About that word Comey used

There’s a lot of discussion (I’m trying to be neutral, here) about FBI Director James Comey’s use of “nauseous” in the last day or two.

Pedants will shout that he should have said “nauseated,” because “nauseous” is only and ever used to mean “capable of creating nausea” (like some fumes, or some votes in the US House. But I digress).

I freely confess that I have used that argument. When I learn about a distinction I didn’t realize before, I tend to flail about with it, as one might do with a weapon they aren’t trained in. Or I did, a few years ago. The more I learn, the more I realize that I have been a PITA (Pedant In The Ass) to some folks. This is one of those cases.

Here’s a tweet from Lisa McLendon (@MadamGrammar) with a screen shot from Merriam-Webster. The usage note clearly explains that the words are indeed interchangeable, and have been for some time. The OED dates nauseous meaning “inclined to nausea” to 1604, and meaning “causing nausea” to 1612. Dates win, in my editorial book. (I haven’t written one. Don’t ask about it.)

Here’s how I handle this these days when I see “nauseous” in an editing project. If it makes sense to me, as an editor, that a character using the word is likely to care about the distinction, I suggest that in an editorial comment. Even the august Bryan A. Garner says that the usage “is becoming so common that to call it an error is to exaggerate” (Garner’s Modern English Usage, 4th edition, 2016).

We editors have more important issues to address than to worry about whether a character smells bad and makes others sick, or smells something bad that makes them sick. It’s not as if we can’t understand the intended meaning when Comey says he feels nauseous.

 

Take it slow.

Not “slowly.”

“Slow.”

That’s a flat adverb. There’s no -ly on the end of it. There can be, sure, as “slowly,” but “slow” is used adverbially and there’s not a thing wrong with it under the right circumstances.

You’ll not find it in academic writing, or formal business writing, or legal writing. Those use a register sometimes called “frozen,” meaning there are certain expected phrasings that are  never changed. Think about the language of a church ritual (the more rigid the denomination, the more likely you’ll hear that frozen register). It’s always said this way, never that way. It’s tradition. It’s frozen in time. Part of the hubbub about Vatican II was over the loss of the frozen register, changing from Latin to English (or whatever the local language was). “It’s not said the same now!” Nope, it’s not. But it means the same thing, right? (That’s really a different topic, so I’ll stop with the digression.)

As much as I love flat adverbs, I don’t push them where they’re neither wanted nor needed. If a client uses them, I do my best to leave them alone unless, as happens in some cases, they just don’t work well. If a client doesn’t use them, far be it from me to suggest them; it’s not my voice in their work. It’s their voice. Their work. My task is to provide clarity, and changing “slow” to “slowly” is unlikely to help. Ditto for changing “slowly” to “slow” unless, maybe, it’s in dialogue and I’ve got a handle on the character’s style and it makes sense to suggest the change. Not make it. Suggest it.

Here’s a well-written article about flat adverbs, over at Daily Writing Tips. I see no reason to write another one. I’m just putting it out there for folks that I’m a proponent of them in cases where they make good sense and sound natural. Note that not all adverbs can be flat, and not all flat adverbs mean the same thing as their -ly counterparts. Here’s one example from the linked article: You can dress sharp, or you can dress sharply, but you arrive at five o’clock sharp.

Hang onto or hang on to? Well …

I’ve been asked this a few times by writers and editors alike, so I’ll see if I can answer it here. Keep in mind, this is my opinion. While it’s grounded in my research, it’s still mine. Yours might differ. That guy over there might have another idea entirely. This is how I handle the situation. Continue reading “Hang onto or hang on to? Well …”

When the right word is still the wrong word

This came up earlier today over on the Twitterthing, and it’s worth a short blog post.

There’s “erstwhile” and there’s “ersatz,” and neither one means “so-called.”

I’ve seen it happen enough times that I made a note for myself. A writer wants to use a fancier word instead of “so-called,” and they grab “erstwhile.” Trouble is, that means “formerly” or (currently, more often) “former.” What they think they want is “ersatz,” which means “substitute, replacement, fake, faux” and suchlike that there. It doesn’t mean “so-called.”

The erstwhile mayor showed up at the commemoration wearing an ersatz fur with alarmingly realistic holes as if actual moths had eaten at it.

If you want to say “so-called,” say it. Just like that. It’s legal. I swear.

#HomophoneHell: Bear and Bare

I see this error so often in both edited and unedited work, I have to write about it. As usual, it’s something I never had trouble with, so I have problems understanding why it’s so hard to get it right. I’m mean like that. However, I’ll do my best to explain. I’m helpful like that, too. Continue reading “#HomophoneHell: Bear and Bare”