Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Mistaken words: couples or just good friends?

Since the last time I posted about mistaken words, people have asked me, "What about…?" It seems that there's a whole legion of partially paired words out there that get treated as an item when in fact they're just good friends. 

I know many people read this blog not to learn, but to affirm what they already know. They can then pass it around so that the word abusers know it's not just their geeky colleague who cringes every time they put the language through the mangle. So here are a few more words we shouldn't confuse:

He / She
It was dark and I was drunk. It could have happened to anyone. But enough about my weekend.

Treble / Triple
If you've got a high voice, it's got to be treble. If you've got three separate things of the same type, such as awards, it's always triple (triple award-winner, triple-cylinder engine). But in the sense of multiplying by three, they essentially mean the same thing. It's like frantic and frenetic: the meaning is largely the same only one of them looks a bit more posh. Imports have trebled; exports have tripled. Or the other way round; it doesn't matter.

If you use treble, people will think you're the sort of person who writes gaol and connexion. Whether you want that reputation is a matter of personal conscience.

Phase / Faze
"Ooh, look! Phase has a ph. That makes it all Greek and sophisticated, while faze has that vulgar z. I think I'll spell it phase every time and look all ejucayted." 

Smart thinking, except it's wrong. It's true that ph almost always denotes a Greek origin, and phase is no exception (this suggests that the Greeks were pronouncing it differently 2,000 years ago, or the Romans would simply have spelt their Greek loanwords with an f).

But faze is a different word altogether with a Germanic root, meaning to alarm or frighten, or possibly to discomfit. If you're unfazed, you're calm. If you're unphased, you're not organised into discrete periods of time. This unlikely to happen to you unless you're a set of traffic lights.

Discomfort / Discomfit
We get discomfort from Old French, and it means what you think it means. Discomfit, also from Old French, used to mean defeat or destroy. The two words have been converging for about five centuries, and there's not a lot of difference between them now. If you exclusively use frenetic, gaol, connexion and treble, you might as well add discomfit to your lexicon as well.

Choose / Chose
This is similar to lose/loose, even down to the '(o)ose' ending. So it's especially irksome for those who like consistency that almost everything else is different. Choose, meaning select, rhymes with lose (and bruise - remember my previous post?), while its past tense chose rhymes with nose, those, hose and hoes. Those last two are synophones, kids. If that's a new word to you, a synophone is like a xylophone, except you play it with your tongue.

Last / Past
Last year was 2011. The past year is the 12 months till now. If someone says "in the last year", ask them, "The last year of what?"

Alternate / Alternative
This probably needs an article of its own, and it will probably get one. Let's just say that alternate is not an alternative form of alternative. You can't alternate between one and the other.

Forbear / Forebear (suggested by )
My late mother is one of my forebears. It was probably bad taste to put her gravestone on a blog post, but I couldn't forbear. As with forgo and forego, fore denotes something that has gone before, like foresight or a foreword, while for suggests a restriction, as in forbid.

Market / Marketplace
This one comes in the category "let's use a longer, similar word to make our argument look cleverer". These words are not synonyms. A market is an abstract concept. A marketplace is a place where trading happens.

If you want to sell your old toys on-line, there's certainly a marketplace for them (such as eBay). But if no-one buys them, there isn't a market.

Cancel / Postpone
Anyone who was reading this blog last summer will remember me stating that – contrary to some poorly worded media reports – Tottenham Hotspur's match against Everton had merely been postponed, not cancelled. So confident was I that I went out on a limb and predicted that the game would certainly be played at some time in the coming months. Lo and behold, Spurs played Everton on 11 January and beat them 2-0. This means that either I'm a clairvoyant or I know that cancelled things never happen (such as Titanic's return voyage from New York to Southampton), while things that are postponed are merely put off to a later date (Latin: post - after, ponere - to put). 

Affect / Effect
Damn that . "If you can give me an EASY way to remember effect/affect, I'll love you forever!" she said on Twitter. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe in unconditional love. More to the point, I can't think of an easy way. Usually, affect is the verb and effect the noun, but not always. The best I can come up with, and it's pretty poor, is this:
To Affect is Action; the Effect is the rEsult
Annoyingly, effect is a verb as well, meaning to make something happen. Its most common use is in the phrase 'to effect a change'. 

If you'll let me effect another muddying of the waters, affect also has further meaning: to adopt something unnaturally. If, despite my advice, you affect 19th Century spellings such as gaol and connexion, it might be described as an affectation.

If you can come up with something better, maybe Shannon will love you forever instead of me, damn you!

Opinion / Fact
Sorry, this is the internet. All opinions on the internet are facts.

Moral: Not to be confused with morale.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Nine (or eighteen) commonly mistaken words

Is nine the right number to nibble on? I got slapped by one of my more respected followers for being neither comprehensive nor entertaining the last time I did a disambiguation list, so I've been sobbing quietly in a corner, emerging only to impersonate a police officer and insult the entire Scottish nation, 0.000077% of whom felt moved to complain to me in person (it seems Scotland isn't as homophobic as it used to be. Good for them).

So, how many of these common mistakes have you made in the past year? Award yourself a bar of chocolate, a line of powder or a quarter hour of auto-eroticism for each one you never get wrong. 

Lose / Loose
I got a few comments asking why I didn't do this last time. I invented a pretty plausible excuse that I've since forgotten, but trust me, it was a good one and would have totally convinced you. Loosing instead of losing is one of the most common written mistakes (I don't think I've ever heard anyone make the same mistake while speaking) and its capacity to irritate is matched only by sandy condoms or Stacy Solomon's speaking voice.

Loose, meaning slack or unrestrained, rhymes with goose and is almost always an adjective (except in such archaic phrases as "Loose the dogs!"). Lose rhymes with bruise. 

To lose is the present tense of lost, as well as being a town in Southern France famed for sausages and rugby (sorry, that joke only works when you say it aloud – or, as most YouTube commenters would spell it, allowed).

Imply / Infer
Imply, as near as dammit, means suggest. Infer means understand. So, when my blog is graced with the slogan "all opinions will henceforth be your opinions", I am implying that I am always right. You might infer that I'm trying to be funny, or that I'm a pompous ass, or possibly both.

Forgo / Forego
No, they're not alternative spellings (and please don't get me started on alternate versus alternative). Forgo means go without, or give something up. Forego means go before.

Sympathise / Empathise.
Dammit. Already done that one. How about…

Lie / Lay
"Lay down Sally," sang Eric Clapton as he set off on the long journey from rock god to middle-aged mediocrity. What he never explained was who should be laying Sally down. At about the same time, Bob Dylan was imploring: "Lay lady lay, lay across my big brass bed," again failing to specify what he wanted her to lay across his bed. I'm guessing an extra blanket perhaps, which would make this mid-period classic one of only a small number of pop songs directed at domestic staff. The b-side, "Could You Unblock The Kharzi Before You Go?", gets rather less airplay on the nostalgia stations.

Lie, like stand and sit, doesn't take a direct object (the confusion comes because its past tense is lay). Lay (past form laid) takes a direct object. You can't just lay. You have to lay something. Stop sniggering now. 

Principal / Priniciple
Americans have a head start on this one, on account of a head teacher being called a principal. In business too, an agent works for a principal. But in all other senses, principal is an adjective meaning most important, and is related to prince (principe in Italian). Principles, also from the same root, are fundamental beliefs. 

Breath / Breathe
Again, the rhymes are helpful here. Breath rhymes with death; breathe rhymes with seethe. You breathe the air with every breath.

Pry / Prise
Since there are two distinct words here and two distinct meanings that need to be expressed, it makes sense to keep these words separate. Sadly, the dictionaries of the world don't agree and most will allow you to use either, at least when you're opening a tin of paint or burgling your neighbours. But if you like to keep them separate, remember that prise means to open something with a lever, while pry means to take an unwarranted interest in other people's business.

Fare / Fair
These old German words have a variety of meanings, but only fare is a verb. It's related to the German fahren, meaning to travel, hence bus fare and the valedictory farewell. In English it has morphed into a word meaning something like prosper (in its neutral sense), so if you want to know how life is treating someone, you ask how they're faring. Fairing with a 'i' is an aerodynamic shield round a motorbike. 

Michael Quinion has more at World Wide Words.

Discreet / Discrete
Thanks to all who requested this one. I was in my 20s and just beginning to think I knew it all, when my brother gave me a self-printed t-shirt proclaiming the "discrete continuum probability theory of everything". "You spelled 'discreet' wrong," I oozed smugly. I can't remember his exact reply, but after removing the expletives it was something like, "Do I have to teach you English as well as Physics?" This wasn't as humiliating as when he'd dangled me out of a bedroom window as a child, but he lived in a ground-floor flat and was in a wheelchair by then, so he had to improvise.

I digress. People are discreet when they are careful and tactful. Things are discrete when they are separate and well-defined.

Moral: If you know all of these, you'll look out of place commenting on YouTube.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

When advertising slogans go wrong, part II: Stonewall

Most Londoners aren't homophobic. Get over it!
Last year I railed against BUPA for its vile Helping you find healthy advertising slogan. Nothing since then has irritated me enough to write about it, but the gay rights pressure group Stonewall is trying its best with a campaign that started running on the side of London's buses last week.

I won't bother with the usual "I'm not prejudiced" blather. Naturally I'd prefer it if you didn't think I was a homophobe who lacked the courage to say so, preferring to snipe at the wording of a bus ad, but this post isn't about what Stonewall stands for. It's about getting a message across. But if you're worried about my liberal credentials, why not copy and paste the "equal and inclusive" mission statement off some MPs website and pretend I said that?

I'd better point out that Stonewall's campaign is in support of gay marriage. It's not exactly clear because the advert seems to confuse opposition to gay marriage with hostility to homosexuality in general. I'm guessing that the tiny text in the picture is a link to Stonewall's gay marriage mini site

Moderate aggression

Stonewall's press release promoting the campaign describes it as "moderate", even though the slogan is one of the most confrontational you'll see. "GET OVER IT!" it bellows, IN CAPITALS!, with an exclamation mark JUST TO MAKE SURE YOU KNOW THEY'RE SHOUTING AT YOU! To gauge the difference in tone between this and normal advertising, imagine two slogans promoting, say, a gym.
Normal advertising: “Get the body you deserve at Goldy's Gym!”
Stonewall-style advertising: “Most people aren't as fat as you! Get some bloody exercise! www.GoldysGym.com
Let's get this straight. I know that some people are gay. I don't need to get over it and I resent being barracked as if I did. What's more, according to the latest YouGov survey (which is consistent with pretty much every survey done in the past decade), most people in the UK are equally comfortable with it:
So, three-quarters of Britons support gay marriage or its civil equivalent. London, which is where the adverts are running, has always been more cosmopolitan, liberal and tolerant than other parts of the country, so the number of supporters there must be even higher. So what is Stonewall trying to achieve by its hostile haranguing of people, 80-90% of whom already sympathise with its policies and agree with its aims?

There are a few possibilities here. One is that Stonewall is deeply insecure and is terrified of losing its minority status and oppressed image in an era of wider tolerance, because being gay isn't enough unless you're also a victim. This seems unlikely, but one never knows what subconscious thoughts drive our actions. This attitude was satirised by Little Britain's 'Only Gay In The Village' series of sketches, where Matt Lucas's character can't get over the fact that everyone seems to accept his sexuality. 

Another possibility is that Stonewall is an activist organisation, so it feels it needs to be a bit militant and stroppy. In other words, this is all about self-affirmation. That would also explain why it has recycled a four-year old slogan that doesn't really address the issue at hand.

The other possible interpretation is that Stonewall is doing what the government did 20 years ago, when posters advertising help for the unemployed were mostly put up in prosperous areas with low unemployment. This implied that the government was less concerned with helping the unemployed than with assuaging the consciences of its wealthier supporters by showing them that something was being done for the victims of their policies.

If I were gay and had some spare money to spend on making myself feel better, I wouldn't buy ads. I'd probably buy some shoes and possibly a blender (since that's what I'd buy right now, and I don't imagine turning gay would change how I cook or would make these damned shoes I'm wearing now any more comfortable). If that suggests a pathetic lack of consumerist ambition, I should point out that last time I had some spare cash, I blew it on a nice car and then used it to make myself look a complete arse in a post about accusative pronouns.

Where are the bigots?

The wording looks like Stonewall is really sticking it to the bigots and haters, but if so, why do it in London, which apart from Brighton is the easiest place in Britain to be gay? Why not take the campaign to Northern Ireland or Scotland, where religious opposition helped keep male homosexuality illegal till the 1980s? I'm sure the bigots and haters are much more numerous there than in London or Brighton. But a look at Stonewall's website shows that none of its events are taking place further north than Chelmsford.

This all suggests that Stonewall isn't interested in changing the opinions of those who oppose its aims or in galvanising people who are apathetic. The advert seems to be more about making Stonewall and its more committed supporters feel good about themselves. In other words, it's brand marketing, and in a sense there's nothing wrong with that. The problem is that it appears to be indiscriminately attacking anyone who isn't a vocal supporter instead of trying to engage them, which doesn't seem a good way of widening support for the cause. 

Moral: Polarising opinions isn't a good way to encourage universal tolerance.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Dots must be stopped!

A row has broken out on Twitter (hard to believe, I know. Twitter folk are normally so placid). The blame for this can be laid squarely at the feet of the Guardian Style Guide, which, with all the sensitivity of Liam Stacey, has provocatively declared that bullet points should always end with full stops:
@caimin: Full stop at the end of a bullet point?
@guardianstyle: Yes. Every time. Like this.
@AngrySubEditor: I disagree. If it's not a sentence, it has no right to claim a full stop. Treat them like headlines and captions.
@johnemcintyre: There go abbreviations.
@AngrySubEditor: Points in abbreviations are falling out of favour. Who writes N.A.T.O.?
@SnoozeInBrief: Rare to see them in pronounceable acronyms; less rare in say U.S.A. Still OTT though.
@caffyrelf: Woo! Fight! *pom poms*. I think US English uses full stops more than UK.
Luckily for me, I can usually impose whatever style I want. On the rare occasions when it's someone else's call, house style strangely seems to start looking like my style even when it's officially something different. And my house style is not to punctuate bullet points.

To me, they're part of the furniture, like picture captions and headlines, or, in another context, roadsigns and advertising slogans. Those don't take full stops, even if they're complete sentences, although they can take question marks. There's also my own subconscious snobbery, which seems to be telling me that all writing should resemble either a newspaper story or a novel, in which the correct form for text is the paragraph. Bullet points, on the other hand, are the calling cards of the junior marketing executive's PowerPoint presentation, Slide 3 of which usually reads like this:
  • SWOT analysis.
  • Leveraging innovative marketing solutions.
  • Optimised EBITDA. 
  • Globalized outreach.
Slide 4, of course, features a picture of a cricketer or baseball player with the caption: “Working here should always be a SLOG!!!”, preferably in a hideous font, italicised, in at least three colours. At this point, holding down your lunch is usually a higher priority than wondering whether the full stops are necessary.

I'll admit I have left them in when the author has written bullet points that are mini-essays in themselves, but such pieces are usually beyond rescue already.
The admirable John McIntyre concluded it was a “pointless discussion” (yes I got the joke too), and in a sense, he's right. Unlike the arguments about 'imply' vs 'infer', there isn't a wrong belief that needs to be countered. It's a question of style, which ultimately becomes a question of personal preference.

But that doesn't make the discussion irrelevant. One of the beauties of Twitter is that it brings together people with similar interests who can share ideas. None of us are megalomaniacs trying to impose our irrational linguistic prejudices on the rest of the world; we just want to promote a culture of clarity and graceful expression through the written word*. I've read hundreds of books and papers that were beyond reproach in terms of their correct English, but were still ugly, unreadable or unbearably dull. Correct vocabulary, grammar and punctuation are not ends in themselves. 

So, here's my rule for the smallest glyph on your keyboard. It has two functions only:
As a full stop or period, ending a sentence in body text
As a decimal point
I'll also use it as a marker between lower-case initials (i.e. and e.g. are the only common ones), but it's unnecessary and confusing for abbreviations, where it can be confused with a full stop (see SnoozeInBrief's use of U.S.A. above).

Moral: Using full stops in bullet points is just dotty.

*This goal will be achieved as soon as EVERYONE AGREES WITH ME.