Tuesday, April 10, 2007

From Bill Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words (Commonplace Book)

I have decided to use the commonplace book to go through bits of Bryson's book. This is a thing I enjoy even though this kind of stuff bothers a lot of people. I will do a few words each week, paraphrasing from his book.

"Admit to" is almost always wrong. Remove "to." You admit a misdeed, you do not admit to it.

"Advance planning" is common but always redundant, since all planning must be made in advance.

"Aggravate" means to make a bad situation worse. People can never be aggravated, only circumstances.

"All intents and purposes" is a redundant waste of words; replace with "in effect".

"Anxious" comes from "anxiety," and so should contain some sense of being worried or fearful. I should not be used to mean eager or expectant, as in "I am anxious to see a new play".

"Blueprint" is overworked as a metaphor. If you must use it, remember that a blueprint is a finished plan and not a preliminary one.

"Celibacy" does not mean abstinence from sex; it means unmarried. A married man -- for example, Cyclops when he talks about is vow of celibacy in Morrison's New X-Men annual -- cannot be celibate, though he can be chaste.

"Close proximity" is tautological, since "proximity" means "close."

"Collide, Collision." Collisions occur only when two or more moving objects come together; if a vehicle runs into a stationary object it is not a collision.


Fence said...

Ah, but surely this doesn't allow for the development of the language. And, imo, there is nothing wrong with using two words for effect when one probably would have sufficed. But that may just be me ;)

Geoff Klock said...

Bryson does allow for the language to change, just not in stupid or useless or damaging ways. For example, I think it is useful to remember that "glory" and "grandure" do not mean the same thing and should not blend into one another -- otherwise, a line like Poe's "the glory that was Greece and the Grandure that was Rome" becomes meaningless. Your overall point is quite right -- language should change -- but I challenge you to argue one of the mistaken phrases in the examples in this post is better than what Bryson wants. I agree more words can be good for effect that being brief, but "for all intents and purposes" is a cliche and a waste of words.

Kenney said...

I refuse to stop using "for all intents and purposes". I just love it too much.

But I like seeing this kind of stuff, so keep the post coming (even though I'm guilty of almost all of these things).

James said...

The examples of redundancies and over-used phrases are good; it's only his claims about definitions that annoy me. The glory/grandeur thing is a good example of when meanings should be kept seperate, but I can't think of any big problems arising from people being aggravated*. According to several online dictionaries (admittedly not the greatest source, but I'm at work), it's been used that way in English since the 17th Century, and even in the original Latin.

*Or indeed, celibate abstinence, or collisions between moving objects.

Geoff Klock said...

Kenny: what on earth do you love about that phrase? I cannot see it at all.

Also -- you say you say you see the point but arel guilty of almost all these things. I would not be putting them up here if they were not mistakes I make all the time. I just think it is interesting that they are mistakes.

James: yeah, that's fair. And you are right about 17th century aggravate.

Matt Brady said...

Hey, I also like "for all intents and purposes". Maybe it's just the way it "sounds" (whether spoken or read). It is a bit of a cliche though, and shouldn't be overused.

James makes good arguments for a couple of the terms, but I'll throw one in for "blueprint". I don't know if it's that overused, other than in corporate strategy meetings (I hear it at work sometimes). But I think it works as a synonym for "plan". A use that popped into my head is "blueprint for destruction". That amuses me.