John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Friday, May 8, 2009

Watch where you sit

A recent Baltimore Sun article contained a sentence saying that federal proceedings supercede local judgments. So they do, but the word is supersede.

Supersede derives from the Latin supersedere: super (above) sedere (to sit). To supersede is, from the literal roots of the word, to be superior to, to sit above.

Merriam-Webster says that the spelling supercede has turned up regularly since the 17th century (so much for any expectation that it would have been rare when everyone studied Latin) but is widely considered an error. It is probably a matter of time until it is widely listed in dictionaries as an acceptable variant.

While we are thinking about Latin, a reminder that this is graduation season. You who cross the platform to receive the diploma and the handshake will be an alumnus or an alumna, collectively alumni or, in some cases, alumnae. Arnold Zwicky, having come across a Web site in which a man describes himself as “a Distinguished Alumnae,” will sort out the terms for you.

If you want to appear edumacated, you will not say, “I am an alumni,” and you will not spell supersede with a c.


  1. you wrote this so I would comment, didn't you?? AWWWW.

    People are ignorant.

    I especially hate that the only decal for alumni my college bookstore sells says "Swarthmore College Alumni." I have refused, and continue to refuse to buy this abomination because displaying it on my car would be WRONG. I am an alumna, thank you very much.

    (I guess, though, if the car were owned/ operated/ridden by more than one Swarthmore College alumnus/a, then the alumni sticker would be displayed correctly. Maybe it happens more than I think.)

    I suppose I will just have to feel superior to all those singular graduates displaying the sticker on their cars.

  2. Patricia the TerseMay 11, 2009 at 12:46 AM

    Not unlike John Astin, I love it when he speaks Latin to us. Etiam alumna sum.

  3. Patricia the TerseMay 11, 2009 at 12:55 AM

    ...and while we are on the tedious topic of graduations, commencements, et al,let me point out the pointless and time-consuming practice of guest speakers. I'd like to know who first started this custom: I'd also like to force him to read some of what passes for rhetoric among the chattering class of commencement speakers. And finally, one is graduated, one does not graduate. I care little about common trends. People are, in fact, ignorant.