Monday, December 21, 2015

Distinguishing among distinctions

I have begun work on a new workshop in which I will attempt to sort out distinctions of usage worth preserving from traditional distinctions that are no longer worth the candle.

It will focus on pairs, rather than distinctions among the senses of individual words. For example:





(I’m not giving away in advance where I stand on any of these.)

While I have materials for a good start on the project, I would welcome your suggestions of distinctions you would like to see addressed, whether to preserve or to abandon. 

Please feel free to make suggestions in the comments here or in a private message to me at


  1. An editor's view:
    Careen/career: Learned it, but never cared or enforced it. "Careen" is ubiquitous and causes me no discomfort at all.
    Comprise/compose: Learned and followed it, but "It comprises" is probably a lost cause; "comprised of" may be skunked, but it's winning.
    Imply/infer: A distinction I would keep if it were possible.
    Loath/loathe: Strikes me as essentially a spelling problem (that is, nobody who goofs on it is actually using the wrong part of speech).

  2. Your mention of a workshop suggests that there might really be two questions here. Should editors _know_ these distinctions? And assuming they do, should they enforce them? For the first, I would say that an editor should be aware of the distinctions, and where the thinking currently stands on such distinctions. An editor's credibility might slip somewhat if they are unaware that there is a distinction between "careen" and "career," or about the brouhaha about "comprised of" that erupted last year on Wikipedia, or that "beg the question" has a specific meaning in rhetoric.

    Armed with the knowledge of these things, the editor then has to help decide (assuming a locally governing style guide doesn't dictate the decision). And for those, and assuming my own context (technical writing/editing):

    lie/lay: yes. (Tho I would never, ever suggest that this distinction needs to be upheld in anything but formal prose)
    singular "they": no
    that/which: no, probably. Tho I still make the change reflexively.

    Hmm. More later, perhaps, when I've had a gander at our style guide.

    1. What you describe, WordzGuy, is exactly my intention for the workshop.

  3. I sometimes feel like the last person who still makes a distinction between disinterested and uninterested.

  4. And another one: I'm still changing alternate to alternative to mean "other."

  5. Alternate - as in "he visits his elderly mother on alternate weeks".

  6. Alternative - that's when you have two choices. "Face the future - there's no alternative."

  7. epicenter/center — having grown up in earthquake country, I believe we should maintain the distinction between epicenter, the origin point of an earthquake, and center.

    stanch/staunch — I continue to maintain this distinction, but I am starting to wonder about it. I'd be interested in your opinion about it.

    And since WordzGuy brought it up, singular they = yes.

  8. As someone who has both written and edited text, but is neither professionally, I wouldn't change any of these in someone else's text, though I stick to the so-called traditional distinctions in my own writing, and even though I know perfectly well that some of them have no historical foundation.

    Singular they: God said it, Bill Walsh believes it, that settles it!

  9. enquire/inquire - distinction probably lost in US, but maintained in UK English.