Archive for Usage

Ask Language Log: "assuage"

Query from a reader:

Is it correct to use the word assuage to indicate a lessening of something? That is, it is often used in the realm of feelings, i.e. assuage hunger, assuage grief, etc. But would it be acceptable to use to indicate the lessening of something more tangible, such as assuage criminality, assuage the flow of water, assuage drug use.

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"As many people as not"

A reader from India, apparently not satisfied with the responses from WordReference and StackExchange, writes to express his problem with the phrase "They kill as many people as not", found in an article by Anne Lamott ("Anne Lamott shares all that she knows: 'Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, and scared'", Salon 4/10/2015).

"As many people as __" is routine, so presumably the problem is "as not".

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Conjunctions considered harmful

Or not. Andrew Mayeda, "World Bank's Star Economist Is Sidelined in War Over Words", Bloomberg 5/25/2017:

The World Bank’s chief economist has been stripped of his management duties after researchers rebelled against his efforts to make them communicate more clearly, including curbs on the written use of “and.” […]

A study by Stanford University’s Literary Lab in 2015 found the bank’s use of language has become more “codified, self-referential, and detached from everyday language” since the bank’s board of governors held their inaugural meeting in 1946. The study coined the term “Bankspeak,” a vague “technical code” that symbolized the lender’s organizational drift.

In an email to staff obtained by Bloomberg, Romer argued the World Development Report, one of the bank’s flagship publications, “has to be narrow to penetrate deeply,” comparing his vision for the report to a knife. “To drive home the importance of focus, I’ve told the authors that I will not clear the final report if the frequency of ‘and’ exceeds 2.6 percent,” said Romer, citing the percentage of the word’s use in World Bank documents analyzed as part of the “Bankspeak” report.

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Which, close enough

John Herrman, "The Online Marketplace That’s a Portal to the Future of Capitalism", New York Times Magazine, 5/3/2017:

Among the items I sent to my friend, on our modest budget: a laser pointer; 100-count “super strong” small magnets; a functioning violin; a spare part for the window mechanism on an Audi A6; a deep-V-neck sweater; and of course, the self-stirring mug. Shipping was often free, or only a dollar. The items were extraordinarily well reviewed, often by thousands of customers. The deals seemed, if not exactly too good to be true, at least economically unfeasible — which, close enough.

Michael Glazer, who sent in the link, commented:

Because, why not?

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Court fight over Oxford commas and asyndetic lists

Language Log often weighs in when courts try to nail down the meaning of a statute. Laws are written in natural language—though one might long, by formalization, to end the thousand natural ambiguities that text is heir to—and thus judges are forced to play linguist.

Happily, this week's "case in the news" is one where the lawyers managed to identify several relevant considerations and bring them to the judges for weighing.

Most news outlets reported the case as being about the Oxford comma (or serial comma)—the optional comma just before the end of a list. Here, for example, is the New York Times:

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Tentative "would"?

Andrew Kaczynski, "Pence calls Assange tweets about 'Pence takeover' of White House 'absurd' and 'offensive'", CNN News 3/14/2017:

Vice President Mike Pence said Tuesday that two tweets from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange claiming a possible "Pence takeover" of the White House were "absurd" and "frankly offensive."

"I would find all of that dialogue to be absurd and frankly offensive," Pence told radio host Laura Ingraham.

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Daylight(-)Saving Time

Julian Hook writes:

The attached plot corroborates my vague recollections: a few decades ago many people spelled Daylight-Saving Time with a hyphen, but now almost nobody does.

The hyphen makes sense by the same logic as the hyphens in other N-Ving compounds like man-eating and blood-curdling. (Those who would object that Daylight-Saving Time doesn’t actually save any daylight should consider that man-eating plants and blood-curdling screams don’t really do what the words say they do either.)

More interesting than the punctuation, perhaps, is the pronunciation. Every other N-Ving compound I can think of is accented on the initial noun, but for some reason everybody seems to accent Daylight-Saving Time on Saving. Why do we do this? Could it have something to do with the fact that the noun daylight is itself a compound, with a secondary stress on the second syllable? And could this pronunciation explain the disappearance of the hyphen—if, perhaps, the odd stress pattern disguises the logic of the compound?

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Decoding political attitudes

I was initially baffled by the political stance of "John Q. Esq.", who submitted this NYT comment:

Having simultaneously benefited from Obamacare and despised Obama and his party for bringing it to them, I have absolutely no doubt what-so-ever that the low information voters who voted for the Republican Congress and Trump will enthusiastically turn out to vote for them again in 2018 and 2020, respectively, while angrily blaming Obama and Democrats for the loss of healthcare that the GOP has stripped them of. The vicious cycle will continue in our broken democracy – this I am sure of.

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Ask Language Log: "*I very like"

From Jonathan Lundell:

The first comment on this performance of the Brandenburg 6 (nice one, btw): "I very like this authentic manner. And I very like first violist. Who is it?" It's from one Artem Klementyev (so Russian?).

So, a question: why can't we say "I very like X"? …when we can do it with, say, truly & really?

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Not ending a headline with a preposition

"Dear Abby: Creepy boy follows around eighth-grade girl", Chicago Sun-Times 2/25/2017:

DEAR ABBY: I’m an eighth-grader with a good life. I go to a good school, have good friends and a happy family.

But at school, there is this boy who follows me around. I tell him to stop, but he keeps doing it.

So upstream in the publications process from that headline, there was apparently someone who has drunk the don't-end-a-sentence-with-a-preposition koolaid.

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Impact Effect

I recently saw a list of revisions suggested by the editor of a scientific journal, which combined technical issues with a number of points of English usage, including these two:

Please try to avoid the word ‘impact,’ unless it is part of a proper name.  It is now over-used (its ‘impact’ is diminished), and doesn’t communicate anything specific.  If used as a verb, it is better to describe exactly what happens.  As a noun, ‘effect’ (or similar) would suffice.  For example, “The impact on quality of life…” could be rendered as “The reduction in quality of life…” […]

Be clear and direct; avoid the passive voice.

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Flaunting party discipline, or flouting it, whatever

I'm afraid the flaunt/flout distinction may be a lost cause. Yesterday in the UK parliament three Labour Party whips voted against the instructions they were supposed to be enforcing on behalf of the leader of their party, and three times already this morning (the radio has been on since 5:30) I have heard a parliamentary report on the BBC's flagship Radio 4 program Today in which a reporter referred to party whips "who were supposed to impose party discipline, rather than flaunt it."

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Editing wars at London Bridge Street

As of the time of writing, you only get one hit if you ask Google to show you all the pages on the web containing the word sequence in order legally to minimise. That lone hit leads you to an anonymous leader in The Times (there is a paywall) in which this sentence occurs:

Companies are gaming the system in order legally to minimise their tax liability.

The highly unnatural syntax has the hallmark of having been created or edited by someone who would rather poison a puppy than allow an adverb to intrude between infinitival to and its following plain-form verb. But in this case there is more to the story.

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