Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Fixing your errors

Here's a list from the ever useful Economist Style Guide of unfortunately far too common solecisms you should know about, and should definitely avoid (especially if you're submitting an article to The Free Radical). [Hat tip Ceely's Modern Usage] What's a solecism? Looks like you definitely need to read the list...

SOLECISM, n., a deviation from correct idiom or grammar; any incongruity, error or absurdity; a breach of good manners, an impropriety.

Many necessary correctives here, to quote just a few:
  • Canute's exercise on the seashore was designed to persuade his courtiers of what he knew to be true but they doubted, ie, that he was not omnipotent. Don't imply he was surprised to get his feet wet.
  • Confectionary [of whatever colour]: a sweet. Confectionery: sweets in general.
  • Crisis. This is a decisive event or turning-point. Many of the economic and political troubles wrongly described as crises are really persistent difficulties, sagas or affairs.
  • Critique is a noun. If you want a verb, try criticise.
  • Decimate means to destroy a proportion (originally a tenth) of a group of people or things, not to destroy them all or nearly all. Factoid: something that sounds like a fact, is thought by many to be a fact (perhaps because it is repeated so often), but is not in fact a fact. [e.g., "global warming has already made hundreds of thousands of climate refugees from low-lying Pacific islands."]
  • Frankenstein was not a monster, but its creator.
  • Gender is a word to be applied to grammar, not people. If someone is female, that is her sex, not her gender. (The gender of Mädchen, the German word for girl, is neuter, as is Weib, a wife or woman.)
  • Hobson's choice is not the lesser of two evils; it is no choice at all.
  • Homosexual: since this word comes from the Greek word homos (same), not the Latin word homo (man), it applies as much to women as to men. It is therefore as daft to write homosexuals and lesbians as to write people and women.
  • Key: keys may be major or minor, but not low. Few of the decisions, people, industries described as key are truly indispensable, and fewer still open locks.
  • Like governs nouns and pronouns, not verbs and clauses. So as in America not like in America. But authorities like Fowler and Gowers is a perfectly acceptable alternative to authorities such as Fowler and Gowers.
  • Media: prefer press and television or, if the context allows it, just press. If you have to use the media, remember it is plural.
  • Only. Put only as close as you can to the words it qualifies. Thus, These animals mate only in June. To say They only mate in June implies that in June they do nothing else.
  • Oxymoron: an oxymoron is not an unintentional contradiction in terms but a figure of speech in which contradictory terms are deliberately combined, as in bitter-sweet, cruel kindness, sweet sorrow, etc.
  • Per caput is the Latin for per head. Per capita is the Latin for by heads; it is a term used by lawyers when distributing an inheritance among individuals, rather than among families (per stirpes). Unless the context demands this technical expression, never use either per capita or per caput but per person.
  • Propaganda (which is singular) means a systematic effort to spread doctrine or opinions. It is not a synonym for lies.
  • Rebut means repel or meet in argument. Refute, which is stronger, means disprove. Neither should be used as a synonym for deny.
  • Use and abuse: two words much used and abused. You take drugs, not use them (Does he use sugar?). And drug abuse is just drug taking, as is substance abuse, unless it is glue sniffing or bun throwing.
  • While is best used temporally. Do not use it in place of although or whereas.


  1. Hear hear!

    Maybe you could send this to Robin Duff of the PPTA? He might like to butcher the English language totally along with our secondary education system?

  2. I might suggest, MrTips, that your adverb 'totally' comes a little late in the clause to the noun upon which it acts.



  3. Or even the verb upon which it acts, eh DenMT?

  4. Critique is a noun and a verb, according to Oxford's Grammatical Encyclopedia and Fowler's Modern English Usage.

  5. decimate
    3 a : to reduce drastically especially in number cholera decimated the population b : to cause great destruction or harm to firebombs decimated the city, an industry decimated by recession

    Conjunctive "like" is used by many good writers, including Keats, Brontë, Dickens, Kipling, Wells, and Shaw. It is standard English.

    As thou
    Wilt live, fly after; and, like an arrow shot
    From a well-experienc'd archer hits the mark
    His eye doth level at, so thou ne'er return
    Unless thou say Prince Pericles is dead - Shakespeare, Pericles 1609

  6. Plus, in "like in America," "like" governs a prepositional phrase. How does that fit into the rule?


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