Answers to Questions About Usage #3

By Mark Nichol

Here are several questions from DailyWritingTips.com readers about the wording of various phrases, followed by my responses.

1. In a book I just read, the author twice uses the expression “least worse.” I understand what he means, but this strikes me as a lousy neologism, and I sense that it is unjustifiable under “the rules” — yet I am unable to devise an alternative that isn’t wordy or top-heavy. Can you suggest something?

I came up with several more specific analogues: “least onerous,” “least egregious,” and “least unfortunate.” I suppose the reason these are acceptable and “least worse” isn’t is that worse, unlike the others, is a comparative adjective (“least bad” is better but still awkward) linked with a word denoting the most minimal amount. I’d use an appropriate noncomparative adjective such as the three I listed in the first sentence of this paragraph in place of worse.

2. What does very really mean? In “John held up a very full bucket,” if a bucket is full, then how is a very full bucket any more full? Even worse is “very, very”: A very, very full bucket must be even “fuller” than the very full one.

In formal, straightforward usage, very is almost invariably superfluous, but it has its place in more colloquial language. For example, it’s appropriate in a remark about a bucket containing an overflowing liquid or a heaped solid substance: “That’s a very full bucket!”

3. I have a question about the phrase “graduating high school” (or college). I have always thought that high schools and colleges were already graduated—with, for example, ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grades. Should the construction be “graduated from” rather than simply graduated?

Yes. “Graduated high school” and similar phrases are holdovers from a twentieth-century effort to truncate the earlier usage “was graduated from,” but the effort was taken too far. “Graduated high school” occurs at times, but “graduated from high school” is standard.

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10 Responses to “Answers to Questions About Usage #3”

  • Kimbley Griffin

    Similar to No. 3 above, I have issue with the following the uses of doctor and prom. “She had to make an appointment with her doctors,” when it is only *one* doctor that she is visiting. Also, “Justin said he wasn’t going to prom this year,” as opposed to “…going to *the* prom.”

  • Nancy Romness

    Thank you, Mark, for the question about graduating from school. A similar usage bothers me. I often hear “I have to babysit my brother.” I prefer “I have to babysit for my brother.” Which is is correct? Or are they both acceptable?

  • Mark Nichol

    Nancy:

    These two statements have distinct meanings: “I have to babysit my brother” means you are required to take care of your brother. “I have to babysit for my brother” means that you are required to take care of your brother’s child(ren). The task of a babysitter is to provide a service for the parent(s) of the child(ren), not the child(ren) itself or themselves.

  • Erik Ketcherside

    Regarding item 2, Mark Twain’s thought has become a mainstay in our shop:

    “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very.’ Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Concerning “if a bucket is full, then how is a very full bucket any more full?”
    Here is what the questioner neglected to think of in the above:
    In the idiomatic use of our language, a “full bucket” can be simply “nearly full” or “almost full”. In other words, there is an approximation involved. A good figure to keep in mind in cases like this is five percent. A full bucket is very likely to be 95 percent plus or minus five percent full.

    In contrast, what comes to mind about a “very full bucket” is that it is 99 percent full plus or minus one percent.

    Approximations abound in everyday life. For example, a “100 watt light bulb” does not draw 100.0000 watts of electric power. In reality, it draws anywhere between 95 watts and 105 watts. 100 light bulbs from the same batch from the same factory have power requirements scattered all across that range, with no two of them being the same.
    Note that a tolerance of plus or minus five percent is very common in electrical work. Smaller tolerances can be gotten, but you have to pay significantly more money for them.

    If you bought one short ton of coal, you should be happy with a one percent tolerance: you would get between 1980 pounds and 2020 pounds of coal.
    I might be belaboring the point, but most people have trouble when it comes to learning to think in terms of approximations.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I agree: “least worse” is truly wretched.
    It is also true that I misread it at first as “least worst,” which is “worse wretched” – LOL.
    Like Mr. Nichol pointed out, there are better ways of stating these things, and like he said, combining superlatives and comparatives (or superlatives with superlatives) in this way is not the thing to do.

  • Dale A. Wood

    By the way “topheavy” is a compound word in English that does not require a hyphen at all as Mr. Nichol out into it. On the other hand, “bottomheavy” is not found in dictionaries.

    When a combat ship is topheavy, there is the danger that with either battle damage or a heavy storm, it is likely to rollover onto its side or capsize. Such a ship is also said to have too much “topweight”, which is a word in nautical jargon. Recently, some cruise ships have been described as being topheavy, and such was probably true with the COSTA CONCORDIA. She overturned off the coast of Italy nearly two years ago, and she has recently been righted onto her keel.

    In the case of combat ships, there have been cases in which the ship had been damaged, and her captain sent sailors out with cutting torches to cut off “topweight” and throw it overboard to stabilize the ship. Such items as cannons, turrets, torpedo launchers, and aircraft catapults have been disposed of in this way: anything to save the ship. D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Here is an item closely-related to “least worst”.
    Some articles on the Internet have been presented with the title of “The Top Ten Worst ….” Egads!

    I thought, surely you mean “The Bottom Ten Worst ….”
    Ordered lists of any kind are surely written with the best items at the TOP and the worst items at the BOTTOM.
    Ignorance struck again in journalism.

    Similarly, I have seen things like the routes of highways and railroads described in west-to-east order. Why? Such things have described in east-to-west order ever since the time of the Ancient Romans, probably because the sun rises in the east and it sets in the west.
    There is not any reason to change now.
    Also, in the United States, the major highways began along the East Coast in the original 13 states, and then they gradually spread west from there. One of them was called the National Road. It began in Maryland, in the area of Baltimore, and then it gradually extended, over the decades, across Maryland, Virginia**, southern Ohio, southern Indiana, and part of southern Illinois. East to west. Why not stick with it?
    The railroads did the same thing before 1862, except that there was an “island” of railroads that had already been built in California. Then, when it came time – under Abraham Lincoln – to connect these two, the first transcontinental railroad was built between Independence, Missouri, and Sacramento, California. The meeting point of the two halves was in northern Utah, not to far from Ogden.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Remember that at the time that the National Road was being built, West Virginia was still part of Virginia. It had seats in Congress, and all that, but no separate senators and no governor.
    Also, the National Road might have cut across the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania, and I will leave it up to you to look that one up.
    D.A.W.

  • Kalifornia

    Why do some people say, Your my friend. Vs You re my friend. Doesn’t you re mean you are and your is ownership? Please elaborate on the differences.

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