Saturday, October 22, 2011

Troublesome Words, Part 2

I've finished Bill Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer's Guide to Getting It Right, so it's time for a recounting of the M - Z words that surprised or informed me. (Here's my earlier list of words for A - L.)

manner born, to the -- Bryson writes, "Not manor. The line is from Hamlet." This fact is known by .000002 percent of the English-speaking population (a percentage that did not include me), and anyone who writes it correctly will be thought to be wrong by 99.999998 of readers. So probably best avoided.

minuscule -- I could have sworn that it was spelled with a second i rather than a u. Bryson suggests, "Think of minus, not mini."

moribund -- I think I used to know this word means "dying or at the point of death," but I've seen it used so often to connote a negative-but-not-terminal condition that I forgot it.

nauseous vs. nauseated -- "As Bernstein put it, people who are nauseated are no more nauseous than people who are poisoned are poisonous." Which makes sense, but I think this one is a lost cause in real-world usage.

numskull -- No b! I had no idea.

postmeridian, post meridiem -- Now that's a silly distinction. The former means happening in the afternoon; the latter is what we abbreviate as p.m. when listing a time in the afternoon. I think we could do away with one word or the oher, and while we're at it, also dispense with the typographic style command to set a.m. and p.m. in small caps, as Bryson does and the Chicago Manual of Style insists. It's never going to happen, especially in the age of the interweb, and the abbreviations look even worse when set in all caps (A.M./P.M.). As part of the informalization of society, let's just let them be lower case, okay?

repel vs. repulse -- An army repulses an attack, it doesn't repel it. "Repel is the word for causing squeamishness or distaste." Although, in my defense, I am correct in thinking repulsive means to cause repugnance.

sacrilegious -- I would have had the i and e transposed if I were given that word in a spelling bee. My Webster's Collegiate informs me it derives from sacer + legere, to steal -- in other words, it's related to stealing holy items.

sneaked vs. snuck -- Bryson says that sneaked is the real deal, but as with shined vs. shone, I have a hard time adding ed onto the end of verbs that clearly seem like they come from Old English. So I'll stick to snuck, thanks. Not that it comes up all that often. (Bryson allows either strived or strove, by the way.)

stationary vs. stationery -- There is no etymological basis for the difference between the two spellings. Both originally meant "stand in a fixed position." Huh.

stupefy -- Note the e, and don't "confuse the spelling with stupid."

ton, tonne -- How dumb is this? A long ton equals 2,240 pounds, a short ton weighs 2,000 pounds, and a tonne is a metric ton, or 2,204 pounds.

turgid vs. turbid -- The first means "inflated, grandiloquent, bombastic. It does not mean muddy or impenetrable, which meanings are covered by turbid."

until, till, 'til, 'till -- Bryson says the first two are acceptable and interchangeable, the second two illiterate. That judgment seems unnecessarily strong to me -- why is 'til illiterate, when it's clearly a shortened version of until? I see in Webster's that till goes back to Old English til. Someone added an l to it along the way for no good reason.

utilize -- As I already knew, utilize is almost always best replaced with the simpler use. What I didn't know was utilize "means to make the best use of something that wasn't intended for the job."

whose -- I now have Bill Bryson's blessing to use whose for objects in constructions such as "The book, a picaresque novel whose central characters are...". I always wondered about that.

And there were a few more items where Bryson sides against the grammar prescriptivists:

over vs. more than -- "The notion that over is incorrect for more than (as in 'over three hundred people were present at the rally') is a widely held superstition." He traces it to Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right (1909), "a usage book teeming with quirky recommendations, many of which you will find repeated nowhere."

shall vs. will -- no longer enforced or enforceable.

split infinitives --  "Almost no authority flatly condemns it."


Blissed-Out Grandma said...

To the manner, eh? I had no idea. Now I'll probably never use it because I don't want to BE wrong and I don't want to be THOUGHT wrong. Interesting stuff, to a long-time writer and editor.

Ms Sparrow said...

Wow! What an education you gave me today. Snuck is now a legitimate word? Nobody cares about split infinitives anymore? (I thought I was the only one who felt that way.) I no longer need to feel illiterate because I can't distinguish between the correct usage of will and shall?
And best of all--I now know I can use till instead of until! (How I agonized over whether it should be til or till when I was editing my cookbook!) I think I must add Mr. Bryson's book to my Christmas list.

Michael Leddy said...

I looked up ’til in Garner’s Modern American Usage a while back and went through my blog, changing it to till. Who knew?

peppery said...

The show To the Manor Born totally confused me on that one, before I understood it was a pun. :D Curse you, England punsters!