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Sunday, October 4, 2009
Words & Language Toolbox

Look out for persistent mistakes

By Paula LaRocque

Correction: A previous headline for this article contained a misspelling – an editorial mistake not made by the author. Quill editors regret the error.

Certain problems in language can persist over decades, even centuries, of attempted correction, as we see from the following:

“In June, the House of Representatives took an historic vote to pass comprehensive climate and energy legislation.”

“An historic” is an old, odd, persistent error. Because we pronounce the H in “historic,” the correct choice is “a,” not “an” — a house, a hog, a hotel. We use “an” only when the H is silent — an honor, an hour, an heir.

Centuries ago, some suggested pairing “an” with words that began with a pronounced H but also with an unstressed syllable, because in such cases the H would be weakened. The idea seems to have clung only to “historic,” however. No one says “an haphazard” or “an hesitation” or “an harmonica” — all words with unstressed first syllables. In any case, the practice is a relic from another time, and modern counsel is simply to use “a” with a pronounced H and “an” with an unpronounced H.

From a theater critic: “Still, when he’s not chewing the scenery, he seems entirely absent, and one wonders, along with Juliet, ‘Wherefore art thou, Romeo?’ ”

The persistent problem here is that “wherefore” does not mean where. It means why or for what reason. Juliet is not asking: Where are you, Romeo? She’s asking: Why are you Romeo? In other words, why must her lover bear the name of her family’s enemy: “Wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name.”

Share your thoughts

Have a writing tip or want to sound off about a common mistake you’ve seen in print?

E-mail Paula: plarocque@sbcglobal.net


Literary allusions enrich our work, but we must take care to get the allusion right. Shakespeare is often misquoted. But because scholars have scrutinized his every word for more than four centuries, many readers know when he’s misquoted, resulting in lost credibility for the writer.

Newspaper columnist: “I didn’t bother to say from whence I came.”

Another example of commonly misunderstood archaic expression. The word “whence” means “from where,” so “from whence” is a gross redundancy. Corrected: “I didn’t bother to say whence I came.”

Travel writer: “We journeyed to Paris and from thence to Brussels.”

“Thence,” which means “from there,” is the same sort of problem as “whence.” Corrected: “We traveled to Paris and thence to Brussels.”

We might ask why use “whence” or “thence” at all? Their chief value (aside from their deliberate archaism, which can be appropriate for certain contexts) is their built-in “from.” If we add a redundant “from,” we gain error and lose their main value.

A reporter: “Maybe they don’t like the excess of — as Shakespeare wrote — gilding the lily.”

Except that’s not what Shakespeare wrote. His more compressed version: “to gild refined gold, to paint the lily.” How could such a famous expression be so wrongly remembered? Simple. Not only is gilding a lily a striking metaphor, but “gil” and “lil” rhyme. So “gilding the lily” is memorable in a way that “painting the lily” is not. Popular expressions are often compressed in this way. And because “gild the lily” is recognized and meaningful, it’s fine to use it. The problem here lies not in its use, but in its attribution.

Feature writer: “After the city’s bustle, she’s only too glad to reside, as Thomas Gray wrote, far from the maddening crowd.”

Another misquote. Gray wrote “far from the madding crowd.” “Madding” means tumultuous or restless, which may or may not be “maddening.”

In short, best practice is to check all quotations, even common ones. The more famous the quote, the greater the chance it’s a misquote.

If some problems persist over decades or centuries, others come into being right beneath our noses.

From a book editor: “Poet and novelist Maxwell Bodenheim was born in Hermanville, Mississippi, in 1892. The Bodenheim family was one of the only Jewish families in rural Mississippi, and after his father’s store went bankrupt, the family moved to Chicago.”

I first read “one of the only” a handful of years ago and have since seen it many times. The construction is a weird and ungrammatical substitute for “one of the few.” There’s no way to be one of the only, of course — “only” means single or sole.

Columnist: “It was late May before our mountain pond began to unthaw.”

Unthaw — another freaky expression cropping up everywhere. If “thaw” means to unfreeze — and it does — what must “unthaw” mean? To refreeze?

In brief, writers for a mass medium can’t afford to be careless with either form or content. It’s true that if the content is poor, it doesn’t matter how well we write it. But it’s also true that if the form is poor, it doesn’t matter how cogent the content. Either way, the result is the same: We risk losing the reader. Or at least the reader’s respect.

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