A word to the wise – January 2008

Verbum satis sapientibus: A word to the wise is sufficient

Repent! It’s a new year, an apt time to make straight our crooked verbal paths, to reform our linguistic habits. Permit me to offer a few resolutions for 2008, a few DOs and DON’Ts.
In my opinion, be it humble or merely peevish, following are some of the most common abuses and misuses plaguing contemporary expression.
Most have been mentioned in other columns over the past five years, but—alas—the evils persist. So while I risk being another voice crying out in the wilderness, consider the following:
Verbal. This is a perfectly respectable word, but it’s frequently misused to mean an oral or spoken communication only. We might hear an agreement described as “verbal,” with the intimation that it lacks the finality of a written expression. However, verbal means “using words.” Thus, just like a spoken agreement, a written expression also is verbal. Both use words. So if we want to suggest that the agreement is spoken or oral—not yet in writing—we should say so.
Forecasted. There is no such verb form, or rather, it’s a nonstandard variant, avoided in the best of families. As the past tense of cast is cast, so the past tense of forecast is forecast. Present and past forms are the same. For example, “For Christmas, the Weather Station forecast (not forecasted) plenty of snow.”
Pronoun Agreement. A common sin of long standing is using a plural pronoun to refer to a singular noun, especially to a collective noun. For example, a committee or council or commission or government is an “it,” not a “they,” as here: “The city commission votes today on its (not their) mission statement.”
Presently. The word does NOT mean now. Presently means soon. For example, “We will meet you presently.”
The Slash vs. the Hyphen. The slash (/) is not a substitute for a hyphen, though for some reason it has come into broad use as such with compound adjectives or nouns. The slash generally means either/or, and its uses are limited. What you want in compounds is the good old hyphen, which joins two words into one unit: a city-county agreement means a pact that both agree to, while a city/county agreement would mean one or the other supports it, which almost certainly is not the case, or it would not be an agreement at all. Likewise, a beagle-poodle mix produces one dog, the beagapoo, not a choice of one or the other.
Amount vs. Number. Amount denotes a general quantity, usually singular, while number means the objects (plural) may be counted. It is correct to refer to the amount of sunshine in a day or the amount of power generated in a dam, but we would count the number of hours of sunlight or the number of megawatts produced.
Issue. Here’s a simple word that recently has become very broadly misapplied, perhaps because we are too sensitive to describe a real problem for what it is. I wince at hearing that the guy who started a bar fight, insulted his best friend’s girl, threw a bottle through the window and then drove his car into a light pole has a drinking “issue.” Good grief. That character’s got a problem. A mere concern or topic, or even a matter of dispute, may be termed an “issue,” but it’s too polite a term for a real conflict or other grievous situations.
Utilize. I never could see the use of it, when one could use use.

Word for the month
News (nooz), a common term whose meaning everyone knows. What may be “news” to you, however, is its origin, or alleged origins. A common whimsy, retailed in some textbooks, is that the word represents the four winds, the initials of which spell the word news.
Some early newspapers used to feature a compass at the top of page one, suggesting that the contents have blown in from all over the globe. This derivation seems unlikely, in that synonymous forms, with no relation to the compass, exist in related languages: Old French nuveles, Dutch nieuves and German neues. All mean, basically, news.
The word has been in common use in English since 1500 at least, and from the start meant “new things, novelties,” and often was disparaged as gossip, as reflected in the adage, “as true as barber’s news,” meaning that the information was untrustworthy.
Here’s a Shakespeare character using the word in 1600: “There’s no news at the court, sir, but the old news.” Howell in 1645 writes, “I am of the Italian’s mind that said, ‘Nulla nuova, buona nuova,’ no news, good news.” And so say we in 2008. Happy New Year.
—Gerald Waite

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