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Don’t Put It in Writing

Today we’ll discuss a word and a phrase, either of which would sound fine in a casual exchange but could attract unwanted attention if used in formal writing.

Ahold  Although few people would notice anything amiss in a sentence like I wish I could get ahold of a good grammar book, many editors would change get ahold of to either get hold of or get a hold of.

Dictionaries differ on ahold. Back in 1966, Random House’s Dictionary of the English Language listed ahold, but called it “informal”—and the American College Dictionary (1968), also from Random House, refused to list the word at all. (Maybe Random House wanted to discourage college kids from using it.)

Nor can ahold be found in the American Heritage dictionary’s 1980 edition. However, American Heritage’s 2004 and 2011 editions include the word without comment.

Our most recent dictionary, Webster’s New World (2014), lists ahold but, like Random House half a century ago, labels the word “informal.”

Most of the language websites we checked did not recommend ahold. Here are some examples: “Ahold does not exist as a word in standard English.” “Ahold poses no problem in informal speech and writing, but it might be considered out of place in more formal contexts.”In standard English you just ‘get hold’ of something or somebody.”

We found only one website that endorsed this word with any enthusiasm: “Don’t hold back on your use of ahold … a word recognized by Merriam-Webster, Garner’s Modern American Usage and most other writing authorities.”

We confirmed that the Merriam-Webster online dictionary does recognize ahold, but the statement about “most other writing authorities” conflicted with our own findings. And as for Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage, all it says about ahold is that “it verges on being standard”—hardly a resounding endorsement.

In close proximity  Proximity does not mean “distance”; it means “nearness,” so close proximity means “close nearness.” Besides its redundancy, in close proximity takes three times as many words and three times as many syllables as are needed to express an elementary concept: nearby.

You see in close proximity all the time, and it always manages to sound ungainly and comically self-important. Here’s a small sampling of what we found on the Internet: “The hotel is in close proximity [close] to the corporate, financial and fashionable heart of the city.” “Investigators believe the aircraft went down after coming in close proximity [too close] to another plane.” “The car’s controls are in close proximity [within easy reach].”

Traditional usage guides advise against close proximity. Typical of these is Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage: “Say close to or near, according to the context.” John B. Bremner’s Words on Words finds the phrase too obviously silly to get worked up about. Bremner’s droll entry under close proximity: “The best kind.”

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Posted on Monday, July 13, 2015, at 3:42 pm


Misbegotten Views on Gotten

A few of you were dismayed by our using gotten in last week’s article. We wrote: “In recent years we have debunked some of these baseless ‘rules,’ and gotten a lot of heat from frustrated readers.”

An exasperated gentleman from Australia was “shocked” by the appearance of “gotten,” which he denounced ex cathedra as a “non-word.” His email was generous with vitriol but stingy with evidence. That’s because no language scholar in any English-speaking country would question the legitimacy of gotten.

Gotten has been in continuous use for about seven hundred years, though it all but disappeared from England in the eighteenth century. “In Great Britain got is the only form of the participle used and the older form gotten is considered archaic,” says Bergen and Cornelia Evans’s Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage. “In the United States gotten is still the preferred form of the participle when it is used with have to express a completed action.”

The BBC’s website recently ranked gotten fifteenth on a list of the fifty most annoying “Americanisms.” The Grammarist website explains: “Many English speakers from outside North America resist the encroachment of so-called Americanisms (many of which, like gotten, are not actually American in origin) on their versions of English, and, for mysterious reasons, some feel especially strongly about gotten.”

In The Careful Writer, the American writer-editor Theodore M. Bernstein admits to some reservations about the use of gotten: “Have gotten might occasionally be useful in written language … In most instances, however, a more precise verb would be used: ‘He has gotten [received] his just deserts’; ‘He has gotten [obtained] what he was after’ …”

Roy H. Copperud’s Dictionary of Usage and Style has no such misgivings: “An uneasy idea persists that gotten is improper … Efforts to avoid got by substituting obtained or any other word the writer must strain after are misspent.”

The American linguists Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman offer a further vindication of gotten: “A Brit will tell you that ‘gotten’ is wrong. Not so! The truth is that at one time, English routinely had two past participles for the verb ‘get.’ … While American English retained both forms, British English dropped ‘gotten’ entirely. The result is that we have a nuance of meaning the poor Britons don’t.

“When we say, ‘Jack and Sue have got a dog,’ we mean they own a dog. When we say, ‘Jack and Sue have gotten a dog,’ we mean they have acquired one. There’s a distinct difference between the two statements.”

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Posted on Monday, June 29, 2015, at 6:11 pm


The Lowdown on Different Than

Those who care about language sometimes discover they’ve been misled. Teachers, parents, or other trusted authority figures have been known to proclaim as rules what turn out to be myths, opinions, or whims about English usage.

In recent years we have debunked some of these baseless “rules,” and gotten a lot of heat from frustrated readers. Who can blame them?

Yet today we’re at it again, taking on another long-standing commandment: Always say different from because different than is incorrect. Upon further review this rule cannot be substantiated.

It has some impressive defenders, though: “In educated American usage, one thing is different from another, not different than another” (Claire Kehrwald Cook, Line by Line). “Comparative adjectives take thanDifferent takes from” (John B. Bremner, Words on Words).

Most writers prefer different from over different than when the phrase precedes a noun or pronoun: Dogs are different from cats. But different from does not always work preceding a clause. Consider this sentence: It is no different for men than it is for women. Using different than results in a clear, straightforward sentence. The supposedly grammatical alternative would be bloated and clumsy: It is no different for men from the way it is for women.

In Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words Bill Bryson cites this sentence: How different things appear in Washington than in London. If we changed the sentence to How different things appear in Washington from how they appear in London, Bryson states, “all it gives you is more words, not better grammar.”

“The idea that there is anything wrong with different than is a superstition,” says Roy H. Copperud in his Dictionary of Usage and Style. Bergen and Cornelia Evans’s Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage concurs: “No one has any grounds for condemning others who would rather say different than, since this construction is used by some of the most sensitive writers of English and is in keeping with the fundamental structure of the language.”

Does this mean you should now write different than every chance you get? We certainly wouldn’t. There may be nothing grammatically wrong with different than, but it remains polarizing. A is different than B comes across as sloppy to a lot of literate readers. If you can replace different than with different from without having to rewrite the rest of the sentence, we recommend doing so.

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Posted on Tuesday, June 23, 2015, at 11:04 am


Say It Again, Sam

It has been a while since our last pronunciation column, so here’s another group of familiar words whose traditional pronunciations may surprise you. (Note: capital letters denote a stressed syllable.)

Antarctica  Like the elusive first r in February, the first c in this word is often carelessly dropped: it’s ant-ARC-tica, not ant-AR-tica.

Err  Since to err is to make an error, it seems logical to say “air”—but who said English is logical? The correct way to say err is to rhyme it with her.

Inherent  Properly, in-HEER-ent. Most people say in-HAIR-ent, but that’s wrong and we can prove it: How do you say adherent?

Covert  Most say CO-vert, rhymes with overt. But it’s traditionally pronounced CUV-ert, as in “cover” plus a t. You may not hear CUV-ert much these days, but it is still listed in the 2011 American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

Nuptial  It’s two syllables: NUP-shul. A lot of people, including many in the media, say NUP-shu-ul. How do they get “shu-ul” from tial?

Naiveté  Should be nah-eve-TAY. More and more broadcasters are polluting the airwaves by pronouncing this as a four-syllable word: ny-EVE-it-tay, ny-EVE-itty, or ny-EV-itty. The 1999 Webster’s New World dictionary lists only the three-syllable pronunciation, but the 2014 Webster’s New World has caved, giving the four-syllable alternatives unwarranted legitimacy. Charles Harrington Elster, in his Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations, calls the four-syllable variants “illogical.” Elster’s point: naive is two syllables, and is one syllable. Since when does two plus one equal four?

Margarine  Relax, you’re saying it right. But when it was coined by the French in the 1870s, margarine had the same first two syllables as Margaret and the third syllable rhymed with clean. Yes, believe it or not, people used to say MARG-a-reen—hard g, plus “een” on the end.

Our 1941 Webster’s New International Dictionary lists but two possible pronunciations for margarine, preferring MARJ-a-reen over MARG-a-reen. So seventy-four years ago, it was not usual for the third syllable to be pronounced “in” rather than “een.”

Twenty-seven years later, the 1968 edition of Random House’s American College Dictionary listed “marj” and “marg,” and said the final syllable could be pronounced either “in” or “een.” And as recently as 1980, the American Heritage Dictionary listed “marj” and “marg,” but by then “een” was gone.

Standard pronunciations evolve, and margarine has done more than its share of evolving over the last 140 years. But today “MARJ-a-rin” has won out.

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Posted on Monday, June 15, 2015, at 12:23 pm


Singular They Part II

Despite curmudgeons’ howls, the singular they has become respectable. Many editors at the recent American Copy Editors Society conference declared themselves open to the once-frowned-upon use of they with a singular antecedent.

English is an often imperfect language that makes the best of its shortcomings. We say “none are,” despite the prominent one in none, because English has no other pronoun meaning “not any.”

And although the relative pronoun who can refer only to humans, its possessive form, whose, is routinely used with animals: a dog whose collar fell off and inanimate objects: a bridge whose view is unsurpassed. Not even the strictest language purist denounces the nonhuman whose because English lacks a corresponding word that refers to creatures and things.

Similarly, as the writer Ben Zimmer notes, “English sorely lacks a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun, and ‘they’ has for centuries been pressed into service for that purpose.”

Last week we acknowledged the historical validity of they and its variants in sentences like “It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses.” Then a reader informed us that singular they has become a practical way of addressing or describing those in the LGBT community who prefer they to masculine or feminine pronouns.

So history and contemporary life both make a credible case for singular they. But now, with the taboo lifting, expect unintended consequences. Writers will become increasingly sloppy with pronoun-antecedent agreement. Here is a sentence from a recent article by a professional journalist: “Neither Indiana nor any other state has described their religious-rights laws as discriminatory.” Change “their” to “its.” No gender issues there; the writer simply botched it.

When an antecedent includes or implies both sexes, old-school types sometimes must resort to the clumsy phrase he or she, himself or herself, etc.: Every student has done his or her homework. Writers despise he or she, which may be barely tolerable once but becomes preposterous beyond that: Every student has done his or her homework, and he or she will be expected to discuss his or her work in class. That hopeless sentence requires a complete rewrite.

An obstinate cadre of traditionalists will always resist singular they. “The solution here,” says Theodore M. Bernstein in The Careful Writer, “is to recognize the imperfection of the language and modify the wording.” Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage concurs. Noting that singular they “sets many literate Americans’ teeth on edge,” Garner says “the only course that does not risk damaging one’s credibility is to write around the problem.”

Even with the recent acceptance of singular they, we suggest using it sparingly, if at all. When confronted with a sentence like Every student has done their homework, you only need a moment to come up with The students have each done their homework.

 

Pop Quiz

If you have misgivings about the singular they, try rewriting these sentences culled from the print media. Our suggestions are below.

1. Everyone involved was doing what they thought was right.

2. Any parent who has enrolled their child knows what to expect.

3. Sometimes in this business, when you come across a comedy legend, they come off as jaded.

4. Even if a hacker has your password, they won’t have the code.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. All those involved were doing what they thought was right.

2. Any parent who has enrolled a child knows what to expect.

3. Sometimes in this business you come across a comedy legend who comes off as jaded.

4. Even a hacker who has your password won’t have the code.

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Posted on Tuesday, June 9, 2015, at 4:12 pm