You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

Another crotchet to cross off your list

The Baltimore Sun

Word does not always travel instantaneously online, and some people found themselves exercised this weekend to learn that the Associated Press Sytylebook dropped the over/more than distinction over four years ago.*

As it happened, it was also on the past weekend that another extinct crotchet came to my attention when a colleague asked if an eke out construction was legit. Those of you who are over, say, fifty, can prepare themselves for irritation while those under fifty can marvel that people once spent time on this at work.

Eke is a very old verb in English, from before the twelfth century, meaning “to increase,” “to lengthen,” essentially to stretch a limited quality by frugality, or add a small amount to a quantity, in the sense that pensioners have to eke out their food or their money until the end of the month.

Fowler, Bernstein, Bryson, and Barzun are among the authorities whom Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage lists as insisting that this medieval sense is the One True Usage of the verb. They object strenuously to eke out in the sense of “accomplish with difficulty,” as when a sports team ekes out a victory against odds.

MWDEU suggests that the “accomplish with difficulty” sense has been predominant since—wait for it—the 1950s. Jeremy Butterfield’s Fowler 4 says that both usages are standard.Garner’s Modern American Usage concurs, though Bryan Garner deplores the tendency among sportswriters to dock the phrasal verb eke out to speak of a team eking back into contention, in the sense of “squeaking.” (Sportswriters are outside of my domain, and they are as glad of it as I am.)

To sum up: If eke out has been on your watch list, you may safely delete it; if it has not been, you will never need to trouble yourself about it.

 

 

*I’m not going to waste a lot of time plowing this terrain again: Over in the sense of more than has been in English as long as English has been English; you can look it up in the OED. The distinction was invented by nineteenth-century American journalists and perpetuated by Ambrose Bierce and subsequent fussbudgets. No one but American journalists has ever paid any attention to it. Garner’s Modern English Usage calls it “a baseless crotchet.” If you have been pinning your professional reputation on your enforcement of this utterly artificial dog-whistle edit, you might want to keep your mouth shut about it. 

And yes, the use of over in the sense of more than in the first two paragraphs of this post was entirely intentional.

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