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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


How Can They Be Singular?

Which of the following sentences is incorrect: A) It’s enough to drive anyone out of his senses. B) It’s enough to drive anyone out of his or her senses. C) It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses.

Those who consider themselves “old school” would likely consider C incorrect: their is plural but its antecedent, anyone, is singular. Most traditionalists would consider B the best sentence (despite the clunky his or her), although they would reluctantly accept A also.

We consider ourselves traditionalists too. But after looking long and hard at the overwhelming evidence, we cannot in good conscience say that C is incorrect.

“It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses” was written by the celebrated playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw. But Shaw was no outlier when it came to the so-called “singular they.”

Oscar Wilde: “Experience is the name everybody gives to their mistakes.” Henry Fielding: “Every Body fell a laughing, as how could they help it?” Shakespeare: “God send everyone their heart’s desire.” The King James Bible: “In lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves.”

Even despite these eminent writers’ words, we know that many of you are adamant that the plural pronoun they and its variants should never be used with singular antecedents. Perhaps you will reconsider after hearing from the language scholars.

• From A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957) by Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans: “The use of they in speaking of a single individual is not a modern deviation from classical English. It is found in the works of many great writers.”

• British editor Tom Freeman: “Singular ‘they’ is over 600 years old, going back into Middle English. Great writers have used it, including Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift, Fielding, Austen, Defoe, Byron, Thackeray and Shaw.”

The American Heritage Dictionary: “Writers who choose to use they with a singular antecedent should rest assured that they are in good company—even if a fair number of traditionalists still wince at the usage.”

• The irascible Tom Chivers, writing in London’s daily Telegraph: “If someone tells you that singular ‘they’ is wrong, you can firmly tell them to go to hell.”

So do we recommend the singular they? In fact we loathe it. You will never see the singular they in our blog posts. We stand with the English scholar Paul Brians, who says in Common Errors in English Usage: “It is wise to shun this popular pattern in formal writing.” And we admire the passion of the writer Jen Doll: “Every time I see a singular they, my inner grammatical spirit aches … The singular they is ear-hurting, eye-burning, soul-ravaging, mind-numbing syntactic folly.”

Yes. The singular they might not be incorrect, but “not incorrect” is no one’s idea of an impressive credential.

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Posted on Tuesday, June 2, 2015, at 1:04 pm


Spell Check

You may recall that our inaugural spelling challenge last winter included all right, which has managed to ward off alright for decades now. As we noted at the time, the usage of alright “remains unacceptable across the board in serious writing.”

Since then we’ve discovered yet another adversary gunning for all right: films with subtitles. For whatever reason, subtitled films invariably insist on alright. We don’t know where films go to be subtitled, but apparently Subtitle Central has decided that alright’s time has arrived. We’ll see about that.

Meanwhile, here is the next in our occasional series of spelling tests. You’ll find the answers below—after you take the quiz, if you don’t mind.

1. The differences between them are ___, so take your pick.

A) minuscule
B) miniscule
C) minascule
D) minniscule

2. Many nutritionists claim honey mixed with ___ can help with weight loss.

A) cinnaman
B) cinammon
C) cinnammon
D) cinnamon

3. Living in that place was like being in a ___.

A) straitjacket
B) straightjacket
C) strait jacket
D) straight-jacket

4. A backyard ___ is what summer is all about.

A) barbeque
B) bar-B-Q
C) barbecue
D) A, B, and C are all correct.

5. The fire ___ is investigating a suspicious blaze.

A) marshall
B) marshal
C) marchal
D) marshill

6. The ___ choir sang like a band of angels.

A) a capella
B) a cappella
C) a capela
D) a cappela

7. These chemicals will help ___ the solution to the required purity.

A) rarify
B) rarrify
C) rariffy
D) rarefy

8. He handed me a metal ___ with a loose lid.

A) canaster
B) cannister
C) canister
D) cannaster

9. Bobby strummed his ___ as if his hand were on fire.

A) ukulele
B) ukalele
C) ukulale
D) ukalale

10. There’s a lot more to do in ___ than many New Yorkers suspect.

A) Cinncinatti
B) Cincinnati
C) Cinncinati
D) Cincinatti

 

ANSWERS

1: A) minuscule. Note that first u. A lot of people think the word is “miniscule.” And it makes sense that a word for tiny would have a mini in it. In this case, don’t think mini, think minus.

2: D) cinnamon

3: A) straitjacket. It’s commonly spelled with a straight, which is understandable. Wouldn’t a “straightjacket” be just the thing to straighten you up and straighten you out?

4: C) barbecue. People want to put a q where the c should be. The popular abbreviation, BBQ, doesn’t help matters.

5: B) marshal

6: B) a cappella. Most have no problem with the two l’s, but the double p’s are another matter.

7: D) rarefy

8: C) canister

9: A) ukulele. This word creates a lot of bother for such an elfin instrument.

10: B) Cincinnati

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Posted on Tuesday, May 26, 2015, at 6:09 pm