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i.e. vs. e.g.

Be honest now: do you know the difference between i.e.and e.g.? A lot of people think the two are virtually the same, but if they were, we’d only need one of them. So let’s break it down, once and for all.

Writers use i.e. to restate the subject at hand: A good Samaritan (i.e., my neighbor Blake Smith) drove my cat to the vet. In that sentence, i.e. tells the reader exactly who the “good Samaritan” was. One should use i.e. to identify, amplify, clarify, specify, or any combination thereof. Its purpose is to ensure that the reader knows beyond a doubt what or whom the writer is talking about.

The initialism i.e. is from the Latin id est, which means “that is.” In American English the and the are each followed by a period, and i.e. should be followed by a comma. Many authorities, including the redoubtable Chicago Manual of Style, discourage the use of i.e. in formal writing, advising that is instead. If for any reason a writer deems it necessary to use i.e., it should appear in parentheses: Winston Churchill spoke often of his “black dog” (i.e., his gloomy periods).

Writers use e.g. to give specific examples of the subject at hand. It is short for exempli gratia, a Latin phrase meaning “for example.” The e and the g are each followed by a period, and e.g., like i.e., should be followed by a comma. In formal writing it is advisable to write for example or for instance instead of e.g. But if a writer insists on it, e.g. and the example(s) that follow it should be placed in parentheses: High-fiber foods (e.g., lentils and broccoli) are good for you.

Sometimes the right choice requires careful thought, as in this case: Certain members of my family (i.e., Mom and Uncle Jake) are vegetarians. In that sentence, the i.e. tells us that Mom and Uncle Jake are the only family members who don’t eat meat. But what if we replace i.e. with e.g.: Certain members of my family (e.g., Mom and Uncle Jake) are vegetarians. Now the sentence means that there are other vegetarians in the family besides Mom and Uncle Jake.

That is no small difference, and it highlights the dissimilarity of i.e. and e.g. Confusing one for the other can result in misunderstandings at best and nonsense at worst. So remember to use i.e. when further identifying a subject, and use e.g. when giving specific examples of a subject. A handy memory aid: e = “example,” i = “identify.”

 

Pop Quiz

Which is the right choice? Answers are below.

1. Alicia likes Shakespeare’s classic plays (i.e.,/e.g., Othello and The Merchant of Venice).
2. Raul described geometry as “a fierce beast to handle” (i.e.,/e.g., a difficult course).
3. Many great directors (i.e.,/e.g., Orson Welles and John Huston) had a fondness for black-and-white films.
4. The absurdity of war is the subject of several major novels (i.e.,/e.g., Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five).
5. The standard discount (i.e.,/e.g., 10 percent) applies.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Alicia likes Shakespeare’s classic plays (e.g., Othello and The Merchant of Venice).
2. Raul described geometry as “a fierce beast to handle” (i.e., a difficult course).
3. Many great directors (e.g., Orson Welles and John Huston) had a fondness for black-and-white films.
4. The absurdity of war is the subject of several major novels (e.g., Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five).
5. The standard discount (i.e., 10 percent) applies.

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Posted on Tuesday, October 7, 2014, at 3:25 pm


A House Is Not a Hone

When a spurious phrase gets too prevalent, we language watchdogs start barking. Today we’ll discuss two errant expressions that make us growl and howl.

We start with hone in, an all-too-common faux idiom. Since we first alerted you to this solecism sixteen months ago, it has only gained momentum. Here are some recent online examples: “Psychologists hone in on what not to wear.” “Cities hone in on the promise of big data.” “Researchers hone in on autism-causing genes.”

The correct term is home in. To home in, like zero in, is to focus on, get something firmly in your sights, get to the heart of the matter. The home in home in refers not to a residence, but to a goal or target. The word is also used this way in sentences like We’re home free and He drove his point home. In the game of baseball you achieve your goal by reaching home plate.

In the late twentieth century, hone in gained a foothold. In this era of multitasking, it isn’t hard to see why. The letters m and n look and sound similar when one is distracted. Not only that, hone in almost makes sense. To hone is to sharpen a blade. By extension, it means to improve, refine, or perfect: Constant practice helped him hone his writing skills.

So, some argue, why couldn’t hone in mean “to sharpen (narrow) one’s focus”? That rationale seems like a stretch. Home in has been in circulation for decades;hone in is an inferior imitation.

Our second culprit is a hard road to hoe, which a lot of people say when they mean a hard row to hoe (i.e., a difficult task). Like hone in, the phrase a hard road to hoe almost seems acceptable, but it falls apart upon closer inspection.

The metaphorical row in hard row to hoe is a more or less straight line of growing plants. A farmer uses his hoe to cultivate the soil and keep it weed-free so the plants may thrive. A road handles a lot of foot traffic and takes a beating from bicycles and motorized vehicles. No one but a lunatic would want to hoe a road.

Amazingly, hone in and hard road to hoe have their supporters. But those who defend these aberrations on the basis of “close enough” are doing a disservice not only to the language but to themselves. They should aim higher.

 

Pop Quiz

The sentences below are “almost” acceptable. Can you fix them? Answers are below.

1. Most athletes deport themselves like gentlemen.
2. Verus and his army brought back with them a terrible petulance, which spread through the whole empire.
3. His capacity for hard liquor is incredulous.
4. She’s really tough; she acts as if she’s Judge Judy and executioner.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Most athletes comport themselves like gentlemen.
2. Verus and his army brought back with them a terrible pestilence, which spread through the whole empire.
3. His capacity for hard liquor is incredible.
4. She’s really tough; she acts as if she’s judge, jury, and executioner.

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Posted on Tuesday, September 23, 2014, at 4:20 pm


Essential, but Is It Important?

Commas are tricky little devils. Anyone who wants to use them correctly will at some point encounter the terms essential and nonessential. The rule is that so-called essential elements should not be enclosed in commas. Conversely, nonessential elements require commas fore and aft.

By “elements” we mean clauses, phrases, and even single words. Today we will focus on the difference between essential and nonessential clauses (a clause always contains a subject and verb).

Consider this sentence: People who stay out in the sun too long get a bad case of sunburn. Note the lack of commas. That’s because the clause who stay out in the sun too long is essential. Without it the sentence is silly: People get a bad case of sunburn.

Look at what happens if we fence off the essential clause with commas: People, who stay out in the sun too long, get a bad case of sunburn. The commas isolate people from the clause that explains which people we are talking about. That’s as misguided as writing The book, I’m reading, is good.

Now look at this sentence: Barton Blain, who once threw a punch at the mayor, ate corn flakes for breakfast. Unlike people in the previous paragraph, Barton Blain is already specifically identified. That makes the clause who once threw a punch at the mayor nonessential, requiring commas.

Do not be distracted by this usage of essential and nonessential. That Blain assaulted an elected official is certainly surprising, even alarming, but it is not essential in the grammatical sense; it is added information, and its removal would not alter the sentence’s basic point: that Blain had corn flakes for breakfast. Maybe the writer was being grimly humorous, or was trying to shock us, or—who knows? Our only concern here is that the writer correctly used commas to set off a nonessential clause.

So anyone who would master comma usage must realize that the terms essential and nonessential have nothing to do with values or ethics and everything to do with making a sentence say what its author intends.

 

Pop Quiz

Are the following sentences punctuated properly? Answers are at the end of the newsletter.

1. The carpenter, who fixed our floor, is the one I’d recommend.
2. I’m talking about Derek Jones who climbed Mount Whitney, not Derek Jones who swam the English Channel.
3. A ten-year-old girl, who doesn’t obey her parents, is headed for trouble.

 

Pop Quiz Answers
1. The carpenter who fixed our floor is the one I’d recommend. (remove commas)
2. I’m talking about Derek Jones who climbed Mount Whitney, not Derek Jones who swam the English Channel. (CORRECT)
3. A ten-year-old girl who doesn’t obey her parents is headed for trouble. (remove commas)

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Posted on Tuesday, August 19, 2014, at 11:14 am


People vs. Persons

The noun person has two plurals: persons and people. Most people don’t use persons, but the sticklers say there are times when we should. “When we say persons,” says Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage, “we are thinking, or ought to be, of ones—individuals with identities; whereas when we say people we should mean a large group, an indefinite and anonymous mass.”

The traditional rule is that persons is used for either an exact or a small number. So we might estimate that a hundred people were there. Or if we know the exact number, we’d say ninety-eight persons were there.

As for “a small number,” how small is “small”? In Words on Words, John B. Bremner suggests fewer than fifty. Theodore M. Bernstein concurs, saying in The Careful Writer that fifty people is acceptable. To Bernstein, two people is nearly unthinkable but 4,381 persons is “quite proper.”

Meanwhile, the language moves on. In A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner calls the persons-people distinction “pedantic.” Garner says that twelve persons on the jury “sounds stuffy” and that most Americans today would say people instead. Roy H. Copperud agrees. In A Dictionary of Usage and Style he dismisses the grammatical superiority of persons as “superstition,” a law that “usage has in fact repealed.”

Because persons sounds aloof and clinical, the word still thrives in legal, official, or formal usage. A hotel chain’s website offers “options for three and more persons.” Elevators carry signs saying, “Occupancy by more than eight persons is unlawful.” The Department of Justice has a database called the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

A more timely debate these days would be people vs. folks. Traditionalists regard folks with suspicion and contempt. Bernstein says, “Folks is a casualism … not suitable for general straightforward writing.” Bremner calls it “deliberately folksy” and “corny in formal speech and writing.” But judging by its growing popularity and acceptance in this informal age, folks will probably be synonymous with people in another ten years.

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Posted on Tuesday, August 12, 2014, at 11:02 am


The Best Thesaurus

Have you ever needed a better word than the only one that comes to mind? Nowadays, the easy solution is to type that word plus “synonym” into your Google search box. Call me old-fashioned, but I turn to a book: the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. Anyone serious about writing needs this book—a quantum leap in thesauruses (thesauri?), and so much more besides.

Every writer but the most gifted needs a resource for synonymous words and phrases, but for years all I ever saw was something called Roget’s Thesaurus. Call me a nitwit, but I just couldn’t figure the damn thing out. Why couldn’t I just look up a word and find a list of synonyms after it?

Then in 1978 came J.I. Rodale’s Synonym Finder. At last, a thesaurus that worked like a dictionary. I still have my copy, and it still comes in handy, but the OAWT is even better. The front cover says, “For the writer in everyone.” An excerpt on the back dismisses utilize as a pretentious way of saying use. Yes! I liked this book before I even opened it.

The OAWT is the Swiss Army knife of wordbooks. Though it’s a straight Rodale-style thesaurus most of the way, there’s a lot more after the last entry (zoom, which can mean both “charge” and “enlarge”). There is a handy 24-page refresher course on the rules of grammar, followed by a spelling guide that includes a substantial list of commonly misspelled words (e.g., inoculate, minuscule, Philippines) and familiar foreign-language terms (roué, serape, Zeitgeist), after which comes a capitalization and punctuation guide. Taken as a whole, these breezy, easy-to-understand sections provide a solid understanding of how our language works.

The most fun comes at the very end: a list of clichés and, better yet, a collection of redundancies. Writers will squirm at the clichés, knowing they’re guilty of having used several of them: acid test, all in all, done deal, duly noted, in the near future, touch base, wreak havoc, and so many, many more. The redundant phrases are startling: many seem fine until you think about them: advance warning, brief moment, climb up, empty space, false pretenses, plan in advance, whether or not, written down.

Here are a few features that I think make OAWT the thesaurus of the 21st century: Unlike Rodale, OAWT uses your word correctly in a sentence or phrase before offering alternatives. If a word has two or more meanings, each gets its own paragraph of synonyms—easy, for instance, has seven paragraphs, from uncomplicated to promiscuous. You’ll find notes on “Easily Confused Words” throughout, like after founder or rack, to alert you about flounder and wrack. “The Right Word” sections deal with fine distinctions, helping writers choose between, say, riddle and conundrum. “Word Banks” are comprehensive lists of everything from amphibians to knitting terms to wine grapes. “Word Notes” and “Usage Notes” explain the finer points and pitfalls of common words and phrases.

Hard-core word nerds will have beefs. I wasn’t thrilled with the hedging on media (it’s plural, OK?). There are opposing points of view on the validity of the disinteresteduninterested dichotomy (to me there’s no question disinterested means “unbiased,” not “apathetic”). On the other hand, I found terrific passages on troublemakers like comprise, data, impact, and like.

Memo to smart alecks: the OAWT indeed does offer synonyms for synonym … and for thesaurus.

Tom Stern

 

Pop Quiz

Can you spot the commonly misspelled words? (gleaned from the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus)
Suggested answers are at the bottom of the newsletter.

1. We will be happy to accomodate all those in attendence.
2. The chauffer flinched when the lightening struck the limouzine.
3. Stealing the promissory note was a heinious act.
4. The mechanic sat in the restaurant feeling susceptible to melancholy.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. We will be happy to accommodate all those in attendance.
2. The chauffeur flinched when the lightning struck the limousine.
3. Stealing the promissory note was a heinous act.
4. All correct.

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Posted on Monday, July 28, 2014, at 1:52 pm