Holding the line

The Baltimore Sun

A BBC article this week on language issues quoted me briefly on who/whom, but you already know what I think about that. Some of the other issues mentioned in the article, though, are worth considering as we consider where we want to draw the line.

Begs the question for prompts the question or invites the question is, I say with regret, a lost cause. When I see a reference to a question-begging argument, I am confident that the reader, even one not familiar with the term from logic, can figure out that the writer is talking about defective reasoning. But beg the question for invite the question is, Bryan Garner sadly notes, ubiquitous. Save your powder for a battle you can win.

I doubt that forming a British square is going to be much defense for bemused or nauseous either. If you use the former to mean bewildered, you are apt to leave your readers, you know, bemused. Mr. Garner calls nauseous for nauseated "so common that to call it an error would be to exaggerate," though he would like us to hold the line in formal writing. Good luck with that.

Tara Finnegan Coates wrote me the other day to ask about notoriety: "To me it has always had a negative connotation. I always hear people say this in tribute to someone who has achieved great fame and is well respected. When I hear it, I feel like notoriety doesn't do people justice and it almost diminishes the compliment they are trying to convey. Am I wrong?" 

She is not wrong. Notorious does not carry a positive charge. When J. Edgar Hoover called Martin Luther King "the most notorious liar in the country," he was not pronouncing an encomium. The people who get notorious wrong also tend to think that infamous is an intensive of famous. I suppose that confusion of fame and infamy in the age of the Kardashian sisters and Jersey Shore was inevitable, but the trashiness of our celebrity culture isn't sufficient cause to abandon the traditional senses of those words.

I'm not letting go of imply/infer either.

It is not easy for a moderate prescriptivist to maintain a proper balance. Those old hard-shell dicta echo in the head for a long time. I still dislike hopefully as a sentence adverb and host as a verb, and do not use them myself, except to make a point.

Last night, a reference to an agreement being inked popped up in a Sun article, and I promptly swatted the little insect. I would have done the same with authored. As an editor, I am enjoined to maintain an appropriate register of language for publication and subject, and I exercise those aesthetic preferences without apology.

That does not, however, mean that I universalize those preferences, or refuse to measure them against the larger language and periodically re-evaluate them.


Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad