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Don’t Dis Disinterested

We recently heard from a reader who defended using disinterested to mean “uninterested.” To most language mavens, this amounts to high treason. The sticklers insist that disinterested can only mean “impartial, unbiased”: you’d want a disinterested judge at your trial—an uninterested judge would just want to go home.

Our correspondent made two compelling arguments. His first was pragmatic: countless people nowadays use uninterested and disinterested interchangeably. (True, but countless people also use infer and imply interchangeably, and no one is suggesting they are synonyms.) His second argument was historical: both words meant “not interested” back in the seventeenth century. (That may be, but writers and scholars have affirmed the words’ different meanings for many generations now.)

The writer Ben Yagoda conducted a survey in his advanced writing seminar and found that ninety-four percent of his students believed that uninterested and disinterested both mean “not interested.” But after further study, including an Internet search, Yagoda concluded that the formal meaning of disinterested, while imperiled, is safe for the time being. It is inarguable that words change and evolve, but the traditionalists are determined to keep these two words distinct, with wholehearted support from most English authorities.

Largely absent from this discussion is the difference between the prefixes un and dis. In adjectives, un simply means “not,” whereas dis can mean several things, including “deprived of,” “the opposite of,” “in a different direction.” Let’s observe un vs. dis in action with other common words …

• If you are unaffected, you are unchanged (or unpretentious). If you are disaffected, you are alienated from authority or at odds with society in general.

• You are unable if you cannot do a task at a given moment, but you may never be able to do it if you are disabled.

• When you’re uncredited, you haven’t received the recognition you deserve. When you’re discredited, your reputation has been sullied.

• If you don’t measure up, you are unqualified, although you can change that with a little hard work. But once you have been disqualified, it’s over for you.

• If you feel unease, you are restless or uncomfortable. There is much more on the line when you have a disease.

So the prefixes un and dis cannot be considered interchangeable. We see from the examples above what a difference un and dis can make when one rather than the other precedes the same root word. We should take this evidence to heart and resist excuses for making uninterested and disinterested synonymous.

 

Pop Quiz

Pick the correct word. Answers are below.

1. Despite her demands for equal pay, she claims to be uninterested/disinterested in the theory of feminism.

2. As a(n) uninterested/disinterested observer, I can enjoy the game more than a diehard fan is able to.

3. This uninterested/disinterested truth-seeker was getting it from both sides.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Despite her demands for equal pay, she claims to be uninterested in the theory of feminism.

2. As a disinterested observer, I can enjoy the game more than a diehard fan is able to.

3. This disinterested truth-seeker was getting it from both sides.

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Posted on Tuesday, November 18, 2014, at 1:10 pm


Fighting for Literally

There is no escaping the maddening phrase literally like. An Internet search yields teeth-grinders like these: “Being there was literally like stepping back in time.” “Eating this steak was literally like eating dirt.” “Neymar literally flops like a fish out of water.”

The words in the phrase literally like don’t belong together—literally refers to objective reality, whereas like introduces an analogy, and all analogies are subjective.

We should limit literally to unadorned descriptions of what exists or happens—and exclude it from our interpretations or opinions. Style guides are unanimous on the topic of literally: the word should never refer to anything but verifiable facts. The truth of any statement containing literally must be clear and indisputable to every sane living being, whether it’s a baker in Yakima or a ballerina in Yakutsk.

In 1909, the writer Ambrose Bierce offered this example of literally abuse in his booklet Write It Right: “His eloquence literally swept the audience from its feet.” Bierce’s comment: “It is bad enough to exaggerate, but to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is intolerable.”

Why undermine so powerful a word as literally when alternatives are readily available? Many authorities recommend virtually, and in a perfect world, virtually would be the ideal substitute. It works fine as a replacement for literally in the first example in the first paragraph: “Being there was virtually like stepping back in time.” But too often virtually sounds fussy. Note how humbler words work better with the other two sentences above: “Eating the steak was really like eating dirt.” “Neymar actually flops like a fish out of water.”

Something else to bear in mind: literally is an adverb. Many writing instructors recommend purging adverbs from your writing wherever possible. (Mark Twain once said, “If you see an adverb, kill it.”) Look again at the three original examples above. The adverb isn’t needed in any of them. Adding literally appears to be no more than an easy, lazy way to spice up three humdrum, cliché-heavy sentences. Roy H. Copperud addresses this ploy in his Dictionary of Usage and Style: “The habit of demanding that the reader be thunderstruck by commonplaces, which the meaningless use of literally exemplifies, is tiresome.”

No other word in English can quite say what literally says. That is why the fight to keep its authority uncorrupted is so important to us sticklers.

 

Pop Quiz

Is there a better way to say these sentences? Suggested solutions are below.

1. Literally nobody goes there anymore.
2. Misusing this word is literally the worst mistake you can make.
3. I literally died laughing and had to run out of the room.
4. These people must literally live in another galaxy.
5. The distraught man literally fell to his knees and prayed.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Virtually nobody goes there anymore.
2. Misusing this word may be among the worst mistakes you can make.
3. I laughed so hard I had to run out of the room.
4. These people must live in another galaxy.
5. The distraught man fell to his knees and prayed.

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Posted on Tuesday, November 11, 2014, at 6:41 pm


Verbal Illusions

Today we’ll look at three perplexing sentences that are the verbal equivalent of optical illusions.

• Every man and woman has arrived. Why has? The phrase man and woman denotes a plural subject. Consider the following grammatically sound sentence: The happy man and woman have arrivedEvery and happy both function as adjectives that modify man and woman in these almost identical sentences. But every is so powerfully singular that it forces us to say has, despite the plural subject.

• More than one person was involved. Why was? Doesn’t more mean at least two? Yet there is no English scholar we know of who would change the verb to “were involved,” even though we would say, “More were involved than one person.”

Reference books do not offer much help with this conundrum, and the Internet is no help at all. But John B. Bremner’s Words on Words and Theodore M. Bernstein’s The Careful Writer both address the topic. Bremner claims that more than is an adverbial phrase modifying the adjective one, “which is singular and therefore qualifies a singular noun, which takes a singular verb.” That explanation might fly in the rarefied air of academia, but to accept it we must ignore the inconvenient fact that more than one person means “two or more persons,” and would seem to require the plural verb were involved.

Bernstein doesn’t try to justify More than one person was involved as good grammar, just “good idiom.” He says “was involved” is an example of attraction, a linguistic term that accounts for certain incorrect word choices: “The verb is singular ‘by attraction’ to the one and to the subsequent noun [person].” Since “good idioms” often defy logic, we lean toward Bernstein’s interpretation.

• All but one ship was sunk. Another example of “good idiom.” The principles that apply to more than one also apply to all but one. If we separate all from but one, the verb becomes plural: Of the five ships, all were sunk but one.

One is free to endorse elaborate justifications for the validity of More than (or All but) one person was involved. But it is just as reasonable to conclude that this oddity is nothing more than institutionalized error—people have been saying it wrong for so long that we’ve become used to it, and More than one person were involved, the logical construction, sounds wrong. We see institutionalized error on the march today in ungrammatical usages like “each of them were here,” “neither of you are right,” and “a person should do their best,” all of which we suspect will be standard English in a decade or two, despite the anguished screams of purists.

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Posted on Tuesday, November 4, 2014, at 2:14 pm


What About and/or?

Our recent article about the slash (/) garnered interesting responses, none more fascinating than the email informing us that in several English-speaking countries, “slash” is a raunchy slang term.

A couple of readers inquired about and/or, for obvious reasons. Grammar books generally disregard the slash, but most of them have a lot to say about and/or.

In the 1920s the renowned English scholar H.W. Fowler dismissed and/or as an “ugly device” that may be “common and convenient in some kinds of official, legal, and business documents, but should not be allowed outside them.” Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style says and/or “damages a sentence and often leads to confusion or ambiguity.” Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage calls and/or an “ungraceful expression” that “has no right to intrude in ordinary prose.”

Several authorities recommend replacing and/or with or alone. As Follett points out, “generally or includes and. The weatherman’s snow or sleet tomorrow is no guarantee that we shall have only the one or the other.” The following contemporary sentences could substitute or for and/or with no appreciable change in meaning: “Have you forgotten your user name and/or password?” “Candidates can submit new and/or additional documentation.”

However in certain sentences, or by itself cannot replace and/or, as seen in this example from Theodore M. Bernstein’s The Careful Writer: “The law allows a $25 fine and/or thirty days in jail.” Fowler offers a straightforward alternative: “x or y or both of them.” Let’s try it with Bernstein’s sentence: “The law allows a $25 fine or thirty days in jail or both.” Problem solved.

Some and/or sentences cannot be justified under any circumstances. Consider this one, courtesy of a grammar website: “You can get to the campus for this morning’s meeting on a bike and/or in a car.” Did you catch it? You can take a bike or a car but you wouldn’t take both, so there is no excuse for the and/.

The slash these days is a shiny toy that everyone wants to play with. This may explain in part why and/or, with its ersatz air of authority, is more popular than ever. The culture’s bewildering infatuation with slash formations turns off a lot of writers, who go to great lengths to avoid them. Nonetheless, if in the course of your own writing you find one of those rare occasions that a slash is called for, by all means use it.

 

Pop Quiz

Can you banish and/or from these sentences? Suggested alternatives are below.

1. No, Virginia, having more people and/or businesses will not get you lower taxes.
2. Consider whether the audience will be able to view and/or understand the illustration easily.
3. Here is how to change your password and/or update your email address.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. No, Virginia, having more people or businesses will not get you lower taxes.
2. Consider whether the audience will be able to view and understand the illustration easily.
3. Here is how to change your password, update your email address, or both.

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Posted on Tuesday, October 28, 2014, at 6:58 pm


Thrash the Slash

There have always been words that people use to show they’re cool—words like cool, which gained wide acceptance in the 1940s, unseating swell, keen, and spiffy.

And there have always been trendy phrases. In the 1970s, no one who was cool said in conclusion or in the last analysis. It was all about the bottom line—a phrase still in use, although it has been eclipsed by at the end of the day.

But now, perhaps for the first time, a punctuation mark is all the rage. It’s the forward slash, also known as the virgule, solidus, slant, separatrix, and whack. It is the only mark with more names than legitimate uses.

To most of us who care about the written word, the omnipresent slash is about as welcome as a fox/piranha in the henhouse/bathtub.

It appears we have computer technology to thank for this symbol’s unlikely emergence. The slash has become indispensable for URLs and any number of online activities. But that hardly makes it compatible with proficient writing.

The slash has always been a handy tool for taking notes and writing rough outlines. Substituting w/o for without, y/o for years old, and b/c for because can save valuable time and space.

However, most slashes can—and should—be removed from a final draft. Writers who keep a construction like any man/woman in their finished work instead of replacing it with any man or woman are telling their readers, “I don’t have enough time or respect for you to write all this small stuff out.”

Our GrammarBook.com offices are teeming with an eclectic range of grammar primers, reference books, and style guides. Although many of these volumes have entire sections on punctuation marks, only a handful even acknowledge the ignoble slash. The consensus is that a slash has two principal uses:

• To separate numbers in dates (9/11/2001) and fractions (½).

• To denote the original line breaks in quoted poetry (“Celery, raw / Develops the jaw”).

Here are some recent examples of slash-mania:

They can indeed be responsible and successful statesmen/stateswomen. (Would it kill you to write “statesmen and stateswomen”?)

Using the pass/fail option backfired on her. (How about “pass-fail”?)

An amateur might find him/herself in trouble. (Amateurs might find themselves in trouble.)

I don’t open letters/mail that aren’t/isn’t addressed to me. (I don’t open letters or other mail that isn’t addressed to me.)

Try this experiment: say “I don’t open letters/mail that aren’t/isn’t addressed to me” out loud to someone. Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it?

 

Pop Quiz

This might be the easiest pop quiz yet. Suggested fixes are below.

1. When/if Mary ever shows up, we can serve dinner.
2. Each child had a permission slip from a parent/guardian.
3. This car gets thirty miles/gallon.
4. The actor/director/producer Troy Biffley was happy to sign autographs.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. When and if Mary ever shows up, we can serve dinner.
2. Each child had a permission slip from a parent or guardian.
3. This car gets thirty miles per gallon.
4. The actor-director-producer Troy Biffley was happy to sign autographs.

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Posted on Wednesday, October 22, 2014, at 4:16 pm