« Metaphor pop quiz | Main | A prescriptivist's lot is not a happy one »

Distinctions that matter

Earlier this week, over at Language Log, Mark Liberman took a swipe at the comprise/compose distinction, pointing out through the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage entry on the subject and a set of recent examples that is comprised of has a long and not necessarily disreputable history in English.

He makes quite clear in the comments that his point is not that anything that was ever done in the past is OK.* It is to counter the prescriptivist position that some deplored usage is a modern corruption of some previous purity of language.

I still teach the prohibition against is comprised of, because Garner and AP and a host of others insist on it, but my confidence has been shaken.

Here is the thing. A useful principle enunciated by H.W. Fowler is that when a useful distinction of meaning has developed in the language, a careful writer or editor will strive to maintain it.

My students almost universally have difficulty with the lie/lay and who/whom distinctions. The reason is that those distinctions are passing out of the living language into the historical language, like thou/thee/you, and the main issue for an editor to resolve is when to strike the colors.

Career/careen is another lost cause, and one could comb the Associated Press Stylebook for others.

But there are other distinctions still worth maintaining. Loath and loathe may have been interchangeable spellings in the sixteenth century, but today the words have different meanings and intensities. Imply and infer are worth holding on to. A modified that/which distinction—use that exclusively for restrictive constructions, which mainly for nonrestrictive but occasionally for restrictive—makes sense.

And failing to observe some distinctions will still leave you looking less than educated: grisly/grizzly, palate/palette/pallet, discreet/discrete, free reign for free rein, and more. Want to suggest some?

The difficulty, and this is where an editor wins his or her spurs, lies in making informed and intelligent judgments: weighing the disagreements among the authorities, consulting his or her personal sense from wide reading of where the language is, determining whether the distinction is meaningful to the intended audience and appropriate for the publication and the occasion. There are often no easy answers, and you should distrust anyone who insists that there are.


*You have to be careful with the Oxford English Dictionary; you can find just about anything anyone has ever done in written English. The historical evidence has to be weighed. Jane Austen, for example, used every body … their. Further investigation shows that just about anyone else who ever published a book has also used the singular their. That carries weight. Austen also wrote her’s. Nobody is suggesting that we should go there.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:36 AM | | Comments (16)


You know how sometimes the most disreputable among us hire really, really smart and really, really expensive lawyers ...?

How about the burgeoning use of "there is" with a plural following? As in, "Is there any questions?" or "There's ten ways to do that." It's as if students are being taught that the verb should match whatever is next to it; in the examples above, "any" and "ten" seem to require "is."

Should a distinction be made?

So Bill Walsh, are you saying that hiring a smart and expensive lawyer is an admission of disrepute? Poppycock, hogwash and balderdash.

I've said this before, so make a face if you want to. But have you noticed how many of the "confusions" you list are misspellings, not actually uses of the wrong word? Spelling is important, but typing "then" for "than" is not the same as using "infer" for "imply."

God preserve me from, "Between you and I"

See my comment to your old post "An unbearable scene" for the use of grisly nut instead of gristly nut, referring to a certain portion of the human anatomy.

However, imply/infer is not so simple as you imply or you mean us to infer: in particular, evidence infers as well as implies a conclusion, and has done so since the introduction of both words into English. See "The truth about infer" on Language Log for the messy details, or MW(C)DEU.

To a very great degree, as much as I believe that some language is just plain wrong, in the end, usage rules. As an editor I continued to correct all of your examples, and when I "had the time," I tried to tell my reporters about their mistakes. In the end, often my default position was to correct the error and let the teaching go, especially on deadline. That may be a cop-out, but I rationalized it by telling myself that at least the reader would not be brought up short by the mistake in the printed copy. On the larger issue of proper usage, I think the vox populi wins. We may not like the way the yahoos do it, but prescriptivism always loses in the end.

Our style guide at work has a perhaps surprising entry on "comprise" -- it basically says that because there is confusion about how to use the word, just avoid it. Altho some might consider this a cop out, it does neatly sidestep the problem of wading into a debate about the matter.

I'd ask how you inferred that, Tim, but I'm not sure I know what "infer" means anymore. :-)

I've always wondered whether there was ever a period in which "lie" and "lay" really were distinct. They probably ultimately derive from a single word back in Old English times and I suspect a lot of dialects of English never picked up on the (then innovative) distinction in the first place.

Tim H,
I think your observation has to do with both "there is" and "there are" having the same contraction "there's," probably because "there're" is too difficult to say.

Nenya, I think you will want to avoid the latest Lady Gaga song, "You and I."

As an editor I always correct writers who use 'over' rather than 'more than'. As in "the project cost over $100,000." It is a pet peeve of mine, as I read the word 'over' as meaning that something is physically above, rather than a greater sum.

Dahlink, thank you for the warning. "There's" a lot of lyrics that make me feel like I'm chewing on tinfoil, some even in my favorite songs.. usually I sing them "correctly" if it doesn't mess with the rhyme.. and I'm alone.

William, I think you are correct. I think people will say out loud that "there are " if they're not contracting to "there's "

My comment on infer/imply seems to have disappeared.

The matter is not as simple as you imply, or as you would have us infer either. In particular, evidence can both imply and infer a conclusion, and this has been true since both words came into English in the 1520s. See "The truth about infer" at Language Log for full details.

Nenya: in addition to the Lady Gaga song mentioned above, you'll also want to avoid Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice.

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