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Always was wrong, always will be

The persistence of certain errors, like the spread of kudzu and the zebra mussel, is remarkable but not encouraging. Today, we’ll look at some common irritants.

1. Comprise. Comprise is the box that contains the contents, not the contents themselves. The alphabet comprises 26 letters. The alphabet is composed of 26 letters. The construction is comprised of is always wrong. The word is so frequently and wantonly misused that I have sometimes been tempted to ban it from The Sun. But then some blessed soul on the staff files an article in which it is used correctly.

Gady Epstein and Stephanie Desmon did so in one of their articles on the crab fisheries of Maryland and Asia: “…what is called swimming crab — a category that comprises both the blue crab caught off parts of North and South America and the species caught in Southeast Asia.” When such a sentence comes across the desk, copy editors lean back and sigh in mute gratitude.

2. Crescendo. One of our writers recently described something as “building to a crescendo.” A crescendo is a steady and sustained increase in volume. It is a building to a high point, not the high point itself. Doesn’t anyone take piano lessons any more, or listen to Rossini overtures?

3. Podium. A Web site on public speaking offers the advice “Stand behind the podium, don’t lean on it or slouch behind it.” Crouch, maybe. Apart from the comma-splice run-on, the problem here is that a podium is a platform on which a speaker stands. Podium, from the Greek podion, foot; same root as podiatry. A lectern is the stand on which the speaker rests notes.

4. It’s/its. The failure of many journalists, college graduates who make their living by the written word, to distinguish between the contraction and possessive, A DISTINCTION THAT IS WITHIN THE GRASP OF MANY CHILDREN (Sorry, mustn’t shout), occurs far more frequently than most readers of the paper could imagine.

What misuses make you cry out and fling the paper across the room? (Try to control yourself if you’re reading on a video screen.) Literally? Ironically? Lie and lay? Tell Uncle John.

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:43 AM | | Comments (11) | TrackBacks (1)


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» More Misused Words from Research and Writing Blog
John McIntyre at the Baltimore Sun has an interesting blog entry today about words that are frequently misused. I cringe when I read lists like this because I always see words that I have used incorrectly. In addition to pointing... [Read More]


I agree with the others but I think the "podium" battle has already been lost ... how many people actually know that the podium is what the lecturn stands upon? I'm guessing about 1 out of a thousand.

The fact that even educated, professional people can't keep "its/it's" straight does not mean, I don't think, that educated, professional people are stupid. (Well, maybe, haha.) It does suggest, though, that if the rules of English punctuation are confusing enough that educated writers can't keep them straight, maybe there's something wrong with the rules, not the writers. Apostrophes in general seem to require a graduate degree to master (since clearly a baccalaureate degree alone doesn't do the trick.) In any event, the likelihood of everyone waking up one day and using the listed terms and punctuation correctly is pretty dang slim, I would venture.

PS Word usage is not a "war" that has "battles."

Eagerly and anxiously. Like podium and lectern, this seems to me to be a distinction worth preserving, because the readers who *do* understand the difference between them will be misled by a misuse (and in fact would go away with exactly opposite the impression that was intended). Plus, if we surrender "anxiously," what single word are we left with to describe something done while in a state of anxiety? (Those who would answer "Nervously" are depriving us of a shade of meaning -- the old "fewer words mean fewer ideas" argument.)

I was watching 'True Romance' yesterday and there is this scene where a character says, "Nicholson and me will lead a team…” when the Nicholson character interjects, "Nicholson and I."
I was left wondering why, among five people, I was the only one ROTFL…
Another one, which is ubiquitous in India is, can I enter, can I speak to, can I go home now etc. Plan to spend the rest of my life saying, “You may, but I don’t know if you can.”

And people who don't edit copy wonder why one my favorite movie quotes is Inigo Montoya in "The Princess Bride": "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
Affect when you mean effect. Effect when you mean affect. Impact, period.
There was a news story right after Pope Benedict XVI took office that had a phrase to the effect of "he's now understanding the enormity of his new job." (not the exact wording, but the "enormity" was there.)

Two headlines on our website's crawler:
57 injured in north China mine tragedy
12 die in hooch tragedy.
Never knew tragedies could kill.

As one "educated professional" to another, I would suggest that the its/it's error, which I make quite often, is quite often not a failure to understand the difference, but rather haste. I find I write what I hear in my head, and discover my error, usually, on re-reading. It's not always ignorance; just human error. On the other hand, why the devil isn't it a possessive? If we can say "the cat's meow," why don't we say "the cat lost it's meow?" like

Krishna: Tragedies have been able to kill ever since emotionalism became a greater part of people's lives, including the daily discourse.

I've been bothered for years by the expression "hostage drama" used in the news media wheneverhostage/s are taken for some reason.

I'll bet the hostages themselves don't think they're in a drama, either on stage or filmed. I'm sure the situation is very real to them.

The expression - to "go missing" - really preplexes me. I always considered "missing" to be a state of being rather than a place!

Besides misuse of it's and its, there seems to be a lot of confusion about the difference between a plural and a possessive. Hyphenation vs. whole word confusion is at least understandable.

The two common errors that bother me most are using whom instead of who incorrectly and the word "snuck." Just as the past tense of peek is peeked, not puck, the past tense of sneak is sneaked.

I've been reading through the archives today, so excuse the late comment on this article.

I used to work for an events company, and was constantly tempted to actually provide a podium when one was requested, rather than the lectern the client expected.

My husband's current annoyance is the prevalence of "has got," or the word "got" in general. I see that it is most times unneccessary, but is "got" technically wrong? Please advise - it's driving him crazy.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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