5 Usage Errors

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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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27 thoughts on “5 Usage Errors”

  1. 1. This sentence has a third, even more egregious error. The writer compares population size to land mass; talk about Apples and Square feet.

    3. same complaint as cj

    5. lose the “also”; Eastwood played to only one chair, not multiple seats, so the comparison is just not fair and balanced.

  2. In number five, your dislike of the colon seems to be based on your own stylistic preferences. The Chicago Manual of Style allows such usage.

  3. Other frequent errors:

    “trooper” for “trouper”
    He rose to the challenge like a trooper.
    (Um, not unless he hopped in a Crown Vic and chased a speeder on the highway.)

    “doggy-dog world”
    It’s a doggy-dog world out there!
    Correct: “dog-eat-dog world”

    And many more. (which no doubt will come to mind for the rest of the day)

  4. Larry, the “also” is appropriate because Eastwood is speaking to an empty chair and chairs may also be empty in theaters during his next movie. Without “also” the sentence loses its relationship between the two events.

  5. On 5. I had to laugh, because only last night I saw a trailer of that movie and could not but ask myself the very same question. I, for one, will definitely not watch it.

    This said, regarding the usage question, perhaps (and this addresses @Larry’s concern) the “also” could be relocated to directly precede “empty seats”, so that it could be seen to qualify “empty”. I don´t think that the plurality (maybe “chairs” could be more effectively used, rather than seats) greatly affects the intended sense.

  6. The mistake in the “fix” of #3 suggests how even professional writers sometimes end up with usage errors. It also invites the question ‘Is it a usage error or simply a typographical error?'”

  7. #5 may be the most common error in usage in the English language. I don’t think I have ever encountered it used properly, and that says a lot.

    #3 I would agree with Bill. Vacate the premises to legalese. Just say grounds or buildings or whatever. Come to think of it, even in legalese it causes more confusion that clarity as many challenges to warrants are based on conflicting definitions of what exactly constitutes “the premises”.

  8. #5:

    Another structure-preserving possibility: “raises the question”.

    Yet another one (which I don’t like nearly as much): “begs _for_ the question”.

  9. Larry:

    Thanks to you and the teeming millions (many more by email than in the comments) who pointed out the error of not correcting premises. As you might guess, when I write these types of posts, I copy and paste the original sentence to produce a corrected version but sometimes neglect to, you know, correct the sentence. Some people joke, some people scold, and I hang my head in shame. However, the juxtaposition of population and land mass in item #1 is valid; a nation with a small population is not well equipped to occupy a vast country.

  10. You’re correct on the colon-n-quotation marks in example number 5, Mark.

    Yet I have seen it so often in US publications (both printed and on the ‘net) that I had begun to assume that it was a stylistic norm over there.

    It is bleeding into popular usage here too.

  11. To beg the question – yes, the original use of ‘beg the question’ was a philosophical argument, in which ‘beg’ has been badly translated from, I think, French. Unless you are in the know there is no way you would guess what this means. And this use is pretty specialised.

    It is now much more commonly used, including in published works such as newspapers, to mean – ‘invites the question’, what you call a ‘misuse’, but which is a much more logical interpretation of the actual words. What’s more, this is the first meaning given in Oxford Dictionaries Online.

    There is absolutely no reason why the two cannot peacefully coexist as they have different structures. In the philosophical sense, something begs the question, full stop. Period. But in the more common usage it is always followed by something to tell us what question it begs. There is no ambiguity.

    Personally, I find criticism of this more common use of ‘beg the question’ to be a sort of intellectual snobbery along the lines of that which would have us wait till someone comes along and kills every tenth person before we’re allowed to say ‘decimate’.

  12. @ Warsaw Will

    But why bother to hijack “beg the question” at all, when there are plenty of alternatives ?

    It may be argued (as you did) that it does not really introduce ambiguity; but I would argue that it does harm nevertheless, because its use, combined with the widespread ignorance of the original meaning, forbids any correct usage. If it wasn’t for the general misuse of the term, you could use the expression and either be understood, or be clearly asked “what does that mean?”. As things now stand, you can 1° be understood (by someone who already knows the original meaning) 2° be misunderstood but not know it because the person will have constructed a plausible meaning around the “raises the question” interpretation, or 3° be asked “what question does it beg?”, and maybe scolded for using bad English…

    The problem is not so much the new use in itself, as the fact that it extinguishes the old one, leaving us with no efficient way to communicate this same idea. Given that begging the question is one of the most common fallacies out there, I for one find that disquieting.

    PS: On the question of etymology, for once we French people are not to blame; the translation was directly from Latin… The French translation is closer to the Latin: “pétition de principe”. At least when you say that in French, you know that _you will know_ when you are not understood 😉

  13. @Vincent: I agree. There is no excuse for simply misusing a phrase. Unfortunately, I think your #1 scenario is highly unlikely because of the “frequency-trumps-accuracy” assumption. You can’t even prescribe a simple caution like, “If you don’t know what a word or phrase means, then don’t use it”, because in a case like this, people are convinced they DO know what they are saying. Personally, for me it is a justified shibboleth, not “snobbish”
    which implies an illegitimateassignment of inferiority.

    It’s really even worse than irregardless or nucular, because in those cases the message is still clear, albeit taped to a brick through the window of elementary literacy.

    Finally, the etymological argument doesn’t hold much water, either. The meaning of beg is not to simply invite or present. And if it were used in that sense, it should take the preposition “for”, so it would “begs for the question”. In the false definition, no question itself is being queried.

  14. @Vincent & venqax – whatever the merits of your argument, the genie has long been out of the bottle, I’m afraid, and there’s no putting it back. I, for example, may sincerely regret that the adjective ‘awesome’ has now seemed to have lost any sense of awe, but it would be unrealistic of me to call this a ‘misuse’. When a word or expression is used much more in one sense than another, I think we have to accept the fact.

    In any case, as I said, I don’t see why the two can’t live side-by-side. Presumably the few people who need to use it in a philosophical sense are intelligent enough to spot the difference; many specialisations use words and expressions in different ways to the rest of us. I also wonder how many of the people who complain about this newer usage actually ever use this expression in its fallacious argument sense.

    In the New Fowler’s, Burchfield lists two uses, without comment – a strict use and a general use. MWDEU calls this newer use ‘fully established as standard’. I’ll finish with a quote from the wonderful Professor Paul Brians at ‘Common Errors’, which might have something to please all of us:

    ‘Since we never use “begs” with this odd meaning (“to improperly take for granted”) in any other phrase, most people now suppose the phrase implies something quite different: that the argument demands that a question about it be asked—raises the question. Although using the expression in its original sense is now rare, using it in the newer sense will cause irritation among traditionalists.’

  15. I wanted to point out the error in example three. I could not decide between “Try as I might, I cannot see the difference…” and “Try as I may, I cannot see the difference…”

    I’ll have to search this site for that info. I’m sure it’s been covered.

  16. @Anne; also a kidleydivey too, wouldn’t you.
    Hope you get it. Let me know iffin you don’t…
    May be before your time.

  17. I have subscribed to the Daily Writing Tips for awhile and it’s hard to take it seriously when there are so many typos and errors in the information. There are at least two errors in today’s post. Please, please, please reread what you have written (or copied) before hitting send. Thank you.

  18. Terijune:

    I’m sorry to disappoint you and others (and none more than myself) with occasional typographical errors in these posts. Of course I reread them, but in spite of careful review, it’s easy for one to overlook such mistakes. Also, as I’ve mentioned often, this site does not have an editorial staff; it’s just me, writing most of these posts, with occasional contributions from others. The minor mistakes that sometimes slip through, however, do not compromise the validity of the content.

  19. Further evidence that our beautiful language has terminal cancer and will soon repose in a grave under a marker of ennui. Even in my home city we have an academy of sciences (an INSTITUTION of HIGHER LEARNING, I shout in exasperation) bearing a sign in its window stating “No smoking on premise.” Unfortunately, neither the semi-literate cretin who composed said sign or his ordinate who should’ve known better are named on the sign, so I don’t know who to smack with my Websters.

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