3 Cases of Distracting Usage

By Mark Nichol

Word choice is problematic when the sense of a selected word, when read in association with another word, creates a diversion for the reader that distracts from the content. Here are three sentences with distracting words, along with solutions for revising them to avoid the distraction.

1. “He turned heads in scientific circles when he proposed that climate change is the driving force in human revolution.”
The association of the past tense of the idiom “turn heads,” which means “draw sudden attention,” with the phrase “scientific circles,” a figure of speech in which the plural form of circle refers to a broad community of people with a common interest, unfortunately suggests that the subject caused the heads of his colleagues to rotate in a scientific manner. Revise one expression or the other: “He turned heads in the scientific community when he proposed that climate change is the driving force in human revolution” or “He attracted attention in scientific circles when he proposed that climate change is the driving force in human revolution.”

2. “The redrawn logo has drawn criticism.”
The proximity of the adjective redrawn, which refers to the act of drawing an illustration over again, and the use of drawn as a verb to mean “attracted” creates an unintentionally humorous collision of ideas. Again, reword the adjective or the verb: “The revised logo has drawn criticism” or “The redrawn logo has attracted criticism.”

3. “An Ohio city will settle a lawsuit over 911 calls.”
Because over is often used in place of “more than” to mean “an excess of,” the reader may momentarily assume that the number 911 is an amount rather than a sequence of digits that constitute a phone number. Replace over with another word (“An Ohio city will settle a lawsuit regarding 911 calls”) or, better, provide unambiguous details: “An Ohio city will settle a lawsuit regarding emergency 911 calls” or “An Ohio city will settle a lawsuit regarding calls made to 911.”

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12 Responses to “3 Cases of Distracting Usage”

  • Karla Marsh

    Number 3 made me think (for a nanosecond) that they were all going to call each other on 911 to settle the lawsuit.

  • Kate O’Connor

    As a first aid instructor, Red Cross instructs us to refer to the emergency number as 9-1-1 so not to confuse it with number nine hundred and eleven, or the tragic event, 9-11. Just another way to clarify.

  • Mary E.

    If we just convinced people to use the term “more than” instead of “over” when appropriate , we wouldn’t have to work around people’s poor grammar.

  • Ray

    Human revolution? Should that be “evolution”?

  • Warsaw Will

    @Mary E – This peculiar idea that you can’t use “over” for “more than” is simply “a hoary American newspaper tradition”, according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. MWDEU goes on to say that “over” has been used in this sense since the 14th century, by, among others, Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Thoreau, Hemingway, James Thurber and Groucho Marx.

    It’s absolutely standard English.

  • chris k

    “emergency 911” is redundant

  • TuesdayCarol

    I agree with Ray. When I read the first example, I thought the error was going to be the use of revolution rather than evolution.

    I have to admit I’m still laughing at your interpretation. I didn’t read it that way, but now that you’ve pointed it out, I can’t stop seeing heads turning in very precise circles.

  • Dale A. Wood

    The use of these in the same sentence is a triple proplem:
    1. turmed heads
    2. circules
    3. revolution
    since to turn heads in circles is to make them revolve (make revolutions).
    I am reminded of the notorious scene in THE EXORCIST.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Some people in foreign countries do no know that a 911 call is an emergency call in the United States. Hence “emergency 911 calls” is NOT redundant.
    I only know the emergency number in one other country, and in Great Britain it is 999.
    In Canada it is probably 911 because the American and Canadian telephone systems are so closely tied together, with the same system of Area Codes, etc. , and the same technical standards.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I agree that the word “revolution” does look very strange in the sentence concerned, and could the author check that this is not a misquotation?
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    The problem with the word “over” in its use here is that it is a lazy and useless way to express “about”, “concerning”, “regarding”,
    “having to do with”, “pertaining to”, or “on the subject of”.

    The root of the problem is that a few journalists misuse the word “over”, and then it becomes “en vogue”. People start using it without even thinking about it. Professional writers should do better than that.
    “Over” is really a preposition having to do with space and time, and nothing else.
    “Over” also has its uses as an adjective or an adverb, but those do not apply in the example here.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Yes, indeed, Karla Marsh:
    “Number 3 made me think (for a nanosecond) that they were all going to call each other on 911 to settle the lawsuit.”

    Calling over the telephone refers to the distance (in space) between the two phones in use. So they were going to call each other over the 911 lines ??
    That is strange, and thank you Ms. Marsh for pointing that out!
    D.A.W.

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