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.
Posted on Tuesday, February 7, 2017, at 11:57 pm7 Comments on A Fine Distinction