Category Archives: usage

This is Turning into an Hassle


I don’t know where this came from or why it seems to be proliferating, but please take a look at this Google News search for “an historic.” As I write this, this search returns 3,144 results for this exact phrase.

Meanwhile, people are also writing an heroic, an hearing, and even an humiliating.

I know this isn’t any of you, but if you know someone who’s doing this, beg him or her to stop!

The rule you learned whenever you learned it still applies. Use an in front of most words beginning with a vowel sound, such as honor, apple, and irritating. Use a in front of everything else. Here in the United States, we pronounce the /h/ sound in front of words like historic, humiliating, and heroic, so those words take a.

Now please do what you can to reverse the tide of this, an ‘orrible practice if e’er I ‘eard one!

Usage Tuesday: That Pad of Paper is Just Sitting There, Motionless

stationeryWhich one of these sentences is incorrect?

  1. She likes to ride her stationary bike for exercise every morning.
  2. I have a locked drawer in my desk where I like to keep my fancy stationary.

If you are talking about the condition of being immobile, you are talking about being stationary, the adjective. If you are talking about paper, note cards, and writing implements, you are talking about stationery, the noun. This means that sentence #2 is incorrect. Notice the difference in spelling, please. That difference is actually your key to remembering which is which.

A long time ago (and not too long ago if you’ve lived in Hilo, Hawaii), you’d get your letter-writing supplies at a STATIONER. Notice how that doesn’t work if you wanted to spell it STATIONAR. See? You’d get STATIONERY at the STATIONER.

Now that you know this, you will never have a problem keeping them straight!

The King is Dead! Long Live the Vacancy!

mj2This will be the last thing I have to say in response to Michael Jackson’s death: I promise. Unless people keep misusing the language as they continue to discuss it, of course.

I honestly don’t remember which of Honolulu’s news anchors said this, but in concluding his report on the self-proclaimed King of Pop’s death, he said, “The king is dead. Long live the king.”

This familiar phrase, translated from the French La roi est morte! Vive la roi! can be confusing. How can you wish long life to the king if the king is in fact dead? It makes sense when you see it in movies, because when one king dies, the soldiers proclaim it about the new king. The (old) king is dead! Long live the (new) king!

Unless the local newscaster meant to crown a new King of Pop (and he didn’t seem ready to name anyone), the phrase is entirely inappropriate. “The king is dead,” he should have said, and left it there.

Not that you or I could do it anyway, but whom would you nominate for the new King of Pop?

Usage Tuesday: PIN Numbers and ATM Machines

This one comes up a LOT when I’m discussing linguistic pet peeves with others, but I’m not the one who brings it up. It seems the uses of ATM Machine and PIN Number really bother people, because the M in machine stands for machine, making the unabbreviated phrase automatic teller machine machine. Similarly, PIN Number means personal identification number number.

I don’t know why, but this doesn’t bother me. I am sure there’s a very, very reasonable explanation for my not being bothered by these redundancies (or by VIN Number), but I can’t come up with it. Yes, redundancies bother the snot out of me, but I wonder why this one, which seems to stem simply from people’s trying to explain something clearly (What kind of machine? ATM machine! Which number? PIN number!), bothers so many people while these redundancies seems to bother most people not at all when they are the result of people’s trying to sound smarter, more eloquent, or, or, or something!

So what about you? Are you one of those people who grind their teeth whenever someone says she needs to make a stop at the ATM machine? And if you are, are you similarly bothered by each and every or every single?

Usage Tuesday: Comparing and Contrasting

When you were in high school, someone taught you that the difference between comparing two things and contrasting two things was that a comparison focused on similarities while a contrast focused on differences. You were then assigned one of the classic expository writing assignments, the comparison/contrast paper.

While it is true that to contrast something is to look for differences, there is nothing about the word compare that implies similarities only. Otherwise, a sentence such as Compared to you, I’m an early riser wouldn’t make sense. Our trusty Merriam-Webster Online confirms this, saying that we compare things in order to “discover resemblances or differences.”

I therefore declare the phrase compare and contrast a redundancy. About ten years ago, I assigned my ninth-grade composition class a comparison paper, refusing to use that redundant phrase. What do you think I got? Yes, I read one hundred essays that focused entirely on similarities and completely ignored differences.

There is really no reason to use compare and contrast, I explained to my students. Let us all focus on good writing, which is (first) clear and (second) elegant. One word to replace three words sounds pretty elegant to me!

Usage Tuesday: A Train Wreck Wreaking Havoc on the Language

Take a look at these search results, please.

What’s going on here? Basically, only 3% of the writers who show up in Google News favor wreck havoc while about 11% of the blog writers favor that phrase. These are encouraging numbers, because the correct phrase is to wreak havoc. To wreak is to cause, so wreaking havoc makes more sense. Wrecking havoc would seem to mean to put stuff back in order, which is definitely not what these writers mean.

Let us follow the leads of 97% of the writers who show up in Google News and not wreak havoc upon the language.

Usage Tuesday: Ensuring against Insurance Fraud

Based only upon the way I hear the words used, I always assumed that ensure meant “to make sure,” as in I have my emails at work sent to my phone during off hours to ensure there will be no surprises the next day. I thought this differed from insure, which I thought meant “to invest now against future liability.”

It turns out that the words are really interchangeable, except that in American English, when you pay the extortionists who call themselves insurance companies, you pretty much only use the word insure, plus all the other colorful names you have for that industry. In this way, I have been wrong because I’ve often corrected my own writing, replacing insure with ensure for reasons I can’t really explain. It’s nice to know now that I don’t have to.

Usage Tuesday: I Guess it Depends on Whether or Not There’s Any Weather

Here’s one I hear spoken much more than written, but take it as a gentle reminder to be ever vigilant.

After the crazy, high-speed drive through fog and rain, the destination itself seemed rather anti-climatic.

The writer here really means anti-climactic, which means not having much of a climax, the way a good movie does before it resolves. Anti-climatic, if there were such a thing, would mean not having much of a climate, which doesn’t seem possible, since the climate of a place is its historical weather patterns and trends.

As of this writing, there are 58 hits in Google News for anti-climatic, none of which appear to have anything to do with weather.

I was going to end with a hilarious weather pun here, but I couldn’t think of one, so I guess this last sentence is both anti-climactic and anti-climatic.