Usage Mistakes #1

By Mark Nichol

The sentences below illustrate various types of mistakes in wording born from (not “borne out of”) ignorance or carelessness.

1. All the progress we have made to educate people about the hazards of smoking may be for not.

The writer, perhaps unfamiliar with the term naught, assumed that the last word of the sentence is intended to denote negation rather than futility: “All the progress we have made to educate people about the hazards of smoking may be for naught.”

2. President Obama traveled to Cuba for a historical visit.

A historical visit is one that occurs in history, though one should not refer to a visit this way; historical is superfluous. The writer meant to state that the visit is historic; that word means “of significance to history” (though it sometimes refers simply to something established or existing from the past): “President Obama traveled to Cuba for a historic visit.”

(But shouldn’t it be “an historic visit”? No, because the correct pronunciation of historic is to sound the h, though many people, including me, believe it is easier to use an and treat the first letter of the following word as silent.)

3. His speech was a load of dribble.

Some people seem to think that references such as the one here are to someone’s writing or utterance being worth no more than drool, but the correct word for foolish or silly talk (which can refer to slavering but is etymologically unrelated) is drivel: “His speech was a load of drivel.”

4. The list is virtually a whose-who of prominent community members.

The pronoun whose has no place in this sentence. The phrase “who’s who” (the contraction is of “who is”) refers to a roster of notable people or things or summaries about them, or to such a group collectively: “The list is virtually a who’s who of prominent community members.” This usage—without a connecting hyphen—stems from publications with titles modeled on the phrase, such as Who’s Who in American Art.

5. Where does the US Jewish population predominately live?

Predominate is a verb; the correct adjectival and adverbial forms are predominant and predominantly: “Where does the US Jewish population predominantly live?”

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3 Responses to “Usage Mistakes #1”

  • Bill

    Actually, your instinct to use “an” with “historical” is correct as “an” is acceptable with words beginning with “h” that have the accent on the second syllable. Unfortunately, the no-nothings—the same people who think you pronounce the “t” in “often” and say “I could care less”—get smug about how “smart” they are so now the genuinely smart people have to side with the dumb or get shouted down.

  • David Bennett

    I’ve recently heard and seen several misuses of “perpetuated” in place of “perpetrated.” The most recent of these was on CNN.com just today. “That section of Obama’s speech ‘risked giving one a heart attack, Castro wrote, before listing a litany of what he said were abuses the United States had perpetuated against Cuba.”

  • venqax

    The condemnation of “an” before historic/al is legitimate. The rule (at least in American English) is that AN stands in for A only prior to a vowel sound. Placing it in front of historic/al violates that rule– there is no H exeption– and the defense that it is a vestige of a time when the initial H there was silent is probably non-historical itself. Say a historic/al.

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