Don't make me come over there
Now we all want to clear out, shudder briefly at what befell us during the year that is passing, and lift a cup of cheer with someone in the hope of better things to come. But if you want better times to come, there are some things you should stop doing.
An article from the McClatchy papers came over the wires with a reference to “Britain’s prestigious Oxford University.” If McClatchy imagines that its readers are such clotpolls* that they have to be told that Oxford is in Britain and has developed a certain academic cachet, then newspapers are in much worse shape than any of us imagined.
Misplaced adverbs The Los Angeles Times, a cousin in the happy family of Tribune newspapers whose work I respect enormously, filed an article with this sentence:
Such attacks typically are claimed by the Sunni militant group al-Qaida in Iraq, which Gen. David Petraeus said remained the greatest threat in the country.
Someone at the Times trembles in fear of the error of the split verb, which, like Sasquatch, the Yeti and the Loch Ness monster, is much talked about but does not exist. In idiomatic English, as distinguished from the argot journalists are prone to lapse into, adverbs fall between the auxiliary verb and the main verb: are typically claimed.
Otherwise, this sentence from the same article
Petraeus reiterated that progress on the security front has not been matched on the political front, with leaders of Iraq’s main ethnic and sectarian factions deadlocked on key power-sharing laws
would have to be written progress on the security front not has been matched.
I changed the phrase staunch the bleeding to stanch the bleeding. A copy editor handled the article and changed stanch to staunch. Drunk with the power of the slot, I changed it back again.
Stanch, from the French estanche, means to stop, and it is conventionally used to mean halting the flow of blood. Wounds are stanched. Staunch, which comes from the same French root, originally meant watertight and came by metaphoric extension to mean firm, principled, determined.
The two spellings were used interchangeably in the 14th and 15th centuries, but that does not mean that it is a good idea for you to do the same. Over time, their senses have diverged, stanch remaining a verb meaning to stem a flow, staunch an adjective meaning steadfast or loyal. And the standard manuals maintain the distinction. In a weak moment, the lexicographers at Webster’s New World College Dictionary allowed that staunch is acceptable in both senses, but we are not bound by their judgments. Mr. Fowler said that when a useful distinction has developed in the language, the thoughtful writer will maintain that distinction.
So run along now to your end-of-year diversions (we don’t need the details). In the year that is about to begin, keep your nose clean, write as You Don’t Say advises, and everything should go smoothly.
*Clotpoll is a venerable word for a blockhead or dolt. Clot is allied etymologically to clod, and poll, of course, means the head. That’s why we have political polls, which count heads. And clotpolls trust them.