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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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