5 Usage Errors
Careless or uninformed writers are at risk of using the wrong word for the job. Here are five examples of such mistakes by professional writers, with discussions and corrections:
1. “The idea that an economically struggling country of 24 million could submit a technically superior country that occupies 3.79 million square miles is preposterous.”
This sentence offers two usage errors for the price of one. First, the party that does the submitting is the loser, not the victor; the writer perhaps confused submit with subdue. Second, technically means “in a technical manner”; the larger country is technologically superior. Here’s the revision: “The idea that an economically struggling country of 24 million could subdue a technologically superior country that occupies 3.79 million square miles is preposterous.”
2. “But if you’re awaiting the demise of local housing prices, you may be waiting a long time.”
The reader is presumably not waiting for local housing prices to die, but that’s what this sentence says. The writer should have used decline in place of demise (“But if you’re awaiting the decline of local housing prices, you may be waiting a long time”) or should revise the sentence: “But if you’re waiting for local housing prices to decrease, you may be waiting a long time.”
3. “The recovered bodies were kept in rows on the premise of a nearby school.”
Premise is almost correct, but the word means “a proposition or presupposition,” or “an explanation.” The writer should have used the plural form of the word, which, in addition to referring to more than one of the preceding items, denotes a building or part of a building and, often, the land on which it is located. (This sense derives from the fact that the real estate’s characteristics are explained in the premises of a deed.) The sentence should read, “The recovered bodies were kept in rows on the premises of a nearby school.”
4. “He was considered a shoe-in for the position.”
This sentence includes a homophonic error in which the erroneous term shoe-in is, with some justification, confused for shoo-in, because writers might believe that the image of wedging one’s shoe between a doorway and a door to ensure entry is reasonably analogous to having an advantage. But the sentence should read, “He was considered a shoo-in for the position.”
5. “Eastwood’s conversation with an empty chair on stage begs the question: Will his latest film also be playing to empty seats when it debuts later this month?”
The primary error here is the common misuse of the phrase “beg(s) the question,” which refers to a fallacious argument in which an assumption being argued is used to prove itself (as in, for example, “It’s very cold because it’s below freezing”), when the writer means simply “invites the question.” But this slight revision preserves syntax typical in valid begging-the-question arguments. The sentence can simply be restated “Eastwood’s conversation with an empty chair on stage invites us to ask whether his latest film will also be playing to empty seats when it debuts later this month.”
If the original sentence structure is retained, the colon should be omitted — a colon brings a sentence to a temporary halt, which is wrong for this sentence format — and the question placed in quotation marks to delineate it: “Eastwood’s conversation with an empty chair on stage begs the question ‘Will his latest film also be playing to empty seats when it debuts later this month?’”
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