Sign Up For Our Free Grammar E-Newsletter

When Idioms Become Monsters

Close but no cigar, fly off the handle, he is pulling your leg, I was beside myself—we see idioms like these all the time, even though the closer we look, the less sense many of them make.

Sometimes two familiar expressions get jumbled. When that happens, the result is what you might call a “Frankenstein formation,” a nod to the mad scientist who created a monster by conjoining parts that didn’t belong together.

One Frankenstein formation that may never go away is center around. You see and hear it everywhere. Two of the numerous examples found online: “The conflict centers around the atrocities of war.” “My research centers around the geometry of moduli spaces.”

The language scholar Wilson Follett calls center around a “geometrically senseless expression.” It results from mashing together center on and revolve around. Because those phrases are roughly synonymous, over time they merge in the mind.

Some otherwise intelligent language mavens now defend center around, apparently reasoning that if enough heedless people keep saying something, it becomes acceptable. Others are having none of it. As Paul Brians says in Common Errors in English Usage: “Two perfectly good expressions—‘center on’ and ‘revolve around’—get conflated in this nonsensical neologism. When a speaker says his address will ‘center around the topic of’ whatever, my interest level plummets.”

Another hardy Frankenstein formation is fall between the cracks: “News reports flash a daily barrage of stories about children who fall between the cracks.” “Every day this country’s health insurance situation lets people fall between the cracks.”

The original expression is fall through the cracks. People or things that “fall through the cracks” slip away unnoticed and are soon forgotten. If we take a close look at fall between the cracks, we find that it doesn’t convey the intended meaning.

Picture a road surface after an earthquake. Large cracks have opened up. If people fall between these cracks, they have fallen onto the hard surface of the roadway.

Such a fall would certainly do some damage, but when people fall between the cracks, at least they do not disappear through the cracks—we can see them lying on the ground, and maybe we can be of some assistance.

Fall through the cracks refers to a different kind of painful experience: the pain of suffering in isolation.

Fall between the cracks seems to have resulted from scrambling fall through the cracks and fall between two stools, an idiom roughly meaning “to fail,” which dates back to the late fourteenth century.

Although some idioms are revealed as absurd under close analysis, many of them made more sense before time or misuse undermined them. Even if they now strike us as a bit off, like a daft but well-meaning old friend, it is up to us to ensure that nobody addles them further.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, October 20, 2015, at 9:52 am

Slipshod Extension

Henry W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, published in 1926, is still the greatest of all English grammar guides. The first edition or the lightly revised second edition (1965) is highly recommended.

Sprinkled among Fowler’s entries are topics that typify the author’s innovative approach to the study of grammar. His titles for these entries are often sly, with a soupçon of snark. Some examples: Sturdy Indefensibles, Presumptuous Word-Formation, Unequal Yokefellows, Pairs and Snares, Slipshod Extension.

That last topic is today’s focus, because slipshod extension may be more widespread nowadays than it was ninety years ago. The phrase refers to the maddening tendency of careless or ignorant speakers and writers to debase a word by overextending it beyond its proper meaning.

Calling a spider an insect is slipshod extension of the word insect: a spider is an arachnid. Calling a whale a fish is slipshod extension of the word fish: a whale is a marine mammal.

Here are a few of the countless other words that are susceptible to this lamentable practice:

Alibi  Be careful when you use alibi, originally a Latin word meaning “somewhere else.” When you say, “I have an alibi,” it means that you can prove you were elsewhere when the crime occurred. Fowler said of alibi: “That it should have come to be used as a pretentious synonym for excuse is a striking example of the harm that can be done by SLIPSHOD EXTENSION.”

Dilemma  The di in dilemma (like dichotomy or dioxide) indicates two: if you have a dilemma, it means you’re facing two tough choices. Do not use dilemma when all you mean is predicament. Fowler: “The word is a term of logic, meaning an argument that forces an opponent to choose between two alternatives both unfavourable to him: he is … on the horns of a dilemma, either of which will impale him.”

Literally  As all nitpickers know well and grow weary of saying, literally should be used only with the bare facts—no exaggerations, no analogies. Yet statements like They literally threw him under the bus show no sign of abating. What could be more slipshod than applying literally to an incident that literally never happened? Fowler: “Such false coin makes honest traffic in words impossible.”

Two revised editions of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage have been published in the last twenty years, but those in charge of editing these later versions have overruled many of Fowler’s traditionalist views and insights. In the process they have stifled one of the most distinctive and delightful voices in the field of linguistics.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, October 13, 2015, at 2:01 pm

Each Other vs. One Another

There are still sticklers among us who see a distinct difference between each other and one another. They use each other when discussing two people or things, and one another when discussing more than two people or things.

According to this system, the following sentences would both be correct: The twins told each other everything and The triplets told one another everything. But The twins told one another everything and The triplets told each other everything would both be incorrect.

This rule has been around since the eighteenth century. Yet it is routinely ignored by just about everyone, including our finest writers. Nowadays, virtually no one even knows it exists.

Taken literally, the phrase each other does seem limited to two entities only, represented by the singular pronoun each and the singular pronoun other.

The twins told each other everything means that each twin told the other twin everything. So far, so good. But The triplets told each other everything means that each triplet told the “other” triplet everything—which makes no sense because there are two other triplets.

So instead the sticklers demand The triplets told one another everything. To them, other means “one of two” and another means “one of more than two.” By this reasoning, one another refers to a group of three or more whose members include one and another.

The sticklers reject The twins told one another everything because it means that one twin told “another twin” everything. To the sticklers, “another twin” means the impossible: three (or more) twins.

The trouble with the rule is that each other and one another were already long-established idioms in the eighteenth century, and many idioms fall apart under this sort of tortured scrutiny—try analyzing as it were or by and large sometime.

Whether some people like it or not, each other and one another are synonyms. So let’s move on.

The possessive of each other is each other’s, never each others’. Although a lot of neophytes write each others’, the authorities agree unanimously that each other’s is the only acceptable option. Same with one another’s.

A thorny problem with each other’s and one another’s is illustrated in the sentence that follows. Should we say The lawyer and the banker admired each other’s car or admired each other’s cars?

The traditionalists are at odds here. In The Careful Writer Theodore M. Bernstein claims that each other’s is equivalent to their. So Bernstein would say admired each other’s cars. But Bryan A. Garner leans toward the singular car. In A Dictionary of Modern American Usage Garner says “the noun that follows is often plural <each other’s cars>, but the more logical construction is singular <each other’s car>.”

Did he say “logical”? When it comes to each other and one another, logic is beside the point.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, September 29, 2015, at 9:31 pm

Euphemisms: Lying to Us Gently

Let’s talk about euphemisms, those soothing words meant to assure us that something’s not as bad as we know it is. A euphemism is a lullaby, a sedative, a velvet glove enfolding reality’s iron fist. In a way, the word euphemism is itself a euphemism—so much kinder and gentler than cop-out.

Euphemisms are employed for many reasons, some of them nobler than others. The ultimate euphemism is pass away. “He passed away” sounds peaceful, effortless. “He’s dead” is a two-syllable gut punch.

Nonetheless, there are those who are temperamentally unsuited for hiding stark truths behind fluffy words. In the 1944 film This Happy Breed a patriarch tells his family: “Mother died. She didn’t pass on, pass over, or pass out. She died.”

A euphemism can transform a narcissist into a temperamental perfectionist, a bigot into a traditionalist, or an unhinged demagogue into a passionate idealist.

It’s not surprising that we find some really clever euphemisms in politics, where double-talkers known as spin doctors speak of collateral damage and enhanced interrogation. It’s not an invasion, it’s an intervention or an incursion or sometimes an uncontested arrival. Terrorists are freedom fighters—if they’re on our side. Our opponents lie; our allies may have misspoken.

Then there are those Wall Street peculators whose malfeasance still has the country reeling. The financial world likes to couch its mischief in opaque phrases like subprime mortgage bonds and collateralized debt obligations. One of our favorite Wall Street euphemisms is overleveraged, a mealy-mouthed term for expanding too fast, borrowing too much, and defaulting on the debt.

Alcohol’s prominent and often problematic place in society has given rise to many colorful euphemisms: Bertie is lit up like Broadway. He just got back from the old watering hole. He was talking to John Barleycorn. Now he’s got his wobbly boots on.

Here are a few more choice euphemisms, some common, others less so:

Nail technician  A manicurist.

Hair stylist  Are there still barbers?

Personnel surplus reduction  Means you’re fired.

Sampling  “The process of taking brief segments of sound (from a song, movie or elsewhere) and using that sound to form another sound or musical piece.” That’s how defines sampling. We can define it in one word: stealing.

But the winner by a landslide …

Atlantic triangular trade  A few years ago the Texas State Board of Education voted to use this Machiavellian phrase in history textbooks to replace slave trade.

When it comes to euphemism-wielding prevaricators, the Texas State Board of Education is in a class by itself.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, September 8, 2015, at 10:34 am

Colons and Capitals

Why can’t all punctuation be as easy to understand as periods are? Periods end a sentence. The first word in the next sentence is capitalized. That’s about it.

But when it comes to capitalization, the colon—one period floating ominously above the other—makes fledgling writers jumpy about the word that follows it.

There are conflicting policies and theories about capitalizing after colons. But here are two rules that everyone seems to agree on:

• Capitalize the first word of a quotation that follows a colon. (She replied: “The weather was too pleasant to leave.”)

• Capitalize if the information after a colon requires two or more complete sentences. (Dad had two rules: Work hard. Be honest.)

Some of you may be asking: Shouldn’t a writer always capitalize the first word after a colon? Here is the answer: certainly not. The first word in a list that follows a colon should not be capitalized (Please bring the following: goggles, gloves, and a wrench). Neither should a word, phrase, or incomplete sentence (Here’s where I’ll be: way up north). Obvious exceptions are proper nouns and acronyms that are always capitalized (Here’s where I’ll be: North Dakota).

Now comes the most vexing question: Should you capitalize the first word in a complete sentence that follows a colon? The influential Associated Press Stylebook says yes, always. But the no less influential Chicago Manual of Style says no—except for the two bulleted rules listed above in the fourth and fifth paragraphs.

Both policies strike us as unnecessarily rigid. Why not let the writer decide, based on the meaning and intended tone of the sentence?

In AP style, a writer has no choice but to write One thing I ask: Be careful crossing the street. In Chicago style, a writer has no choice but to write One thing I ask: be careful crossing the street. Some writers might prefer lowercase in this situation, feeling that capitalizing be borders on shrill. Other writers might choose a capitalized Be to emphasize the importance of the warning. After all, the danger of distracted urban meandering in this age of hand-held gadgets should not be downplayed.

We understand that neither AP nor Chicago wants to be perceived as wishy-washy. The inflexibility of their colon policies is a boon to beginners looking for guidance. But what about writers with some experience? Consistency is good—but in this case, as illustrated in the previous paragraph, consistency thwarts nuance.

When novices become seasoned writers, and understand all the rules of punctuation, we believe they have earned the right to decide on a case-by-case basis whether to capitalize after a colon.


Pop Quiz

Would you change the punctuation in any of these sentences? Correct answers are below.

1. Here are our only rules: drive slowly. And do not leave your lane.

2. In the bag were the following: Scissors, a hairbrush, and a warm soda.

3. This is what Freddie said: “she can’t.”


Pop Quiz Answers

1. Here are our only rules: Drive slowly. And do not leave your lane.

2. In the bag were the following: scissors, a hairbrush, and a warm soda.

3. This is what Freddie said: “She can’t.”

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, August 25, 2015, at 1:20 pm