Thursday, July 9, 2009

Making distinctions

Part of the copy editor’s responsibility in achieving clarity and precision of prose is to honor nuances of meaning. The trick is to know which nuances are meaningful and which are not — especially as usage shifts over time. Things that you were taught at the beginning of your career may no longer be valid.

Here is a guide to distinctions of usage that are worth preserving, and some that are not. You disagree with me, you know what comments are for.





between/among Provided that you understand that between can be legitimately applied to more than two parties in some contexts.


criteria Plural only.




imply/infer A writer who does not understand that these are opposite actions should be set straight.

its/it’s Observing the distinction remains a mark of literacy and attention to detail.


phenomena Plural only.

As a conjunction it still sounds colloquial.


raise/rise Former transitive, latter intransitive.


unique For one of a kind, not merely rare.




Since the easiest thing for the author of a usage manual or textbook on copy editing can do is to copy what was in a previous edition, fossilized preferences last a long time. But sometimes it is most prudent to conclude that nothing is to be gained by fighting lost battles.



career/careen Career, for moving recklessly at high speed, has just about vanished.

compare to/compare with

data Increasingly common a singular.

different from/different than

disinterested/uninterested To my profound regret, this one has largely gone away.

due to For because.

everyone/their Prohibition probably best abandoned altogether.


finalize For to complete.

graduate As a transitive, e.g., She graduated high school.


lie/lay Stand firm if you must, but the language is moving away from you.

media Increasingly common as a singular.

shall/will The former is slowly vanishing from both speech and writing.

that/which Could go in the following category. You may well want to use that only for restrictive clauses and which only for nonrestrictive clauses, but that is a personal preference, not a rule of usage.


No one cares that Mrs. Poindexter humiliated you in class in the sixth grade over
using none with a plural verb. She was dead wrong then, and probably dead now.

could care less/couldn’t care less The former is an idiom that no one misunderstands.

hopefully Perfectly idiomatic as a sentence adverb.

however Perfectly acceptable at the beginning of a sentence.

none As a plural. Can be either singular or plural, depending on context.

over/more than

since Acceptable for because. See the comment at the beginning of DISTINCTIONS THAT ARE DISSOLVING. If it didn’t bother you there, it shouldn’t bother you anywhere.

that Can be used in place of who without doing violence to the language.


  1. John: You have a typo in the spelling of "phenomena". Maybe that's inadvertently related to its lack of bold type.

    While editing a thesis yesterday I was alerted to the fact that the World Health Organisation's International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health defines disability as "a complex phenomena". As I remarked on Twitter, indeed it are.

  2. I know this is not in your list here (Maybe I should have posted this comment in the blog on the new edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage because I'd like to know what you both have to say), but the one that will be hard for me to let go of is the idea that "reason why" is redundant. Everybody says it now. I never seem to hear "reason that" from anywhere but my own mouth. I still cringe when I hear it, and my heart nearly stops when it is followed (as it often is) by "is because." I still think simply saying "the reason is" or "the reason is that" is better. But the rest of the world seems to have moved on to love the redundancy.

  3. One from my personal list: "All of a sudden" has obliterated "all of the sudden," which I think sounds fussier all the time.

    I've always liked "data" as a singular, irrespective of usage. Like "media," it has an expansive connotation that's far more than the sum of its parts.

  4. I know that "the reason why" bothers many people, but I've never been sensitive to it, possibly because I read Cecil Woodham-Smith's "The Reason Why," on the Light Brigade at Balaclava well before my concerns with English usage developed fully. As you say, the world seems content with it, and it's not worth any concern beyond a little quiet gritting of teeth.

  5. Re graduate: I like to stick the "from" in there anyway just for fun. "She graduated high from school."

    Do you think "whom" will make one of these lists someday?

  6. I'm not sure that the distinction between 'compare to' and 'compare with' is dissolving all that quickly.

    Recently I saw a poster saying that a certain novel had 'already been compared to Captain Corelli's Mandolin'; if the poster had said the novel 'had already been compared with Captain Corelli's Mandolin', I'm sure it would have caused more than a few sniggers.

    But I'm a Brit, so perhaps the distinction is disappearing from American English more quickly than it is from British English.

    Good post, by the way.

  7. Great post. Lots of overlap with my personal ranking of fights worth picking.

    I like "data" in the singular when used as a synonym for "information" and "media" in the singular when used as a synonym for "press."

  8. I don't think you'll find many actual, like, non-editor-type people who will chafe at "more unique." (Or, of course, our "more perfect union.")

    The "that no one misunderstands" test seems a bit, dunno, generous. Are people confused by a lack of distinction between "number" and "amount"?

    Nonetheless, a great post. We need all the reminding we can get to review and justify now and again what we believe and whether we should continue to do so.

  9. Hamilton-LovecraftJuly 10, 2009 at 12:13 AM

    You write: "imply/infer: A writer who does not understand that these are opposite actions should be set straight."

    I must in turn set you straight; they are complementary actions, not opposites.

  10. Patricia the TerseJuly 10, 2009 at 1:32 AM

    How about "take/bring"? And even with my retainer, I retain the right to grind my teeth over "The reason why." It's the reason,full stop, thank you very much.

  11. Ought one to endorse the disappearance from circulation of "criterion", "phenomenon" and "medium"?

    I'm with Stan on objecting to use of plural for singular use. As for "media", there is a usage of "mediums" here in England these days, not to mean spiritualists but art media: oil, pastel etc. Whereas publicity media are called "media" as if no other kind of media exist, and no singular is possible.

    On the other hand I take a different viewpoint from (not "than") Dave about "media", which (again here in England) is used as a collective noun to include press, internet, the sides of buses; for editorial, news, comment, advertising and more. Not just press. Do we in any case know what press means any more?

    But then again, I chafe at many of the items in your categories, not in themselves for I see them as "Americanisms". I chafe about their infecting these islands. Great Britain has different spellings but also a different English of which she is proud and a little proprietorial. We invented English, so we hate to see her going astray.

  12. Could someone explain if there's a distinction Stateside between ensure and insure?

    I often see insure used in posh papers like The New Yorker where in the UK we'd feel obliged to say ensure.

  13. You are dead wrong yourself on "could care less" and "couldn't care less." The former is a corruption of the traditional one. When one says "I could care less" he is saying that there are things for which he could care even less than the thing for which he could care less. When he says, "I couldn't care less," he is saying that that thing is the least of his concerns. Many of the things you say are perfectly correct are not in fact correct at all. These disappearing distinctions of language are what make modern speech incomprensible to some people and invite the destruction of the rules of grammar and syntax. I'd say Shame on you, but for the few things you got right. How on earth did you ever teach copyediting at Loyola? Well, then again, I guess it's silly to ask, if one considers the condition of language in print today.

  14. Prof. McIntyre, where do you stand on "like" and "as"? Those always confuse me, probably because I grew up in an age when cigarette companies could advertise on television.

  15. While I agree that "however" at the beginning of a sentence is not an error, it is almost always poor phrasing. Why make a reader climb over three syllables and a comma if "but" will do? I will say, however, that it serves nicely as a speed bump when one wishes to slow one's pace.

  16. Anonymous, Actually, you are the one who is wrong about "could care less" and "couldn't care less." The fact that phrases often have a meaning other than their literal senses is well known; that's why "fat chance" and "slim chance" mean the same thing. You say "corruption"; others say "change."

  17. On Twitter, @WendalynNichols wrote, "@APStylebook Hopefully you'll stop reinforcing the shibboleth that "hopefully" can't be a sentence adverb.

    On Facebook, Mike Pope responded, "Honestly, this rule must die. Actually, I'm good and sick of it. Luckily, most people ignore it."

    Sadly, it looks unlikely that they will be heeded.

  18. Patrica the Terse: I held the same opinion about "reason why" but have since been persuaded to rethink that stance (read Garner's Modern American Usage on the point).

    Anonymous: You make a personal attack and won't put your name to the post?

    Vincent: Don't overlook some uses in the UK that are frowned upon in the US: plural verbs with nouns that are construed collectively, e.g., "the government are..."; using "which" restrictively. And it took an Act of Parliament in 1850 to force people to stop using "they" to refer to a singular antecedent, which was done for centuries before the English ever set foot in America. American English, in fact, preserves many aspects of 17th century English from which British English has strayed.

    Saying one variety or the other has "gone astray" assumes a consensus that has never existed, the disproportionate influence of a small number of vocal and adamant style writers notwithstanding.

    What gets lost in all the arguments, I think, is that the people who are doing the arguing are using language in ways that would have been considered profoundly wrong not all that long ago, without even realizing the fact. If we have a soft spot for a certain style choice (where "however" goes) or don't like "data" as a singular (even though "agenda" was a plural too) or insist on preserving the difference between "lay" and "lie" (my own line in the sand), let's be prepared to defend our choices civilly, be consistent in applying them, and not castigate others for making different choices.

  19. John,
    --Everyone and their
    --Farther and further
    --That and which
    Are you saying the battle is lost on these?

  20. Patricia the TerseJuly 11, 2009 at 2:35 AM

    I think that "reason" implies "why" and therefore "reason why" is redundant. Why use more words than necessary? As Shakespeare might well have said, "Brevity is the Soul of Writ."(I made that up. Honest.)

  21. Wendalyn Nichols: I agree with your points but would like to add this thought: that in the use of language as in other aspects of life, we tend to treat our formative years (perhaps our teens) as the Golden Age. And if our teachers took great trouble to introduce us to what was then considered as good English, we (especially as we get older) don't want their memory desecrated by usages or behaviours that nullify their efforts and our own. This essence of conservatism means that I respect my grandfather's views, just as he respected his grandfather's views.

    From perspectives such as these, we care little what happened in 17th century English, but would prefer to slow the pace of change, merely from a sense of grace and dignity and respect to elders.

    The older I get the more cogent this argument becomes!

  22. John's perfectly right on reason why. As the poet said, "And shall Trelawny perish? / And shall Trelawny die? / Here's twenty thousand Cornish men / Will know the reason why!"

    Try changing why to that and see what you get. It's downright ungrammatical.

  23. Besides, it's needed for the rhyme.

  24. Thank you for a thought-provoking post.

    I do not disagree with you, but would like to comment on one factor to be considered:

    Sarcasm, not always perceived in writing but heard in speech through the tone of voice, often changes the meaning of a phrase. So if someone would say, with sarcasm, "I could care less," he/she usually means, "I couldn't care less."

    The anecdote has been told of a teacher who explained the proper and improper use of double negatives ("didn't go anywhere" vs "didn't go nowhere"), and then stated there is no example of a double positive in English, to which one student muttered, "Yeah, right!" - intending, by his sarcasm, the complete negative of the literal meaning of those words.

  25. "Could care less" positively irks me! How foolish to say it's an idiom that no one misunderstands. Fact is, it's 180 degrees from what the writer (or speaker) actually means to say. If you COULD care less, that implies you don't care much about something -- but there's still room to care even less. Whereas you "couldn't" care less means it's not possible to care any less. THAT is what you mean to say, so say it right!

  26. I'm thinking you must have a lot of trouble with sarcasm.

  27. Any thoughts on the gantlet/gauntlet distinction? Haven't seen the new Garner yet, so I don't know if his position on it has changed.

    A source said "ran the gauntlet," and I had to stifle myself from correcting the quote. Then I wondered whether this is a distinction not worth preserving, since more people seem to use the "wrong" version than the "right" one.

  28. Bryan Garner is still holding the line on gantlet/gauntlet, but his new usage index (from 1, rejected, to 5, fully accepted) has the distinction at stage 4. My own view is that it's a battle not worth fighting.