If to err is human, then writing a blog is a most human endeavor. Tight deadlines and late-night drafting sessions ensure that mistakes infiltrate even carefully composed posts. It is a painful exercise for me to review old posts and see the errors that managed to make it onto my site.
In my best efforts to try to avoid mistakes, I try to read my draft posts very carefully (or as carefully as I am able at the late hours at which I am usually composing my posts). Over time, I have developed reading habits that I now carry over to all of my reading. Through this process, I have noticed a number of recurring writing errors that I have outlined below.
I have acknowledged the many errors in my own writing here to assure readers that my comments below about writing are not just the pedantic rant of some self-appointed grammar scold. I offer my observations here with all due humility and in recognition that we all make mistakes, I offer these observations in the hope that others might find them helpful. In this post, I concentrate on word choice errors. Perhaps in a later post I will come back to grammatical errors.
Sometimes when I am reading along I will see a word so completely misplaced that I wonder what in the world the author was thinking – or whether the author was thinking. Just yesterday morning I read this sentence on a blog that I follow: “Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito dominated the questioning of the water district’s counsel, Paul Wolfson, and appeared exacerbatedby Mr. Wolfson’s argument that the property owner must accept a conditional permit to be able to challenge the condition as violative of Nollan and Dolan.” Don’t you hate it when Supreme Court Justices get “exacerbated” in public? I suspect (although I am not entirely certain) the author meant to say that the two Justices were “agitated.”
The preceding example illustrates the kind of word usage errors to which all of us are prone. Here are some recurring word choice mistakes I have noted where the context makes it clear that the author intended to use another word. I am sure some of these errors are Auto Correct blunders, while others are the product of simple inattention. Some of the boo-boos are doozies.
Tenant/Tenet: A “tenant” is a person who has a lease. A “tenet” is guiding principle or doctrine. So when I want to refer to a matter of belief, I might use the phrase “a fundamental tenet.” If I were instead to use the phrase “fundamental tenant,” I would be referring to someone who pays a lot of rent.
Marquee/Marquis: The sign that projects out from the façade of a movie theater is a “marquee.” A “marquis” is a nobleman ranking below a duke but above an earl or count. So a featured product or attribute is a “marquee product” or a “marquee attribute.” I guess a “marquis product” would be something made by the British aristocracy.
Clique/Click: A “clique” is a small, exclusive group. A “click” is a small, sharp sound. If you are a member of a “clique,” you are smug and self-satisfied. If you are a member of a “click” you are in the sound-making business. (I can’t believe that anyone could make this mistake, but I recently saw it in an angry letter-to-the-editor).
Tack/Tact: One of the meanings of the word “tack” comes from sailing, and means to change the boat’s direction relative to the wind by shifting the boat’s sails. The sailing term has come to be used metaphorically. For example, when someone changes their approach to a situation, we might say they are “taking a different tack.” The word “tact” refers to a sense of propriety. I recently read a legal essay in which the author said that “the defendant’s counsel decided to try a different tact.” Maybe the lawyer started holding his tea cup with his little pinky raised?
Rein/Reign: A “rein” is a leather strap attached to a bridle and used to lead a horse. A “reign” refers to the period during which a sovereign occupies the throne. These words get mixed up when somebody is trying to say that he or she wants to control something the way they might control a horse (as in “I am going to have to rein him in”) but instead they use the word “reign” and thereby inappropriately invoke the monarchy.
Tortious/Tortuous/Torturous: I would say that about half the time anyone uses any one of these three words, they actually meant to use one of the other two. The word “tortious” is a legal term, which essentially means of or pertaining to a tort or wrong. “Tortuous” means full of twists or turns, as in “a tortuous path.” The word “torturous” means causing torture or suffering. The most common confusion of these words occurs when a non-lawyer intends to use the word “tortious.” I have a very simple suggestion on how to avoid confusing these three words. That is, if you didn’t already know the difference between these three words before you read this blog post, then you should just avoid using any of these three words altogether.
Reticent/Reluctant: There appears to be a common misconception that the word “reticent’ is simply a highfaluting form of “reluctant.” Though the two words are somewhat similar, they are not equivalent. The word “reticent” means to be disposed to be silent. The word “reluctant” means unwilling or disinclined. It does not make sense to say that someone is “reticent to get involved.” Here’s my advice: If you feel the urge to use the word “reticent,” just say “shy.” Why use three syllables when one will do just fine?
Waive/Wave (Waiver/Waver): A “waiver” is an intentional relinquishment of a known right. A “waver” is somebody saying goodbye to a loved one at the airport. When you “waive” your rights, you are agreeing not to assert them. When you “wave” your rights, you are trying to dry them off in the breeze.
Council/Counsel: These words get conflated when someone is trying to refer elliptically to a lawyer or to legal advice. The word “counsel” can be used as a noun or as a verb; that is, it can be used to describe an advisor or to describe advice. A “council” is an assembly of persons gathered for deliberations. Near my house when I was a child, there was a Catholic church called “Our Lady of Good Counsel.” By contrast, the moniker “Our Lady of Good Council” refers to a popular assemblywoman. Anyway, if you are referring to a lawyer or to legal advice, the word to use is “counsel.” To avoid confusion, just say “lawyer” or “advice” and be done with it.
Advice/Advise: The confusion of these two words somehow feels like a blood relative to the confusion of council and counsel. When a lawyer counsels you, she is advising you. When a lawyer gives you her counsel, she is giving you her advice. Here’s how to keep them straight: “advise” is a verb and “advice” is a noun.
Site/Cite: A “site” is a location. A “cite” is a reference or quotation. This blog is a web site. When I refer to a legal case on this site, it is a cite to that case. I try to keep this distinction in my sights.
Used to/Use to: The confusion of these two short phrases use to bother me, but then I got used to it.
When Words are Lacking: It is one thing to confuse words, but it is an entirely different problem when there are no words. An anecdote will illustrate the problem.
Like many newlyweds, when I was newly married I was unsure how to address my new mother-in-law and father-in-law. I wanted to use their first names, but that seemed a little bit forward at that point. I decided I would just ask them how they wanted me to address to them, in the hope that they would then authorize me to use their first names. In making this calculation, I did not make sufficient allowances for the peculiarities of the specific people I was dealing with. (I know better now.) My mother- in- law, a scholar of Chinese art, said that the Chinese have words for everything, and they even have words for a son- in- law to use to address his mother- in- law and father-in- law. She suggested that I use these Chinese words to address them. If I recall correctly, the words were something like “kung-kung” and “tai-tai.” She wasn’t kidding. (I didn’t learn the Chinese words, but I did learn something important about my new in-laws.)
The point of this story is that there are a lot of things for which there are no words in English, such as forms of address for a son-in-law to use when addressing his father-in-law or a mother-in-law. As illustrated in this January 8, 2013 article from The Atlantic, there are also many emotional states and circumstances for which other languages have names but for which there are no English equivalents. My personal favorite from this list is “Backpfeifengesicht (German): A face badly in need of a fist.”
Once you get started, apparently there are a lot of things for which are no words in English and there are a lot of lists of words in foreign language for which there are no English equivalents. I have linked here and here to a couple of the better lists. Here is a good example from one of the lists: “Zeg (Georgian): It means ‘the day after tomorrow.’ Seriously, why don’t we have a word for that in English?”
And Now, A Complete Waste of Time: On the website for Abbey Road Studios, the studios have a page with a live webcam feed of the street crossing that the Beatles made famous with their Abbey Road album cover. The camera is set up at a reverse angle from the album cover shot, but if you watch the webcam feed for a few minutes during the daytime you will see various people in the crosswalk trying to take pictures of their group striking the album cover road crossing pose. I watched for about ten minutes yesterday morning and saw several different groups of people trying to capture the album shot. Click here if you want to watch the webcam feed -- but only if you are prepared to waste the next quarter of an hour. (Another day I will write the essay about our amazing modern technology and the ridiculous ways we use it.).