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The Start of the Don’t-Do’s | July 30, 2007

I’m determined to get back in the saddle with this whole style gripe and discussion thing. Back in February, before this site got its feeble launch, Will contributed a hilarious post to Always Double Back about the list of cliches he was determined to purge from all articles that crossed his desk at Esquire. Our readers jumped in on the comments and helped us geek out a little further with other egregious examples. See that post here.

Now, inspired by the list cited in the post below, I’m going to start a list of common usage errors that I run across with disheartening frequency. Here’s a few off the top of my head; please, smarty-pants readers, jump in with ones that I’ve either forgotten or haven’t thought of. One of these days, when I have enough, I’ll pull together the whole list of errors, clumsy phrases, and cliches and spread my manifesto throughout the land so that Americans will stop sounding like such dumb-asses.

Errors of Usage:

comprise: Once and for all, five people comprise the group. The group is not “comprised of” five people!

myriad: It’s an adjective, not a noun. You don’t have “a myriad of” choices, you have myriad choices. I rejected an intern once for getting this wrong in her letter of application.

Update: Sendhil points out below, and Webster’s 11th backs him up, that this apparently is okay to use as a noun, but I still can’t bring myself to agree. The first definition is (noun) ten thousand (but I wouldn’t say “a ten thousand of”). The consensus seems to be that both are correct, but I just can’t accept that–it just looks and sounds wrong to me as a noun. Then again, I once had strong feelings about split infinitives, and now I allow them when the alternative would sound too stilted. Perhaps it will be so with this.

further/farther: Further applies to more abstract concepts (to further one’s career); farther applies to distance. I can’t believe how many people get this wrong.

principle/principal: Again, these are shamefully misused. A principle is something you believe in. A principal is someone to whose office you’re sent when you’ve been caught smoking in the bathroom.

who/whom: Who is the subject, whom is the object. Why is this considered to be such a complicated concept?

impact: This is my mom’s favorite. I will allow that you can have an impact on something, although that veers into lame cliche territory. But if you start talking about impacting stuff, you’d better mean that you’re squashing it into a tiny little cube or something. In my last job, I often had to purge the made-up atrocity “impactful” from various reports and speeches.

that/which: Most common misuse throughout academic writing. “That” introduces dependent clauses and “which” introduces independent clauses. As with who/whom, this stymies people as if it were advanced calculus.

decimate: Latin class! To decimate means to reduce by one in ten–this is often significant, but it’s not the total wipe-out that people mean when they misuse this word.

where/when: Seriously, how could someone mess these up? “Where” refers to places, “when” refers to time. Why, then, do I so often see something like “there was this time where I was so embarrassed”?

who/that: “Who” refers to people, “that” refers to objects. It makes my skin crawl when people refer to their friends that are so much fun.

I’m getting tired of typing now, but there will be much more where this came from. Please contribute your own peeves in the meantime.



  1. I’ve got to argue with you on a couple of these… but I fear reprisal so I’m going to stick to my numerical home territory.

    myriad: Derives from the Greek murioi, which specifically meant 10,000 (and reminds me of a subplot I really love in “A Suitable Boy” by Vikram Seth). It’s a noun as well as an adjective, and Oxford backs me up on this.

    decimate: means to whack one in ten (in English a couple centuries ago, it was used to describe tithing). Actually, maybe I’m agreeing with you here, but it wasn’t clear from my parsing of your sentence.

    Comment by Sendhil — July 31, 2007 @ 2:28 am

  2. Oops, I used bad math language–I did mean reduce by a tenth. It’s corrected now. And I addressed “myriad” above. I’m grudgingly conceding, but not agreeing!

    Comment by redsquirrel — July 31, 2007 @ 11:54 am

  3. Yes, I had one prof in college who loathed the word myriad. Anyway, I have a funny link for you,

    I was telling Jason about the recent grammar post from your blog & he started telling me about the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. It’s put on by the English Dept. at San Jose State Univ. and the point is to construct the worst sentence ever to open up a novel. You don’t have to write a novel, just come up with a horrible first sentence (most entries have tons of commas) that would give you the gist of the tale. I thought this might be humorous given your job, but then again, it could just be plain out right tortureous.

    Comment by bookwormbethie — July 31, 2007 @ 2:13 pm

  4. oh, then & than, it bothers me when people mix those up.

    Comment by bookwormbethie — July 31, 2007 @ 2:16 pm

  5. Wait. The group comprises five people is yet more accurate.

    Comment by Hillary — July 31, 2007 @ 8:47 pm

  6. Mmm, not sure I agree with that–my preferred usage is the connotation of composition, whereas yours seems to be more one of inclusion.

    Comment by redsquirrel — July 31, 2007 @ 9:03 pm

  7. I think Hillary is right–according to Strunk & White, “comprise” literally means “embrace.” The example is, “A zoo comprises mammals, reptiles, and birds…but animals do not comprise a zoo–they constitute a zoo.”

    Comment by willenvelope — August 1, 2007 @ 4:11 pm

  8. I’ve used it both ways, depending on context. I still prefer the composition use, though.

    Comment by redsquirrel — August 1, 2007 @ 5:01 pm

  9. Yeah, Web 10 (I don’t have Web 11 in front of me) says either way is okay, although some may see that as a sell-out:

    “Our current evidence shows a slight shift in usage: sense 3 [COMPOSE, CONSTITUTE] is somewhat more frequent in recent literary use than the earlier senses. You should be aware, however, that if you use sense 3 you may be subject to criticism for doing so, and you may want to choose a safer synonym such as COMPOSE or MAKE UP.”

    Comment by willenvelope — August 1, 2007 @ 5:22 pm

  10. Yeah. Basically, I love the “embrace” meaning, and I think it’s the real function of the word. It’s handy to have around as a synonym for “include” (e.g., the exhibition comprises works by [list of famous artist]). And if you’re going to use it for “make up,” there are a lot of other ways to say that.

    Let me contribute a perhaps weird peeve of my own: I don’t like “help to,” as in “help to compose vivid prose,” and I almost always mark it out.

    Comment by Hillary — August 2, 2007 @ 7:50 pm

  11. Good one–just a few minutes ago, I jotted down “may serve to assist in helping,” from an MS I have in front of me today. Why couldn’t he have just said “may help”? Actually, let’s just add “serve to” to the list along with “help to.” It’s not wrong, but it’s superfluous about 90% of the time.

    Comment by redsquirrel — August 2, 2007 @ 9:06 pm

  12. How about “less” and “fewer”, as in “Less than 10 items at this register.” Once in a great while I’ll see a sign that says “Fewer than . . . ” Fewer dollars = less money.

    Comment by momsquirrel — August 9, 2007 @ 11:15 pm

  13. “decimate” is only used to mean “reduce by a tenth” when it refers to Roman military discipline. In every other attested case, it is used to mean “destroy a great number of.” OED editor Jessie Scheidlower wrote:

    “The only sense that’s ever been common in English is the figurative ‘to destroy a great number, proportion, or part of’, first found in the mid seventeenth century. Despite repeated claims that this sense is erroneous, on the grounds that decimate should only refer to a destruction of one-tenth, that is how the word is used. In fact, it seems to be the only way the word is used; despite the insistence of various usage critics, a real example of decimate meaning ‘to destroy one-tenth of’ has never to my knowledge been found in actual running text.”

    In standard written English, “which” is used to head restrictive clauses. In fact it might be used more often than that to head restrictive clauses.

    Each sentence is a combination of two statments which might have been made independently. – Elements of Style

    …the premature expiration of a pig is, I soon discovered, a departure which the community marks solemnly on its calendar – E.B. White, “Death of a Pig”

    Comment by morphail — August 10, 2007 @ 5:53 pm

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