A Fine Distinction



How valid can a rule be if nobody knows or cares about it anymore?

That all depends on what the definition of “nobody” is. A lot of people I’ve been around seem to feel “nobody” applies to just about everybody 15-plus years younger or older than they are. Generational outcasts—the nerds, wonks, and misfits—also get labeled nobodies, although some of them grow up to be the next Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg.

In many circles, alas, nobody is more of a nobody than a grammar geek—those verbal neat freaks with all their precious little rules. But if those of us who rail against diseased English shut up and went away, we like to believe the world would soon miss us. Amid the rampant demagoguery and disinformation, our guiding principle is sound: clarity and precision are worth the bother.

Here is a short list of increasingly ignored fine distinctions:

Transpire  The errant celebrity issued a statement through his attorney that he was “sorry and saddened over what transpired.” Make it “sorry and saddened over what happened.” Put a big shot together with his lawyer and brace yourself for pompous verbiage. This usage of transpire, though common, is a lethal combination: pretentious and incorrect. The word doesn’t mean occur or happen. Something that transpires is revealed or becomes known over time. It’s not simply what happened so much as what it all means in the bigger picture. The Oxford online dictionary gives this example: “It transpired that millions of dollars of debt had been hidden in a complex web of transactions.”

Condone vs. endorse  “I do not endorse or otherwise condone this,” intoned some anonymous official. Isn’t “condone” redundant in that sentence? Not at all—there’s a substantial difference: When you endorse something, you’re all for it; you’re proud to recommend it. To condone is to pardon, overlook, disregard. When you condone, there’s not much enthusiasm or pride involved. Someone who condones is being tolerant, not enthusiastic.

Persnickety  It’s a colloquial term for “too particular or precise.” (Some would say it describes people who maintain that convince and persuade aren’t synonyms.) How’s this for world-class persnickety: there are nitpickers who reject the word in favor of pernickety, which preceded persnickety by about a century.

Substitute vs. replace  “The chef substituted chocolate with carob in the brownie recipe.” Make that “replaced chocolate with carob” or “substituted carob for chocolate.” Don’t confuse the two or you’ll end up with shaky English to go with those ghastly carob brownies.

—Tom Stern

Posted on Tuesday, February 7, 2017, at 11:57 pm

9 Comments on A Fine Distinction

9 responses to “A Fine Distinction”

  1. sharon says:

    Per Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, transpire has been in use to mean ‘to occur’ “for about two centuries; it is firmly established as standard; it occurs now primarily in serious prose, not the ostentatiously flamboyant prose typical of 19th century journalism.”

    • This is another example of a word gradually losing subtlety of meaning. According to the Oxford online dictionary’s usage note, “The standard general sense of transpire is ‘come to be known’ (as in it transpired that millions of dollars of debt had been hidden in a complex web of transactions). From this, a looser sense has developed, meaning ‘happen or occur’ (I’m going to find out exactly what transpired). This looser sense, first recorded in US English towards the end of the 18th century, is criticized for being jargon, an unnecessarily long word used where occur and happen would do just as well. The newer sense is very common, however, accounting for around half of the citations for transpire in the Oxford English Corpus.”

  2. Dr. Janelle Disney says:

    One other fine distinction is the use of “since” and “because.” (Check the period within the parenthetical remark. Am I accurate?) I think GrammarBook has addressed this in the past, but as a college professor, I am seeing too much of this with graduate students. I’m hoping this distinction isn’t on its way out.

    • Yes, in American English periods and commas always go inside quotation marks.
      Some of the leading reference books are inconsistent regarding the distinction between because and since. In our eleventh edition of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation and online in our Confusing Words and Homonyms section, GrammarBook.com has chosen this approach:
      Because and since can be used just about interchangeably to explain the reason for something. But since can also refer to a time in the past: I have waited since yesterday.

  3. Cy says:

    Great information, this all helps a lot. Thank you.

  4. Timothy Robnett says:

    I received an e-mail at work today notifying me of some training I would be required to take. The e-mail noted that the training would provide a “comprehensive overview” of the subject matter.

    I thought comprehensive overview to be an oxymoron. Even if comprehensive is modifying what sort of overview it is, it still seems wrong. I have seen cursory overview used in writing as well and that seems redundant to me. However, a quick Google search showed quite a large number of articles, including scholarly ones and some on grammar topics using this strange construction.

    Am I the only one who thinks comprehensive overview is a worthless phrase and comprehensive should be dropped to make the sentence one word and four syllables shorter? This seems to be another case, like the examples above, where words are not intended to be understood as they have been historically.

    • We can understand your point, but we see nothing wrong with using the adjective comprehensive to describe the word overview when used in the context of “covering broadly” as opposed to “covering completely” (Merriam-Webster). It seems that you might expect a much more detailed and involved training for “a comprehensive overview” than you would if the email said “a quick overview” or “a cursory overview.”

  5. Harlen S. says:

    That word TRANSPIRE though!!! I always hear that during our weekly meeting. It’s either from the Director or the Registrar’s mouth. “This is what transpired in our previous meeting. And whenever it’s uttered, my mind shouts, WHY TRANSPIRE, can you just say HAPPENED?!

    *Are they correct? Webster defines it to happen. I’m confused now.

    • Our late writer Tom Stern was careful with his words. He became especially upset when a word that carried special meaning was lost to popular misuse. As the sentence that introduces the list expresses: “Here is a list of increasingly ignored fine distinctions.”

      The dictionaries we have consulted list the nuanced meanings “to be revealed; come to light; to become known or apparent” before listing the meanings “to occur or happen.” Some of the dictionaries include usage notes indicating that the use of transpire to mean “happen” is considered pompous or ostentatious.

      Mr. Stern would be on your side when your mind is shouting that your director should just say “happened.” The director and registrar are not wrong, necessarily, but many would consider their use of transpire to be pretentious.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *