Mr. Heffer huffs again

« previous post | next post »

Geoff Pullum's musings on Simon Heffer's aprioristic prescriptivism ("English Grammar: Not for debate") were based on a report by the BBC, which is a reliably unreliable witness.  So I  wondered whether Mr. Heffer's usage advice was equally empty when taken straight from the source. The first sample that I found was "Strictly English: Part one", The Telegraph, 8/20/2010, which is "The first of four exclusive extracts from ‘Strictly English: the Correct Way to Write… and Why It Matters’". And it starts like this:

Even when armed with fine intentions, one can still fall into traps: for many words do not mean what one thinks they mean. In the interests of accuracy and precision, what follows is a reminder of the true meaning of some commonly misused words.

One occasionally reads in newspapers about people who have died or been injured in a car that has collided with a tree. This is remarkable, because a collision requires both parties to it to be in motion. The Latin verb collidere means to strike or clash together, and the etymology is strict. So two moving vehicles may collide, as may a car and a cyclist or even a car and a pedestrian, but not a car and a tree. Like so much of our language this is a question of logic based on the etymology; there is no perversity about it.

By strict etymology, silly would still mean "holy"; and in this case, Mr. Heffer's strict etymological logic was invalid even in classical Latin.  Perseus finds 11 examples of forms of collido in Latin texts; and while some of them certainly involve two objects in motion striking or clashing together, several of them don't.  In particular, the past participle form collisus often seems to mean "battered, beaten, bruised" (as Lewis and Short tell us), or something like "dented" or "smashed" in other cases. And in several examples, it's clear that the ding was caused by an event in which only one of the objects was in motion (at least in a common-sense reference frame).  The very first one I looked at — a passage from Petronius — involves a cup that was dented by colliding with the floor:

Fuit tamen faber qui fecit phialam vitream, quae non  frangebatur. Admissus ergo Caesarem est cum suo munere, deinde fecit reporrigere Caesarem et illam in pavimentum proiecit. Caesar non pote valdius quam expavit. At ille sustulit phialam  de terra; collisa erat tanquam vasum aeneum; deinde martiolum de sinu protulit et phialam otio belle correxit. Hoc facto  putabat se solium  Iovis tenere, utique postquam Caesar illi dixit: 'Numquid alius scit hanc condituram  vitreorum?' vide modo. Postquam negavit, iussit illum Caesar decollari: quia  enim, si scitum esset, aurum pro luto haberemus. In argento plane studiosus sum.

But there was once a workman who made a glass cup that was unbreakable. So he was given an audience of the Emperor with his invention; he made Caesar give it back to him and then threw it on the floor. Caesar was as frightened as could be. But the man picked up his cup from the ground: it was dented like a bronze bowl; then he took a little hammer out of his pocket and made the cup quite sound again without any trouble. After doing this he thought he had himself seated on the throne of Jupiter, especially when Caesar said to him: 'Does anyone else know how to blow glass like this?' Just see what happened. He said not, and then Caesar had him beheaded. Why? Because if his invention were generally known we should treat gold like dirt. Myself I have a great passion for silver.

Given this natural development in Latin, it shouldn't be a shock that from the very beginning, many if not most English writers have been happy to use collide and collision in cases where one of the things colliding is immobile relative to the surface of the planet. Thus the OED's third-oldest citation for collision is from Robert Plot's 1677 work The natural history of Oxfordshire, which in expanded form reads (emphasis added):

The Springs, as I remember, are in Number three, and the most southern one of these 'tis that has the humming Noise, much like that of an empty Bottle held with the Mouth against the Wind, which perhaps may be a Resemblance so befitting our purpose, that it may help to explain the Cause, as well as the Sound: for provided the Channel be large within, and the Passage forth somewhat narrow like a Bottle, the Collision of the Water against the Lips of the Orifice, may well make a Noise in a large Vault within, especially if the Waters be indued with a Spirit, as peradventure hereafter may be proved like enough.

You shouldn't think that this is only a 17th  century usage — a bit of web search turns up Charles Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood:

Whether the nuns of yore, being of a submissive rather than a stiff-necked generation, habitually bent their contemplative heads to avoid collision with the beams in the low ceilings of the many chambers of their House; whether they sat in its long low windows, telling their beads for their mortification instead of making necklaces of them for their adornment; whether they were ever walled up alive in odd angles and jutting gables of the building for having some ineradicable leaven of busy mother Nature in them which has kept the fermenting world alive ever since; these may be matters of interest to its haunting ghosts (if any), but constitute no item in Miss Twinkleton's half-yearly accounts.

And William Makepeace Thackery, The Adventures of Philip:

His horses were frightened, no doubt; for just as Yellow Jack wheeled nimbly round one side of the Ringwood statue, Woolcomb's horses were all huddled together and plunging in confusion beside it, the fore-wheel came in abrupt collision with the stonework of the statue railing: and then we saw the vehicle turn over altogether.

It's even easier to find recent examples in well-edited writing, even of the specific phrase that Heffer forbids. This small sample (of a much larger set) comes from Google Books and the NYT archive:

Turning to run, she collided with a tree and knocked herself unconscious.
The bus left the road and collided with a tree.
An Aeronca L-3B collided with a tree while maneuvering at low altitude three miles north of Greenville, Alabama.
Although I lost my hat, I neither lost physical balance nor collided with a tree sufficiently sturdy to arrest a fearfully swift descent, as did many of my comrades.
I had to lift him onto my back the other day after he collided with a tree and hurt himself.
[T]rying to repeat the success five days later, Bleriot collided with a tree in a fog and wrecked the machine past repair.
Even after they crashed to the bottom, they continued to roll head over heel until they collided with a tree.
He ran around, collided with a tree and toppled over with a loud “Bonk.”
Jason collided with a tree as he backed up and tumbled to the ground.
Andy sprang back, collided with a tree-trunk, and went head over heels.
Mr. Kennedy, 39, collided with a tree while playing football on skis.
Two nights ago, policemen discovered a magnificent automobile that had collided with a tree and been greatly damaged.

Amusingly, we even have this example from The Broadview book of common errors in English:

Wrong: The bus left the road and collided against a tree.
Right: The bus left the road and collided with a tree.

A reliable diagnosis of Mr. Heffer's prescriptive psychology would require a larger sample of his usage advice, but added to the claims about warn that Geoff discussed, this business about collisions is enough to suggest that he has a consistent method.  He invents or borrows a plausible "rule" that puts most well-educated writers of standard English in the wrong, and then he uses bluster and bluff — along with his status as a columnist and self-appointed usage expert for the Telegraph — to try to persuade everyone to defer to his fantasy.

Whatever floats his boat. But why should the BBC connive at involving schoolchildren in his linguistic perversions? Learning standard written English is a good thing, but memorizing the lexicographical fantasies of self-appointed experts is at best a waste of time. It confirms many children's belief that learning to write is impossible, like trying to please a cruel and capricious boss who is likely to punish you at random even for following the best practices of the past.



66 Comments

  1. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 6:23 am

    More generally, I didn't realise that a word descended from another language had to retain its specific meaning from that language.

    From now on, thanks to the Heffmeister, I shall only use the word 'thesaurus' to refer to a treasure-house…

  2. Ken Keenan said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 6:41 am

    This just seems like a variety of the argument that was used to condemn split infinitives back in the 18th Century, no? It's good to know the Telegraph is providing a useful public service in the care and feeding of old-school pedants, lest they go entirely extinct!

  3. SeanH said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 6:44 am

    And it's a disgrace that we call people "psychologists" who have little or no working knowledge of the nutritive faculty of the psūchē.

  4. SeanH said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 6:45 am

    Oh rubbish, shouldn't be an accent on the u there.

  5. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 7:00 am

    No you're right Sean, it's a long u.

  6. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 7:07 am

    It does raise the question though, why should we go back only to the immediate source language? Surely the Greeks should have used the word psuche only to refer to PIE *bhes-, 'to blow'. A 'psychologist' should then be an expert on blowing. Which makes Simon Heffer an expert psychologist as well as linguist.

  7. neff said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 7:16 am

    I was just thinking it would be amusing to see Heffer collide rhetorically with some other clueless self-appointed grammarian over his sentence "One occasionally reads in newspapers about people who have died or been injured in a car that has collided with a tree" because all the words ending in -ed would ping their passive-voice detection circuits and set the klaxons blaring in their heads.

  8. Ian Preston said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 7:38 am

    One occasionally reads in newspapers about people who have died or been injured in a car that has collided with a tree.

    Does not `occasionally' derive strictly from occidere meaning `to fall down'. Was Mr Heffer also in motion when he read these reports?

    The very first one I looked at — a passage from Petronius — involves a cup that was dented by colliding with the floor

    But on Mr Heffer's logic, how could the Classical Latin quote from Petronius prove anything unless you can also show that he was using the term correctly according to its derivation from Old Latin?

  9. ?! said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 7:52 am

    On a related note I found the following "advice":
    http://gregmankiw.blogspot.com/2006/10/how-to-write-well.html

    which has been copied and used by many other bloggers…
    Initially I assumed it was all a joke ("use adverbs sparingly", "Monosyllabic words are best", "The passive voice is avoided…"), but about a third of the suggestions seem to be serious eg buy a copy of Strunk and White (!), or "Put details and digressions in footnotes. Then delete the footnotes". I can't work out what was going on here – was a joke email read and incorporated into "proper" advice? Are the suggestions which are contradictions in terms acting as some kind of meta-commentary?

    It's an odd phenomenon as searching for exact text strings from the advice provides almost a hundred examples of bloggers who are actually using them in real life. Yikes.

  10. Bloix said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 7:56 am

    OT, if Prof Pullum is reading, he might be interested in a blog post criticizing someone for hiding agency which doesn't call it a use of the passive voice:

    "Goldsmith uses the lawyerly trick of hiding the agency in his statement–substituting “disfavor grew” for “Republicans drummed up disfavor … "

    ttp://emptywheel.firedoglake.com/2010/09/10/fun-with-capn-jacks-logic/

    I would call this the use of abstract nouns as subjects, in order to disguise agency. It's a genuinely underhanded rhetorical technique, and usually it's incorrectly attacked as being the passive voice.

  11. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 7:58 am

    That's what I meant, Ian. I don't think 'collido' is attested in Old Latin… but it's from *conlaedo, and Liddell and Scott suggest that 'laedo' might be < *lavido, from the same root as solvo, Gk. luo, Eng. loose, i.e. PIE *lew 'set free'.

    If this etymology is correct (though i'm sceptical), Petronius should only have used it of two things which are set free together. What a clueless idiot that Petronius was.

  12. Tom said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 8:09 am

    What contemptible nonsense this individual spews. Ashamed to report that I was unable to read his second paragraph without feeling "pedant rage" beginning to boil inside me. Perhaps I need to calm down.

  13. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 8:13 am

    @ Bloix

    There's an analysis of Tony Blair's use of that rhetorical strategy in Norman Fairclough's 'New Labour, New Language'. Blair uses it to talk about major upheavals such as globalisation without ever referring to actual agents, like politicians or multinationals. Here's a bit of a speech that Fairclough analyses:

    "In the increasingly global economy of today, we cannot compete in the old way. Capital is mobile, technology can migrate quickly and goods can be made in low cost countries and shipped to developed markets. British business must compete by exploiting capabilities which its competitors cannot easily match or imitate… knowledge, skills and creativity."

  14. Sili said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 8:35 am

    This is remarkable, because a collision requires both parties to it to be in motion.

    Someone should familiarise themself with the principle of relativity. Galilean will do for a start.

  15. Ahruman said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 8:56 am

    Clearly, by his own logic, this person should not be permitted to pontificate on language (or any other subject) without first building a bridge from which to do it.

  16. Jon Weinberg said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 9:13 am

    @!?: I assume that the items in Mankiw's list that look like a joke are there primarily to catch the eye. I'm not sure I understand your scorn, though. Most of the style advice for Mankiw gives — for economists seeking to write effectively for a general audience — strikes me as pretty good. (OK, not the one about buying Strunk & White). You don't like the advice ""Put details and digressions in footnotes. Then delete the footnotes," but a version of that has been invaluable to me in my own self-editing over the past thirty years. (Deleting your own brilliant prose, even when it interferes with the flow of your argument, is hard. If you take it in steps, it's easier.)

  17. MattF said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 9:14 am

    Even if Heffer's etymology was correct, his conclusion is just bluster– the tacit assertion that the meaning of a word may not change over time has nothing to do with logic. He's just demanding that everyone do everything his way. Or else… he'll disapprove.

  18. Mark F. said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 9:54 am

    Don't automatically be scornful when someone gives the etymology as part of explaining the meaning of a word. Often the semantic drift from the old meaning to the new is incomplete, and saying what the word used to mean, or what its etymological ancestors meant, can give an idea of the word's connotations that may be hard to describe another way.

    But only if those connotations really are still there. I'm not defending Heffer here; what does "the etymology is strict" even mean?

  19. cluelessness said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 10:07 am

    So it's all about strict etymology, huh? Gosh, I better start looking up the etymology of every word, lest my usage clash with the original one. I probably made so many mistakes already! *chews nails* God, writing makes me nervous.

  20. Ian Preston said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 10:09 am

    @Sili:

    I think might go as far as to allow him the surface of the Earth as basis for an implicit frame of reference in the tree example.

  21. SeanH said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 10:32 am

    @Pflaumbaum: thanks! I always second-guess myself when transliterating.

    @Mark F.: what does "the etymology is strict" even mean?

    Good question, that. I think he's using "strict" in a circular fashion: "the etymology is strict" means "the usage of this word must match the etymology"; it is a restatement of his conclusion rather than evidence for it. It is obviously in Heffer's interest to put off the question of what makes the etymology of some words strict and the etymology of other words lenient, because there is no way he can possibly have a coherent and reasonable answer.

  22. Amy Stoller said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 11:20 am

    @Jon Weinberg: (Deleting your own brilliant prose, even when it interferes with the flow of your argument, is hard. If you take it in steps, it's easier.)

    "I would say to Robertson what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils: 'Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.'" — Boswell: Life of Johnson

    "Je n'ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte." — Blaise Pascal

    I'm not at all sure Mankiw was writing tongue-in-cheek. Otherwise why omit (sorry, I mean leave out) "Eschew obfuscation"?

  23. Dan Milton said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 11:41 am

    Why can't I find my critical edition of the the Satyricon when I need it?
    Is "putabat se solium Iovis tenere", somewhat loosely translated "he thought he had himself seated on the throne of Jupiter" the correct text or is it an emendation or even bowdlerization?
    The Perseus online text does have this phrase, but with the footnote "solium Heinsius: coleum." "Coleus " is the scrotum. Does the one manuscript that preserves the text have the inventor on Jupiter's throne or holding him by the balls?

  24. Catanea said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 11:51 am

    And the most amazing thing of all (to me) is that there are still people writing books on language and usage and and grammar and such who don't at least glance occasionally at Language Log. Or, for that matter, google themselves, after the first noted pontification.
    Must we assume their intended audience is always someone too out-of-it to do either of these things itself?
    It seems very strange.

  25. John Cowan said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 1:14 pm

    What is more, the notion that Latin con- implies equality of status between the two or more things mentioned is just false, though it has often been so in English.

  26. bloix said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 1:24 pm

    But "collision" can't be used for all cases of destructive physical impact. We don't say "the glass collided with the floor" and we don't say "the bullet collided with the target." So even if we don't want to be prescriptive, it would be nice to have a descriptive rule that explains when collide/collision is appropriate and when it's not.

  27. onymous said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

    Sili posted almost exactly the comment I was going to post, right down to the clarification that Galilean relativity would be a good start.

    bloix, "the bullet collided with the target" seems like perfectly grammatical and idiomatic English to me; what seems off about it to you?

  28. Chandra said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

    SeanH wrote: "I think he's using "strict" in a circular fashion: "the etymology is strict" means "the usage of this word must match the etymology"; it is a restatement of his conclusion rather than evidence for it."

    So you could say he's… begging the question! Right?! Right?!

    Sorry.

  29. groki said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 2:15 pm

    @Amy Stoller, @Jon Weinberg: see also Quiller-Couch from 1916 (his emphasis):

    "Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it–wholeheartedly–and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings."

    and a rebuke for Mr Heffer a few paragraphs later:

    [M]an’s use or defiance of the dictionary depends for its justification on nothing but his success…"

  30. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

    @ SeanH –

    I think you're right – but I suspect he hasn't even thought through it enough to be consciously trying to avoid the question of why loads of etymologies aren't 'strict'. Just as people fighting to save 'whom' tend to be surprised when you bring up the fate of 'thee', say, and ask them what was so terrible about its loss. They usually haven't thought it through, they just have intimations of national decline when they hear people use 'who' in object position and want to make them stop.

    @ Dan –

    I think "he thought he had himself seated on the throne of Jupiter" sounds awkward because they've translated the 'putabat se…tenere' literally. "He thought he was sitting on Jupiter's throne" is better. I can't find the phrase elsewhere at the moment, but perhaps it's something like our, "He thinks the sun shines out of his arse". I'm not sure "He though he had Jupiter by the balls" fits the context here. But you never know with idioms I guess.

  31. Nick Z said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 3:11 pm

    I fear that Simon Heffer might not be convinced by the particular example from Petronius. Not just because he is unlikely to be persuaded by any evidence; but also on the slightly more reasonable grounds that Trimalchio, who is speaking, is a jumped up nouveaux riche freedman who speaks quite 'Vulgar' Latin, and whose speech is characterised by amusing mistakes. So, it would be quite possible that Trimalchio's use of collido was intended to be a laughable solecism – if collido could indeed only be used of two moving objects, which is not the case…

  32. Craig Russell said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 3:39 pm

    Even if we accepted every point that Heffer makes — (1) that somehow "the etymology is strict" for the word collide, and thus its original meaning in Latin affects its current meaning in English (so does he think that e.g. "egregious" in English can only be used with its original Latin meaning of "excellent, illustrious, outstanding"?), and (2) that the Latin word collidere must describe the collision of two objects, both of which are moving — he would still be wrong, by his own logic.

    Collidere means, as he himself asserts, "to strike or clash together." That is, it is a transitive verb; it means to cause one thing to hit another thing. So two moving vehicles cannot "collide", for this would be using the verb intransitively (which, as with the verb "warn", is quite impossible). One can collide two vehicles, or two vehicles can be collided. But the vehicles cannot simply collide. What are they colliding? Like so much of our language this is a question of logic based on the etymology; there is no perversity about it.

    (Sarcasm aside, according to OED this is how "collide" was originally used. As in most of the examples of collidere from the Oxford Latin Dictionary, when "collide" was used in this sense, it seems to have been mostly used in the passive voice.)

  33. Amy Stoller said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 4:05 pm

    @groki: Thanks for the reminder about "Murder your darlings." I think the Johnson quote springs to my mind more readily because I encountered it first.

    I first read the Pascal line in English, in one of Groucho Marx's letters, I think. I'm pretty sure Mark Twain made use of it as well. I don't know whether they were quoting without attribution, or whether great minds just happened to think alike. What I do know is that I always write long first, and that writing short takes endless rewrites.

    Which somehow brings to me to Woody Allen's Bananas:

    "It was pithy. It had… great pith."

  34. ?! said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 4:42 pm

    @Jon: how can someone seriously be giving advice like "the passive is avoided"? About half of the points are like this, far too many to be a gimmick.

  35. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 5:10 pm

    @Ken Keenan: I think you may have encountered an academic legend. As far as I've seen, no one in the 18th century condemned the split infinitive, and no one till the mid 20th century argued against it on the basis of Latin or any other language (despite many claims to the contrary by authorities who don't cite their sources). Or do you know of something?

  36. James Kabala said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 5:11 pm

    It is remarkable to see (in both the "collide" and "warn" complaints) someone apparently making up his own grammer rules on the spot. Has anyone ever heard either of these complaints before?

  37. James Kabala said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 5:12 pm

    "Grammar," of course. Sorry for the elementary spelling error.

  38. Jon Weinberg said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 5:14 pm

    @!?: Five out of seventeen points are like that. I'm not sure what you mean in saying that that (or any) number is "far too many to be a gimmick." Consider #9: "Avoid 'of course,' 'clearly,' and 'obviously.' Clearly, if something is obvious, that fact will, of course, be obvious to the reader." We can take as a given that the author intentionally (rather than inadvertently) flouted his own advice; the only question is why. To me, the sentence works pretty well as an example of Why Disregarding This Advice is a Bad Idea; so do some of the others. (The suggestion that doesn't fit this model is #5, "Use adverbs sparingly" — but that's one of the author's no good, rotten, really bad suggestions, presumably the result of too much time reading Strunk & White.)

    @groki: Thanks. I had wanted, in my earlier message, to mention the chestnut I was taught that editing means "killing your babies," but I didn't have an attribution. I'm guessing Quiller-Couch is it.

  39. Susan said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 5:25 pm

    Am I the only one lowbrow enough to find it amusing that all the examples listed of collisions from the NYT and GoogleBooks are with trees, and not other possible stationary objects like walls or rocks?

    [(myl) While I'm always glad to amuse readers, in this case I need to confess that the key step was searching for the pattern "collided with a tree". If I had searched instead for "collided with a wall", I would have gotten just about the same number of hits.]

    Almost implies trees are terribly dangerous and moving towards us at speeds to create these collisions!

  40. lucia said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 6:56 pm

    bloix, "the bullet collided with the target" seems like perfectly grammatical and idiomatic English to me; what seems off about it to you?

    I don't use collided if someone aimed at a target. I use it for accidents or random collisions.

    (Sorry for the double post. My finger accidentally collided with the 'return' key.)

  41. bloix said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 8:28 pm

    lucia-
    But suppose you were shooting a guided missile at an airplane. Wouldn't you say that missile collided with the target?

    I see that onymous feels that "the bullet collided with the target" is fine, but s/he doesn't mention "the glass collided with the floor."

    Maybe the implication with "collided" is that the contact is avoidable?

    But you wouldn't say "the boxer's fist collided with his opponent's eye" unless you were trying to be funny.

    So what's the precise line of demarcation between physical contacts that are collisions and contacts that aren't? I feel that I know what it is (although it's not precise, as onymous and I feel it differently, but I'm sure that we both feel it) – but i can't articulate what it is.

  42. Michael W said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 8:33 pm

    Isn't the restriction to a 'moving object' for collision precisely the technical distinction made by auto insurance companies? I always assumed it to be a technical/legal term in that context. I wonder if that has played a role in establishing this 'grammar rule', or if it somehow went the other way round, and the insurance companies seized on that to define their term.

    Admittedly I'm not well-versed in insurance industry terms, so I may be off-base on that. Also, most insurance seems to use the superfluous-sounding term 'comprehensive and collision' which ought to cover attacks by trees and other vicious creatures, so I don't know if the difference, if there is one, is ever noticed.

  43. bloix said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 8:41 pm

    And as for clearly, obviously, and of course – these are often substitutes for genuine explanation. People frequently say "obviously" in connection with logical implications that aren't obvious at all. If something really is obvious, more often than not it doesn't have to be said at all, and if it isn't obvious, then as a rule you shouldn't say that it is.

    On the other hand, obviously, clearly, and of course have rhetorical uses in that they can be used to carry the reader along with your side of an argument. You use them to jolly the reader – "stick with me now, we're almost there!" But you have to watch out that you don't use them as substitutes for persuasive reasoning. And you have to be extremely careful that you don't alienate your reader. These words have a tendency to communicate condescension, which can arouse hostility. "It may be clear to you, but it's not clear to me, I can tell you that."

    In addition, I generally find that about 20 percent of any first draft that I write is water that can be squeezed out with no harm. Since I care about wasting my reader's time, I make an effort to squeeze where I can, and the extra clearly's (a crutch of mine) are among the first to go.

  44. bloix said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 8:51 pm

    Michael W – Actually that's not quite right. Collision insurance pays for damage to your own car if you hit something – regardless of fault. That something can be a moving car, a parked car, a tree, a wall, or anything else. The key is that you are buying insurance for harm you do to your own property (as opposed to liability insurance, which covers you for harm you do to other people or their property).

    "Comprehensive" insurance is only comprehensive in the sense that it extends the coverage afforded by collision insurance. It provides coverage to your own car for damage that doesn't result from your hitting something – floods, theft and vandalism, falling objects, and other non-crash-related damage.

  45. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 9:02 pm

    @Ian Preston: Good one on occasionally.

    Likewise I don't see why people are having trouble with "The etymology is strict." It means "The discourse about truth is pulled tight."

  46. James Kabala said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 9:26 pm

    Sorry; I overlooked the later post.

  47. Mark Mandel said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 9:48 pm

    Not with reference to anything posted here, except that it probably came from reading the previous posts about this idiot:

    Using the etymology of "etymology" to defend the etymological fallacy would be a circular argument.

  48. Dave M said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 10:13 pm

    I think the Mankiw list is serious but employs irony to make its points. I remember a similar list from William Safire, which definitely included "In one's entire life one will never have had to use the future perfect tense," and might also have had "Eliminate superfluous redundancies."

  49. groki said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 10:48 pm

    bloix: obviously, clearly, and of course … to jolly the reader – "stick with me now, we're almost there!"

    (maybe this is what you mean, but) I find I often use "of course" etc to signal that I'm mentioning something more for completeness' sake than strictly to educate my reader. I'm aiming for something like: "I'm confident, reader, that you probably know this already, but I'm including it just to make explicit all the steps of my thinking."

    (however, it could well be that I end up being too wordy; my squeezability factor can certainly go much higher than 20 percent.)

  50. groki said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 10:56 pm

    bloix So what's the precise line of demarcation between physical contacts that are collisions and contacts that aren't?

    just a guess, but ballistics somehow? "that baseball I threw collided with the wall" but not "?that baseball I dropped collided with the floor."

  51. Dan Milton said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 10:58 pm

    After all the fun we've made of him, it appears that Mr. Heffer is correct, at least in the maritime trades.
    From the Maritime Dictionary /www.m-i-link.com/dictionary/default.asp?term=allision :
    "allision striking of a moving vessel against a stationary vessel that is at anchor, aground, etc. or fixed object such as piers, wharves, etc.

    collision striking of two vessels that are in motion"

    [(myl) Judging from the nature and (small number of) hits for allision in Google Books, his seems to be a fact (or at least a prescription) about admiralty law, not about the maritime trades in general. But this may well explain where Mr. Heffer got the idea.]

  52. bloix said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 10:58 pm

    groki – for me, 20% is water. After I squeeze that out, another 20% is excess fat – I have to work to get rid of it.

  53. groki said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 11:01 pm

    Amy Stoller: writing short takes endless rewrites

    I don't tweet (on Twitter), because in general there aren't enough hours in my day for pith in 140-character chunks!

  54. Stephan Kubicki said,

    September 13, 2010 @ 2:31 am

    His remarks on "contradict" are also a bit dodgy. Heffer writes:

    If one person says “the dog is black” when it is obvious that the beast is white, then to affirm its whiteness is a contradiction.

    But these are contraries rather than contradictories – it's possible that the definite descriptions are not uniquely satisfied, in which case one might think that both statements are false.

  55. richard howland-bolton said,

    September 13, 2010 @ 8:09 am

    No one seems to have taken the etymological argument to its logical conclusion, since, like the fleas going on ad infinitum, languages have ancestors that had ancestors that had…
    So presumably by strict ety. all words should mean "Look out!", "Want sex", "Want food!" and so forth—or maybe I'm stopping too soon, and the history of all words should be taken back to the primordial amoebic expression of complete silence*.

    * and not as I'm sure you are thinking "Do you believe in binary fission before marriage?"

  56. Amy Stoller said,

    September 13, 2010 @ 9:06 am

    Personally, I would never say a bullet collided with a body, a missile collided with a target, or a baseball collided with a wall. I would say the moving object in question hit the stationary object.

    Collided with may be grammatically correct, but it is not idiomatic usage in my neck of the woods.

  57. greg said,

    September 13, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

    Others have already dealt with the relativistic reality, so I thought I'd just note that in truth, the particles that make up your car, never actually make physical contact with the particles that make up that relativistically stationary tree. So, only objects at the extreme upper limits of relativistic speeds actually "collide".

  58. Amy Stoller said,

    September 13, 2010 @ 1:45 pm

    It was precisely this notion of infinite series which in the sixth century BC led the Greek philosopher Zeno to conclude that since an arrow shot towards a target first had to cover half the distance, and then half the remainder, and then half the remainder after that, and so on ad infinitum, the result was, as I will now demonstrate, that though an arrow is always approaching its target, it never quite gets there, and Saint Sebastian died of fright. — Tom Stoppard, Jumpers

  59. Not My Leg said,

    September 13, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

    Just confirming the point about Admiralty Law. This is the only area of law where I have seen this distinction made; vessels collide with each other, but vessels allide with non-moving objects. Even in admiralty law this distinction has not been consistently followed. See e.g., Richardson v. Harmon, 222 U.S. 96 (1911) (referring to a collision between a ship and a structure on land).

  60. Troy S. said,

    September 13, 2010 @ 6:28 pm

    @Dan Milton My Norton Book of Classical Literature has the relevant passage from the Cena Trimalchionis rendered "Well, by this time he thought he had Jupiter by the balls." So, you are right, it seems.

  61. Mark F said,

    September 14, 2010 @ 12:05 am

    "The glass collided with the floor", or (even more) "the boxer's fist collided with the other boxer's nose" may seem implausible in isolation, but context is everything. If the detailed mechanics of the impact are what you're interested in, you may want to focus the reader with just that sort of phrasing.

  62. David Margolies said,

    September 14, 2010 @ 4:33 pm

    Concerning 'the bullet collided with its target' etc. I use 'collide' when the action is unintended or the object is not aimed, which is why I would not say (except maybe for effect) the bullet collided with its target. Also, I would avoid collide when the objects hitting each other are of radically different sizes, so I would say my car collided with a tree, but not with a bug that ends up splayed on my windshield, despite the fact both the car and bug were moving at the time of impact.

    If you accept that usage, it does cover the cases mentioned (the floor is much bigger than the glass, and the bullet is aimed and much smaller (typically) than the target.

  63. Robert Furber said,

    September 14, 2010 @ 10:40 pm

    I am reminded of John von Neumann's description of one of his car accidents.

    "I was proceeding down the road. The trees on the right were passing me in orderly fashion at sixty miles per hour. Suddenly one of them stepped in my path."

  64. Atmir Ilias said,

    September 14, 2010 @ 11:57 pm

    Which is more important; the objects are moving (two in motion) ,the objects are touching together during that (two become one),or their division in two or more parties at the end of that (one becomes again more than one ).
    I think, 'collidere" has the part "laedere" of unknown origin. It is the secret of this word. We know only the performance of meaning in one later stage of its development, Latin.
    I have to say I don't see any wrong if we are going to give this word one another performance during its development in English.
    Our language has been so for all the time of our evolution.

  65. Bob Couttie said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 9:16 pm

    For what it is worth, in maritime circles 'collision' is generally, but not exclusively, used between two vessels, 'contact' when a vessel hits an immobile or free-floating object. The US has adopted 'allision' when a moving vessel or vehicle hit something which declines to move.

  66. It's 'Gif', with a hard G, and it doesn't matter what people said in 1987 – Telegraph Blogs said,

    October 23, 2013 @ 6:44 am

    [...] says, that the Latin "collidere" meant a collision between two moving objects. Now, as it happens, he was wrong about that. "Collidere" was used, among other things, to mean a vessel (moving) hitting a floor (stationary). [...]

RSS feed for comments on this post