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No difference

When the language develops useful distinctions of meaning, Henry Fowler thought, scrupulous writers strive to maintain those distinctions.

Thus it still makes sense to insist that imply and infer are not interchangeable and that cement and concrete are not quite the same thing.

But a good deal of advice about language attends to distinctions that are so minuscule as to be a waste of time to uphold (lawyer and attorney in all but the most technical legal contexts) or, worse, arbitrary and artificial (over and more than).

A reader recently commented on his difficulty in maintaining the distinction he had been told about — he’s not a native speaker of English — between like and such as.

He is joined in bemusement by the editors of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, who say this about the supposed necessity of using like for resemblances and such as for examples*:

“[T]he issue of ambiguity, which evidently underlies the thinking of those who urge the distinction, is probably much overblown.”

The entry cites a number of examples, commenting about them that in some “you cannot be sure whether examples or resemblances are intended, but the meaning of the sentence works out to be the same under either interpretation. And in none of the examples that follow can you detect any ambiguity of meaning, either as they are written with like or as they would read if you substituted such as. …”

My advice: Don’t listen for whistles that only dogs can hear.

 

*You can, by this reasoning, look like McIntyre, but not be an editor like McIntyre. You could be, if fate were cruel, an editor such as McIntyre. Not even the Associated Press Stylebook goes for this one.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:35 PM | | Comments (10)
        

Comments

Don't listen for whistles that only dogs can hear.

That's the best advice I've heard in a long time, and it applies to more than grammar or punctuation. I'm going to use it. With proper attribution, of course.

Indeed, Bucky. The wisdom of Wordville. If only JMc was posting this stuff when I was younger.

Great quote ("Don't listen for whistles that only dogs can hear"), but one shouldn't press the metaphor too far in applying it to life. What if, for example, it is the whistle of a train coming your way?

I hesitate to suggest that fingers inserted "but" where "by" was intended in the last paragraph.

To our newbie English speaker, I would just suggest that to an older generation using "like" indiscriminately may sound uneducated. But maybe that is a whistle only a dog can hear. Do i sound like Patricia the Terse? (Only "like" will work there!)

Too appropriate Captcha: people fusty

Hi, Bourbon Girl. Long time, no see.

Ditto, BG!

Thanks for fixing the typo, Prof. McIntyre.

So we've given up on distinction between "amused" and "bemused," then? Or were the editors also puzzled?

I thought that the sense of "mild puzzlement" was clear in context.

I beg to differ. There is a difference, albeit a very subtle one.

"Street crime is rife in cities like London and Paris."

In this case, street crime is rife in cities that are deemed similar to London and Paris. Strictly speaking, this need not even include London and Paris.

"Street crime is rife in cities such as London and Paris."

In this case, London and Paris are given as definite examples of cities where street crime is rife. The 'such as' tells us that there are other cities where it is also rife, but we don't know any information about these - there is no indication that they are similar to London or Paris.

It's not the best example - I wish I could think of a better one.

With respect, some people hear better than others and may appreciate and value whistles that others don't(and we'll have no comments on my dog-like qualities, thank you!)

thanks for posting…

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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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