Language Notes

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Six Language Quibbles
by Lionel E. Deimel

No doubt, I am troubled by people’s use of language more than the average person. Bad usage can stop me dead in my tracks when reading a passage. I am also distressed by certain common locutions that really don’t make sense. (“I could care less” comes readily to mind.)

Of course, the very notion that there is such a concept as wrong usage is controversial. There surely is a legitimate distinction between standard and nonstandard usage in intellectually serious discourse. Moreover, “bad” usage can create a bad impression, like it or not!

The English language—the American dialect really—offers many pitfalls to ensnare its users. Below, I consider problematic language issues that have bothered me of late. My complaints and advice here are not necessarily original, but I hope you will find them useful or, at the very least, amusing.

 

Are Two Words Really Necessary?

Consider the words preventive and preventative. Both words are derived from prevent, and both words mean exactly the same thing. In fact, Merriam-Webster defines preventative simply as “preventive.” As adjectives, these words mean related to prevention (e.g., preventive maintenance). As nouns, they mean something that prevents (e.g., the gasoline additive was intended as a preventative). Merriam-Webster traces both words to the seventeenth century, with preventive being a few decades older. Perhaps preventative was coined in ignorance of the existence of preventive.

I suspect that preventive is more common, but both words appear to be in wide use. Perhaps one or the other dominates in particular fields. In an essay on its Web site, Merriam-Webster avoids choosing between the two words, pointing out that they sometimes both occur in the same document.

Safopedia, a Web site devoted to the environment, health, and safety (EHS) issues, asks “What does Preventative Maintenance mean?” and proceeds to offer an explanation that uses the word preventive without using the word preventative at all! Go figure. The aforementioned essay ends with this advice: “We advise you to use the word which speaks to your heart. Or emulate Daniel Defoe, and use both.”

On the other hand, my standard authority for all things linguistic, The Chicago Manual of Style, in its seventeenth edition, opines: “Although the corrupt form preventative is fairly common, the strictly correct form is preventive” [section 5.250]. How’s that for a definitive pronouncement?

Personally, if I need an adjective, I always use preventive. I don’t often need to use either word as a noun, but I might prefer preventative in that context. Nevertheless, the advice of The Chicago Manual might give me pause.

It is curious that these words have coexisted for so long. Longevity and brevity arguably favor preventive, but the use of preventative is unlikely to be extinguished anytime soon.

 

Me First

I was taught that, when referring to myself and others, the reference to myself should come last. (The accident was witnessed by John and me.) I’m not sure whether this convention was intended as a simple courtesy or an expression of modesty, whether real or false. It was, however, one of those hard-and-fast rules promulgated and enforced by English teachers. Educated speakers and writers were expected to abide by it.

Sadly, this convention is increasingly being ignored, and not just by the careless and uneducated. Today, one can hear even well-educated people putting me first (e.g., The accident was witnessed by me and John.) Worse still, people who should know better are not only inverting the canonical order but are also using the objective case where the nominative case is called for (e.g., Me and John witnessed the accident.) I have no idea why this is happening. Perhaps English teachers have become timid, afraid that absolute rules will offend this or that ethnic group. In any case, the more we encounter the me-first construction, the more common it will become, courtesy or modesty be damned.

 

Very Likely Before

Another locution that disturbs my equilibrium is the use of phrases such as “before he died” when the person being spoken of is clearly dead (e.g., He made a promise to his daughter before he died). Is it really necessary to add “before he died”? Is it possible (or even conceivable) that such a promise was made after he died? This sort of redundancy is common in press stories.

I was reminded of it this peculiarity by a New York Times story (“Jayme Closs, Missing Wisconsin Girl, Is Found; Man Is Accused in Kidnapping”). Thirteen-year-old Jayme Closs went missing for months after her parents were murdered. The Times helpfully reported: “Mr. Patterson [the suspected murderer and kidnapper] had once worked at the same turkey plant that Jayme’s parents, James and Denise Closs, worked at for years before their deaths [emphasis added].”

The Times was updating a situation that had been in the news for months. At last, the missing girl had been found and found alive. The story began with the sentence: “When Jayme Closs, 13, vanished on the night that her parents were fatally shot in their rural home, scores of law enforcement officials converged on western Wisconsin.” Six paragraphs later, it is likely that readers remember that Jayme has been orphaned. Could any reader imagine that James and Denise Closs worked at a turkey plant after they died? I think not.

Journalists should avoid such unnecessary “clarifications.”

 

Just in Case

One of my favorite programs on NPR is Fresh Air, Terry Gross’s interview show. Fresh Air interviews are long and are interrupted by breaks for information or promotions from local NPR stations. After such a break, Terry invariable says, “If you’re just joining us, my guest is so-and-so.”

As someone who has studied formal logic, this drives me up the wall. While it’s true that the guest is so-and-so if you’ve just begun listening to the program, the guest is almost certainly still so-and-so even if you aren’t just joining the program. Terry’s introduction isn’t strictly false, though it is technically odd. Why not say something like: “For the benefit of those just joining us, my guest is so-and-so.” Simpler  would be: “My guest today is so-and-so.” It isn’t a problem if, for some listeners, this information is redundant. In fact, listeners may even appreciate being reminded.

 

Both

A phrasing I frequently encounter in news reports is subtly problematic. Consider this example I heard recently: “Both are accusing each another.” (This might also have been: “Both are accusing one another.”) The intended meaning is clear, namely that two parties are involved and each is accusing the other of something, possibly the same thing. For most people, this both … each other construction sets off no alarn bells. It does for me, however, though it was not immediately clear to me why it should.

Consider the sentence mentioned above. The opening word both telegraphs that an identical statement is being asserted regarding two parties. Call the parties A and B. The statement means that something is true of A, and the same thing is true of B. In particular, we are saying that A is accusing each other, and B is accusing each other! Alas, that doesn’t make sense!

What is meant is that A is accusing B, and B is accusing A. Either of the following would be a more satisfying way of packaging this information in a simple sentence: (a) Both are accusing the other. or, preferably, I think, (b) Each is accusing the other.

The both … each other construction is just plain wrong, though its use continues. The latest instance of this sort of construction I’ve encountered is this one: “They’re both buried together.”

 

Like a System

Have you noticed that the word systematic has virtually disappeared in ordinary discourse? In its place, we nearly invariably find systemic, a word that somehow sounds more scientific.

Both words derive from system, of course, but they are not really synonymous. The word system entered the language in the seventeenth century, and systematic developed a few decades later. On the other hand, systemic is a nineteenth-century word.

The Chicago Manual of Style is particularly helpful in distinguishing these two words. (See section 5.250 again.) “Systematic means ‘according to a plan or system, organized methodically, or arranged in a system.’” Systemic, on the other hand, refers to something involving the whole of something, especially the body, as in systemic infection. Systemic may also be applied when considering the whole of, say, an organization, such as a corporation. We can say that discrimination in hiring at the company is systematic, but it isn’t systemic. On the other hand, we could say that discrimination throughout the company is systemic.

Whenever you are thinking of using the word systemic, consider whether the proper word to use isn’t systematic.

— LED, 3/4/2019, rev. 3/12/2019

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