Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Confused words, part 3

Here's a less-than-magnificent seven pairs (or, in one case, trio) of commonly confused words.

Compose / Comprise
I made a horrible mistake on Twitter recently. I pasted a phrase from a draft report where the writer had made the common error of writing "comprises of". Then I 'corrected' it and only did half the job. 
Oops. The resulting firestorm almost got me thrown out of the International Siblinghood of Grammar Pedants. I was only saved by the fact that this was an error of vocabulary, not grammar, and the ISG is nothing if not a stickler for the rules. Still, it makes me shiver just to think about it.

If a thing is made up of other things, either "it is composed of" them or "it comprises" them (no 'of'). Similarly, the things that make up a bigger thing "compose" it. But nothing can "be comprised of" or "comprise of" anything else.

So, you can say the following:
The alphabet comprises 26 letters
The alphabet is composed of 26 letters
Twenty-six letters compose the alphabet (awkward, I know, but technically correct)
But not:
The alphabet is comprised of 26 letters
The alphabet comprises of 26 letters
If that's too hard to remember, just remember that 'of' never goes with 'comprise'.

Interment / Internment
The dead are interred. The living are interned, by becoming 'internal' to an organisation (or, in the case of the disastrous anti-terrorism policy in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, imprisoned without trial).

An interment is a funeral, where the star of the show is put in terra, i.e. in the ground. 

Phase / Faze
The British suffer more than Americans from the belief that the letter 'Z' is somehow vulgar, so they're more likely to write "unphased" when they mean "unfazed". Since a phase is a set period of time in which something specific happens, being phased should only happen to traffic lights, or possibly the villains in Star Trek. 

Raise / Raze
You've got to wonder at the logical failure of anyone who writes "raised to the ground", unless they're talking about leaving the basement. It helps if you know a bit of French: razer means to shave; but surely we're all familiar enough with razors? 

Peak / Peek
There's an irritating Twitter robot called @StealthMountain that will correct you for writing "sneak peak" instead of "sneak peek". It's had to do this more than 300,000 times in 18 months, which is about once every two minutes. I suppose it's a necessary public service, but it's annoying if you were only pointing out someone else's error. It could have been worse: the robot might have called itself @ClandestineOrgasm.

Ordnance / Ordinance
Again, one little letter makes a difference. An ordinance is an official decree, and all acts of Parliament were called ordinances during the eleven years when England was a republic (1649-60). The UK's official map-maker is often mistakenly called the Ordinance Survey - presumably people think this refers to some law - but it's actually the Ordnance Survey. Get it wrong when typing the URL and you'll end up in a fake site full of malware. 
For security reasons, this map is not available in France

Ordnance is ammunition (as in, "the battlefield was littered with spent ordnance") or artillery. Some people have suggested a sinister reason for the British Board of Ordnance getting the job of surveying the country, as if the government was planning to impose martial law (after all, the project began during the panic following the French Revolution), but the simpler answer is that the government feared an invasion and wanted to give the British artillery an advantage on any battlefield in southern England. Once Napoleon had been safely dispatched, the Ordnance went ahead and surveyed the rest of the country, since they had nothing better to do and no one was better qualified to do the job. 

Cite / Site / Sight
I always feel slightly dirty if I read a newspaper article about bad grammar and then go looking for mistakes. Hunting down errors in the comments section is even worse. It's like pornography: one has a perfectly legitimate interest in the subject, but it still feels like a cheap way of gaining fulfilment. 

There's also the danger of making a mistake yourself, so I restrained myself from correcting Ginghead. He or she had replied to a comment below a Guardian article on 'Grammar rules everyone should follow' with the following:
Ginghead's use of "sighted" might have been right, of course, if HardcorePrawn had actually seen the example he mentioned. But Ginghead insists that he can't have done so. The word he was looking for is 'cite': "to quote or refer to (a passage, book, or author) in substantiation as an authority, proof, or example" (Collins).

Sight and site, while normally nouns, can also be verbs: 'sight' as a more forceful form of 'see' while 'site' means to put in place, as in:
"As the building site came into sight, she sighted where her department was to be sited."
I'll leave it to any German-speaking readers to concoct a joke about how 'site' is a place while zeit is time. They can then argue with the theoretical physicists about whether there's really any difference. 

See also:
Nine (or eighteen) commonly mistaken words: Loose, Infer, Forgo, Empathise, Lay, Principal, Pry, Fare, Discrete
More Confused Words Dowse, Slander, Illicit, Scold, Founder, Flail
Mistaken words: couples or just good friends?  Treble, Choose, Discomfit, Last/Past, Alternate, Forbear, Cancel/Postpone, Market(place), Affect
(yes there are three, so this post is technically part 4: proof that maths fails me as often as words. Still, even the Vatican can't number its popes properly)

Moral: Feel free to set up your own Twitter robot, but don't tread on the toes, and definitely not the foothills, of @StealthMountain.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The letter L deserves some Love

Every now and then, somebody comes up with a poll for the most beautiful word in the English language. This is as gloriously pointless an exercise as I can imagine, but pointless fun is under-rated even in this post-Protestant-work-ethic world.
Joanne Whalley gives Michael Gambon the Spanish Archer

Last time I bothered to read such a survey, the surprising answer was 'elbow'. A fine rock band to be sure - and they got the idea from Dennis Potter's Singing Detective - but a curious choice for the best word in English. It's even slang for ending a relationship (also known as the Spanish Archer: El Bow - get it?). Still, it contains the unsung star of this post: the letter L. 

Not since the Muppet Show has the letter L got the praise it deserves. It's surely the most derided letter in English, at least since Shakespeare wrote "thou whoreson zed, thou unnecessary letter".

Old King Cola
I know what you're asking yourself: why is L more derided than H, U or Q? The answer lies in psychology. Remember the Pepsi challenge? (Or is it the Coke challenge? I can never remember. Regular readers of this blog already know that I only drink Rioja.) In truth, I can't remember the brand so let's just call it Coksi.

In a blind tasting, members of the public were asked to choose between cola L and cola M. They preferred cola M, and they preferred it in sufficiently large numbers to justify a major marketing campaign. The marketers weren't surprised: not because they knew their product was best but because they'd rigged the survey in a way that Derren Brown would appreciate.

This was demonstrated when someone else did exactly the same experiment but with the labels switched. People rejected Coksi in almost exactly the same numbers that they had preferred it in Coksi's own experiment. Why? Because they didn't prefer Coksi to any other cola: they preferred any letter to the letter L

Subconsciously, L is the most visually unappealing letter in the alphabet. Not only is it one of the least symmetrical, it has a yawning void in the middle. It lacks substance. It lacks anything you can grab hold of. The Coksi challenge wouldn't work in any country that didn't use the Roman alphabet.

But aurally, L is a lovely letter. The delicate flick of tongue against the teeth suggests all sorts of things. Kissing is the act of two people saying the word 'love' into each other's mouths: making the letter L with someone else's teeth. 

The letter L does some wonderful things when it follows a strong consonant: it softens and creates a sense of comfort. Look at these words:
That combination of short vowel, strong consonant and an L positively radiates comfort, security and warmth. Even the word 'Nurdle', which describes a carefully placed shot in cricket or a small blob of toothpaste, suggests delicacy and care (I don't advise you to click on that second link). 'Elbow' is good, but there's nothing quite like the consonant-L combination to make a lovely word.

Oddly, lengthening the vowel dispels the effect, leaving you with something seedy like 'sidle' or 'ogle', or Google, which as we all know is now the archetype of corporate evil.

Moral: Cuddle an L today. You'll be a better person for it.

Friday, May 10, 2013

America versus Britain

We all know that US and UK English often have different words for the same thing (gasoline v petrol, sidewalk v pavement, etc). The global presence of American entertainment means that people in the UK are familiar with most of them, and some American words are commonly used in the UK nowadays (so 'movie' seems to co-exist quite happily with 'film'). Others, such as 'furlough', didn't survive the Atlantic crossing, while many Britons have never even heard of 'maven' or 'hazing'.

But there is a more select group of words that mean one thing in Britain and another in America. It's as well to be on your guard if you don't want to be misunderstood.

First floor

Walk into an American building and you're already on the first floor. In the UK, that's called the ground floor: you have to take the stairs to get to the first floor. I've been told that for superstitious reasons American buildings sometimes missed out the 13th floor, so by the 14th floor the British would be two floors behind. Be that as it may, if you were to jump from the 14th floor of a building, the result would be pretty much the same whichever side of the Atlantic you were on. 

If you really want to get onto a different plane, I recommend the 13th Floor Lifts … sorry, Elevators.

Speaking of heights, if your captain announces that you'll be taking off "momentarily", you'd better pray you're on an American airline. The people unbuckling their seatbelts and scrambling for the exits will be British, for whom 'momentarily' doesn't mean 'in a moment', it means 'for a moment'.

This is a slightly different distinction, but one that journalists especially need to be aware of. You need to know if you're reading a British or American source, because an Imperial gallon is 20% bigger than an American one. They're both eight pints, but that's because Imperial pints are also 20% bigger. 

There's no point me listing all the conversions; you won't bookmark this page just for that. Just bookmark ConvertMe instead. It gives you every conversion at once, so if you read a suspiciously accurate-looking number, say 24.2 gallons, you'll immediately see that that's 100 litres, so it's a good guess that you're dealing with American gallons (and that 24.2 gallons is misleadingly precise for what was probably only an estimate in the first place). 

It's about two decades since Britain's most conservative newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, bowed to the inevitable and adopted the US billion (1,000 million) instead of the British billion (a million million, now generally known as a trillion). If you're more conservative than the Daily Telegraph, then the 21st Century really isn't for you.

The only reason for bringing this up is that you'll occasionally come across 'milliard', which is the old-fashioned word for what (nearly) everyone now calls a billion and is still used in many European countries. This is because Europeans take great delight in being incomprehensible to the British and Americans, going so far as pretending to have their own languages just to annoy tourists. 

Shipping and transportation
I work in the shipping industry. Being British, that means I'm involved with maritime transport (not transportation: that's the carriage of convicts to the colonies). It's an annoyance, because a web search for my industry turns up all sorts of American retailers, because for them 'shipping' simply means what the British usually call 'delivery'. This seems odd, since ships are highly unlikely to be used for delivering anything in the US, given the geography of the place and the dead hand of the Jones Act, but Americans don't have a monopoly on illogical terms, as anyone who has been to a British public (i.e. private) school will attest.

Public Schools
English public schoolboys smoking, 1980.
I often wonder what happened to Nigel Farage (left)
This seems simple, but British public schools are anything but public. These are the bastions of privilege where rich parents can send their kids in the hope that one day they'll run the country without ever having had to rub shoulders with the lower orders, all of whom go to government-run schools ("public" means that the schools are run by members of the public, not the state). 

State-run schools are called 'comprehensives'; the idea being that everyone gets a comprehensive education in everything that this week's minister of education thinks is important, based either on his experiences at a public school (if he's a Tory) or his experiences in the National Union of Students (if he's Labour, having vigorously rejected everything he learned at his own public school).

For a brief period in the 1960s and 70s, the government paid for less well-off kids to go to public schools, which is how I ended up knowing a bit of Latin, while also getting the chance to take the sort of photo (above) whose blackmail value I have never properly exploited. 

If you're going to be strict about it, one of the two uses of this word is correct and the other isn't. If you're American, you might be irritated to find that the popular American usage is technically wrong.

A 'moot point' is a point that is open to further discussion. In Anglo-Saxon England, the 'moot' was the meeting of elders and wise men (the word has the same origin as the modern English 'meet'), so a 'moot point' was a point that was to be decided at a later date. So, in British English a moot point is a matter that is undecided.

In American English, a moot point is one that is unworthy of further discussion. This developed from the moots of law societies, whose meetings never decided anything. In this sense, it mirrors the difference between the British and American uses of the verb 'table'…

In Britain, an issue that has been tabled has been put on the table for discussion. Effectively, it's a live topic. In the USA, an issue that has been tabled has been put aside, so it's a dead topic. The meanings are the complete opposite of each other. An English reader seeing the word 'tabled' in a US publication should substitute the word 'shelved', replacing one piece of furniture with another. 

Both continents use "pissed off", meaning unhappy and disillusioned. The shorter "pissed" has the same meaning in America but is quite different in Britain, where it means inebriated. This probably causes more amusement in Britain than America. For an American, getting pissed with your lawyer is the normal state of affairs. To British ears, it sounds like the entire plot of Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas.

Follow the signs into a subway in London and all you're likely to find is a tramp (or bum: see below). You might also stumble across an underground railway, but that would be a happy coincidence because a subway is just an underground road crossing.

This is a meatball, or a bundle of sticks for lighting a fire, although most Britons understand that it means something quite different in America. It is not to be confused with 'fag', which as everyone knows is a cigarette. Despite the growing intolerance shown towards cigarette smokers in the UK, smoking fags is far more anti-social in the USA.

Since this post is rapidly degenerating into a carnival of crude slang, it would be a dereliction of duty to ignore the fact that a 'fanny' is roughly the American equivalent of the British 'bum'. What Americans call a bum, the British would call a tramp. What  Americans call a tramp, the British would probably call a slut (if they were ill-mannered enough to use the word at all). 

As for the British 'fanny' … well, how can I put this delicately? If you touched an American fanny without permission, you'd probably get a slap. If you did the same to a British fanny, you'd probably get three years.

Moral: Know your audience