by Kieran Healy on April 20, 2007

From the Economist, some advice on “English As She Is Wrote”: As is usual with such lists, there’s much to agree with and a few nits to pick. A current peeve of mine — which doesn’t make the list — is the use of “incredibly” to mean “very.” There is also probably a name for the law requiring that there be several errors of style or grammar in this paragraph, but I don’t know what it is.

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Stuart 04.20.07 at 5:56 am

Acronym: this is a word, like radar or NATO, not a set of initials, like the BBC or the IMF.

Interesting, seeing as far as am I aware the usage of acronym to describe all of the above is by far the most common, it would be much rarer to seperate out BBC, IMF and the like as initialisms. If they had called it a style guide or similar that would be fair enough, but then again I have never been one for being overly prescriptive with language.


Melissa 04.20.07 at 6:09 am

There is also probably a name for the law requiring that there be several errors of style or grammar in this paragraph, but I don’t know what it is.

Hartman’s Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation states that any article or statement about correct grammar, punctuation, or spelling is bound to contain at least one eror. See Language Log:


Alan de Bristol 04.20.07 at 6:12 am

A frequent, irritating usage for sports fans who are literate is favouritism (or, rather more frequently, favoritism)being used to characterise a particular athlete or team as being generally regarded as more likely to win, particularly by those of an aleatory bent.


Backword Dave 04.20.07 at 7:14 am

There is also probably a name for the law requiring that there be several errors of style or grammar in this paragraph, but I don’t know what it is.

Healy’s Rule would be an easier name to remember.


Aidan Kehoe 04.20.07 at 7:36 am

Stuart, this acronym server agrees with you.


ejh 04.20.07 at 8:17 am



Matthew 04.20.07 at 8:49 am

Anticipate does not mean expect. Jack and Jill expected to marry; if they anticipated marriage, only Jill might find herself expectant.


Stuart 04.20.07 at 10:18 am

It makes some good points about Canute, Cassandra and Hobsons Choice though, these are almost always used in almost the opposite sense to how the original (maybe the AGW proponents should start calling themselves Cassandra’s and see if some ill-informed denialists jump on the bandwagon).


Jacob Christensen 04.20.07 at 10:36 am

Just to ask into something that, like, totally annoy me (especially when linguistic morons started using the phrase in Danish): Who was the guy who started commenting on everything?


bi 04.20.07 at 10:37 am

This is what I find the most bizarre:

“Appeal is intransitive nowadays (except in America), so appeal against decisions.”

Huh? The rest of the style guide mostly appeals to past usages, so why, in the middle of nowhere, does our author suddenly decide to worry about how a word’s normally used “nowadays”?


Jacob Christensen 04.20.07 at 10:38 am

Hmm… I think that should be …something that, like, totally annoys me…

Hartman struck again.


aa 04.20.07 at 12:09 pm

This begs the question, if blogs impact modalities of discourse? Just sayin.


Ross Smith 04.20.07 at 1:08 pm

Stuart #1: If they had called it a style guide or similar that would be fair enough…

If you look at the actual page, you’ll find they do call it a style guide.


JR 04.20.07 at 1:22 pm

The evolution of words that have specific meanings into mere intensifiers or words of praise or criticism has been going on for a long time. Incredible/Incredibly is simply one example. A few others:

Awful(originally awe-inspiring, like God or a snow-capped mountain range)
Brilliant (very bright light)
Great (large in size)
Spectacular (worth watching)
Terrible (causing terror)
Terrific (also causing terror)
Dreadful (causing fear)
Incredible (not believable, impossible, a falsehood)
Unbelievable (same)
Wonderful (causing wonder or bewilderment)
This is a process that has no end. As new intensifiers become cliched and lose their literal meanings, speakers reach out for fresh words to take their place. Eventually those words become drained of meaning and speakers reach out again for new words.


Richard 04.20.07 at 1:38 pm

OK, I’ll be the boring one. Common grammar is a Good Thing: the English language becomes a sharper instrument, capable of nicer distinctions, when we all use it in the same ways – but the kicker is, it’s a continuously-developing, consensual creation; it has many millions (perhaps milliards; lakhs upon lakhs) of users, and its fundamental purpose is to communicate at the level necessary for two interlocutors to understand each other. Exercises such as this one are both useful and arrogant (their authors arrogate to themselves the sole right to prescribe usage) – they are also fundamentally elitist: since it is certain that not everyone will follow these guides, they serve principally as shibboleths, to denote a social group; one that claims power by appealing to a conservative stability while ceding that power tacitly to a dynamic linguistic marketplace.


Matt 04.20.07 at 2:05 pm

jr- don’t forget that ‘artificial’ meant ‘according to reason’, so that James II could say of the new cathedral that it was “awful and artificial’ and have it mean a great compliment.

The nice thing about the misuse of ‘beg the question’ is that you can often turn that around in such a nice way. An example: on some blog somewhere a commentor wrote, “I believe that Steve Sailor’s work on race begs many important questions regarding immigration.” To which the only answer was, “Yes, you are certainly right that it does!”


Anon 04.20.07 at 2:56 pm

“Critique is a noun. If you want a verb, try criticise.”

Critique. From critiquer. C’est un verbe.

And picking on “incredibly”? That’s awesome.


P O'Neill 04.20.07 at 3:03 pm

I’m surprised they didn’t deal with nonplussed.


Rich B. 04.20.07 at 3:05 pm

it has many millions (perhaps milliards; lakhs upon lakhs) of users, and its fundamental purpose is to communicate at the level necessary for two interlocutors to understand each other.

Which is exactly why it is important that lists like these fight against common misunderstanding.

Any time I hear that something has increased by 200%, or there are two times more, I honestly have no idea anymore whether it doubled or tripled. It is used incorrectly about half the time, and therefore has become meaningless. Proscriptivism is sometimes needed when descriptivists drop the ball.

Times: take care. Three times more than X means four times as much as X.


Per cent is not the same as a percentage point. Nothing can fall, or be devalued, by more than 100%. If something trebles, it increases by 200%. If a growth rate increases from 4% to 6%, the rate is two percentage points or 50% faster, not 2%.


Kevin 04.20.07 at 3:41 pm

Whether you’re prescriptivist or not, surely a magazine or newspaper needs a common style guide, and I consider the Economist house style to be among the most clear and concise. They’re not telling society how words ought be used, but they are certainly telling their own writers (and writers who wish to follow their style) how they ought be used.


Bob Mutch 04.20.07 at 5:11 pm

I like lists like this. Like Kieran, I agree with some of the items (beg the question, epicenter) but wonder why some of the other things that annoy me — the use of “grow” as a transitive verb for anything but plants and facial hair, for example – aren’t included. Such lists also help me improve my own writing by pointing out words I have been using incorrectly (examples will not be provided).

Which is why I don’t understand why anyone would object to such lists as “elitist.” Or why we should think it’s OK to use words incorrectly because the language changes over time. Maybe I’m especially sensitive because I’ve spent the last 15 years or so in big corporations, which seem to me to be the chief corrupters of the language. Much business writing is done simply to fill the white space around the names of products or service offerings, not to convey information. So it’s full of fads (“leverage” as a verb, “paradigm shift”) and attention-getting terms from the sciences and the military (parameter, mission-critical), which spread fairly rapidly to the rest of society. This isn’t at all like the change in the meaning of “aweful” over a few hundred years. To make my point in businessspeak: Good writing is mission-critical and should not be suboptimized.


Stuart 04.20.07 at 5:13 pm

If you look at the actual page, you’ll find they do call it a style guide.

And they also start the table:

Some common solecisms:

sol·e·cism /ˈsɒləˌsɪzəm, ˈsoʊlə-/
–noun 1. a nonstandard or ungrammatical usage, as unflammable and they was.
2. a breach of good manners or etiquette.
3. any error, impropriety, or inconsistency.

So they call it a style guide, then call it a list of grammatical errors. Is this supposed to be irony or a genuine grammatical mistake in a page about grammatical mistakes?


Nick 04.20.07 at 6:41 pm

What’s up with the second one? I haven’t noticed many people mixing up aetiology/etiology and etiolation. Has the Economist misinterpreted the U.S. spelling of the former words as misuse of the latter word?


dearieme 04.20.07 at 7:12 pm



Matt Kuzma 04.20.07 at 9:16 pm

I disagree with everyone who has made comments decrying prescriptive language. Of course language evolves and changes and that’s a Good Thing. But there will always be those who mourn the ongoing erosion of definitions from the unique and varied to the general and synonymous. But I personally don’t consider it a proscription against change or even against common usage. Instead it is an appreciation for the more interesting flavors of words and the feeling of loss that comes when they are forgotten.

I personally am a bit saddened that “fantastic” and “awesome” have become synonyms, losing all their original flavor. That doesn’t stop me from using them as superlatives, and it doesn’t mean I yell at anyone who uses them in their more generic sense. I don’t think this site, or any style guide for that matter, is meant as a condemnation.


mpowell 04.20.07 at 10:11 pm

I will join the chorus of those here who support style guides. I think those who disagree might misunderstand the best purpose of a style guide. Richard is right that the purpose of language is to communicate. When he wrote:

“Exercises such as this one are both useful and arrogant”

I was hoping he was making a joke. Because I think creating a style guide is a little arrogant. But its also useful. Just because some words are slowly losing the precision of their meaning, does not mean that a good writer cannot reclaim that precision through consistent, accurate usage. In general, I believe this encourages readers to appreciate the particular meanings of words and can lead to better communication. Part of the challenge of a style guide is to decide between meanings that are lost to history and those that can still be reclaimed. A good style guide is carefully concerned with this issue and not overly obsessed with the past.

To disregard style guides altogether is to deny the existence of ‘good writing’. This is to say that the most appropriate writing is just whatever is average. But a good writer, considering the current usage of words and their history, can more effectively communicate his ideas, partly by deviating from the lowest common denominator.


Quo Vadis 04.20.07 at 11:01 pm

I don’t know whether it qualifies as a solecism, but the one that drives me nuts is the use of “could care less” where the speaker means “could not care less” as in: “Solecisms are awesome and I could care less what the style guide says about them”. This may be just an American thing, but it is surprisingly common.

It’s not as if the words are unfamiliar or subject to different interpretations, it’s just that the speaker is not considering the words they are using. I’ve always thought that it must be very confusing to those who haven’t been exposed to it regularly.


mollymooly 04.20.07 at 11:41 pm

18: “I’m surprised they didn’t deal with nonplussed.” I’ve never heard that misused…erm I mean used in the novel sense… Maybe it’s an Americanism the Economist doesn’t worry about. Not yet, at least: more Americanisms have crept into its copy in the last few years as it shifts its marketing and hires more U.S. writers. Soon they may even write loath instead of loth!


Keith M Ellis 04.21.07 at 1:10 am

I was surprised it didn’t include penultimate.


Richard 04.21.07 at 2:55 am

mpowell – I wasn’t joking, exactly, but I agree with you wholeheartedly.

I understand that “elitist” usually carries a negative connotation these days, but I don’t intend any such connotation and I’m certainly not decrying anything. Many social groups police their boundaries, and language is a common means of doing so. Like some other commenters, I hadn’t paid proper attention to the fact that the page in question is a writer’s style guide, so I drew the wrong conclusion and imagined that somebody was attempting to dictate to the wider audience of readers: As a writer’s guide it seems absolutely reasonable to me. Even the use of solecism (“a socially awkward or tactless act” according to WordNet) strikes me as appropriate: the authors seek only to regulate The Economist’s writers, a group for which they clearly set the bounds of polite discourse.


bad Jim 04.21.07 at 10:26 am

To any cruise accrues a crew.

A D.J. on the local classical station uses “momentarily” to mean “soon”, not just one chord from Cesar Franck’s symphony now, but the whole thing in a little while.

The entire “hopefully” solecism could be neatly searched and replaced with “happily”, were we all still of a certain seventeenth century mindset.


Hedley Lamarr 04.22.07 at 10:32 pm

I’m surprised it didn’t include Watershed.


Katherine 04.23.07 at 10:03 am

#27. The UK usage is “couldn’t care less”. I’ve always wondered about the US version myself, since it doesn’t seem to make an actual sense, when you think about it.


jay bee 04.23.07 at 1:27 pm

Impasse is the one that annoys me – I’m prepared to accept that you may be able to break it, but you can’t solve (or resolve) it – that’s why it called an impasse, despite what newpaper sub-editors seem to believe it means


Anderson 04.24.07 at 6:02 pm

Niall Ferguson must misuse “pressurize” (or “pressurise”) a dozen times in The War of the World, and that’s with my not even having finished the book. Did the man not have an editor, or has he attained the stature of “I’m Niall Ferguson, so bugger off”?


MikeN 04.24.07 at 6:16 pm


Lamentably, this controversy has risen from the grave.

Interestingly, there is a whole group of adverbs which fill the same function, namely to describe the speaker’s feelings about the subsequent statement.

Strangely, prescriptivists seem to ignore all of these except

Oddly, poor maligned “hopefully”.

Unsurprisingly, most people refuse to be deprived of such a useful term, yet

Sadly, grammar mavens proclaim their arbitrary rules

Luckily, opposing voices arise and

Happily, the forces of common-sense seem to be gaining ground, so

Hopefully, we will soon make an end of this prescriptivist nonsense.

Like mad King Canutes trying to hold back the tide, these prescriptivist Cassandras hurl their false prophecies of linguistic chaos, while, as inexorably as Frankenstein’s footprints, change comes upon them.

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