Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Give up the ship

 During more than forty years as a copy editor, part of my job was to make copy clean and correct. Another part of the job was to determine when things previously thought correct no longer applied. 

I give you the example of the over/more than distinction drummed into journalists, that over may only be used to indicate spatial relationships, a rule so willfully ignorant of standard English usage that even the Associated Press Stylebook finally abandoned it. There are more. 

You may have held bravely to the distinction that literally cannot mean figuratively; that an enormity is a great evil, not a Really Big Thing; that a dilemma involves a choice between two unpleasant options, rather than a mere perplexity. It falls to me to tell you that those ships have sailed; they are not even visible on the horizon. 

No doubt you understand that podium derives from the Greek word for foot and thus indicates an object one stands on, not behind. The thing one stands behind to read from a book or other text is a lectern, from the Latin word for reading. That thing the clerk stands behind at the airport gate is a desk, but so many hundreds of thousands of travelers have now been summoned to the podium that the original sense has been rubbed away. The Greek etymology is instructive, but not definitive. 

I once made a spirited argument that one could distinguish between convince and persuade, the former being a stronger term, because people can be persuaded to do things even when they are not convinced it is right to do so. I long ago gave up on it, and assume you have too. 

Probably you know that to beg the question is to make a logical fallacy, to assume the validity of what you are purportedly trying to prove, not to prompt or pose a question. And if you are writing for The New York Review of Books, more power to you. If you are writing for nearly anyone else, your accusation of question begging is apt to produce furrowed brows. 

Well-brought-up writers and editors know that comprise means to contain, to encompass. The whole comprises the parts, which compose the whole. Well-brought-up writers and editors were taught to shudder at is comprised of, and Bryan A. Garner cites the heroic labors of Bryan Henderson, who single-handedly changed 18,000 Wikipedia instances of  is comprised of to is composed of. The example of Canute comes to mind. 

I learned as a lad that the due in due to must be an adjective following a linking verb. "The error was due to ignorance of standard usage." See: due is the predicate adjective, and to is just a preposition. But to write due to ignorance of standard usage would make due to a PREPOSITION and scare the horses in the streets. If you escaped that particular lesson, count yourself lucky. 

Perhaps in a subsequent post I may mention traditional distinctions of usage that still matter.