« Oh, the suffering | Main | Things people get wrong »

It does too matter

Let’s not waste time, I’ve been advocating in recent posts, on shibboleths and meaningless distinctions. What is implicit in that argument is that there must be meaningful distinctions, and indeed there are.

One of the most valuable admonitions from Henry Fowler in Modern English Usage is that when the language has produced a useful distinction in meaning, a careful writer or editor will strive to preserve that distinction.

Some of these distinctions arise when words undergo differentiation in meaning, taking on new senses. "Most differentiations," Fowler says, "are, when fully established, savers of confusion and aids to brevity and lucidity. …" Other distinctions become necessary when uneducated or inadequately educated writers blur long-established distinctions. Let’s look at some examples.

You can find in dictionaries, which record how people actually use language rather than how they ought to use it, that imply and infer are often used interchangeably. But to hint at a meaning and to reach a conclusion based on a hint are opposite actions. You might as well say that wrapping a present and unwrappiing a present are the same thing.

Many people conflate loath and loathe, though to be reluctant to do something (loath) is substantially different in intensity from despising something (loathe).

One of my learned colleagues in the American Copy Editors Society has suggested that it is time to abandon a fussy distinction between persuade and convince, but I am not persuaded. It still seems to me that convince, given its association with conviction, carries a stronger charge. After all, I can be persuaded to do something even if I am not convinced that it is the right thing to do.

We may be forced to abandon the sense of disinterested as impartial, not having an interest in a conflict — no dog in this fight. But uninterested does the job nicely.

So few, apart from my daughter, have been taught Greek that they do not recognize that the first syllable in dilemma means two. A dilemma is a situation in which one has two equally disagreeable choices — Odysseus caught between Scylla and Charybdis. For other fixes, we have difficulty, problem, predicament, plight, scrape, quandary, jam and others. Let’s leave dilemma to its specific context.

The ignorant confusion of literally with figuratively or metaphorically has become so prevalent that there is a Web site devoted to mocking people who make this mistake. Have a look at

A cousin to that error is the use of ironically in circumstances that plainly involve coincidence or incongruity rather than irony.

It is no waste of time for copy editors to focus attention on legitimate distinctions of meaning, on preserving what Fowler calls "a serviceable distinction." Readers will benefit from precision, provided that we can distinguish what is genuinely useful from superstitions, shibboleths and the arbitrary and idiosyncratic pronouncements of long-gone editors.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:08 PM | | Comments (2)


The problem with web sites like the one you reference is that their primary function, intended or not, is to amuse people who already know about the errors being mocked. Oh, well.

I frequently hear people talking about an (e.g.) exercise "regime." In terms of pure spelling, I'm always surprised at how many people write about "loosing" a game.

In our field (computers), "infer" is actually used frequently (and correctly) in a technical sense -- for example, someone might say that the operating system infers what program to open when you double-click a picture or something like that. (The anthropomorphical overtones of such phrases are occasionally argued, but it's well-established jargon.)

And certainly the granddaddy of all losses of distinction is that between "lie" and "lay," said distinction having been disappearing now for centuries.

The difference between "loath" and "loathe" is not mainly a matter of intensity. They're different parts of speech! You can't "loath" anything, nor can you be "loathe." An even more fundamental question, I submit, is: Does anyone other than George Will actually use either of these words in real life?

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

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
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected