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Talking back to The Economist

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April  April 23, 2007 05:00 PM

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Until Evan invited us to a grammar scolding last Friday, it hadn't occurred to me that reading usage rules could be a source of masochistic pleasure. But he's right about the Economist's style guide: If you want to be lectured about loose usage, the editors will tell you that "Aggravate means make worse, not irritate," that "Pristine means original or former; it does not mean clean," and similar things they wish were still true.

But for guilt-free entertainment, I prefer the entries you wouldn't find in an American style guide, like the caution on King Canute, who ordered the tide to stop coming in:

Canute's exercise on the seashore was designed to persuade his courtiers of what he knew to be true but they doubted, ie, that he was not omnipotent. Don't imply he was surprised to get his feet wet.

(That's some fancy negation, huh? "They doubted . . . that he was not omnipotent" -- that is, they flattered the king that he was omnipotent. )

Other unexpected and fascinating entries:

Garner means store, not gather.
Scotch: to scotch means to disable, not to destroy. (“We have scotched the snake, not killed it.”) The people may also be Scotch, Scots or Scottish; choose as you like.
Specific: a specific is a medicine, not a detail.

There's also a multiple-choice test and a section on Americanisms, acceptable and otherwise:

Do not write meet with or outside of: outside America, nowadays, you just meet people. Do not figure out if you can work out. To deliver on a promise means to keep it. A parking lot is a car park. Use senior rather than ranking, rumpus rather than ruckus, and rumbustious rather than rambunctious.
Cars are hired, not rented. City centres are not central cities. Cricket is a game not a sport. . . . Ex-servicemen are not necessarily veterans. In Britain, though cattle and pigs may be raised, children are (or should be) brought up.

The British, however, ignore a couple of our obsessions:

Americans tend to be fussy about making a distinction between which and that. Good writers of British English are less fastidious. ("We have left undone those things which we ought to have done.")

And they've thrown off the shackles of the subjunctive, judging by a subhead in the April 14-20 issue of the magazine. "Mitt the Moneymaker," the headline read, and under it: "If only that was all you had to do."

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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