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Your interest in distinctions

On Carol Saller’s invaluable advice, I’m going to drop the practice at this blog of bracketing case changes in quotations, because it “borders on pedantry and can get in the way of reading.” See at Lingua Franca what she says about changes that are permissible to make in quoted matter.

At Arrant Pedantry, Jonathon Owen quotes Steven Pinker as lamenting the erosion of the sense of disinterested as “impartial”—not having a personal interest in the outcome, no dog in that fight.*

But Mr. Owen points out that disinterested has swung back and forth between “unbiased” and “bored” for the better part of three centuries, indicating that no clear distinction ever existed. His suggestion dovetails with my own inclination: If you want to use disinterested to mean “impartial,” and you can, make sure that your meaning is firmly established in context.

His larger point deriving from this example is that we should be cautious about the distinctions we champion. He quotes his adviser, Don Chapman: “Often the claim that a distinction is useful seems to rest on little more than this: if the prescriber can state a clear distinction, the distinction is considered to be desirable ipso facto.”

In the original text, often is not capitalized, but I have paid attention to Carol Saller.


*Someone from PETA will be writing to upbraid me for using an expression that alludes to dog fighting. For the record I do not advocate, participate in, or condone dog fighting.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:58 AM | | Comments (6)


Sigh--there is almost nothing more wonderful than being paid attention to. Thanks, John.

Prof. McI.,

Aside from the very remote possibility of a reactionary PETA flap, surely one Mr. Michael Vick, NFL quarterback at large, WON'T be taking you to task over your "no dog in that fight" remark.

Hmm............ I guess we should really cut this former convicted canine abuser/ killer some slack, as he's appears, of late, to have righted his moral compass to some degree, in this regard.

Yet I'm quite certain that there are legions of pooch-loving skeptics out there who strongly doubt his avowed contrition, and alleged new-found affection for man's best friend. But I digress.

As I vaguely recall, I believe it was Woody Allen's hapless schlub character in "Take the Money and Run" who was hoping his girlfriend's expressed "disinterest" in him was borne out of her obvious propensity for playing the field, her seeming "impartiality", if you will, rather than disinterest translated as abject boredom, in their going-no-where, listless, lustless short-lived relationship.

Let's face reality........ either way Woody was royally screwed. (Figuratively speaking, of course. )

Disclaimer Alert! ------This cinematic fiction was brought to you by Zelig Pictures........ "Where being EVERYWHERE is half the fun".

Say goodnight, Gracey.


P.S.: Has anyone out there seen Woody's latest filmic creation, "Midnight in Paris"?

>"drop the practice at this blog of bracketing case changes"

Those grad-school habits are tough to break, but ... point taken. :-)

I suppose the simple fact of citing someone by name is a convention that's both sufficient and, it seems, more uncommon than it should be.

As always, thanks for the link, John.

And to further show what ridiculous lengths people take "useful" distinctions: I was once involved in an online discussion wherein people suggested differentiating between "theatre" and "theater". One person suggested that the former should refer to live performance, while the second should refer to movies. Another suggested that the former should refer to the art, while the latter should refer to the building wherein it is performed. Other people responded by claiming that these rules made sense. (Note that in both cases, the British spelling was assigned to the more prestigious meaning.)

There's a widespread impulse to try to assign different meanings or functions to different forms. That is, if two forms exist, people will try to come up with a difference between them. I believe that people will naturally use the distinctions that are truly useful. The ones that take extra enforcement are usually contrivances that do not do much real work.

For many, it seems, if there is a difference in spelling, no matter how trivial, there must be a distinction in meaning. On separate occasions, in my work as an editor, I have had to persuade writers that there really was no difference in meaning between "aesthetic" and "esthetic" or between "postcolonial" and "post-colonial."


You are spot on re/ the terms "aesthetic" and 'esthetic", essentially sharing the same meaning.

And it follows that an aesthete", and an "esthete" are kind of peas-in-the- same-pod, in that they both have expertise in, and great appreciation of all things deemed beautiful, or artful in our world.

However, there is often a derogatory attachment attributed those who overly tout themselves as "aesthetes" (or "esthetes"), generally coming off as more dilettantish know-it-all types re/ all things relative to quality in the area of art, style, or taste.

The late high-profile, very flamboyant critic Mr. Blackwell, who would assess the best-and-worst dressed celebs at those glitz & glam pre-event Hollywood red carpet ceremonies for TV onlookers, comes to mind. I'm sure he saw himself as an "aesthete" of the first order, but IMHO, he often times came off as just a plain 'ass'.......... forget the 'thete' bit. (But let's not talk ill of the dearly departed.)

As a professional artist, I tend to come cross the term "aesthetic" (and "esthetic") in my sundry readings quite frequently, usually in the domain(s) of art criticism, or the philosophy of art., w/ writers like E.H. Gombrich, Susan Sontag, Rudolf Arnheim, Robert Hughes, Thomas Hoving, and their ilk; even the musings on fine art by the late, popular American writer John Updike*, touch on the aesthetic.

* I highly recommend Updike's little non-fiction work, "Just Looking: Essays on Art" for a terrific, insightful read, from a beloved man of American letters---essayist/ novelist. Yet he clearly had a keen sense of, and appreciation for the visual arts---a genuine, unassuming aesthete---- which reflected to a great degree in the visually descriptive richness of many of his literary works.

(Interestingly, Updike, as a very young kid, and well into his teen years, aspired to be a cartoonist, and apparently was a fair-to-middling amateur caricaturist and comic artist. The writer Tom Wolfe also had formative dreams of the cartoonists' life, and has actually published a few books of his cartoony illustrations over the years. Wolfe, being a bit of a sartorial dandy, w/ his signature starkly white suites, and white fedora likely falls into the flamboyant aesthete category. Just sayin'.)


P.S.: --------I just picked up the actor/ playwright/ standup comic/ banjo player Steve Martin's new novel. "An Object of Beauty", and am finding it quite an engaging, lively read, thus far. (Just thru Part 1......... maybe 14 short chapters in all)

Martin is somewhat of a self-taught "aesthete" in his own right, having had an abiding fascination and love of the plastic/ visual arts since his youth.(Magic, as well.)

Many are aware that he has become a well-respected, serious collector of mainly modernist artworks, and a high-end art gallery habitué, which appears to have given him a sound grounding for this, his second published novel to date.

Martin seems to have taken that old (default) 'saw' for neophyte scribes to heart, i.e., "Write what you know", w/ this latest fiction effort.

His moderately successful play, "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" obviously had an art/ artist-driven theme, as well.

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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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