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Words--page 2

Here are some more words I seem to care about for some reason.  If you don't know how you got here, you might want to go back a page to "Words - page 1" now, then return here when you see fit.

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Steep Learning Curve

Here's a simple question: What does this mean?

Because of the seemingly illogical complexities of the many related procedures, novices will have to overcome a steep learning curve.

It means that novices face a difficult task, that it will take them a long time to learn the procedures, right?

Well, help me analyze this here.

Below are graphs of two learning curves.  They are identical except for the angle of the learning curve, which is the narrow line running at an angle up and right from the origin, the zero point.

The vertical axis shows the degree of progress in learning, perhaps as indicated by successive proficiency tests.  The higher you are on the vertical axis at any moment in time, the more you have learned.

The horizontal axis shows the passage of time, where time 3, which might be in hours, is later than time 0.  Incidentally, many graphs of this sort show the passage of time on one of the two axes, and it is always on the horizontal axis.  I have never seen a graph in which time was measured along the vertical axis, and I'll bet you haven't either.  The reason is that it is traditional -- indeed, universal -- for the independent factor to be on the horizontal axis, because it's always the dependent factor, shown along the vertical axis, that we're measuring.  The dependent factor here is learning, that is, learning depends on time spent, not the other way around (which would be ridiculous).

Consider the graph on the left.  At time 1 the degree of learning is equal to 2/3rds, at time 2 the degree of learning has risen to 1 1/3rd, and by time 3 it has reached 2.

learning_curvea5.gif (843 bytes)         learning_curveb5.gif (905 bytes)

Now consider the graph on the right, the steeper learning curve.

On the steeper learning curve, which everyone says is hard, at time 1 the degree of learning is equal to 1, at time 2 it's equal to 2, and at time 3 it's equal to 3.  So, plainly the steeper learning curve is the easier one, not the harder one.

If you think I've got this wrong, and you certainly wouldn't be the first, please .

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Downhill

Along those same lines, what is meant by "It's downhill"?

Here's one usage: "I pedaled for ten minutes without a break before I crested the peak, and it was all downhill from there."

Here's another usage: "First he lost his job, then his girlfriend.  And then he tried crack cocaine.  It was all downhill from there to the back alley where the detectives found his diseased and drug-ridden body."

Which is it?  Is downhill good or bad?

Am I the only person who has noticed this?

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Like versus Such As

There's a difference between like and such as.  Use it, and certainly recognize it lest you get fooled.  Most often, like is used where such as should be.

Like means "in the manner of."  Such as means "an actual example."

Improper use: I remember from several years ago a radio spot for a concert that was to take place near where I live.  The promos said, "Get your tickets now to see artists like Elton John and Billy Joel."  In fact, the artists were Elton John and Billy Joel.  Indeed, if this were to be taken literally, it could mean that your ticket would buy you a performance by two John and Joel imitators.

You see this kind of misuse all the time: "Leading Republicans like Hatch, Hyde and Quayle support the flag-burning amendment," when in fact those exact three themselves do support it.

Unless it's clear which members of the potential population should not be included, always be wary of the "like" construction.  Like means "in the manner of this one," but it also includes the idea of "not necessarily this exact one."  For example, here's a proper use: "Since the end of the 1960s, people from all parts of the world like Hitler have tried but failed to institute a new world order."

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Those Kind

Use of this construction is simply illiterate at best, and illiterate and misleading at worst.

For example, "I've tried a lot of skis, and I like these kind best."  Or "The candidate said that those organic sort of issues are relevant."

The illiteracy arises from a mismatch in number.  Those is plural, as in "those cars."  But kind is singular, as in "I'll have only one kind of ice cream."

"Those kind" is like saying "Several of the car."  Since kind is singular, you should say, "This kind" or "that kind," not "these kind" or "those kind."

If for some rare reason you really do need to refer to more than one kind of thing, which itself implies more than one member of more than one set, then add an "s" to the end of kind.  For example, "These kinds of paintings are what we specialize in."

But then what did you mean by "kinds"?  If you were referring to just Monets or just abstracts, then you should have said "this kind of painting," not "these kinds."  Only if you specialize in, say, both Monets and abstracts should you say "these kinds."

Lesson: When it comes to kinds and sorts, it's almost always "this" and "that," not "these" and "those."

Update of January 25, 2008: At right is a scan of part of an ad mailer I received today from a Kansas City car-repair shop.  If you've got one of those cars made in South America, these guys might be able to fix it but they don't SPECIALIZE in that kind, so beware.
 

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Suspicious

This word seems to have two entirely unrelated meanings, and only one of them is right, no matter what any dictionary says to the contrary.

Proper use:

"The postal worker was suspicious of the parcel labeled NOT A BOMB."

Improper use:

"The postal worker saw a suspicious parcel labeled NOT A BOMB."

See the difference?  In the first case it is the postal worker who is suspicious, i.e., he has a suspicion about something.  In the second case it is the parcel that's suspicious, but a parcel can't suspect anything, it can't be suspicious of anything.

You can use the adjective suspect to modify the noun if you like: "The dog got excited about the suspect suitcase labeled CONTENTS SMELL LIKE BUT ARE NOT MARIJUANA."

A more common instance of the improper type of use:

"Yes," said the detective on the witness stand, "when I espied the defendant blithely riding down the street on that giraffe, I thought he was suspicious, so I clandestinely kept an eye on him."

 

 

 

Update of May 1, 2007: Today's Kansas City Star brings us another improper use.

 

 

 

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Center Around

If you think about it you'll realize that center around just doesn't make sense, as in "The novel centers around the exploits of Bilbo Baggins."  The novel can revolve around the exploits if it really wants to, but it can't center around anything.  The center is the center, and whatever is around is outside the center, if you see what I mean.  If you like the term center, the preposition that should follow is on.  "The novel centers on the exploits of Bilbo Baggins."

Speaking of center, unless you can distinguish between the two, don't use the currently fashionable epicenter where center will do.  Paris is not the epicenter of fashion, and Hollywood is not the epicenter of film stars.

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Between the Cracks

Here's a similar error in thinking.

"The study showed that after elementary school it was the marginal students who fell between the cracks of the educational system."

I remember once having an argument with someone who insisted that her statement "I could care less" meant she could not care less.  Despite my several attempts to explain how the word not literally reversed the meaning, she assured me she was right.

She never did apprehend the difference, and I remember realizing later that, to her, the individual words themselves were meaningless; all that mattered to her was the sound, the phrase.  Just as with "center around" and "between the cracks" and "I miss not having my dog," she literally couldn't understand what the problem was.

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Several Trivial Pairs

If you want to impress the 1% of English speakers who know the distinctions, here are some pairs of words you shouldn't confuse.

Sneaked v. Snuck

This one's perfectly simple: Always say, "Sneaked."

Dived v. Dove

This one's equally simple: Always say, "Dived."

For example, "Is a pigeon the same thing as a dived?"

Hanged v. Hung

This one's almost as simple: Use hanged when you're referring to hanging by a noose, and use hung for everything else.  "He was hanged till he was dead," not "He was hung till he was dead."

Farther v. Further

Use farther only for physical distance, and use further for everything else.

Proper uses of farther (and what would be improper uses of further):

"It's only ten miles farther."

"Move that wall one inch farther south."

"The farther away we get from that tribe of Prank Penguins, the better I like it."

Proper uses of further (and what would be improper uses of farther):

"The more he talks, the further away from the truth he gets."

"The further we get to our goal of a million dollars in donations, the more I want to embezzle it all and run off to Bora Bora."

Nauseous v. other "nause-" terms

Nauseous does not mean "I feel like vomiting," so it's only under the rarest circumstances you'd say, "I'm feeling nauseous."   Nauseous means that which makes you feel like vomiting, that which nauseates you, that which causes you to feel nausea.

Depending on what nauseates you you might rightly say, "I regard gaping, bloody wounds as nauseous," or "I find the smell of vomit to be nauseous," but you would almost never declare that you yourself are nauseous, because if you did you be saying you make other people feel nauseated.

Let's not give up the useful meaning of nauseous.

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Excessive Equivocation

I don't know why -- maybe some sort of subconscious fear of being proven wrong -- but too many people engage too often in excessive equivocation, which is using an equivocal term and then, for no reason, using an additional term of equivocation.

It's wishy-washy.  It's wimpy weasel words.

A term of equivocation is one that lightens the burden of proof or the degree of certainty, such as "might" and "probably" and "could."

Compare "The universe is 15 billion years old" to "The universe might be 15 billion years old."  The second version shows a proper use of equivocation.

Now compare

    There's only a 10% chance it will rain on Thursday.

to

    There's only a 10% chance it could rain on Thursday.

The statement that there's only a 10% chance it could rain on Thursday is inaccurate, regardless of what the weather forecast says.  Surely there's always a 100% chance that it could rain.

The 10% figure refers to the chance it will rain, not that it could.  Once you've said "10%," you don't need to equivocate further by saying "could."

Here's another example.  "It's probable that as many as half the students at the school might be clinically undernourished."  Wrong.  It's not merely probable, it's certain that as many as half might be undernourished.  As far as that goes, it's certain, not merely probable, that as many as all of them might be undernourished.

Here's a different type of excessive equivocation.  This one doesn't involve statistics, and it has only one term of equivocation, but even that is excessive.

From a report on NPR one afternoon in 2000: "As a result of the infestation of plump ox disease in the trees in Halifax, throughout the entire region we're going to keep an eye out for any other outbreaks that might occur."  No, you looking for outbreaks that do occur.  How can you look for ones that might occur?

I say, "Say what you mean and nothing less."

Another two: "It's possible you might find your golf score dropping if you buy this putter."  It's not merely possible you might find it dropping, it's 100% certain.  Or, said the other way, it's possible you will, not merely might, find it dropping.  "Ideally, your computer should boot up fine from now on."  No, ideally your computer will boot up fine.  That's what ideally means.

Another two: "We came within inches of almost being hit by that meteorite!"  No, you came within inches of actually being hit, not almost.  "Sometimes when there are too many trees the helicopter can't land."  No, if there are too many trees then the helicopter can't ever land, not just sometimes but never.  That's what "too many trees" means.

Another one: "I can't predict what the consequences might be."  Well, of course you can.  Any idiot can predict what the consequences might be, because the idea of the word "might" means you've got miles of latitude.  You can be 100% certain that any of two or three or a thousand consequences might ensue.  The U.S. Army general who spoke these words (in June 2007 regarding whether to pull out of Iraq) not only didn't want to predict what the consequences would be, he didn't even want to predict what the consequences might be.

I say, "Once you've covered your ass once, if you do it again in the same sentence, 'taint nothin' but you bein' a puss."

"It might take up to two weeks for help to arrive."  Nope; if you're going to say "up to," then there's no reason to equivocate further by saying "might."  You mean it will take up to two weeks.  This one, regarding an airplane crash on an inaccessible mountaintop during bad weather, is egregious because, taken literally, it means help might not arrive in two weeks.  What the speaker said was that help might arrive in two weeks, which necessarily implies it might not.  If you're one of the survivors, don't you want to know whether to plan for two weeks or three?

Regarding the controversial April 22, 2004, death of professional football player and U.S. Army Cpl. Pat Tillman in fighting in Iraq: "Until then we never suspected he might have died from friendly fire."  Once you've said "suspected," you don't need to say "might."  The idea of might is contained in the idea of suspected.

"I think we might expect . . . . "  No, once you've said, "I think," you don't need to say "might"; just say, "I think we can expect."  Similar to that is "I can imagine it might."  Once you've said, "I can imagine," you should finish with "it will," not "it might."  After all, you're just imagining, so you will be imagining what will happen.  The idea of imagining already includes all the equivocation that's necessary.

An NPR interviewer asking about whether Idaho Republican senator Larry Craig would seek to retract his guilty plea in the public bathroom gay sex scandal: "Is there any indication he might show up on Tuesday?"  No, no, you don't want to be asking about whether there's an indication he might show up, you want to be asking whether there's an indication he will show up.  An indication is not the same as the outright fact of his showing up, it's merely a suggestion, a clue, so once you've said "indication," the "might" is unnecessary.

From an NPR broadcast on December 14, 2007: "Potentially as many as 200,000 might be affected."  Double no.  Once you've said "potentially," the "as many as" is unnecessary, or vice versa.  And the "might" is, of course, unnecessary either way.  "As many as 200,000 will be affected" communicates the same idea but with no excessive equivocation at all, so it's better.

"If you think you aren't sure, then don't climb the ladder."  Nope.  Once you aren't sure, then you already think you aren't sure, so leave out the "you think" altogether.

"Sometimes you don't always get what you want."  Here the "always" is not only excessive, it seems positively contradictory.

This excerpt is from an AP article that ran on September 22, 2009, in The Kansas City Star.  Briefly, Najibullah Zazi was suspected of plotting to murder many innocent people in the United States in an act of terrorism.  First, the task force didn't fear that Zazi may have been involved, it was concerned that he was involved.  Second, they weren't concerned about a potential plot, they were concerned about a real plot.  Once you've said "feared," the rest of the equivocation is unnecessary and confusing.

The headline at right is from the July 21, 2010, edition of The Kansas City Star.  The storm did knock out our power for a couple hours, but the point is that the entirety of the idea of "up to" is already completely contained in the idea of "reach."

Here's one of the most embarrassing examples ever.  "An insurer is not obliged to pay any punitive damages that a jury might award."  The term "any" obviates the need for the term "might."  The statement is about any damages the jury does award.  This is such an egregious example because it appears here.

Here's a more subtle but no less egregious example:

" . . . and jurors are expected to follow that order, although it is certain that in some cases they do not always do so."
 

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Conniving

"He was a mean, conniving skunk."  "She was always scheming and conniving to get her way."  "Even though he had no contact with the outside world, the con-man connived the lonely widow out of thousands of dollars."

What's wrong with these sentences is that "conniving" has a special meaning, and it isn't any of the above.

To connive is to choose not to be a ratfink, to choose not to tell.  If your friends Tom and Ray tell you they're going to rob a bank and you don't report it to anyone, you have connived in their scheme.  It doesn't matter whether you are part of the scheme, what matters is that you didn't tell, that you "winked" at it.  What matters is that you didn't report your intelligence to someone who would have cared, such as the police or the bank manager.

As a somewhat less dramatic but more didactic example, here's a proper use: "Although he suddenly realized Tom and Ray were preparing to dump a cooler full of Gatorade on the coach, he decided to connive in their plan, so he continued to look Coach Bob in the eye and speak to him in a normal voice until the last moment."

Conniving shouldn't mean any more than that, and if it comes to mean "low-down and sneaky and scheming and underhanded and untrustworthy," then we have lost a useful word for which there are few synonyms, whereas there are plenty of synonyms for "low-down and sneaky and scheming and underhanded and untrustworthy."  At least I think there are.

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That's Thats

"To all you voters out there, I hereby declare that because I am in favor of God and the flag and family values and all our boys overseas and freedom that I will never let you down."

That is an interesting word in English.  It is used in so many ways, and often enough it can be deleted without changing the meaning of the sentence that it's in, such as this one.  For that matter, although it's a quite common word I defy you to define it for me.  I swear, I don't understand how anyone learns English as a second language.

Anyway, sometimes that is used to excess, by which I mean that people will use a that where they may and then, because they get distracted by something they themselves are saying, they use it again where they may not, for no reason.

If the candidate's declaration that opens this section is written right you should be able to delete the clause that starts "because" and ends in "freedom" without altering the grammaticality of what's left.  But if you do that with this sentence you get "To all you voters out there, I hereby declare that that I will never let you down."

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That's Who

Speaking of that, there's a difference between that and who.   Who is reserved for people, and that is used for everything else.

It's rare for who to be used where that should be; it's almost always the other way around.  For example, few people would say, "That's the mosquito who bit me," and even fewer people would say, "That's the coconut who fell on my head."

Improper uses of that for who:

  • "The victims over there in the gallery, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, are the ones that deserve your sympathy."
  • "She was the researcher that traded a perfectly good giraffe for a hundred shares of Microsoft back in 1990."
  • "Our candidate, a self-professed feng shui expert, is the only one in the entire field that espouses mandatory monthly drug screening for people whose names start with D."

Proper uses: In each case above, simply replace that with who, because the victims and the researcher and the candidate are all people.  See here and here for other examples.

There are circumstances in which I myself am not sure which term to use until I think about it.  For example, "The god who (that?) best represents the sun is Apollo."  Apollo is not a person per se, but I think of him more as a person than as an object, which is why I would use who.

       

Seven Words that Don't Mean a Lot

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1. Incredible

Incredible doesn't mean "a lot," as in "Bhopal suffered incredible devastation."

And incredible doesn't mean "really good," as in "We guarantee you'll get incredible results in four weeks" or "That was an incredible concert."

Incredible means "that which you do not believe," i.e., that which is not credible.

Here's one of my favorite misuses, about Dee Dee Myers, Clinton's outgoing press secretary:

"During her tenure here she did an incredible job."

Update of August 2, 2007: According to NPR reporter David Folkenflik this morning, "Murdoch wants [his recent purchase of] The Wall Street Journal to give incredible credibility to his other media holdings."

And from a breathless fan of some "Star Trek" movie or other:

"The plot line was incredible!"

And from a religious radio broadcast (92.3 FM, Kansas City, Missouri):

"The proof in favor of [the existence of] God is just incredible."

Now, here are some proper uses:

"She didn't know about the videotape of the robbery.  The detectives found her alibi about being at home surfing the Web incredible."

"It wasn't until he got to the part about an elephant flying over the house and landing on his car that his story became incredible."

"At the 297th annual Liar's Contest, held every three years in Plampton, East Virginia, many of the stories were dull, drab and boring but they were all incredible."

FYI, with respect to a pair of related terms, he is incredulous who doesn't believe it, so you would certainly never say, "The crowd agreed the acrobats gave an incredulous performance."

And he is credulous who believes it too easily.

For example, if you tell me that it's best for public safety if all green cars run all red lights, I will be incredulous, i.e., I will not believe you.  If for some reason I did believe you, I would be credulous, i.e., I would be too eager to believe that which is incredible.

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2. Literally

In the same way incredibly doesn't mean "a lot," neither does literally.

Literally is properly used in opposition to figuratively or proverbially or metaphorically.  When you use the adverb literally, you're telling the reader to take the term(s) it modifies at face value, i.e., that you don't mean to include any exaggeration or any idioms or any symbolism.  Figuratively and proverbially and metaphorically mean the opposite, that you do mean for at least one term in your sentence to be taken as a figure of speech or as a symbol of something.

Proper uses:

"After I realized I had mistaken hemorrhoid ointment for toothpaste I literally ran to the hospital down the street."

"On January 28, 1986, the rocket carrying the Space Shuttle Challenger literally blew a gasket."

Improper uses:

"That was literally a great concert."

"A standard stud is literally ninety-two and five-eighths inches long.  You have to literally move that handle to the right.  Always shingle literally from the bottom up, so the rainwater will literally drain down."  You probably think I made these up, but I didn't.  Steve, a Habitat for Humanity construction supervisor, said them.

"You've heard the detectives testify that the same brand of giraffe chow was found at both the defendant's house and on the carjacking victim's floorboard.  Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, if you're looking for another reason to vote Guilty, that giraffe chow is literally a smoking gun."

"I hadn't eaten anything for the past twelve hours, and I was literally starving to death.  When I took that first bite of watermelon I was literally in heaven."

"The company I worked for was literally throwing millions of dollar out the window every year," spoken by yet another Habitat for Humanity site supervisor, John.

As I see it, if you're going to go out of your way to use the word literally, you should make sure you really mean it, because it's a powerful word.  To get it wrong is not only to make yourself look ignorant, it sometimes produces a humorous result, which just draws additional attention to your mistake.

"Because of the level of support I have in New Hampshire, I'm literally going to kill the other candidates."

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3. Inconceivably

If you thought literally was a powerful word, and you should have, inconceivably is more powerful still.

Here are some examples of inconceivable:

  • "We saw the death camps, and the horror was inconceivable."
  • "Bill Gates is inconceivably rich."
  • "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, that justice could be served by this murderer's escaping on a technicality is inconceivable."
  • "That God could (or could not, take your pick) exist is inconceivable."

To understand why these statements are patently false you need to understand what inconceivable means (which Vizzini from The Princess Bride famously didn't).  It certainly doesn't mean merely "a lot," as in the first two examples above; and it doesn't even mean "hard to accept" or "hard to believe" as in the latter two examples.

It means that you literally cannot conceive of the thing, the concept, the idea.  To say that a thing is inconceivable is a most powerful statement, because you can conceive of almost anything.  Conceiving an idea means merely thinking of it, merely imagining it, not necessarily explaining it in all its unlikely details or understanding all its precursors and consequences.

Let's say, just for fun, that in your average life you've jumped off a chair as often as once a year, and let's further say that it took you a total of one second to land.  That means you've spent one part in 31,557,600 (365.25 days X 24 hours X 60 minutes X 60 seconds) parts of your life jumping off chairs.

Now imagine that every human north of the Equator decided to jump off a chair all at the same given second for no particular reason.  Can you picture every single one of us perched on our chairs, getting ready to jump off, all at the same time?

Incidentally, what would the jumps and the landings do to the Earth?  Wouldn't the jumps push the Earth "down," i.e., south, by a detectable amount?  Wouldn't the subsequent landings push the Earth even farther south?  Couldn't we use this method to move us out of the way of huge Earth-crossing asteroids?  If we could, would we want to?

If the population of Earth north of the Equator is a nice round 3 billion then the likelihood all those people will jump off a chair at the same given second is one in 31,557,600 raised to the power of 3 billion.  The denominator of that extraordinary number is equal to roughly

1.8 times (10 raised to the power of 22,497,311,901).         

Thanks go to akprasad (and later Dave L. Renfrow for getting impressively if only slightly closer) for calculating for me the value of 31,557,600 raised to the power of 3 billion, as well as for his or her unsolicited follow-up comments:

"That number is so absurdly large that I have absolutely no way of putting it to you in any kind of terms.  I mean, let's say you can count to 1 million in 1 microsecond, and you count for the age of the universe.  Is our original number still bigger?  Yes, inconceivably [emphasis mine].  How about if you can count to 1 novemdecillion in 1 yoctosecond for 1 vigintillion years (and yes, those are real numbers)?  Still nowhere close.  In fact, insert your own numbers (other than a googolplex) and you still have nothing!"

Now, those are some long odds, dear reader, yet the idea of everyone north of the Equator jumping off a chair at the same time is not only conceivable, it's positively easy to conceive.  Indeed, you just conceived of it yet again.

jumping02.gif (3,476 bytes)

The Kansas City Star,
September 9, 2001.

Update of June 2002: Apparently someone else conceived of a similar idea.

Jumping for science        

LONDON -- Seismologists said Saturday that an experiment in which more than 1 million children jumped up and down simultaneously in the hope of triggering an earthquake had produced scarcely a tremor.
     Children at London's Science Museum and at 5,000 schools around Britain jumped up and down for one minute at 11 a.m. Friday.
     Early reports indicated that the jumping had left "measurable traces" on seismometers at the jump sites, organizers said, while the British Geological Survey was investigating a "small trace" in Cornwall.

Contrariwise, it's inconceivable that you don't exist.  It's not inconceivable to me that you don't exist, mind you, but I believe you'll find that it's inconceivable to you that you don't exist.

For a few more examples, it's inconceivable that one plus one doesn't equal two or that time isn't infinite or that actions in the future can affect the present.

For yet another example, it's inconceivable that . . .

Oh, wait, now that I think about it, I'm not sure anything else is inconceivable.  This is a powerful word -- arguably the most powerful, the most all-encompassing -- and it should not be used to mean merely "a lot."  Inconceivable should be used rarely, and only to mean that which is truly incapable of being conceived by the human mind.  We have lots of other words for "a lot."   At least I think we do.

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4. Regularly (versus Frequently)

These words are rarely interchangeable, and more often than not the word regularly is the wrong choice.

Regular means "in equal increments."  It does not mean "a lot."

If you see your dentist once every six months, that's regularly.

But if you see her exactly once every ten years, that's no less regular.

And once every ten years is no less regular a schedule than every Tuesday.

Proper use:

"During routine cruising, at a speed of 17,500 miles per hour and at an altitude of around 225 miles, the Space Shuttle regularly passes over the Equator."

Improper uses:

"This car breaks down so regularly, I wish I'd never bought it."

"Post office employees go on shooting rampages so regularly that 'going postal' has become a well-known phrase."

"Indefinitely regularly substitutes for infinitely, and it almost never should."

We should not give up the useful word regularly in order to have yet another synonym for often.

Regularly has few synonyms.  Indeed, I dare you to think of even one.

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5. Indefinitely

Indefinitely often substitutes for infinitely, and it almost never should.

Indefinitely means "for a period whose duration is not definite."  It should never mean "forever."  (Yes, I know the dictionary disagrees, but you should not agree with it.)

Infinitely means "a lot"; indefinitely doesn't.

If you declaim, "The nuclear waste will certainly last, for all practical purposes, indefinitely," you probably don't mean that.  You probably mean, "The nuclear waste will last forever."  If you meant what you said, you'd mean that the nuclear waste will last for some completely unknown period of time, which would include ten million years or ten seconds.

A proper use of indefinitely would be: "We don't know when we can find another used Space Shuttle on eBay, so the project will be put off indefinitely."  Here what is said is what is meant, that it's not yet definite when the project will be re-started, that the duration is indefinite.

As with so many other pairs of confusable words, the point is that if you have a choice of the better word or the worse one, you should always choose the better one.

Why wouldn't you?  If there's a chance of confusing your reader or listener, why take the risk?  Why make your reader guess?

More important, especially if you're trying to make a point, why would you allow your reader to guess?

Another reason to use the right word is that by not doing so, by spreading the legitimization of the wrong word, you encourage others to communicate less effectively to you.

You should always want to communicate effectively, and you should always want others to communicate effectively to you.  I literally cannot imagine when you wouldn't.  I cannot conceive of a situation where you wouldn't.  Can you?

Also, you should want to be able to recognize it when other people might be using the wrong word.  By recognizing that possibility you lessen the likelihood you'll be fooled by a politician or a pastor or a policeman or a prosecuting attorney, or anyone with whom you're debating a topic in order to get closer to the truth.

Top of Words - page 2

6. Enormity

As a noun enormity, no matter what any dictionary says, means "an act of extraordinary evil."  It doesn't, or at least shouldn't, mean "a lot."

Enormity should be reserved for its narrower use, because there are lots of synonyms for "a lot" but not many for enormity.

Proper use:

"In the 20th century the enormity of Hitler's murder of six million European Jews is surpassed only by Stalin's purge of twenty million of his fellow Russians."

Equally proper use:

"The enormity of the rape of the nun has stunned this small town."

Improper use:

"You will feel a certain sense of peace and well-being the first time you gaze at the enormity of the Montana sky."

Top of Words - page 2

7. Massive

Massive refers to mass, i.e., physical stuff that gravity can pull on.  Massive doesn't mean merely "a lot."

You can predict that a massive asteroid will crash into Earth next Wednesday, but you shouldn't say that there will be massive interest in the subject between now and then.  Interest in the subject is not quantifiable in terms of mass or even massiveness, and there are plenty of other, more accurate adjectives you can use.

Why deprive massive of its special meaning?  Why deprive us speakers of English of any word's special meaning, especially if a better word is available, and even more especially if many better words are available?

Equally improper uses: massive debt, massive psychological problems, massive political pressure, massive criminal enterprise, massive low-pressure weather system.

Speaking of the proper uses of mass, don't confuse weight and mass.  A physical object, whether it's an electron or a helium balloon or a diamond or a car, always has mass.  Whether it has weight depends on how much net gravity is pulling on it.  For example, an object that you toss into the air is weightless near the top of the arc.  As I believe Isaac Asimov said, and I will paraphrase him badly here because I don't have the quote in front of me, "The Space Station has no weight, but you'd know it had mass if it bumped up against an asteroid with your finger in between."

Experiment.  Speaking of which, here's an experiment you can perform if you have a car.  You know how when you make a right turn in your car your body moves left or how when you hit the brakes your body moves forward, relative to the car?  Sure you do.

Now, what about a helium balloon suspended in your car?

Here's how to find out.  Roll up all the windows in your car and turn off the air conditioning, then duct-tape the doors and windows so there won't be any wind currents anywhere in there.  Then drive somewhere and buy a helium balloon on a string and get back in the car.

Drive straight and level for a while at more than, say, 20 mph, and then grab hold of the string and anchor your hand in such a way that the balloon is suspended in mid-car and not touching anything, and take a look at it.  If you've shut off all the wind currents and if the balloon isn't touching anything, it will behave as you expect, i.e., it will fly straight up.  So far so good.

But now make a sharp right turn.  If you do so without warning yourself, your own body, which is a massive object, will move left relative to the new direction of the car (unless you strive against the pull of inertia using your muscles), according to Newton's first law.  That law says that a massive object moving along a certain line at a certain speed (a vector) will continue moving along that vector unless some force acts on it.  In the case of your turning the steering wheel of the car, your body, which is not tied down tight to the car, continues straight ahead while the car turns right.  As long as the car turns right, inertia will try to propel you yourself in the forward direction at that moment, while the tires of your car force the car itself to the right of the direction your body is moving.

You have become so used to this phenomenon that when you turn right you automatically lean right as well, to counteract the forward push of momentum on your body.

Similarly, when you hit the accelerator you automatically lean forward to counteract the relative backward force of acceleration, and when you hit the brake you automatically lean backwards.  You might not know it, but you do.  For that matter, you already know how to do this automatic weight-shifting from riding a bicycle, where if you didn't react to the change in the vector of inertia you'd certainly crash.

If you don't believe me about how automatic this reaction is, just try to ride a bicycle at speed without leaning in the direction you turn the handlebars.  You'll find that you almost literally can't, no matter how much padding you're wearing, because you "know" it'll make you crash, even if you don't understand anything about Newton's First Law.

Anyway, hold that helium balloon by its string so that it's free to move about in your windless car interior and watch what happens when you turn right.  If it's a massive object like your own body, which it is, it should move left relative to the car, like everything else that's loose, shouldn't it?  If you hit the brakes, it should move forward, shouldn't it? 

Once you have seen what it does, think about why, then go here if you want.

Incidentally, did you know that every massive object in the universe exerts a gravitational pull on every other object?  You understand that our massive sun exerts a gravitational pull on satellites near it such as Earth and Pluto, of course, but did you know that each and every molecule of water in your body exerts a gravitational pull on atoms of, say, iron at the farthest edge of the universe, and that those atoms of iron pull on you?  It's true.  If it's got mass, it pulls on anything else that's got mass, no matter how small and no matter how far away.  So, why doesn't everything collapse into a big ball?  Go ask the theoretical astrophysicists who believe in the Big Bang theory, which is this:

On January 1st awhile back -- a Monday, I think -- everything that would become the entire universe was about the size of an extremely small billiard ball, and it was almost unimaginably massive.  It began expanding at a moment called the Big Bang, and it's been doing so ever since, some 14 billion years ago now.  Everything is flying away from everything else through space.  I have a lot of questions about all that.  I believe it, but I still have a lot of questions.

Anyway, the seven words above -- incredibly, literally, inconceivably, regularly, indefinitely, enormity and massive -- don't mean a lot.

Top of Words - page 2

Relevant

Relevant is a serious-sounding buzzword, so don't be fooled by anyone who uses it improperly.

-- Relevant doesn't mean anything unless it's followed by "to."

If you hear, "The points brought out were relevant," you have a right to wonder what the points were relevant to.  Unless relevant is eventually followed by a reference to what the points are relevant to, then the term has no extrinsic meaning.  Thus, not only should you ignore it but you should also question whether you're being intentionally fooled.

Here's a proper use: "Most of the members made arguments that weren't relevant to the proposed motion."

-- And relevant certainly doesn't mean "good."

If you hear, "We've studied all the candidates on your behalf, and we feel Bob's positions are the most relevant," watch out.  Not only is the speaker asking you to forgive him for using relevant without a reference to what it's relevant to, he's also hoping you'll be fooled into believing that relevant somehow means "good" as opposed to neutral or bad.

Proper use: "The acts of the KKK are relevant to the history of racism in this country."

Similarly, of course, irrelevant doesn't mean "bad."

Top of Words - page 2

Feel versus Think

I have two points to make about this pair of words.  First, you shouldn't use feel when you mean think.  Second, if you do mean feel, you should examine the circumstances to determine whether your feelings are of any use in making a decision.

To take the second point first, here are two improper uses of feelings.

  • "I know what my compass says, but I still feel that the cabin is that way." 

    If you're lost in the woods, it doesn't matter which way you feel the cabin is.  

  • "Fellow jurors, even after sifting through the evidence I still feel Bob is guilty of the crime."

    Whether Bob is found guilty should not be a matter of how a juror feels, it should be a matter of what he thinks.  If you're a juror, just because you have a gut feeling or a sense or an intuition that Bob's guilty should not mean a thing.  If your vote is based even in the smallest part on a feeling, you've violated your oath as a juror, you've violated the judge's specific instructions, and you might convict an innocent defendant.  Or you might set a guilty defendant free.

Proper uses:

  • "I feel that you are my soul-mate."
  • "I feel hatred toward all Martians."
  • "I feel contented in your presence."
  • "I feel your leg."

To take the first point second, here is an improper use:

"I disagree.  Since there's no way to wash our hands out here and we don't have any gloves, I feel we should eat our meatball sandwiches first, then ted the fresh rat manure."

Clearly the speaker's decision is based on reasoning, on thinking, not any sort of feeling whatsoever.  He doesn't feel they should eat first, he thinks it.

If we use feel to mean think, we lose the distinction between them.  If feel comes to mean nothing different from think, then what words are left to express the original meaning of feel?

Now, that's not to say there are no circumstances in which both feeling and thinking are useful in making a decision.  In deciding whether to pursue a potential soul-mate it is reasonable to assess the situation with respect to both emotion (I am deeply infatuated with her) and logic (she lives an hour away, and she's clinically insane).

Top of Words - page 2

Viable

Viable means "capable of sustaining life."  It doesn't mean "true" or "valuable" or "right."

Proper uses:

"Even after an hour of exposure to the X-rays, the viruses were still viable."

"The nests were decimated by the storm, but most of the condor eggs are viable."

You can even say:

"According to a majority of people surveyed, despite the revelations regarding the candidate's unusual perversion, his campaign is still viable."

But you can't say:

"According to a majority of people surveyed, the candidate's comments explaining his positions on abortion and stem-cell research were viable."

Top of Words - page 2

Not Whether or Not

Whether is a good, sturdy word, and it rarely needs any help from or not.

Improper uses: "I can't decide whether or not to go to the store."  "She didn't know whether to enter the monastery or not."   "They couldn't determine whether the bonobo left any fingerprints or not on the murder weapon."

You'll see that in each of the uses above the or not can be deleted without changing the meaning, and so should be.  Whether already includes the idea of "or not."

It must be noted that certain constructions, much rarer than the type above, do require that whether be followed by or not in order to sound idiomatic.  For example, you'd say, "Twelve people declared O.J. Simpson not guilty, whether he really did it or not."

Top of Words - page 2

Whether Not If

Whether is a good sturdy word, and if isn't.

Improper uses: "I can't decide if I should go to the store." "She didn't know if she should enter the monastery."  "They couldn't determine if the bonobo left any fingerprints."

In each case above the word if should be replaced by whether, because if has a separate, special meaning that should be preserved.

Any time whether sounds at least as right as if, use whetherWhether refers to the existence or non-existence of a condition; it's binary.

If, on the other hand, should be used only to assume a condition to be true.  In "I can't decide if I should vote," what you're literally saying is, "Assuming that I should vote, then it's true that I can't decide."  If refers to a hypothetical situation, e.g., "If I enter the monastery I'll have to give up my gravel-yaking" or "I'll get that job if only my stars are aligned right."

It's common to combine both whether errors: "I can't decide if I should bathe the tops of the giraffes today or not."

And every once in a while you'll hear a veritable shebang of errors at the same time: "I can't decide if or not I should vote for Bob, who represents exactly half of my fanatic views, or if I should or shouldn't, you know, vote against him or not."

Top of Words - page 2

Represents

"Last Tuesday 10,000 Latinos cast ballots in Springfield.  That represents 35% of total voter turnout."

"My stock portfolio rose 2 percent, which represents an increase in market value of ten dollars."

Nope.  The 10,000 Latinos didn't represent 35% of total voter turnout, they were 35% of it.  There was no representing going on as the 10,000 Latinos voted.

And the 2 percent increase doesn't represent ten dollars, it is ten dollars.

What's wrong with, "My stock portfolio rose 2 percent, which is an increase in market value of ten dollars"?

In this excerpt from an article in The Kansas City Star of April 15, 2003, the word represented is used correctly in the last sentence, and it is used incorrectly in the sentence before that.

represent.jpg (15,808 bytes) 04172003 The settlement amount, $100,000 for the loss of vision in the plaintiff's right eye, did not represent the defendant's insurance policy limits, it was the policy limits.

For a similar story go here.

I say, why use a big, wrong word when a small, right one will do?

Here's why: Because if you use a big word, even if you use it wrong, you might fool a lot of people into thinking you're smarter, wiser, and altogether abler than you really are.

So, when you're listening to talking heads or interviewees on TV and radio such as politicians and academics and pretend-experts and corporate spokesmen, watch out for people who use lots of big words for no apparent reason.  The stupid ones are merely parroting words and phrases they've become enamored of.

But the smart ones might be actively trying to fool you.  And they're the ones to watch out for.  George Orwell said it better:

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.   When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.

 

More here later.

 

Top of Words - page 2

Other Web pages around here relate a few more rants about English:

Unnecessary quotes  |  Unnecessary apostrophes  |  Unnecessary ELLIPSES, etc.  |  Unnecessary slashes  |  Systems  |  

Top of Words - page 2

Yes, take me back to page 1 of Words.

 

This page was last updated on December 27, 2015,
although other pages are being added or updated constantly.

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 list.

The numeral, 1 or 2, designates whether the article is found here or on page 1 of "Words."

1 Lay v. Lie
1 Future Pluperfect Subjunctive
1 R's Are Us
1 Comfortable Sharing
1 Might v. May
1 I.E. v. E.G.
1 Hero
1 A Hundred to One
1 He or She
1 Healthy v. Healthful
1 From A to 3
1 Different
1 At Least 10 to 15
1 Either
1 Misplaced Only
1 Nominal
1 Silly headlines


2 Steep learning curve
2 Downhill
2 Like v. Such as
2 Those Kind
2 Suspicious
2 Center around
2 Between the cracks
2 Several Trivial Pairs
2 Excessive Equivocation
2 Conniving
2 That's Thats
2 That's Who
2 7 words that don't mean a lot
   1. Incredibly
   2. Literally
   3. Inconceivably
   4. Regularly
   5. Indefinitely
   6. Enormity
   7. Massive
2 Relevant
2 Feel versus Think
2 Viable
2 Not Whether or Not
2 Whether Not If
2 Represents

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Click  ?  at the top of any page to see all the nifty navigation aids, including Search Site and Site Map.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 1 of " Words."

1 Lay v. Lie
1 Future Pluperfect Subjunctive
1 R's Are Us
1 Comfortable Sharing
1 Might v. May
1 I.E. v. E.G.
1 Hero
1 A Hundred to One
1 He or She
1 Healthy v. Healthful
1 From A to 3
1 Different
1 At Least 10 to 15
1 Either
1 Misplaced Only
1 Nominal
1 Silly headlines


2 Steep learning curve
2 Downhill
2 Like v. Such as
2 Those Kind
2 Suspicious
2 Center around
2 Between the cracks
2 Several Trivial Pairs
2 Excessive Equivocation
2 Conniving
2 That's Thats
2 That's Who
2 7 words that don't mean a lot
   1. Incredibly
   2. Literally
   3. Inconceivably
   4. Regularly
   5. Indefinitely
   6. Enormity
   7. Massive
2 Relevant
2 Feel versus Think
2 Viable
2 Not Whether or Not
2 Whether Not If
2 Represents

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Click  ?  at the top of any page to see all the nifty navigation aids, including Search Site and Site Map.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 1 of " Words."

1 Lay v. Lie
1 Future Pluperfect Subjunctive
1 R's Are Us
1 Comfortable Sharing
1 Might v. May
1 I.E. v. E.G.
1 Hero
1 A Hundred to One
1 He or She
1 Healthy v. Healthful
1 From A to 3
1 Different
1 At Least 10 to 15
1 Either
1 Misplaced Only
1 Nominal
1 Silly headlines


2 Steep learning curve
2 Downhill
2 Like v. Such as
2 Those Kind
2 Suspicious
2 Center around
2 Between the cracks
2 Several Trivial Pairs
2 Excessive Equivocation
2 Conniving
2 That's Thats
2 That's Who
2 7 words that don't mean a lot
   1. Incredibly
   2. Literally
   3. Inconceivably
   4. Regularly
   5. Indefinitely
   6. Enormity
   7. Massive
2 Relevant
2 Feel versus Think
2 Viable
2 Not Whether or Not
2 Whether Not If
2 Represents

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Click  ?  at the top of any page to see all the nifty navigation aids, including Search Site and Site Map.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 1 of " Words."

1 Lay v. Lie
1 Future Pluperfect Subjunctive
1 R's Are Us
1 Comfortable Sharing
1 Might v. May
1 I.E. v. E.G.
1 Hero
1 A Hundred to One
1 He or She
1 Healthy v. Healthful
1 From A to 3
1 Different
1 At Least 10 to 15
1 Either
1 Misplaced Only
1 Nominal
1 Silly headlines


2 Steep learning curve
2 Downhill
2 Like v. Such as
2 Those Kind
2 Suspicious
2 Center around
2 Between the cracks
2 Several Trivial Pairs
2 Excessive Equivocation
2 Conniving
2 That's Thats
2 That's Who
2 7 words that don't mean a lot
   1. Incredibly
   2. Literally
   3. Inconceivably
   4. Regularly
   5. Indefinitely
   6. Enormity
   7. Massive
2 Relevant
2 Feel versus Think
2 Viable
2 Not Whether or Not
2 Whether Not If
2 Represents

 

 

 

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