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Who cares?

Never wear brown shoes with a blue suit.

Take off your hat when a lady enters the elevator.

A gentleman ties his own neckwear.

Wear Panama hats and seersucker suits between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Or so I was brought up to believe. Today, most men don’t wear hats at all, though it would be nice if they would take off their baseball caps in restaurants. Fewer men wear ties at all. These rules for gentlemen (I dare not presume to speak for the ladies) are already archaic. They represent the kind of principles that my older sister once dismissed impatiently as "silly little rules that nobody else knows or cares about."

To these "silly little rules," add many of the rules or principles of grammar and usage. You don’t have to make subjects and verbs agree, or pronouns agree with their antecedents. You can put chocolate in a cocktail and call it a martini. You are free to chew with your mouth open. This is America.

Except that there are still some people to whom precision matters. The Sun recently ran an article that referred to "military court-martials." Well, who else but the military conducts a court-martial? And the proper plural is courts-martial. We have a lot of military personnel among our readers, and at least some of them, reading that phrase, may have wondered, "Do their reporters and editors know their business?"

Precision matters to some readers, and those are the readers — literate and informed — whom we ought to prize and cultivate. The reader who is unaware of nice distinctions of meaning will sail through without noticing (If you wear no hat, there is nothing to doff when a lady enters the elevator). The informed reader will hold the publication in respect.

Here are a few examples of useful precision in usage.

Anxious/eager. To be anxious about something is to experience anxiety, jitters, apprehension. To be eager is to have an enthusiastic anticipation. If you are anxious to see the morning paper, you are worried about what is in it. If you are eager to see the morning paper, you expect good news.

Enormity. Not an enormous thing but a dreadful thing. The word may suggest scale, but it has nothing to do with physical size. The Holocaust and Stalin’s purges are enormities. The Mall of America may be huge, but it is not an enormity (except, perhaps, in aesthetic terms).

Fulsome. Not full of or abounding in, but nauseatingly excessive. Fulsome praise is not merely ample, but the kind of flattery that only the vainest can swallow without gagging.

You can misuse these words, and many others, and the literate reader will gather your intent in context, but you will sacrifice respect.

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:39 PM | | Comments (4)


Though I obeyed, I never quite understood the copy-editing rule that banned "anxious" as "eager," especially when the eager person was full of angst. See the note in the AHD entry at and the usage history in the OED. The unabridged M-W quotes Anthony Trollope.

-- Alison, who once wrote a paper, of course unpublished, on Euripides' "Rhesus"

More, more, more (sorry, a reference to a poem about mashed potatoes):

A host of other citations can be found in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. The kicker to the long entry on "anxious": "Anyone who says that careful writers do not use *anxious* in its 'eager' sense has simply not examined the available usage."

Not that I readily disagree with John McIntyre. I do cotton to his stands on "enormity" and "fulsome."

Yay, Alison. Alas, usage rules based on actual usage by Actual People Who Know What They're Doing With English have little chance against entrenched rules based on ... uh ... well, decisions by the lexirati. Sorry. :-) See also: that/which.

Is "fulsome" ever used outside the cliched phrase "fulsome praise"? (I mean, besides in that Johnny Cash song, "Fulsome Prison Blues." )

Yes Mike, I do believe the term "fulsome" has been applied on occasion to Dolly Parton in a descriptive way. ;o)

And Alison, "more more more" is a lyric of a great song by Madonna which/that concludes that the only thing better is "all all all"! (But of course, being Madonna, she then observes that once you have it all, the one thing you're gonna miss is "more.")

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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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