicker than the handbook’, because some phrases that follow this rule to the letter just sound awkward: ‘I cannot bring myself really to like her’ would be better written in the form ‘I cannot bring myself to really like her’.

The Australian Style manual explains that objections to split infinitives were to do with trying to make English follow Latin, where the infinitives are single words, for example ‘amare’, that cannot be split.

Grammar Girl says the English-emulating-Latin argument is frequently given, but that one of the first times the rule appeared in print was when Henry Alford, in his 1864 book The Queen’s English, said we should not split infinitives because it went against common usage. He was answering a correspondent who said that he split infinitives by putting adverbs between the ‘to’ and the verb, to which Alford said – ignoring all the evidence before him – that this practice was ‘entirely unknown to English speakers and writers’. Anyway, Alford’s argument made its way into education and stayed there, even though people starting arguing with him about it at the time, and Fowler’s ‘bogy-haunted creatures’ pronouncement came in 1926.

What’s the problem then?

You may have guessed that my position on the split infinitive is to freely split it with grammatical impunity. I’m very against the ‘thou shalt not’ argument in this instance. However, there are reasons to be careful with your infinitives.

One thing to watch out for is that you don’t irritate a reader by putting a lot of information between the ‘to’ and its verb: ‘We want to through the bathroom window and with the utmost silence sneak into the house.’ A better construction would be ‘We want to sneak into the house through the bathroom window and with the utmost silence’. Infinitive intact.

Another reason for exercising care is that moving adverbs around changes the meaning of the sentence. Compare:

  • ‘I have decided promptly to address the issue you mention’ – this is ambiguous, as it’s unclear if ‘prompt’ goes with ‘have decided’ or with ‘to address’.
  • ‘I have decided to promptly address the issue you mention’  – this contains a split infinitive, but now it means that the issue will be addressed promptly, which is probably the intended meaning.
  • ‘I have decided to address promptly the issue you mention’  – this is awkward, and an example of bogy-haunting (I’m going to squeeze in one more of those, just watch).
  • ‘I have decided to address the issue you mention promptly’  – this is again ambiguous:  ‘promptly’ is sticking to the nearest verb, ‘mention’, although it could also be modifying the whole phrase ‘to address the issue you mention’.

Lastly, you should be careful if you suspect that a reader who has power over you will find your split infinitives objectionable, such as in the case of job applications. You can often avoid the whole issue altogether by recasting the sentence:

‘I have decided that I will promptly address the issue you mention, so as to avoid all bogy-haunting consequences.’

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Sources

Alford H. 1864. The Queen’s English: Stray Notes on Speaking and Spelling. Strahan & Co. London.
Birchfield RW. 2000. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Revised 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
Fowler HW. 1926. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1st ed.). Clarendon Press. Oxford.
Grammar Girl. 2010. Split infinitives. http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/split-infinitives?page=all.
Snooks and Co. 2002. Style manual for authors, editors and printers, 6th edn, John Wiley & Sons, Milton, Qld.
Strunk W Jr and White EB. 2000. The Elements of Style. 4th Edition. Longman. New York.
and the image: http://thegreatcanadianmodelbuilderswebpage.blogspot.nl/2013/05/enterprise-to-boldly-go.html
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Let’s agree to agree

AgreementHere’s a basic test: which sentences below are correct and which incorrect?

  • They is red.
  • You are happy.
  • I were ready on time. (notwithstanding certain dialects in parts of England)

You would easily have picked only the second one as being correct, because people know that a verb has to agree with its subject, even if they don’t know the terminology for this. The problem with the other two sentences is that the number of the subject does not agree with the number of the verb. In the first sentence, the subject is plural ‘they’, which requires the plural verb ‘are’. The third sentence has singular subject ‘I’, but an incorrect plural verb ‘were’. This is fundamental grammar that people know intuitively about their first language.

No problem, right? Not so fast. These examples are easy, but it rapidly gets complicated; I see errors of subject–verb agreement all the time.

Separating subject and verb

The problem is often that the subject is separated from the verb by a whole swag of extra information. This makes the subject phrase very long, and writers find it difficult to keep the mental connection between the subject and its verb. Here’s another basic sentence:

  • ‘The artist cleans the brushes’.

The subject (The artist) appears exactly before the verb ‘cleans’, as is usual in the basic grammatical structure of English. And now with extra information:

  • ‘The artist wearing the spattered smock with the yellow sunflowers cleans the brushes.’

Now the verb ‘cleans’ is coming right next to a plural noun ‘sunflowers’, which can tempt writers to use a plural verb ‘clean’. (Fowler’s Modern English Usage calls this ‘attraction’ or ‘proximity’.) However, ‘sunflowers’ is not the subject of the sentence and does not govern the verb. The subject is still ‘The artist’, which requires the singular verb ‘cleans’.

Compound subjects

Another problem happens with compound subjects, as in this example:

  • *‘Improvement and expansion has changed the methods used in each section of the department.’

There are two nouns here, making this a compound subject that requires a plural, not a singular, verb. This should read ‘Improvement and expansion have changed …’

One exception to this happens when the two items are considered to be a single unit, so they take a singular verb.

  • ‘Fish and chips is my favourite meal’.

Another exception is when the second noun is connected to the first by ‘with’, ‘as well as’, ‘in addition to’, ‘except’, ‘together with’, ‘no less than’, ‘or’ or ‘nor’:

  • ‘Improvement, as well as expansion, has changed the methods used in each section of the department.’
  • ‘Each dot or dash is required to be in red.’

When writers combine these two techniques – adding extra information to the subject and using compound subjects – it can get even more confusing.

  • *‘Frequent assessment of the worth of the paintings and ongoing monitoring of surveillance and protection systems in the building is important to maintain.’

Now we have a compound subject (assessment and monitoring), each with additional information (‘of the worth of the paintings’ and ‘of surveillance and protection systems in the building’) and the last noun before the singular verb is the singular ‘building’. But here the verb should be the plural ‘are’.

Other specific examples of subject–verb agreement are as follows:

  • Use a plural verb in a sentence such as ‘One of the artists who have exhibited in the city.’ (note: an exception here is when you want to draw attention to the uniqueness of the ‘one’ element: ‘One of the best artists who has exhibited in the city.’)
  • An indefinite expression such as ‘A range of options were available’ takes a plural verb, but when the definite form is used, make it singular: ‘The range of options is limited.’
  • Use a singular verb after ‘each’, ‘either’, ‘everyone’, ‘everybody’, ‘neither’, ‘nobody’, ‘someone’:
    • ‘Both artists work prolifically, but neither is rich.’
  • With ‘none’, use a singular verb if ‘none’ means ‘not one’, but a plural verb if it means more than one:
    • ‘None of the artists is rich.’
    • ‘None are so beautiful as those with confidence.’
  • Collective nouns: Some nouns that look plural function as singular items: ‘Politics is not a game.’ (Winston Churchill); equally, some nouns that look singular take plural verbs: ‘The police were notified.’ Note there is some geographical variation here between British and American use.

The topic of agreement takes up more than two pages in Fowler’s, which means there are basic rules with many different instances of applying them, exceptions to these rules, geographic variation of these rules, and – as if that weren’t enough – a little bit of stylistic interpretation thrown in, based on the sense rather than the grammatical form of the sentence. Remember also that subject–verb agreement is one of those areas where conversational habits are very different from formal writing habits. Many people say ‘There’s two games on this weekend’, but you don’t want to write ‘There’s two ways we can go forward’ in a report to a client.

                                                                                                                                                          

Sources

Burchfield RW. 2000. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Revised 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
Snooks and Co. 2002. Style manual for authors, editors and printers, 6th edn, John Wiley & Sons, Milton, Qld.
Strunk W Jr and White EB. 2000. The Elements of Style. 4th Edition. Longman. New York.
And the image: http://www.etsy.com/listing/90585987/victorian-brooch-of-women-shaking-hands.
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Mythbusting: don’t use ‘and’ or ‘but’ to start a sentence

angry-teacher-pointingC

Many people were taught in school not to begin a sentence with and or but. The rule they were taught was ‘don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction’. This rule is a myth. It has no basis in grammar, nor in usage.

But first: a conjunction is a word that joins two (or more) words, phrases or sentences together, usually parts of speech that are the same:

noun + noun:                     The cat and the dog

adverb + adverb:             They walked quickly but quietly.

You can see that these parts have equal status, that is, they are coordinating. Conjunctions can also join sentence parts so that one is subordinate to the other:

conjunction of condition:             We’ll go to the beach unless it rains.

conjunction of time:                     After the beach, it will be ice-cream o’clock.

Coordinating conjunctions are a small set called the fanboys: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. These are the ones people are worried about using at the beginning of a sentence. The problem, apparently, is that a conjunction is supposed to have something either side of it so a reader understands that two things are joined together. If there’s a full stop on one side of it, the reader feels confused.

This idea fails to take into account that all text is connected, and sentences do not make meaning on their own, but only in context of the sentences that come before and after them. Consider the different meanings of ‘Ariadne was dead’ when the preceding sentences are ‘Months of chemotherapy had failed to save her beautiful mother’ or ‘He took Spartalus and raised the shimmering blade, then felled the monster in a single blow’. We know that Ariadne is the beautiful mother or a monster purely through the context of what came before.

There are often signposts that make these links explicitly to create cohesion and coherence, providing shortcuts to previous ideas so readers can follow the whole story. For example, pronouns refer to nouns that were previously mentioned, possibly in the current sentence, possibly in the last or even some sentences ago.

A coordinating conjunction between two sentences helps a reader keep two complete ideas, rather than merely two items in a list, connected. Here is an example from a report about climate change:

This is useful because it gives an indication of the possible direction of ecological change. But vegetation change is known to be a slow process that will lag rapid climate change … (Dunlop et al. 2012, p. 12)

In these two sentences, removing the ‘but’ would remove the link for the reader that while ‘this’ is useful (where ‘this’ refers to the content of the previous three or four sentences which is elegantly referred to here with just the one demonstrative) there are still problems to be considered.

Subordinating conjunctions are also proscribed as being sentence starters by some people for the same reason of needing elements on either side. A subordinating conjunction, however, modifies the subordinate clause wherever it is in the sentence.

We went to the beach because it was hot.

Because it was hot, we went to the beach.

You can see that there is no problem starting a sentence with a conjunction in this way.

But don’t just believe me! What do the sources say about this?

The strictest, most traditional source I could find on this was the one that dictates journalistic style, the AP Stylebook, whose online ‘Ask the editor’ pages say:

Q. Is it acceptable in AP style to start a sentence with “and” or “but”? I know there’s some argument in the grammar community in general, but I was curious regarding your position on it. – from Boston on Thu, Feb 07, 2013

A. It’s not forbidden. And works well in some instances. But best done sparingly.

Q. I know that starting a sentence with “and” is acceptable, but the writers I work with always seem to set it off with a comma. It seems unnecessary. Is it? Thanks! – from Carlsbad, Calif. on Wed, Jul 06, 2011

A. And shouldn’t be set off in every instance to start a sentence. It depends on what follows, and best not overused.

Note also that the Australian English Style Guide says that 40% of the time but appears in Australian newspapers it is as a sentence opener (p. 102). The (Australian) Style manual for authors, editors and printers says it’s fine to use conjunctions to begin sentences (pp. 69, 72–73).

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style says the problem to avoid with conjunctions is having a whole series of sentences that consist of two clauses where the second is introduced by a conjunction. This structure is boring, and it makes your readers go to sleep. It is overdone by many writers, and their work is harder to read. Strunk and White call this ‘loose sentences’, and they caution against it. I’ve done it three times now, and this is the fourth. I’ve written about this before, and here is the link.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage revised 3rd edition says that ‘there is a persistent belief that it is improper to begin a sentence with and, but this prohibition has been cheerfully ignored by standard authors from Anglo-Saxon times onwards … the OED provides examples from the 9C. to the 19C., including one from Shakespeare’s King John’ (p. 52). Fowler’s first edition, from 1926, doesn’t even mention this as a problem.

Of but, Fowler’s says ‘The widespread public belief that but should not be used at the beginning of a sentence seems to be unshakeable. Yet it has no foundation’ (p. 121). Again, the first edition doesn’t mention it as a problem; in fact, it uses but to begin a sentence in explaining another point of but’s misuse.

What’s the problem?

If all these sources say it’s fine to use conjunctions to begin sentences, including and and but, why have generations of schoolchildren been told they can’t? The Little, Brown Handbook (p. 340) says it’s because it’s easy to write a sentence fragment when beginning a sentence this way, and that is an error:

We went away on Friday. *And discovered the new cafe.

The content of the book was fascinating. *But written in too small a font.

We went to the beach. *Because it was hot.

We’ll go to the beach. *Unless it rains.

(Note that while sentence fragments are not allowed in formal writing, they are often used in fiction to create a sense of urgency or economy of style.)

Feel free to use conjunctions to start your sentences. If you’re worried that your audience thinks you’re making a mistake (even though you are not), direct them to some of the sources I’ve listed here to back up your case or think about how you might rephrase the sentence. And remember that conjunctions help create cohesion. But maybe don’t overdo it.

___________________________________________________________________________

Sources

AP. 2013. AP Stylebook Online. Apstylebook.com.
Burchfield RW. 2000. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Revised 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
Dunlop M, Hilbert DW, Ferrier S, House A, Liedloff A, Prober SM, Smyth A, Martin TG, Harwood T, Williams KJ, Fletcher C and Murphy H. 2012. The Implications of Climate Change for Biodiversity Conservation and the National Reserve System: Final Synthesis. A report prepared for the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, and the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency. CSIRO Climate Adaptation Flagship, Canberra.
Fowler HW. 1926. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1st ed.). Clarendon Press. Oxford.
Fowler HR and Aaron JE. 2007. The Little, Brown Handbook. Pearson Longman. New York.
Peters. P. 1995. The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Snooks and Co. 2002. Style manual for authors, editors and printers, 6th edn, John Wiley & Sons, Milton, Qld.
Strunk W Jr and White EB. 2000. The Elements of Style. 4th Edition. Longman. New York.
And the image: http://images.elephantjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/angry-teacher-pointing.jpg
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Survival guide to climate change … hyphenation

Antarctic

In the scheme of things that are going to happen under climate change, hyphenation is surely the least of anyone’s worries. However, I am in the business of making reports readable and internally consistent, and while I’m waiting to get the dinghy out it remains my daily task to wrestle with such issues.

The problem is that I often see phrases such as ‘climate-change impact’ mixed up with ‘climate change impact’, and ‘climate-change-induced change’ with ‘climate change-induced change’. In the interests of hyphen harmony, I’ve put this list together as a handy how-to.

My source is the (Australian) Style Manual 6th edn. I’ve copied out the relevant sections below, giving them a ‘rule number’ in square brackets (and their page numbers, of course). The table below that describes, in the first column, how these phrases should be set; the second column tells you which rule I’ve applied to make that decision.

Here goes.

p. 88 … the main concern should be to retain consistency in hyphenation throughout a document … hyphens can be an important device to avoid ambiguity, but otherwise there is no need to overuse them. The decision about whether or not to use a hyphen must often be based on the context in which the word or words appear.

[1] p. 91 Compound adjectives: when a compound adjective consists of two adjectives, or of a noun plus an adjective the expression is hyphenated no matter whether it precedes or follows the noun it is describing: bitter-sweet, red-hot → climate-ready, climate-ready approach, approach is climate-ready.

[2] p. 92 In contrast, compound adjectives that are set phrases consisting of, say, a noun plus a noun or an adjective plus a noun are not usually hyphenated: a tax office ruling, the stock exchange report, an equal opportunity employer → climate change approach.

Note: if the expression is further modified, a hyphen may be necessary to prevent ambiguity, as in a ‘a retrospective tax-office ruling’ → mild climate-change attitude to avoid the problem of reading ‘mild climate’ as a set phrase. I haven’t ever actually seen this phrase used, but the principle applies.

[3] p. 93 Compound adjectives containing capital letters, italics or quotations marks are not usually hyphenated: a ‘do or die’ attitude → ‘climate ready’ approach.

Note: it’s normally sufficient to put a phrase in quotation marks like this just once, the first time it is mentioned. Thereafter the quotation marks can be dropped, which leads us to ‘climate ready’ approach for the first mention, but climate-ready approach for subsequent mentions.

[4] p. 108: when a compound adjective precedes the noun it qualifies, it is often hyphenated. If, however, the compound noun consists of more than one word (or element) on either side of the hyphen, an en rule should replace the hyphen to indicate the broader link: a hepatitis C–positive person → climate change–induced weather, pre–climate change distribution.

[5] Compound adjectives involving present or past participles usually take a hyphen: government-owned facility, heart-rending image → climate-induced change.

Phrase RULE
climate-ready approach 1
‘climate ready’ approach 3
climate-ready biodiversity management activities 1
‘climate ready’ biodiversity conservation objectives 3
climate-ready biodiversity planning 1
climate-ready status 1
climate change adaptation 2
climate change impacts 2
climate change responses 2
climate change scenarios 2
‘climate ready’ assessment criteria 3
‘climate ready’ concepts 3
‘climate ready’ framework 3
climate change–driven changes 4
climate change–induced loss 4
non–climate change pressures 4
pre–climate change distribution 4
climate-driven ecological change 5
climate-induced change 5

Source: Snooks and Co. 2002. Style manual for authors, editors and printers, 6th edn, John Wiley & Sons, Milton, Qld.

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Atomic typo – yes, that’s really a thing

AtomicTypo2

Malapropisms, the topic of my last post, can occur in writing but most often you hear them in speech. As an editor, I am  usually correcting writing not speaking (although you’d be amazed at how many garrulous people become carefully articulate once I tell them my job), so I thought I should give some real-world examples of errors I see. Most of these are examples of typos, rather than malapropisms (where the person genuinely believes they’ve used the right word) or of spelling mistakes (where the person knows which word they want, they just don’t know which letters need to go in it).

This is a list of examples I’ve seen that the authors (and spell check) would have missed because they are actual words, just not the words that were wanted, and they are words that come up all the time in the corporate/academic writing that I’m working on. It turns out that this kind of mistake has a name, atomic typo, due to its small size and relatively large punch – it can create a big difference in meaning, as anyone who has typed ‘pubic’ instead of ‘public’ will know.

The term ‘atomic typo’ was coined in 2002 and since then it has appeared in various blogs and newspapers but doesn’t seem to be in common usage (it returns only just over 3000 results on Google!). Not all words lend themselves to these sorts of errors; if you mistyped ‘photosynthetic’ you probably wouldn’t get another word that a spell check would miss. However, some words are very prone to being mistyped; in fact, ‘fife’ is the word most likely to be mistyped to give another extant word, with 199 possible mistypings. Yes, someone has done the maths on this. Lucky for me, ‘fife’ doesn’t come up very often in my work.

So, here are some that I do find:

  • asses for assess
  • casual for causal
  • conversation for conservation
  • county for country
  • heath for health
  • mange for manage
  • mangers for managers
  • pubic for public

What can you do about these errors? Not much, except pay attention to the ones you are prone to making and check them every time you type them.  Some of them are easier to see than others – for example, you can imagine it’s very easy to type ‘wad’ in place of ‘was’, but people mostly see those errors quickly and fix them. My list above is small, but it is of genuine errors I see in reports.

You can run spell checks for the words that wouldn’t normally occur in your work, such as ‘asses’ and ‘mange’ (depending on your field, of course – that may not help people working in veterinary science), and you can do this across whole folders as well as individual documents. It’s a good idea to spend the extra minute to run these checks; here’s a poem that expresses the joy of finding – after publication – a typo that slipped through.

The typographical error is a slippery thing and sly
You can hunt til you are dizzy, but it somehow will get by.
Til the forms are off the presses, it is strange how still it keeps.
It shrinks down in a corner and it never stirs or peeps.
That typographical error, too small for human eyes.
Til the ink is on the paper, when it grows to mountain size.
The boss, he stares with horror, then he grabs his hair and groans.
The copyreader drops his head upon his hands and moans.
The remainder of the issue may be clean as clean can be,
But the typographical error is the only thing you see.

(credit to ericshackle@ for this, in the comments of the atomic typo article link)

Update: additions to this post as they come in:

  • casual for causal
  • diary for dairy
  • emphasises for emphases
  • infarction for infraction
  • later for latter
  • seal level rises for sea level rises
  • steam for stream
  • medial used in place of medical (thanks, Erin)
  • purse used in place of pursue (thanks, Erin)
  • costal for coastal
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And a happening ear chew too

MalLRA bit of light-heartedness for the new year: We’ve all made the mistake at some point or other of using a word that sounds like but is not the one we mean, sometimes with hilarious results. Language learners make them often: I’ve made these errors in Dutch recently, using ‘verkopen’ instead of ‘kopen’, which resulted in me announcing to a smooth salesman that I’d like to sell a vacuum cleaner. I bet he was thinking, ‘We’ll see about that. I’ll be doing the selling around here.’ And then when returning a hotel keycard to the receptionist I tried to say, ‘We’ve forgotten your card’ but instead said ‘We’ve eaten your card’, mixing up ‘vergeten’ with ‘gegeten’. A recent example I’ve heard from a Dutch speaker learning English was when he wanted to express his appreciation to his host for the lovely dinner and time they’d had together, and he said, ‘Thank you for your hostility.’

At least language learners are likely to be corrected and not make the same mistake again; but when people make these mistakes in their first language, they usually don’t realise the error and so continue to make it. People send me examples of malapropisms they hear or say themselves, such as ‘one foul swoop’ for ‘one fell swoop’, ‘hotter than Haiti’ for ‘hotter than Hades’; ‘nip thinks in the butt’ for ‘nip things in the bud’; and even ‘erotic fish’ for ‘exotic fish’. The humour in the meow cop game relies on the butt of the joke thinking the cop is using malapropisms.

There are some great ones from the TV show Kath and Kim, including Kim’s plea, ‘I want to be effluent, Mum!’ and Kath’s judgement about what kind of kitchen table (or is it marriage?) Kim should have: ‘Oh no, Kim, monogamy’s very old fashioned. You just want a veneer of monogamy. That’s all people care about these days.’

George W Bush is famous for them, including this pearler: ‘We cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold this nation hostile or hold our allies hostile.’ This example meets the criteria for a malapropism, which is that the word used by the speaker is a real word but not the one they meant to use, that it sounds like the word they meant, and that the result doesn’t make any sense. The title of this post is not strictly a malapropism in that you’re unlikely to hear anyone saying this as a genuine mistake. You can read here how the term malapropism comes from the character of Mrs Malaprop from Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The Rivals; she said things like ‘promise to forget this fellow – to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory’ and ‘He is the very pine-apple of politeness!’

As word meanings change, something that may have been a malapropism is no longer: for example, the word ‘fortuitous’ means ‘occurring by chance’, but because it sounds as if it’s related to ‘fortunate’, it has, since about the middle of last century, come to be used in the sense ‘occurring by good chance’. Because any fortuitous event can happen by good, bad or value-neutral chance, these two words do legitimately overlap in meaning at least some of the time. Fowler’s Modern Usage still prescribes the ‘chance’ meaning of ‘fortuitous’, but I think that battle to halt meaning shift is already lost.

Studies of malapropisms and other language errors can be used to find out how children develop language and which language centres of the brain have been damaged when people have strokes or accidents. That’s not to say that any instance of a malapropism constitutes brain damage – in a general setting people have just learned the wrong word from their social group, or misheard a phrase and repeated their mishearing.

This leads me to ask if speakers repeat these errors, even after they’ve been corrected. This article in Language Sciences by Arnold Zwicky from 1979 suggests they don’t, because they are convinced they already have the right word. A person will be looking through their mental dictionary for a word, but find the wrong one; when they utter that word, they accept it and store it as the correct item, so they continue to make the error. The fact that they couldn’t find the right word the first time means that the correct word was either stored incorrectly or incompletely. In Zwicky’s study, people were asked if they had intended to say what they had, and they were certain that they were right. That study was not longitudinal so it didn’t follow up to see if being corrected did change what people said. (I couldn’t find anything more current than this; not even recent abstracts behind paywalls seemed to answer this question exactly.)

I’ve heard people say often enough that so-and-so person always says such-and-such malapropism, so it seems as if it is a difficult thing to correct in a speaker’s mind. I once mixed up ‘superstitious’ and ‘suspicious’ and I’ve never trusted either of them since, always pausing now before I say one to make sure it’s right. If you know someone who has this kind of speech impeachment, be sure to collect them! They’ll thank you heavily for it.

More info:

Here’s a whole website devoted to them http://www.fun-with-words.com/malapropisms.html

Aman from pafnutyblog has managed to extract the wikipedia entry revision history and put a bigger list of malapropisms in one place here: http://pafnuty.wordpress.com/2012/10/12/the-lost-malapropisms-on-wikipedia/.

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Substance abuse

ImageSometimes 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/
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