|B A R E L Y B A D W E B S I T E|
Here are some words I seem to care about for some reason.
This whole thing started with the slightly edited article below titled "Lay versus Lie" I wrote for my girl's kindergarten teacher. After I mailed it, in an involuntary, follow-up fit of silliness I wrote "The Future Pluperfect Subjunctive Preterite in Today's Modern World." Following that are a few useless paragraphs about the letter "R."
Then I return to almost completely deadly seriousness with "Might versus May."
Incidentally, if you like this, you might also like this, which is about crossword puzzles.
Lay versus Lie
If you arent sure how to use the verbs lay and lie (or their companions laid and lain) you should read this.
First you need to know what a direct object is. Some sentences in English contain a direct object, such as "Bob eats a pie," in which the subject is Bob, the verb is eats, and the direct object is a pie. In the sentence "Bob eats," there is no direct object.
For those of you who care, the first eats is a transitive verb, the second intransitive. The idea in a transitive verb is that the subject, the actor, transmits some sort of action, some sort of idea expressed by a verb, to the direct object. In verbs that are intransitive, there is no transference of anything from the subject to the direct object because there is no direct object.
Now lets look at the two classes, those sentences with a direct object and those without one, with respect to the verbs "lay" and "lie."
Setting something (a direct object) down
Well start with those sentences, which almost no one ever gets wrong, where there is a direct object. The present tense example, in which Bob is setting a pie on the shelf, is "Bob lays a pie on the shelf." The past tense example is "Bob laid a pie on the shelf." The past perfect tense example is "Bob had laid a pie on the shelf."
I don't show examples for the present perfect tense, but it's the same as the past perfect except you replace "had" with "has" or "have." So, "Bob had laid a pie on the shelf" becomes "Bob has laid a pie on the shelf," and "We had laid a pie on the shelf" becomes "We have laid a pie on the shelf."
Lying down (no direct object)
Now to the sentences where there is no direct object, the ones people do get wrong.
The present tense example is "Bob lies down," not "Bob lays down." Theres no direct object, i.e., Bob is not setting down something else, i.e., he, as the subject of the sentence, is not "verbing" some other object or substance, hes doing it to himself, i.e., he himself is getting prone or supine. He is lying on the bed, not laying on the bed.
The past tense example is "Bob lay down," not "Bob laid down." If you want to say that Bob did lie down at some time in the past, then say that he lay down.
The past perfect example is "Bob had lain down," not "Bob had laid down."
Now, study the bottom row (lie, lay, lain) below.
Here's the conjugation of the future pluperfect subjunctive preterite for the version with no direct object.
The conjugation for the version with a direct object is identical but for these two exceptions:
Test question!! I mean, in what organic sense does this, like, conjugation actually relate to the natural dynamic paradigms of sort of today's modern world in terms of lifestyle? So, share what agenda issues you think it actually addresses in a relevant way . . .
R's Are Us
I have a theory about how the letter "R" is pronounced by certain people. The first half of my theory is that someone, or more likely some mischievous creature, is stealing their R's. You know, those people who pronounce library as "libary" and so on. It's almost as though they can't quite manage to pronounce that many R's in one word, so they drop one or move it.
These are all actual pronunciations I've heard or words I've read somewhere, except as noted. I'll be adding to the list as new examples arise, but if you have any you'd like to contribute, let me know.
**I resisted including "libary" till January 1st of 2005. I always assumed no one ever really said "libary" except as a joke, but I was wrong.
1 Heard on NPR.
*** Update of April 13, 2010: This is literally a screen shot in that I used a camera to take a shot of my TV screen a few minutes ago. The phone number reaches a law firm named Ferrer & Associates in Dallas.
**** Update of August 26, 2005: Below is an example from the AP via The Kansas City Star.
And here's the moiety of the theory. Whoever's stealing their R's is a sort of Robin Hood in that he gives his ill-botten gooty to those people who just can't get enough.
*For an example of "heart-rendering," go here, but don't forget to come back.
Here are a couple other pronunciation problems that seem to involve the letter R: masonry as "masonary" and realtor as "realator." Or how about asterisks as asteriks?**
**Or even asiterks?
I wonder why R is such a troublemaker? Or, maybe in the case of "realator" the problem is with the letter L. L and R are the two liquids in English, defined by the RHU2 in linguistic terms as "a consonant articulated without friction and capable of being pronounced like a vowel."
Update of September 27, 2000: I just learned (from a crossword puzzle I worked this morning) that the word realtor is trademarked by the National Association of Realtors, so it should be Realtor or even Realtor. Who knew?
And I wonder whether the trouble with too few R's is similar to the problem so many people have managing to work in the L sound in the letter "W." Instead of "doubleˇyou" it comes out "dubbyˇoo."
And here's another interesting phenomenon which I will mention without further comment until I learn more about it: Many Orientals cannot distinguish between the two liquids in spoken speech. They cannot hear the difference between the "R" sound and the "L" sound, and when they try to pronounce either they are just as rikery as not to swap them or land somewhere in the middle.
Update of October 9, 2011: A few days ago I listened to someone on the radio, probably NPR, assert that there is a period during childhood development when we are able to discriminate among speech sounds we hear and that after that period we can no longer do so. Presumably the brain during this learning period is wiring itself for speech sounds and thereafter it resists further wiring. For example, if during this critical period you never heard anyone pronounce the letter T or the letter D but rather it was always a sound in between (try making these two sounds and you'll see, er, hear there is a kind of middle ground), then according to this theory whenever you hear someone speak the pure T sound or the pure D sound, you will not be able to "hear" the difference, i.e., even though your ears are working just fine, your brain isn't capable of distinguishing between them. And it's not surprising that if you can't hear the difference then you also can't speak the difference.
Still, he is the best former president in my memory. The others since Eisenhower have, for one reason for another (succumbing to a gunshot wound and Alzheimer's come to mind), basically done nothing whatsoever compared to Carter, who's been out overseeing elections and negotiating between countries and winning Nobel Peace Prizes and supporting Habitat For Humanity and just generally throwing his weight, and his not inconsiderable talent and brainpower, around for good causes. It'll be interesting to see how Clinton turns out.
Update of October 2011: Clinton, a good president in my opinion, has turned out just fine. George W. Bush, a bad president, has not so far, but maybe in time.
R's Or Or's
Try this next time you get the chance: Ask a native of St. Louis what the name of the U.S. gold bullion depository is, and the answer will be pronounced "Fart Knox."
End of silliness. No more silliness. I plomise.
Update of January 2003: I don't know whether this is related, but a fair number of native Chicagoans pronounce Loyola "Lie-ola," but they don't pronounce toy boat "tie boat." Furthermore, I'm all the time hearing people who can correctly pronounce "fat tar" pronouncing jaguar as if it rhymes with "fat tire" -- jaguire. If "fat tar" is effortless, why is jaguar a problem?
Might versus May
May is rarely a proper substitute for might, no matter what any dictionary tells you. May should properly be reserved for reference to permission, and might alone should refer to uncertainty.
(Yes, this is another one of those distinctions in which I don't care what the dictionary says, because I'm right.)
So, if I ask you what you're going to do next weekend for fun, it would be improper for you to say, "I may play golf." Well, it would be improper if what you mean is "I'm thinking maybe I'll play golf." If you have a wife who keeps you on a short leash, maybe you mean that you have permission to play golf. But if all you mean is that you might decide to play golf, then might is the word you want.
Now, in many contexts the misuse of may for might is no big deal. Most of the time we know what the other person means, although not always, and that's the point. Why get it wrong if you don't have to?
Sometimes the confusion produces absurd results. For example, according to an NPR broadcast on December 22, 1999, "The U.S. State Department announced that American tourists abroad may be the victims of terrorists over the millennium holiday."
Exact opposite. Here's an example, from a computer game's error message, in which what is said is the exact opposite of what is meant:
Update of May 14, 2002: There's another example of the exact opposite here.
More exact opposite. For a better example, I remember a BBC Radio broadcast from maybe 1997 discussing a serial killer who was decapitating gay men in the streets of London, in the manner of Jack the Ripper. The very last line of the broadcast was from an interview of a Scotland Yard detective, who said, "The killer has slaughtered ten gay men so far, and it's our opinion that he may continue."
Update of September 5, 2012: Matt Bissonnette, using the pen name Mark Owen, recently published a book titled No Easy Day about his experiences as a U.S. Navy SEAL and who was one of the SEALs who shot and killed Osama bin Laden. The Pentagon has issued statements alleging Bissonnette's book reveals secrets that shouldn't have been revealed.
Here's the quote from CNN: "Pentagon press secretary George Little told reporters that officials believe the book contains sensitive and classified material."
Here's how that was reported on NPR this morning: "[According to the Pentagon,] that book may contain sensitive information."
Again, the exact opposite.
Update of December 13, 2015: From a message issued many times in many circumstances by eBay: "Do not respond to the sender if the message requests that you complete the transaction outside of eBay. This type of offer is against eBay policy and may be fraudulent."
Yet again, the exact opposite. Why risk that even one reader would misinterpret your meaning if by changing "may" to "might" you can ensure no one does?
I.e. ("That is") versus E.g. ("For example")
These two abbreviations are rarely interchangeable.
I.e. is the abbreviation for a two-word Latin term, id est. Translated word for word, id est means "that is."
E.g. is the abbreviation for a two-word Latin term, exempli gratia. Translated quickly and best, it means "for example." Translated a little longer, it means "for the sake of example," where gratia means "sake," and exempli means "example."
Proper use: "Most of the time in casual conversation it doesn't matter whether every word is right, it matters only whether the other person gets what you're saying, e.g., 'I only want ketchup on my hamburger' versus 'I want only ketchup on my hamburger.' " In this context, the abbreviation e.g. is appropriate, because it is merely shorthand for "for example."
Proper use: "Most of the time in casual conversation it doesn't matter whether every word is right, i.e., according to me, it matters only whether the other person gets what's being said." Here, in this context, I'm defining what I mean by "right," so I use "that is."
You'll never screw these up if you mentally translate what they mean into English first.
I think way too many people overuse the term hero, and I think they should stop.
As I see it and I don't care what the media tell you a hero is not merely someone who gets injured in a noble cause. For example, consider that Captain Scott O'Grady, the U.S. Air Force pilot who was shot down over Bosnia in 1995 and managed to stay alive -- while injured behind enemy lines for six days till he was rescued by a Marine search-and-rescue mission -- was almost always referred to as a hero, or as courageous.
But as I see it he was just an unlucky pilot. He got shot down, he ejected and pulled the rip cord too soon, he shat his pants, he pondered whether to murder civilians in Bosnia, and he was forcibly disarmed when he entered the rescue helicopter.
I mean, after all, he got shot down, and I'm pretty sure getting shot down looks bad on your pilot résumé. Not only was he a bad pilot, he cost the U.S. taxpayers $20 million for an F-16. Plus which he endangered the members of the rescue commando, all of whom might have been injured or captured or killed. Plus which the cost of that commando probably ran to several hundreds of thousands of dollars. Plus which during those six days behind enemy lines he was performing absolutely no useful work whatsoever for the U.S. Air Force . . . and I'll bet he got paid for those six days too. All in all, getting shot down is not, all by itself, heroic.
So, what did that pilot do that was so heroic, if you believe what everyone at the time was saying about him? What he did was, after he got shot down, he survived long enough, even though his face was burned a bit, to be rescued. But what, really, is heroic about that? It seems to me that, instead, his survival was purely selfish. Perfectly appropriate, of course, but still purely selfish.
(Understand that Captain O'Grady seems to agree with what I think a true hero is, because whenever he had the opportunity he disclaimed any courage on his part. He did go on to call his rescuers heroes. I disagree with him on that part, but enough.)
No, I define heroism differently. To me a hero is someone who voluntarily risks his own health for a noble cause. There's a difference between getting injured and voluntarily risking your health.
Now, if you're saying to yourself, "Well, that pilot, merely by becoming a fighter pilot, voluntarily risked his health for a noble cause, didn't he?" I would agree. But if that's all it takes then all the other pilots in the U.S. Air Force were equally heroic, yet none of them got parades and scads of media attention and photo-ops with the president and extra special medals and two books written about them. The difference between them and the pilot who got shot down is just that: They didn't get shot down.
Here's an example of a true hero: the infantryman who throws himself on a grenade tossed into a crowded foxhole. Now that's exactly what my definition of a hero is: someone who voluntarily risks his health for a noble cause.
It's important to note that, according to my definition, it doesn't matter whether the grenade explodes. If it's a dud the infantryman is no less a hero; and if it does explode he is no more a hero, because getting hurt is not in any way part of being heroic. It is taking the risk of getting hurt that's part of heroism. (The other part is selflessness.)
Here's a more instructive example. Compare the guy who throws himself into a raging river to save a drowning infant, even though he can't swim, to the swimming pool guard who jumps into a pool to try to rescue that same drowning infant.
Now, let's add some more facts before we make the comparison: First, the non-swimmer in the river failed to save the infant, and he himself survived entirely without injury. Second, the pool guard did save the infant, but after he did so he bonked his head on the ladder getting out of the pool, lost consciousness, and was in a coma for two days.
Which of these two people will get more admiration from the media, and which will be referred to more often as a hero?
To me, the non-swimmer in the river is by far the more heroic. He knew, of course, that he couldn't swim, yet he voluntarily threw himself into a dangerous situation -- a raging river -- to try to save someone else. It was at that moment, when he threw himself into the river, that he acted heroically, and it doesn't matter that he failed to save the infant, and it doesn't matter that he didn't get hurt.
The pool guard was only barely heroic. When he threw himself into the pool, he knew he was a strong swimmer, and he knew a swimming pool is hardly dangerous at all (especially compared to a raging river), and he knew that rescuing the infant would hardly add to the risk he faced. He did not voluntarily risk his health, because the task at hand was not dangerous to him. And the fact that he did save the infant does not add to his heroism, because whatever degree of heroism he exhibited had already occurred when he threw himself into the pool. That he saved the infant has only to do with his ability to swim and to perform the rescue maneuvers in time, which are abilities we pretty much expect of him if he's going to cash his paychecks. Similarly, that he was injured on the ladder does not add to his heroism quotient; it only adds to his klutz quotient.
So, why so many words about this one word, "hero"? Because if we overuse it we demean it. If we call people heroes who aren't then we dilute the true meaning. If a hero is just any old person who gets injured in pursuit of a noble cause, like the pool guard, then how do we refer to the people who truly are heroes according to my definition? As I see it, we should reserve the term hero for those who deserve it, because we should want to encourage more heroism. If I'm in your foxhole, I want you to feel really good about being referred to as a hero, however posthumously. I want you to know that the term is not used indiscriminately to refer to anyone who gets hurt in a good cause. I want you to jump on that grenade for me because you'll know that only those people who voluntarily risk their health in a noble cause will be called a hero.
And don't even get me started on referring to athletes as heroes.
A Hundred to One
What's wrong with this statement?
That is the likelihood of losing the lottery. The likelihood of winning is one to 100 million.
So, in this example the likelihood was misstated by a factor of 100,000,0002, or 10,000,000,000,000,000 (ten quadrillion).
Update of November 27, 2001: According to a graphic produced by Golf Digest and printed in today's Kansas City Star, the chance that you'll make three holes-in-one in a single round is 2 trillion to 1. So in this case the likelihood was misstated by a factor of 2,000,000,000,0002, or
Update of October 12, 2005: This article appears in today's Kansas City Star.
If the first statistic is correct -- that the probability of three holes-in-one in a single round is 1 in 2 trillion -- then the probability of getting eleven is approximately 1 in 1.27 X 10^45, or
He or She
Here's my take on using gender-neutral pronouns such as "he or she" in a construction such as "Each member of Congress should vote his or her conscience" or "At last night's meeting the board approved the appointment of an ombudsperson."
(To be completely politically correct, ombudsperson should probably be ombudshuman because of the son in person. Oh, wait, human has man in it. OK, let's try again. How about ombudsearthling? Yes, there, we've got it. Of course, that doesn't make it entirely clear that the earthling in question is a member of the, um, human race, which allows for the possibility the board appointed a salamander. Oops, I mean salapersonder. Nope, there's that son again. OK, I have a new idea: How about salapersonordaughterder? Oh, the hell with it.)
First, whenever using the politically correct terms results in an abrupt interruption in the flow of the words, i.e., whenever there's a jolt that makes the reader pause, the words should be recast. No amount of benefit from using the politically correct term is worth throwing your reader off the track, even for a moment.
Second, often enough it's not all that difficult to recast the sentence so the problem doesn't arise. For example, "The members of Congress should vote their consciences" isn't any worse than "his or her conscience," and it enjoys the benefit of not being grammatically incorrect.
Third, when I do choose to use the masculine form to refer to both genders, which I often do in this very Web site, no one notices. Or at least those who do notice and care are not the people I'm writing to. I'm writing to people who are smart enough not to think that just because I use the masculine they should be influenced in some illogical way. I respect my readers more than that.
Fourth, you should not get into the habit of using politically correct terms. You should examine each such use of he or she to make sure it's appropriate. For example, if you know that the person holding the press conference you're reporting on is a female, you needlessly deprive your reader of information if you report, "All of the charges of promoting men over women at the company were denied by its president and spokesperson, Pat McKenna."
Hilariously worse: "At the press conference held yesterday by the Committee for Responsible Awareness in Politically-correctness, their ombudsperson stated that he or she will be open to all input from the public."
Now, I just made up that one. Here's a real one, from an NPR broadcast on September 3, 2001: "Those who continue to borrow from one [credit] card to pay off another end up having his or her interest rates raised." The person who spoke these words has let his knee-jerk need to appear politically correct become such a habit that he doesn't hear how absurd he sounds. He has gone way out his way, for no reason whatsoever, to sound stupid.
Update of November 22, 2008: Here's another example, from today's Kansas City Star.
"When they are acknowledged for their contribution, . . . or for his/her value . . . ." Yipes.
For a more interesting discussion of the subject of gender-neutral pronouns, see chapters 7 and 8 of Douglas Hofstadter's 1985 BOOK, Metamagical Themas. Here's what the Long Table of Contents says:
Healthy versus Healthful
These words are not synonymous. Memorize this: That is healthy which is in good health. That is healthful which causes good health.
Healthy. Olympic athletes are healthy. A fine field of alfalfa is healthy. I am healthy.
Healthful. But a green salad and some raisins and a glass of water do not constitute a healthy meal. They constitute a completely dead meal.
Not just sickly and ailing, mind you, but flat-out dead. So this certainly is not a healthy meal. The salad greens have been wrenched from their life-supporting environment of dirt and sun; the raisins have not only been plucked from their life-supporting vines but they have been intentionally desiccated; and the water was never alive to begin with. The greens and the raisins and the water are all completely non-viable, so those foods, or any other diet, are as far from being healthy as can be imagined. Any food you eat, and any product you use on your abs, is dead-bang dead, which is the opposite of healthy.
What such a meal or product might be is healthful.
Speaking of which, how can shampoo ads claim they make your hair healthier? Surely they dont mean healthful -- as in good for you if you consume or somehow use the hair -- so they must mean that their products make your hair more healthy, just as they say. But hair is, of course, completely redundantly 100% dead. No blood, no nerves, no cellular activity except decay, nothing but dead tissue, just mostly keratin (like your nails) being pushed up out of your skin by newer but no less dead tissue. So how can shampooing make hair healthy or, better yet "revitalized"? Hair is always dead, so to say hair can be healthy is no different from saying a rock or a tin can can be healthy.
Here's what can happen if too many people think healthful should be healthy:
Yes, you Cub Scouts out here in the wilderness, I am
indeed a mycologist, and that particular amanita you're looking at is quite
From A to 3
There's a common construction that, while often used, rarely makes sense if you think about it, and I'm against that, and you should be too. The construction I'm referring to is of the form "from something to something." For example, "Shop K-mart! We sell everything from lawn mowers to light bulbs" or "KCUR's music catalog offers everything from blues to bluegrass."
The problem with such constructions is that you have no idea what is included and what is excluded. Does K-mart sell refrigerators? Does KCUR offer classical music?
Light bulbs and lawn mowers arent obvious endpoints of any range. Blues and bluegrass arent the beginning and end of any particular series. (In fact, these two examples are particularly lame because the purported endpoints of the purported range are alliterative, implying in K-mart's case for example that they sell only items that start with the letter L.)
Here are two examples of this construction used correctly: "People from Maine to California are buying our product" and "Our zoo has animals from aardvarks to zebras." In the first case its obvious that the range is from one extreme geographical point to the other; clearly every state is meant to be included. In the second case, its obvious that the range is from the beginning of the alphabet to the end; clearly every animal is meant to be included.
Improper use: In a January 27, 2000, broadcast on NPR the commentator was asked what she expected of Clinton's final State of the Union address, and she said, "He will discuss issues ranging from health care to education." Now, I ask you, what does that mean?
Proper use: In a 1933 review panning Katharine Hepburns stage performance in The Lake, that most excellent wit and member of The Algonquin Round Table Dorothy Parker wrote, "She ran the whole gamut of emotions from A to B."
Heres the test to determine whether such a construction is appropriate: Can you decide, for any given possible thing, whether its included in or excluded from the stated range? If you cant, the construction is inappropriate.
This type of construction is often expanded to something like this: "From Chaucer to Kant, from Shakespeare to Tennyson, from Salinger to Dostoyevsky." Now I ask you, even with six endpoints instead of only two, can you name a single author at any time throughout history, from any place in the world, who definitely should be included, or who definitely should not be included? No, you can't, because Chaucer and Kant aren't endpoints of any recognizable range, nor are the other two pairs.
I think the reason you see this construction in its flawed form so often is that it's cheap and easy. The writer flashes on some pair of more or less randomly chosen members of the set in question, then he he fills them into the "from A to 3" formula without giving it another thought. It's easy to do, and I suspect that sometimes the author of such a phrase is also somehow vaguely hoping the reader will miraculously figure out what he means, or at least assume he meant something really good instead of really lazy.
As I say, it's easy. And wrong. I say, "Say what you mean, or at least be prepared to explain what you said." If you can't then you must be prepared to admit either that you were trying to trick us or that you were being sloppy.
A similar error is exemplified by this construction: "The decline in violent crime is in the range of 50% since last year." What does "in the range of" mean? If you're going to use the phrase "in the range of," you have to state two endpoints. You can say, "The drop in violent crime was in the range of 40 to 60%, depending on which side's statistics you believe," but to say that the drop in violent crime was in the range of 50% could mean it's between 40% and 60%, but it could just as easily mean it's between 20% and 80%. Saying it's between 20% and 80% isn't saying much at all.
Yet another similar error arises when the beginning of the range is stated indeed, overstated but then, perhaps due to an extremely short-term memory loss, the end of the range is abandoned altogether. For example,
If you've said or written the phrase "Ranging from" then at some later point in the sentence you need the word "to."
A Different without a Distinction
Probably as often as not, people who use the word "different" needn't, and therefore shouldn't. Here's an example from a sports story headline: "Three Different Runners Complete Race in under an Hour." Well, sheesh, how could they be anything but different runners? I mean, if they were not three different runners then they'd all be the same runner, right?
Here's a real one: "Two Different Planes Crash into NYC Skyscrapers." Well, of course they were different planes. How could they not be?
"Congress passed two hundred different bills this session." How could they not be different? I mean, if they weren't different then there'd be only one bill, right? Worse yet, how about "Congress passed a variety of different bills this session"?
Now, here's a more nearly proper use of different: "Shortly after she stumbled out of the circus tent and cleared her head, she looked down and saw she was wearing two different shoes."
At Least Ten to Fifteen
Along those same lines, a more common error is stating a numerical range that is modified by a nonsensical condition.
Here are some examples:
"The dean of the college said, 'More than ten to fifteen percent of freshmen are unable to write a coherent business letter.' "
Hey, dean, if it's more than fifteen percent then of course it's more than 10%. And if it's more than 15%, then why are you even mentioning 10%?
"According to the year-long study, at least three to four out of every ten Americans believe in angelic visitations."
If it's at least three then what does the figure of four mean? If it's at least four then of course it's at least three, in which case the figure of three is meaningless and might as well have been zero.
"We guarantee delivery in four to six weeks." Are they really guaranteeing that if it looks like they might get it to you in only three weeks, they'll hang onto it for another week?
"The expected return on equity will be no less than five to fifteen percent."
If your broker tells you this, look him in the eye and ask, "Now, which is it? If it's going to be no less than fifteen percent, then what does the figure of five percent mean? Or, if you mean it will be no less than five percent, then what does the fifteen percent figure mean?
The use of this seemingly simple and overly common word produces not one, not two, but three unrelated errors.
To begin, either means "one of two things."
Ignoring "two." In the first type of error, which is more nitpicky, the part in the definition above about "two things" is ignored. For example, "We will either go to the beach or the mountains or the slime pits." The beach, the mountains and the slime pits add up to three things, not two. If the choice is among more than two things, then the word either is inappropriate, because either does not mean "one of any number of things," it means "one of exactly two things."
I do note that there is a benefit to using "either" at the beginning of a list of more than two items, which is that it signals that you have to choose only one from the list to follow. If you omit the "either," the reader must wait till the end of the sentence to see the "and" or the "or" after the penultimate item to realize the list allowed for only one choice. Maybe I'm changing my mind about this one.
Ignoring "one." In the second type of error, which is not at all nitpicky, the part in the definition above about "one" is ignored. For example, "Place a silver wreath at either side of the mantel" is not the same as "Place a silver wreath at each side of the mantel." In the latter example the instruction clearly states that you are to place one wreath on one side of the mantel and a second wreath on the other side two wreaths. In the former example, the literal meaning of the instruction is to place a silver wreath on one side or the other of the mantel only one wreath.
Now, if you get misled by the first example, the worst thing that can happen is that Martha Stewart will disapprove of your mantel (although probably not if you buy the book HERE first). But how about these examples?
Insert a catheter into the carotid artery on either side of the neck
If you press the green button on either side of the main panel, the nuclear weapon will be disarmed.
Misplaced either. In the third type of error either is misplaced, usually by being placed too early in the sentence. For example, there's a difference between "We will either go to the beach or the mountains" and "We will go to either the beach or the mountains." In the second example, you're saying what you mean, in which either modifies the two choices. In the first example you are saying that you will either go somewhere or that you . . . ? well, that's the point: You don't say.
Now, having said that, of course I agree that in conversation it's usually not hard to figure out which word or words the speaker meant for either to modify. Indeed, I made the mistake of a misplaced either in the third paragraph of this section, and I'm pretty sure you didn't notice it. Still, at least in formal writing, I see no need to get it wrong.
Update of March, 2002: A correspondent recently tried to claim that either has yet another meaning, not related to any of the wrong or right ones above. I argued that it doesn't either.
This word is misused about as often as not. The problem is not with whether to use it at all but rather where to use it.
In a computer manual appears this sentence:
From the History screen you are only allowed to delete the last ten entries.
What is meant, as it turns out, is that the user may delete no more than ten entries, but because only is misplaced, what it really says is, "The only thing you're allowed to do from the History screen is delete the last ten entries," which is quite a different thing.
The solution would have been simply to move only to where it belonged:
From the History screen you are allowed to delete only the last ten entries.
(Interestingly, in the Filipino version of English this sentence would properly be rendered by moving "only" all the way to the end, producing "From the History screen you are allowed to delete the last ten entries only." In Englipino, "only" typically comes after the thing it modifies, which sometimes makes a lot of sense.)
If you have difficulty figuring out where only goes in any given sentence, here's a simple trick: Stick it in in every grammatically acceptable place in the sentence and see which is best. Almost invariably it will be as near as possible to the thing it modifies.
Update of January 25, 2004 In an article in today's Kansas City Star appears this ironic quote: "When I was an intern here [at The Star], you could only make three mistakes before you got fired." This example of a misplaced only would hardly be noteworthy except for the fact it's in an article about how newspapers should strive never to make mistakes, no matter how small.
Nominal, no matter what any dictionary says, means "in name." It doesn't, or at least shouldn't, mean "small."
The Latin affix nom means "name," as in nominate and nomenclature and nom de plume.
Improper use: "Ironically, the disgraced former CEO of a Fortune 500 oil company is now working for a nominal salary as a grease-monkey at a struggling gas station." It might be a small salary compared to what he earned before, but it is hardly nominal even at minimum wage. Just ask the owner of the gas station who has to write him that paycheck every week.
There are plenty of synonyms for small, but nominal has a special, narrower meaning for which there are practically no synonyms.
Two proper uses: "Although the nominal owner of the original Declaration of Independence is the U.S. government, it truly belongs to all people who yearn to be free." "The nominal 1.5 volts of a typical fresh BATTERY are invariably exceeded, according to tests, by at least five percent." You can learn the difference between nominal and actual dimension of lumber here (search for "nominal"), where you'll see that the nominal value is always larger than the actual value.
If too many of us use nominal to mean small -- perhaps because we mistakenly think it sounds classier -- eventually the original, narrower meaning becomes lost to us. Our vocabulary shrinks, and we have to resort to the use of several words where one correct one would have done. Language becomes less efficient.
And by allowing nominal to get mooshed out so that to too many people it means nothing more than the idea of "small," language also becomes less clear. Some speakers will use nominal properly to mean "in name only," and their audience will mistakenly misconstrue it to mean "small." Other speakers will mistakenly use nominal to mean "small," and their better-educated audience will take it to mean "in name only."
Losing a special, useful vocabulary word to misuse is never desirable. And it's not like the list of terms that already do mean "small" is all that few or short or little or wee or teeny or tiny or meager or limited or microscopic or spare or puny or scant or picayune.
Propaganda, Selective Reporting
Here's a (probably apocryphal) story I remember from about thirty years ago, during the Cold War. It's just too cute to leave out of this article about words.
It was about two headlines -- one in an American newspaper and the other in a Soviet newspaper -- reporting on the same event, a relay race in which, as it turned out, the only competitors were the American and Soviet teams. The American team won.
The American headline was
Americans Beat Soviets in Relay Race.
The Soviet headline was
Soviets Second in Relay
Other Web pages around here, in case you care, relate a few more of my rants about English:
Yes, take me to page 2 of Words.
This page was last updated
on February 23, 2017,
Outline of "Words" pages
The individual articles on these two pages are designed to be read somewhat in order, but if you want to pick and choose, below is the list.
The numeral, 1 or 2, designates whether the article is found here or on page 2 of Words.
1 Lay v. Lie
For a different look at the subject of certain words, go HERE, where you'll find a lucid discussion of a couple dozen "non-errors" (a few of which I discuss here). The author uses the descriptive approach to usage, i.e., he tells how people do talk and write. On these two very Web page I take the other approach, called the prescriptive, meaning I mean to tell you how you should talk and, especially, write.
Thanks go to those of you who have suggested I specifically distinguish between spoken and written English.
Let me herewith do so:
Some of the distinctions I make here between pairs of words are of less importance if you're having a casual, face-to-face conversation than if you're writing a scholarly paper or a president's State of the Union address.
But even in spoken English among best friends, it's rare that using the wrong word isn't wrong.
Outline of "Words" pages
The individual articles on these pages are designed to be read somewhat in order, but if you want to pick and choose, below is the outline.
The numeral, 1 or 2, designates whether the article is found here or on page 2 of "Words."
1 Lay v. Lie
Outline of "Words" pages
The individual articles on these pages are designed to be read somewhat in order, but if you want to pick and choose, below is the outline.
The numeral, 1 or 2, designates whether the article is found here or on page 2 of " Words."
1 Lay v. Lie
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