More small mistakes

rogersgeorge on January 31st, 2012

As if there were such a thing as a small mistake. It depends on your perspective, of course. I have a rule in cooking: if you have basically good ingredients, and don’t destroy them, you’ll come up with something that’s at least acceptable. If your cake falls, serve it under or over ice cream. It’ll still be pretty good. On the other hand, a single typo in your résumé could keep you from getting that interview.

Perhaps I can define a small mistake as one that’s easy to fix. Small mistakes are not the hard part of writing.

Today, class, we look at some words whose plurals are easy to get wrong.

Data—This word is plural. The singular is datum. You generally see this used correctly in scientific writing, where they perform a lot of statistical analysis on piles (scientific term) of data, and you can see sentences like “The data are fairly convincing; only one datum is an outlier.”

The plural of "date" is "dates" and they have nothing to do with data

Media—This word is a plural. When we say “mass media,” we refer to all the TV and radio stations, and all the newspapers and magazines. The singular is medium, and sometimes you see it when someone refers to one of the media.

The medium of radio is the only one you can use while you do something else.

This word has become contaminated by the use of “medium” to refer to someone who holds séances, and the plural of this word is “mediums.” I predict that “media” will eventually become a singular and its plural will become “medias.” But not yet, so get it right.

Criteria—Our third plural. The singular is criterion. I remember a fancy restaurant in St. Paul named The Criterion. They claimed to be the standard by which other restaurants should judge themselves. I ate there once. They cut the lettuce for the salad instead of tore it. Didn’t meet my criterion for how to prepare a salad.  I recently read a pretty good article about mistakes you can make in a job interview. The article got “criteria” wrong, and it’s this sentence in the article that gave me the idea for this post.

When I am hiring though, and if you happen to apply, the above is the criteria I will use to decide.

Since the writer was referring to a list of five items, she should have written “…the above are the criteria…”

These mistakes are commonly made by well-educated professionals. The plurals are slightly more high-falootin’ than the singulars, so I could have classified this lesson under my oft-used heading, “the sin of pretentiousness.”

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The sin of pretentiousness

rogersgeorge on December 22nd, 2011

When you write to explain something, your writing should focus your reader’s attention on the content, not on the writing, and not on you. Business English has become contaminated with pretentiousisms (a new word, invented by me, and seen here for the first time!), words that are fancier than necessary, and sometimes incorrect. People insert them to sound more erudite.  Here are a few of my favorite pretentiousisms. Don’t use them.

Using French is either pretentious or funny.

Prior when you mean previous. “Prior” implies greater importance, such as being a prerequisite for what follows. “Previous” refers to something that came first. For example I should say “The previous comic strip was funny, but I cannot quote it without prior written permission.”

Which when you mean that. This is something that Microsoft’s grammar checker generally gets right, by the way. Use “which” when you make an aside, and prefix it with a comma. Use “that” when you’re adding necessary information about something. For example you should say “The lecture that the professor gave yesterday was about the concept of free will, which I know nothing about.” Here’s the rule of thumb: ask if “that” works in the sentence. if it does, don’t use “which.”

Those when you mean the. Bad: “Those people who drive fancy cars are being pretentious.” Better: “The people who drive fancy…” Best: “People who drive fancy…” You might say that you want to more strongly point out whom you are referring to. No need; you make the point just fine with “the” or nothing. (You should be careful of generalizations anyway.)

Get your plurals right. Don’t use artificial Latin endings. Perhaps the most common if these is the plural of process, in spoken English. Don’t say “processees” (processese?) The plural of “process” is plain old “processes,” accent on the first syllable. People Latinize plurals on other words that end in -is and -es, such as “premise.” Be careful, though. Some words do have a Latin plural, “analysis” for example.

Another plural that a lot of folks mess up is the plural of “incident.” It’s “incidents,” not “incidences.”

Be careful of instant and instance.  “Instant” a measure of time, “instance” is an example of something.  The plurals are “instants” and instances.” Don’t make the plural of “instant” into “instantses” just to add a syllable.

The word “different” is often unnecessary. Usually you can leave it out. “There are two different ways to get there from here” means the same thing as “There are two ways to get there from here.” Leave out “different.” This one is a pet peeve of a fellow curmudgeon, Jim Murray, whom I worked with at Gateway 2000 many years ago. Hi, Jim!

Using myself when you mean me. Use “myself” only when you have already referred to yourself in the sentence. (Note that this applies to “you” and “yourself,” too.) Here is an example of the wrong usage by someone who ought to know better, Michael Shirmer, the founding editor of Skeptic magazine, in his book, The Believing Brain:

Good point. But the problem for both Dawkins and myself is our chauvinism. As Carl Sagan used to say, we are carbon chauvinists.

Why didn’t he write “…the problem for both Dawkins and me…”? I haven’t asked him, but I’ll suspect that Dr. Shirmer felt that “me” was too casual. In other words, not high-falootin’ enough. The context (page 198, by the way) is a discussion of the likelihood of encounters with extraterrestrials, so here’s a picture. Both Dawkins and Shirmer say we don’t have any extraterrestrials on earth, and I’m inclined to agree with them.

Picture used without permission. If you own it, I'll take it down and use something else.

Expect another post on pretentiousness. This list is merely items that came to mind this evening.

Compose or comprise?

rogersgeorge on November 18th, 2011

“Comprise” is a frequently misused word, a common accessory to the sin of pretentiousness. People want to sound high class, so they write “is comprised of” when they mean “is composed of” or even plain old “composes.”

I ran into an article in The New York Times online that presented them with a wonderful opportunity to be pretentious, and they didn’t take it! Hooray (for once) for The New York Times! here’s what they said, and it’s correct:

The project follows the successful effort by a group at the museum to replicate a far less complicated Babbage invention: the Difference Engine No. 2, a calculating machine composed of roughly 8,000 mechanical components assembled with a watchmaker’s precision.

The machine is composed of parts! Yesss!

Now that is a construction in the passive voice. What if they had wanted to use the active voice? Then they would have written:

The project follows the successful effort by a group at the museum to replicate a far less complicated Babbage invention: the Difference Engine No. 2, a calculating machine comprising roughly 8,000 mechanical components assembled with a watchmaker’s precision.

Now “comprise” is appropriate.

Never ever say “…is comprised of…” Ever! Unless you’re showing someone what not to do. Harrumpf.

Here’s a picture of the difference engine.

The machine is about eight feet tall. That's a picture of Charles Babbage on the wall.