The War On Words

A monthly column in which we attempt, however futilely, to defend the English language against misuse and abuse

The Contest

Last month, readers were challenged to identify correct sentences, phrases or terms in the lengthy list in the column. Among the incorrect answers we received were expresso, lightening in a bottle, Volkswagon, prostrate problem, he was literally breathing fire and alot (the latter is automatically corrected by spell check). Several readers declared that nothing in the column was correct. One note: some readers understandably construed the directions to mean they were to identify any single item that was correct. Those who responded with one correct answer were given a chance to identify a second correct sentence or phrase.

Long-time reader Larry Kerchner argued for “We’ll return momentarily,” but being the old-fashioned prescriptivists that we are, we pointed out that such usage is correct only according to the second definition of momentarily: “at any moment, very soon.” The first definition is “for a very short time.” The word has unfortunately tacked (see more on tack below) toward definition 2 in recent years.
The winner was Scott Matthews of Newark, who identified “It’s all here” and “I’m loath to do that” as the only correct entries in the column. He gets a $25 gift certificate to El Diablo Burritos.
Thanks to all who participated.

Media Watch

• From the Wilmington News Journal, courtesy of reader Jane Buck: “Carney this year took a similar tact as his predecessor by proposing $10 million in cost reductions . . .” Some writers seem to think that tact is short for tactic. It’s not. What is meant in this case is tack, a sailing metaphor that means to change the direction of a sailboat by “tacking”—shifting the sails and turning the bow into the wind.
• Son Steven spotted this in an story on a hazing incident at Wheaton College: “The men are expected to turn themselves into authorities this week.” The missing space between in and to makes all the difference, creating the sense that the men are going to become authorities.

History Lesson

Reader Tricia Kramer asked us to explain the difference between historic and historical. OK: Historic denotes someone or something that is famous or important in history, whereas historical refers to something in the past. Historical novels or historical romances, for instance, refer to past times, but they are not of historic importance. So, simply put: historic—important; historical —old.

Hard to Believe, Harry

(Often uttered by the late Richie Ashburn to his broadcast partner, the late Harry Kalas, when something unbelievable occurred during a Phillies game)
A contestant on Jeopardy gave “laxadaisical” as an answer. The word, often mispronounced, is lackadaisical. Alex Trebek was only too happy to correct him.


Dangling modifiers abound in today’s language-challenged media. Examples:
• David Murphy in the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Besides winning the locker room, people seem to forget that the Eagles were pretty competitive on the football field last year.” Murphy, no doubt writing under deadline pressure. was discussing Coach Doug Pederson, so the sentence should have been something like this: “Besides winning the locker room, Pederson had the Eagles playing pretty well on the field last year, which people seem to forget.”
• From Sports Illustrated: “After rushing for 1,007 yards during the 19983 season, the Steelers abruptly cut Harris on Aug. 20, 1984.” Franco Harris rushed for that total, not the team.
• From the News Journal, in a story about Tilton Holt, marbles champion: “Born in Buena Vista, Georgia, in 1938, family members said Holt had a very sharp mind . . .” Holt was born in Buena Vista, not family members.
• Reader Janet Strobert saw this in a LifeDaily post on Facebook: “After 200 years deep beneath the earth, two farmers made this groundbreaking discovery.” Says Janet: “After 200 years under ground, l wouldn’t be making many discoveries.”

Department of Redundancies Dept.

“I’ve been a life-long Chargers fan since birth”—a Los Angeles bus driver, quoted in USA Today.

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Word of the Month

Pronounced mith-uh-MAY-nee-uh, it’s a noun meaning an abnormal tendency to exaggerate or lie.