I was on vacation last week, out where the corn is sweet and the frappes are milkshakes and the soda is pop, so I didn't respond to readers who complained about the Globe's misuse of flaunt in a July 31 op-ed and headline: "Flaunting subpoenas is not permitted." I didn't need to, since a letter to the editor printed last Friday set everyone straight: "The correct word is flout, which means 'to openly disregard.' "
But in this summer slip, the Globe was in good company. In the July 30 issue of the New Yorker, David Remnick, in his Letter from Jerusalem, made the same mistake when he wrote of "Burg’s . . . flouting of the fact that he holds a French passport, because his wife is French-born."
Geoff Pullum commented on the New Yorker's flub on Language Log:
I think (I have no quantitative backup) it is more usual for flaunt to be used where flout was meant, and I can see why there is confusion in that direction: you can boastfully exhibit your contempt for normal standards, and thus flaunt your flouting of them.
I too think of flaunt for flout as the more common mistake, but a week's worth of newspaper data doesn't back up that guess. In the Nexis database of US newspapers, flaunt appeared 41 times; it was correct 39 times and incorrect twice.
Flout was indeed less common overall -- it showed up just 16 times -- but in one of those, it should have been flaunt. So flout was used wrongly twice in 41 cites, or nearly 5 percent of the time; flaunt was wrong once in 16 outings, or 6 percent of the time.
No, that's not a big enough sample to prove anything. But just for fun, I checked a couple of other common errors over the same one-week period:
Infer was used to mean imply seven times in a total 19 instances, or 37 percent of the time. Feel bad, the topic of a discussion in Miss Conduct's blog, got about 200 hits; the less accepted feel badly got only 19, about 9 percent of the total.
Most of the allegedly common errors in English are harder to interpret, though, because they're often just spelling errors. For instance, 12 of the 36 examples of loathe in my sample week were not uses of the verb ("I loathe him") but misspellings of the adjective loath ("She was loathe to admit it"). That's a high percentage of goofs -- but they're all misspellings, not "confusions" of words.
I don't mean to suggest that spelling isn't important. But when someone mixes up the spellings of Neiman Marcus and the Nieman Foundation, we don't say he's confusing the department store with the journalism outfit. Why do we think it's so much worse to type your for you're or flack for flak? (That's not a rhetorical question; send answers, please.)
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
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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.