June 19, 2013

Ex Libris: Grammar Girl’s 101 Troublesome Words You’ll Master in No Time

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Of all the books in Grammar Girl’s 101 words series, 101 Troublesome Words You’ll Master in No Time is probably the most useful for editors. This books lists 101 words that, as author Mignon Fogarty puts it, “are only sort of wrong.” These words are particularly challenging for editors. Do we bow to convention and allow established usage to reign or do we forge new ground (as editors often do) by insisting on up-to-date usage? With this book, Grammar Girl guides the way.

Each entry in 101 Troublesome Words You’ll Master in No Time begins with a response to the question, “What’s the trouble?” In her response, Fogarty points out why the designated word is troublesome. For example, in the entry on healthy, she writes, “Some people insist that carrots aren’t healthy; they’re healthful because only healthful can mean ‘conducive to health.’” After outlining the trouble, Fogarty details the history of the problem. For healthy, she writes, “Healthy has long been used to describe things that improve your constitution. Healthful gained ground against healthy starting in the late 1880s, but healthy fought back and now, although healthful isn’t wrong, healthy is the dominant Standard English word we use when describing fruits, vegetables, exercise, and other things we hope will make us live longer.” Finally, Fogarty answers the question all editors ask themselves, “What should you do?” In the case of “healthy,” she states, “Ignore anyone who says you have to use healthful instead of healthy (unless you’re trying to feign an ‘old-timey’ air).” Fogarty concludes each entry with 1 to 2 quotations from pop culture sources (as she does throughout the 101 words series).

There are numerous entries in 101 Troublesome Words You’ll Master in No Time that are applicable to the medical editor and that support (and occasionally refute) information found in the AMA Manual of Style. The following is a table of terms commonly found in medical editing and an explanation of how the AMA and Grammar Girl handle each term.

Term AMA Grammar Girl
African American “For terms such as white, black, and African American, manuscripts editors should follow author usage. … In the United States, the term African American may be preferred to black (not, however, that this term should be allowed only for US citizens of African descent).” “For Americans of African descent, use African American or black. If the person you are describing is from another country, use another appropriate term, such as Caribbean American.”
Aggravate “When an existing condition is made worse, more serious, or more severe, it is aggravated (also, exacerbated), not irritated.” “In formal situations or if you’re feeling especially sticklerish, avoid using aggravate to mean ‘irritate.’”
Billion “The word million signifies the quantity 106, while billion signifies the quantity 109. Although billion has traditionally signified 1012 (1 million million) in Britain, many British medical journals now use billion to indicate the quantity 109. A number may be expressed in million rather than billion if the latter term could create ambiguity. In that case, the decimal should be moved 3 places to the right. Trillion should be used to denote the quantity 1012.” “Today you can safely use billion to mean 1,000,000,000.” When you are reading old or translated documents, however, be aware of their country of origin and remember that the meaning of billion could be 1,000,000,000,000.”
Data “…retain the use of the plural verb with data in all situations.” “In general writing, if information won’t work because you’re using data as a mass noun to mean ‘information collected in a scientific way,’ data can be singular; however, in scientific writing, always treat data as plural.”
Gender Sex is defined as the classification of living things as male or female according to their reproductive organs and functions assigned by chromosomal complement. Gender refers to a person’s self-representation as man or woman or how that person is responded to be social institutions on the basis of the person’s gender presentation.” “Gender is a social construct, so when you ask someone’s gender, you’re asking whether a person wants to be perceived as what society calls males or society calls female. … If your readers are likely to be extremely squeamish about sex, it’s OK to use gender as a replacement for sex, but if not, try to keep the distinction between the two words.”
Media “In the sense of laboratory culture or contrast media, medium should be used for the singular and media for the plural.” “When media is used as a collective noun, it’s fine to use a singular verb.”
Over Time: Over may mean either more than or during (for a period of). In cases in which ambiguity might arise, over should be avoided and more than used. … Age: When referring to age groups, over and under should be replaced by the more precise older than and younger than. “Unless you work for a publication that follows AP style, freely use over to mean more than if it works better in your sentence.”
Percent “The term percent derives from the Latin per centum, meaning by the hundred, or in, to, or for every hundred. The term percent and the symbol % should be used with specific numbers. Percentage is a more general term for any number or amount that can be stated as a percent. Percentile is defined as the value on a scale of 100 that indicates the percentage of the distribution that is equal to or below it.” “When you are writing about increases or decreases in measurements that are themselves percents, it’s often important to be painfully clear whether you changes are percent changes or percentage point changes.  For example, if 6 percent of students attended swim meets last year, and 8 percent of students attended swim meets this year, that’s a 33 percent increase in attendance, but an increase of only 2 percentage points.”
Preventive “As adjectives, preventive and its derivative preventative are equal in meaning. JAMA and the Archives Journals prefer preventive. “You may certainly choose to use the sleeker preventive, but don’t chide people who prefer the longer form.”
Since Since should be avoided when it could be construed to mean ‘from the time of’ or ‘from the time that.’” “Don’t be afraid to use since as a synonym for because. Just be sure you aren’t creating ambiguous sentences.”
Unique “An adjective denoting an absolute or extreme state or quality does not logically admit of quantification or comparison. Thus, we do not, or should not, say deadest, more perfect, or somewhat unique. It is generally acceptable, however, to modify adjectives of this kind with adverbs such as almost, apparently, fortunately, nearly, probably, and regrettably. … [Unique] should not be used with a comparative (more, less), superlative (most, least), or quantifying (quite, slightly, very) modifier.” Unique is an absolute term, but it’s common to hear people modify it, saying such things a very unique. Grammarians call adjectives such as unique, dead, and impossible ‘ungradable.’ It means they can’t be more of what they already are. … Unique means ‘one of a kind’ or ‘having no equal,’ and things can’t become more unique. … Gradable terms can be modified down, however. For example, almost unique is fine. … Reserve unique for things that are truly one of a kind.”
Utilize Use is almost always preferable to utilize, which has the specific meaning ‘to find a profitable or practical use for,’ suggesting the discovery of a new use for something. However, even where this meaning is intended, use would be acceptable.” “Often, you can replace utilize with use and your sentence will mean the same thing and sound less stuffy. Utilize does have its uses, though. It conveys more of a sense of using something specifically for a purpose or for profit than use does. … Don’t use utilize just because it sounds like a fancy word. When in doubt, choose use. On the other hand, don’t be afraid to use utilize when you’re confident that it’s the right word.”

The above table is meant as a guide for the editor. As always, usage depends on whom you’re writing for and what you’re writing. However, before editors can make decisions on usage, they need to know the options and the reasoning behind them. Both the AMA Manual of Style and Grammar Girl’s 101 Troublesome Words You’ll Master in No Time provide useful guidance on how to handle some of the trickier terms encountered while editing.—Laura King, MA, ELS

September 25, 2012

Going the Distance: Further or Farther?

Filed under: usage — amastyleinsider @ 2:51 pm
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A medical editor who in a manuscript meeting asks, “Should we take this manuscript farther?” sparks the idea for this discussion on the grounds that farther suggests distance and further, “quantity or degree.”1

Once decided, the examples of variant use jump unexpectedly forward without my having to crack a book:

• Jack Shephard, spinal surgeon and Lost castaway, pauses amid the lush tropical foliage to ask his guide to Jacob’s lighthouse, “How much further, Hurley?”2 He’s a spine surgeon, not a brain surgeon, I think smugly, feeling confirmed in my theory that fictional characters are only as smart as the people who create them.
• The writer of a blurb on the Adventure Cycle Association itinerary3 for a guided bicycle trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains gets it right when describing what’s in store for riders after they reach Mabry Mill: “Approximately five miles farther down the road, you might want to take a detour of less than a mile off the parkway for a tour and a taste at the popular Chateau Morrisette winery.”
• I am sitting at an Italian restaurant celebrating the birthdays of 2 manuscript editors. Talking about my running schedule, I say that my weekly distance “will extend further.” I pause. “That would be farther.” I smile, lift my brows, and announce that I have selected further and farther for my blog entry.

But once I crack the dictionary and English-language usage books, my smugness at knowing the difference between the two dissolves, for the words “have been used more or less interchangeably throughout most of their history,” says the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, which allots 11 lines to a discussion of their usage differences, adding that they “are showing signs of diverging.” First, noting that they are not used differently as adverbs “whenever spatial, temporal, or metaphorical distance is involved,” the entry says they “diverge” when the meaning is not conveying distance. In that case, “further is used.” Furthermore, when used as a transitional adverb announcing that the sentence aims to advance a point, the entry says further is used, but farther is not. (However, further is usually changed to furthermore in JAMA in such instances.) Adjectivally, the usage entry continues, “Farther is taking over the meaning of distance.”

To put it in perspective, Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage devotes 3 columns to the discussion that begins, “About every usage commentator in the 20th century … has had something to say about farther and further… as to how they should be used or how they seem to be used.”1 This explanation comes after first noting that few of the commentators have ventured little beyond a 1906 “pronouncement”:

Farther should be used to designate longitudinal distance; further to signify quantity or degree.

Webster’s says that farther and further “are historically the same word” and concludes that their interchangeable use is after all “not surprising.” To buttress the claim that they have the same origin and that they did not stem from the word far, the Webster’s entry reports that, of the two, further is older and “appears to have originated as the comparative form of a Germanic ancestor of the English forth,” whereas “farther originated in Middle English as a variant of further that was influenced by the comparative (spelled ferre) of far (then spelled fer) which it (and further) eventually replaced.”

The rest of the entry provides examples of usage, noting when grammatical usage for one eclipses the use by the other. In modern English, Webster’s says that further “used in the sense ‘additional’ … has taken over…” But farther is more frequently used adjectivally when “literal or figurative distance is involved.”

The Chicago Manual of Style4 and The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual5 echo the 1906 pronouncement and distinguish the two by distance and degree. However, swerving slightly, the seventh edition of Scientific Style and Format6 suggests that the use of farther as an adverb works for physical or nonphysical distance and suggests that further be reserved for use as a transitive verb: “His theory did little to further our knowledge of the oldest galaxies.”

After examining the language usage explanations of the 2 words, perhaps the commentators who have not ventured further than the 1906 pronouncement offer the best understood explanation. I could go farther, but I won’t. —Beverly Stewart, MSJ

1. Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 1989.
2. Lighthouse. Lost. ABC television. February 23, 2010.
3. Adventure Cycling Association. Blue Ridge Bliss: tour itinerary. Accessed September 25, 2012.
4. The Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers. 15th ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press; 2003.
5. Goldstein N, ed. The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law. New York, NY: Basic Books; 2007.
6. Council of Science Editors. Scientific Style and Format: The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers. 7th ed. Reston, VA: Council of Science Editors in cooperation with Rockefeller University Press; 2006.

September 19, 2012

A Peek at a Trio of Homophones to Pique Your Interest and Provide Peak Enjoyment

Filed under: usage — amastyleinsider @ 10:03 am
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Grammarians who pen English usage guides do not seem piqued at the misuse of the words peek, peak, and pique. Theodore M. Bernstein notes only that piqued “takes [the] preposition at or by.” Even college-level writers’ guides make little fuss. Flipping to the usage sections of several writers’ guides, one finds a no-show for the peeks. Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, however, writes that “[t]hese homophones have a way of being muddled by nodding writers.” Relying on former newspaper columnist and grammarian James J. Kilpatrick, who had caught misuses among the peaks in various news publications, the entry notes that peak most frequently edged out its competitors and inappropriately made its way into print. The entry ends by warning writers “to keep the meaning in mind and match it to the correct spelling.”

English usage of peek is traced to 1374 and stems from the Middle English piken, which some sources speculate comes from the Middle Dutch kieken. Peek means “to glance at quickly, or to peer at furtively, as from a place of concealment.” As a verb, it means that something is “only partially visible…[t]iny crocuses peeked through the snow.” The expression peek-a-boo is “attested from 1599,” according to the Random House Dictionary.

Peak is traced to 1520-1530, perhaps from the Middle Low German words pick and pike, according to Random House. As a noun it has several meanings, some of which point to the top of a mountain, ridge, or summit. It can also be used to describe a “projecting part of a garment,” as in the bill of a hat. Nautically, it means the “upper most corner of a fore-and-aft sail” or the “narrow part of a ship’s bow.” As an intransitive verb, it means reaching “maximum capacity, value, or activity,” as in “My running pace peaked at 10 minutes per mile.” Similarly, as an adjective, reaching peak levels demonstrates that one has maxed out.

In a less common usage, those who grow sick or thin are sometimes spoken of as having peaked or “dwindled away” or, as an adjective, being peaked (2 syllables), “being pale and wan or emaciated: sickly.”

Emotion rules pique. It stems from the Vulgar Latin verb piccare, “to pick,” and its usage in English is traced to 1525-1535. It is menacingly linked with pickax and pike. As a noun, it is defined as “a transient feeling of wounded vanity.” Or, as one might say of a woman scorned, “She’s in a fit of pique.” But a woman moves quickly on, pique being a transient emotion. As a verb it means that someone has been “aroused” to “anger or resentment.” Or, as I like to use it, aroused to the state of curiosity.

Although they sound alike and to an extent they look alike, the piques are as different as … Has your interest peaked? (Begs for a pun, doesn’t it?)—Beverly Stewart, MSJ

July 24, 2012

Anticipate, Expect

Filed under: usage — amastyleinsider @ 3:49 pm
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Although the use of anticipate and expect as synonyms is now largely accepted,1 at least in casual communications, the careful writer will do well to note that some authorities still hold that there is a subtle difference between them.1-3

Although both words refer to a person’s attitude toward a future event, they differ in what they convey about that attitude. For example, some observers hold that the difference between the words relates to the level of certainty toward the future event (ie, anticipate implies that a person is certain that the event will take place, whereas expect implies only that a person predicts that the event will take place3). However, this weak distinction is easily blurred, and in practice it seems that it is not often upheld. A stronger and more often upheld distinction maintains that anticipate is the stronger of the two words, connoting that some action has been taken to prepare for the foreseen event.2,3 This sense possibly arose from an early (late 1500s) use, “To seize or take possession of beforehand.”4 Although that use is now obsolete, by the early 1600s anticipate was being used to suggest simply “to take action beforehand,” a meaning still current.4 Bernstein points out that such action “Need not be taken so literally as to mean the performance of an overt act; it may simply connote an advance accommodation of the mind or the senses, even involuntarily, to the coming event.”2

In any case, if anticipate suggests the taking of some sort of action to prepare for an expected event, it seems clear that one should perhaps not use it when wishing to convey only simple expectation. Interestingly enough, even those who consider anticipate and expect synonyms do not extend the same acceptance to the synonymous use of unanticipated and unexpected.1

The misuse of anticipate in place of expect likely arose from the tendency common among writers and speakers to use larger words.5(pp22-23) It also is an example of what Garner terms “slipshod extension”5(pp22-23)—“the mistaken stretching of a word beyond its accepted meanings, the mistake lying in a misunderstanding of the true sense.”5(pp307-308) Garner further maintains that the use of anticipate in the sense of “to await eagerly” is also incorrect and points out that such use is also likely the result of slipshod extension.5(pp22-23)

The bottom line:

● Referring to a person’s attitude toward a future event? Using anticipate and expect interchangeably is likely acceptable in casual communications, but in more formal contexts one should take care to observe the subtle differences between them.

● Referring to the simple expectation of a foreseen event? Use expect.

● Referring to a state of taking action—whether that action be either concrete, mental, or emotional—in preparation for a foreseen event? Use anticipate.—Phil Sefton, ELS

1. Anticipate. The Free Dictionary website. Accessed June 8, 2012.

2. Anticipate, expect. In: Bernstein TM. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. New York, NY: Athaneum; 1985:44-45.

3. Anticipate or Expect: What’s Next? Grammatically Correct website. Accessed June 8, 2012.

4. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 1991: 58.

5. Anticipate. In: Garner BA. The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2000.

April 10, 2012

Ambiguous, Equivocal

Filed under: usage — amastyleinsider @ 9:43 am
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These words often are taken to mean the same thing—which in some contexts they indeed do. When used to refer to test results or experimental findings, for example, both words are properly used to indicate uncertainty, ie, that the findings can be understood in more than one way.

However, a distinction comes to bear when one is referring to statements, either written or oral. Although both words also can properly be used when referring to a statement subject to more than one interpretation, accepted usage holds that ambiguous is the proper choice if the resulting uncertainty seems unintentional1(p39) and that equivocal is the way to go if the uncertainty seems to have been intentionally introduced to confuse or deceive.1(p423) The deceptive intent is key, and it is worth noting that whereas the verb equivocate is an accepted word, ambiguate is not.

Deceptive intent might be inferred from the immediate context of surrounding statements. Often, however, intent is inferred from the larger context, ie, the history of the issue under discussion or the (perceived) character of the person making the statement. Given the latter means of inference, it is not surprising that the use of equivocal to refer to deceptive statements has been accepted since the late 1700s—about the time that the word also came to be commonly used to describe persons believed “[d]oubtful in character or reputation; liable to unfavorable comment or description; questionable; suspicious.”2(p527) Equivocal is still occasionally used when referring to such persons, but current usage, particularly in the social media, tends to favor terms somewhat more colorful.

Equivocal also can imply that a person has used ambiguous language in a qualifying way to avoid personal commitment to the statement made.1(p423) This meaning, however, although a bit more neutral than the meaning already noted, still hints at something less than savory. In short, although using ambiguous and equivocal interchangeably to describe a statement will be correct in some instances, writers tempted to use equivocal in place of ambiguous would do well to remember that the former has additional connotations often freighted with “nasty overtones.”3

Perhaps because clarity and certainty are seldom used for deceptive purposes, matters are less complicated in negative constructions: unambiguous and unequivocal both indicate that a test result or a statement has only one interpretation. However, because equivocal carries negative connotations, unequivocal is often used to emphasize a lack of deceptive intent.

As a side note, another word, unequivocable, has been used interchangeably with unequivocal since the early 1900s.2(p2166) How this monster came to be is a matter of some conjecture, but it likely arose either from innocent confusion over the proper spelling and pronunciation of equivocal or from a desire to use a loftier-sounding word (although it is difficult to imagine an instance in which unequivocal would not be lofty enough). In any case, unequivocable and its variants are often considered nonstandard.1(p1366)

The bottom line:

● Referring to test results or experimental findings having more than one interpretation? Ambiguous and equivocal are both correct, but it is worth noting that the latter can have negative overtones and is perhaps best avoided unless the reporting of results seems intentionally unclear.

● Referring to a statement having more than one interpretation? Remember that all equivocal statements are ambiguous, but not all ambiguous statements are equivocal. If the statement seems intentionally unclear with the goal of distancing or deceiving, use equivocal.

Unambiguous and unequivocal both indicate that something has only one interpretation, although when describing a statement unequivocal is sometimes used to emphasize an absence of deceptive intent.

Unequivocable, while found in some dictionaries, is often considered nonstandard and should probably be avoided.—Phil Sefton, ELS

1. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003.

2. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 1991.

3. Ambiguous, equivocal. In: Bernstein TM. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. New York, NY: Athaneum; 1985:38.

March 27, 2012

A Few Thoughts on Fewer and Less

Filed under: usage — amastyleinsider @ 12:30 pm
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All of the usual English-language usage books seem so sure that they give little more than a compound sentence to explain that fewer should be used when referencing things that can be counted and less when referencing quantity or things that can be measured.

The AMA Manual of Style1 points out that the 2 words “are not interchangeable.” Then explains the difference by advising readers to “[use] fewer for number (individual persons or things) and less for volume or mass (indicating degree or value).” It offers the following examples: “Fewer interventions may not always mean less care” and “The authors evaluated fewer than 100 studies yet still reported more support for the conventionally prescribed therapy.” The entry is followed by a note that provides 2 more examples including parenthetical explanations:

spent less than $1000 (not: spent fewer than $1000)

reported fewer data (not: reported less data)

The Associated Press Stylebook2 entry says, “In general, use fewer for individual items, less for bulk or quantity” and provides the following examples, or should I say commands:

Wrong: The trend is toward more machines and less people. (People in this sense refers to individuals.)

Wrong: She was fewer than 60 years old. (Years in this sense refers to a period of time, not individual years.)

Right: Fewer than 10 applicants called. (Individuals.)

Right: I had less than $50 in my pocket. (An amount.) but: I had fewer than 50 $1 bills in my pocket. (Individual items.)

The Elements of Style3 elliptically warns, “Less should not be misused for fewer” with the following explanation. “Less refers to quantity, fewer to number. ‘His troubles are less than mine’ means ‘His troubles are not so great as mine.’ ‘His troubles are fewer than mine’ means ‘His troubles are not so numerous as mine.’”

A Writer’s Reference,4 a college handbook, is equally economical: “Fewer refers to items that can be counted; less refers to items that cannot be counted” followed by its example for usage: “Fewer people are living in the city” and “Please put less sugar in my tea.” (I’d rather that you didn’t put any sugar in my tea.)

But if the rule were so easy as these commonly used English-language usage references suggest, why are people confused?

If anything is certain about language, it is that nothing is certain: a truism that often frustrates my composition students, who simply want the answer when no one true answer exists. In the case of fewer and less, Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage5 and Fowler’s Modern English Usage6 support my position by telling an entirely different story about how to use less and fewer, with Webster’s devoting 3 and a third columns to it and Fowler’s devoting about 3 columns over 2 entries.

The former launches the alternate-usage discussion with a metaphoric clearing of its throat to suggest, however, that the general usage rule cited in most English-language reference texts “has only one fault–it is not accurate for all usage” and offers a rule amendment for using less:

less refers to quantity or amount among things that are measured and to number among things that are counted.

In other words, less can be used in both cases. Webster’s punctuates its point by saying the amended rule has actually reflected common usage for say “the past thousand years or so.” The general rule became established and embraced by most language scholars, so Webster’s theorized, from a 1770 comment about less made by Robert Baker in Reflections on the English Language. He wrote:

The word [less] is most commonly used in speaking of a Number; where I should think Fewer would do better. No fewer than a Hundred appears to me not only more elegant than No less than a Hundred, but more strictly proper.

Thus, a modest preference has become, as Webster’s points out, “elevated to an absolute status.” That transformation, the entry laments, may be due to the reluctance of “many pedagogues … to share the often complicated facts about English with their students.” In fact, Webster’s points to the Oxford English Dictionary as showing that “less has been used as countables since the time of King Alfred the Great.”

Although Fowler’s trends toward the generally accepted usage rule, it recognizes that perhaps the “complicated facts about English” should in fact be elucidated. As a means of clarification, it uses parts of speech to explain the usage differences. It says that “few and its comparative adj. fewer are used with countable nouns, i.e. with nouns that have both a singular and a plural form (book/books)…; or with collective nouns (fewer people…)” but, “[l]ess which is a comparative of little, is properly used with uncountable or mass nouns: in other words less refers to quantity and is the opposite of more (less affection, less power, less misery).” Furthermore, Fowler’s acknowledges when less can be used “idiomatically with plural nouns … esp. distances (it is less than seventy miles to London)” and the like.

In its final example in the few entry, Fowler’s notes the “regrettable” trend of “the use of less with an unprotected plural noun.”(That’s an expression that’s new to me.) One of the example sentences of that violation is

There will be less 100% loans about.

Don’t we all know that?—Beverly Stewart, MSJ

1. Iverson C, Christiansen S, Flanagin A, et al. AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors. 10th ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2007.

2. Goldstein N, ed. The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law. New York, NY: Basic Books; 2007.

3. Strunk W, White EB. Elements of Style. 4th ed. New York, NY: Longman; 2000.

4. Hacker D. A Writer’s Reference. 6th ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St Martin’s; 2009.

5. Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 1989.

6. Burchfield RW. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. 3rd rev ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2004.

February 2, 2012

Quiz Bowl: Fill in the Blank

Filed under: quizzes — amastyleinsider @ 10:02 am
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When is a girl really a woman? When is a boy a man? When do children stop being children and become adults? Okay, we are starting to sound like a style manual version of Bob Dylan—but these answers are not blowing in the wind, they are in an AMA Manual of Style quiz on age and sex referents. Below are some simple fill in the blank exercises to guide you when you take this quiz.

Use the following terms to fill in the blanks: woman, man, newborn, adolescent, and infant. (To see the answers, highlight the blank space with your mouse.)

A person from birth to 1 month of age is a(n) newborn.

A female person older than 18 years is a(n) woman.

A male person older than 18 years is a(n) man.

A person aged 1 month to 1 year is a(n) infant.

A person aged 13 through 17 years is a(n) adolescent.

For additional exercises on age and sex referent usage in medical publications, take this month’s quiz at—Laura King, MA, ELS

January 24, 2012

Envy, Jealousy

Filed under: editing process,usage — amastyleinsider @ 11:10 am
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Words that convey similar meanings sometimes come to be used interchangeably. In the case of envy/envious and jealousy/jealous, though, the move seems to have been in one direction only; jealousy is often used in place of envy (“I’m so jealous of your new job”) but not vice-versa (one does not write, for example, “He was poisoned by his envious wife.”). Theodore Bernstein further points out that jealousy is sometimes used, not merely in place of envy, but as a stronger form: “‘There, within a stone’s throw of the sea, he makes his home, and his description of how he does this makes one move from envy to downright jealousy.’”1 A human, and perhaps all-too-familiar, state of affairs—anyone who denies having experienced such a progression of emotion is either hopelessly out of touch with his or her feelings or a liar.

However, although jealous has been used in place of envious since the late 1300s2 and using jealous as a more intense form of envious creates no confusion, it is often held that the words have distinct meanings and that this distinction should be maintained. Even authorities sometimes flounder around a bit when trying to nail the distinction,3 but in general envy is taken to convey a coveting of the wealth, possessions, or success of someone else,4 whereas jealousy is often taken to convey a state of “intolerance of a rival for the possession of a thing which one regards as peculiarly one’s own or for the winning of which one has set one’s heart….”4 Jealousy also can be used in a less grasping sense to indicate the understandable guarding of some possession or attribute, as in “new colonies were jealous of their new independence.”5 Both of the latter meanings highlight that jealousy concerns an attitude toward something that one has or believes one has. In this sense, envious and jealous are not interchangeable—one can jealously guard something, but one cannot enviously guard something.

However, jealous also often carries a frank note of hostility, “a strong implication of distrust, suspicion, enviousness, or sometimes anger.4 This might suggest why the person seeking a word with a bit more heft than envious will sometimes use jealous instead—quite simply, when casting about for a suitably malicious word in the heat of the moment, jealous is low-hanging fruit.

On the other hand, envy is not the innocuous little milquetoast that it at first seems. True, it can be used without malice; one can say, for example, “I don’t envy him his mother in law.” Equally true, it has in the past been used in a noble sense—Aristotle wrote of “good envy,” an admiration that drives one to emulate another3—although that usage has been rare since the 1600s and is now nearly obsolete.6 Certainly, envy carries less emotional charge than jealousy. But to assume that envy is simply a meek cousin of jealousy is to make a mistake.

If jealousy implies strong emotion that often is perhaps all too apparent to everyone involved, envy can imply something more clandestine; as Joseph Epstein puts it, “Malice that cannot speak its name, cold-blooded but secret hostility, impotent desire, hidden rancor, and spite all cluster at the center of envy.”3 Used in this sense, envy suddenly becomes a different animal altogether, and, as Epstein further points out, “The openness changes the nature of the game. Envy is almost never out in the open; it is secretive, plotting, behind the scenes.”3 Perhaps this is another reason that jealousy is often used, albeit subconsciously, in place of envy—after all, envy is one of the Seven Deadly Sins; jealousy is not.

In short, although envy and jealousy have long been used interchangeably and jealousy has come to be frequently used in place of envy, the words do denote different states, and the careful writer should take care to maintain the distinction between them. Both can be used in neutral ways (“She was jealous of her honor”; “I don’t envy him his workload”), but both also can carry weightier meanings; in choosing between them, one might keep in mind that “The real distinction is that one is jealous of what one has, envious of what other people have.”3

The bottom line:

● Looking for a word that expresses the coveting of what someone else has? Use envy.

● Looking for a word that expresses the guarding of what one has or believes one has? Use jealousy.

● Keep in mind that although jealousy is often used as a more intense form of envy, it might be better to use another word or to reword the sentence so as to retain envy.—Phil Sefton, ELS


1. Envy, jealousy. In: Bernstein TM. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. New York, NY: Athaneum; 1985:166-167.

2. Jealous. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 1991:892.

3. Epstein J. The green-eyed monster: envy is nothing to be jealous of. Washington Monthly website. July/August 2003. Accessed December 13, 2011.

4. Envious, jealous. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms. Springfield, MA; Merriam-Webster Inc; 1984:295.

5. Jealous. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003:671.

6. Envy. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 1991:523.

November 30, 2011

Flaunt, Flout, Vaunt

Filed under: usage — amastyleinsider @ 11:01 am
Tags: ,

Malapropisms: as users of language, we are all guilty of using them sometimes. In the heat of trying to express ourselves, we use one word in place of another—particularly when those words sound similar—and soon we are flaunting accepted usage. Or would that be flouting accepted usage?

To begin with, flaunt relates to vainglorious or ostentatious display, whereas flout denotes an expression of disdain or contempt, often for something forbidden by rule or custom (one grammar blog neatly sums this up by stating that “you flaunt something you like and flout something you don’t”1). Flaunt is used transitively (“Lamilia stopped off to flaunt her ermine and her jewels”) as well as intransitively (“Lamilia came flaunting by, garnished with the jewels whereof she beguiled him”2(p602)) and also is often used in a quasi-transitive sense2(p602) (eg, the currently common “If you’ve got it, flaunt it”). Similarly, flout may be used transitively (eg, the currently common “flout the law”) or intransitively (“It never came into our thoughts… to flout, in so bold a manner”2(p609)). However, flout is not typically used in the quasi-transitive sense.

So flaunt and flout, while often confused, do have distinct meanings. Prescriptive grammarians will point out that flaunt and flout are thus distinct terms and should not be used interchangeably, whereas grammarians with more descriptive leanings will be less inclined to observe a distinction in meaning, in particular maintaining that flaunt may sometimes be used when prescriptive usage would call for flout. Indeed, some authorities, such as Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, now accept the use of flaunt in place of flout in certain constructions—specifically, when the transitive is required (“meting out punishment to the occasional mavericks who operate rigged games, tolerate rowdyism, or otherwise flaunt the law”3). However, at least in relation to this pair of words, the prescriptivists would seem to hold the upper hand. First, flaunt is acceptable (from a descriptive standpoint) in place of flout only when the transitive is required. Second, flout is rarely used in place of flaunt. Third and most importantly, flaunt and flout are similar only in the way they sound, rather than in their (until recently) accepted meanings.

To further complicate matters, though, flaunt is sometimes—albeit quite rarely—confused with vaunt, which denotes boasting or bragging. Like the former, vaunt may be used transitively (“He vaunts his Conquest, She conceals Her Shame”2(p2217)) or intransitively (“They laud their verses, they boast, they vaunt, they jest”2(p2217)) and as early as the 1600s was used in a quasi-transitive sense (“to vant it or vie in gaming”2(p2217)). However, the confusion between flaunt and vaunt stems not only from their marked similarity in sound but also from their somewhat similar meanings (to display oneself boastfully or ostentatiously, often so as to show off one’s attractiveness or possessions, compared with using language boastfully, often to boast of an accomplishment). Indeed, given the similarities in sound and meaning that exist between these two words, it is perhaps surprising that they are not confused more often. On the whole, however, language users usually seem to recognize the difference between these words, and even descriptive usage does not yet support the use of vaunt in place of flaunt or vice versa.

In short, flaunt, flout, and vaunt are sometimes used as malapropisms for one another, particularly in spoken language. However, these terms have distinct meanings and, despite their similarity in sound as well as the increasing support in some circles for sometimes using flaunt in place of flout, currently it is preferable to maintain the distinctions between these terms and to use them as they have predominantly been used over time. Or, to take some liberties with the quasi-transitive:

If you’ve got it, flaunt it;

If you did it, vaunt it;

If they forbid it, flout it.—Phil Sefton, ELS

1. Motivated Grammar: Flout good taste; flaunt your excesses. Accessed November 30, 2011.
2. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 1991.
3. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA; Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003:477.

November 21, 2011

Condition, Disease, Disorder

Filed under: usage — amastyleinsider @ 11:00 am
Tags: ,

“Disease often fortifies the system against the action of remedies.”

“Disorder often fortifies the system against the action of remedies.”

Which of these sentences is correct? As it happens, the first is an actual quote (H. C. Wood, 1879)1(p445) and so in that sense is the “correct” one. However, the question remains: What are the differences, if any, between disease and disorder? For that matter, where does the often-used condition fit in? While these terms are frequently used interchangeably, differences between them do exist and can assist the person wishing to use them in more specific senses.

Condition is perhaps the least specific, often denoting states of health considered normal or healthy but nevertheless posing implications for the provision of health care (eg, pregnancy). The term might also be used to indicate grades of health (eg, a patient might be described as in stable, serious, or critical condition). While this term is often used in medical discussions to specifically indicate the presence of pathology or illness, Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary provides no definition of the term used in this sense. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, however, defines condition as “a usu. defective state of health,”2(p258) and the Oxford English Dictionary similarly opines that it denotes “[a] state of health, esp. one which is poor or abnormal; a malady or sickness.”1(p309) In lay conversation condition is sometimes used euphemistically when a discreet term is desired for reference to a state of health, either well or ill—for example, delicate condition was once commonly used to refer to either pregnancy or alcoholism. Similarly, condition understood specifically to indicate the presence of pathology or illness is sometimes used as a value-neutral term when a stronger term might not be desirable. When such considerations do not come into play, a condition conferring illness can be further classified as a disease or a disorder.

“He was full of such disease. That he may nought the deth escape” (1393).1(p445)

Disease is often used in a general sense when referring to conditions affecting a physical system (eg, cardiovascular disease) or a part of the body (eg, diseases of the foot). The term also may be used in specific senses—for example, a writer might refer in general terms to neurologic disease or in specific terms to Alzheimer disease. But disease is perhaps most often used when referring to a condition that possesses specific characteristics. In this vein, Merriam-Webster’s defines disease as “a condition of the… body or one of its parts that impairs normal functioning and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms…”2(p358); the Oxford English Dictionary defines the word similarly but particularly stresses structural change as a cause.1(p445) Dorland’s concurs with these sources but makes clear that the impaired functioning associated with the diseased state may constitute “any deviation from or interruption of the normal structure or function…” and further elaborates that “the etiology, pathology, or prognosis may be unclear or unknown.”3(p535)

“A Fever is the first disorder that affects the Blood and Vessels” (1725).1(p449)

Compared with disease, disorder is less restrictive: Merriam-Webster’s defines it simply as “an abnormal physical or mental condition,”2(p360) a definition with which Dorland’s largely concurs.3(p555) The Oxford English Dictionary emphasizes that disorder involves a disturbance of function but again further stresses structural change, this time in negative terms, stating that disorder is “usually a weaker term than DISEASE, and not implying structural change.”1(p449) This emphasis on functional rather than structural change has been in place since at least the late 1800s, when the Lexicon of Medicine and Allied Sciences stated that disorder is “a term frequently used in medicine to imply functional disturbance, in opposition to manifest structural change.”1(p449) Because disorder, like condition, is relatively value-neutral when compared with disease, it is often used in place of the latter term when a less stigmatizing or less alarming term is desirable—eg, a clinician might at first refer to a patient’s disease as a disorder to reduce the patient’s initial anxiety; similarly, the same patient might initially refer to his or her recently diagnosed disease as a disorder in conversations with family and friends.

In short, what distinguishes condition, disease, and disorder from one another would seem to be their relative emphases on functional change, structural change, presence of signs and symptoms, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the gravity a writer wishes to convey:

Condition simply indicates a state of health, whether well or ill; a condition conferring illness might be further classified as a disease or a disorder—however, condition might be used in place of disease or disorder when a value-neutral term is desired.
Disease denotes a condition characterized by functional impairment, structural change, and the presence of specific signs and symptoms. As an aside, Dorland’s equates the terms illness and sickness with disease; while these are often used to indicate the state or experience of disease, they are also sometimes used as value-neutral alternatives for disease.
Disorder, in contrast, denotes a condition characterized by functional impairment without structural change and, while certain disorders or categories of disorders might be accompanied by specific signs and symptoms, their presence is not required for a condition to be termed a disorder. Like condition, disorder is sometimes used as a value-neutral term in place of disease.—Phil Sefton, ELS

1. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 1991.
2. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA; Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003.
3. Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary. 31st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders; 2007.

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