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Close but Not Quite

The New York Times           April 24, 2014

It’s not enough to pick a word in the general vicinity of what we mean, or something that sounds about right. We should be choosing words precisely and using them with care in sentences.

Some recent lapses:


Two months later, all of Mexico seemed captivated by claims that roving packs of dogs had mauled five people in the park that abuts San Nicolás.

Nuance is crucial to good writing. As we’ve noted before, “captivate” means “attract the attention of,” but only in a good way. You might be captivated by someone’s wit, or by a city’s vibrancy. You would not be captivated by accounts of vicious dog attacks. “Gripped” or “riveted,” perhaps, but not “captivated.”


Mr. Ando has shown an ability to suffuse rooms with light in surprising ways. One of his most famous projects is the Ibaraki Kasugaoka Church in Ibaraki, Japan, which is known as the Church of the Light because of the cruciform-shaped opening in the concrete wall behind the altar.

We shouldn’t use an unusual word simply because it’s unusual — we should choose it only if it’s exactly the right word. And to determine that, we need to know exactly what it means. “Cruciform,” as a reader pointed out, means “cross-shaped.” So the opening was “cruciform” or, better, just plain “cross-shaped.” But not cross-shaped-shaped.


In a sports world where other great athletes are excelling at far more advanced ages, who is to begrudge Phelps, undeniably the greatest swimmer ever, from taking another plunge?

This is not how “begrudge” works. It is a transitive verb, and the direct object should be the thing that is begrudged (the person who is the target of the envy is the indirect object). You don’t begrudge someone from doing something. We could say “begrudge Phelps another plunge,” or use some other verb.


According to Showalter, Teixeira submersed himself in the position.

“Submerse” is a real word, though “submerge” is the more common form. But we clearly meant “immersed,” not “submersed.” “Immerse” is often used figuratively to mean “engage deeply”; “submerge” and “submerse” are not used that way.


It took one week to go from cancel Colbert to coronate him.

This may sound like what you do to someone at a coronation. But as a reader pointed out, “coronate” is a faulty “back-formation” from the noun “coronation.” The verb for what you do at a coronation is “crown.”


Investors may be playing a dicey game, but in the case of Greece and other shaky euro zone countries, they have been assuagedby the belief that the European financial machine will kick into gear should anything go wrong.

It would be more precise to say that the investors’ fears had been “assuaged,” or that the investors themselves had been “reassured.”


But woe the pitcher who slaps it on the ball, for he has contravened Rule 8.02 of Major League Baseball and can be suspended for eight games, if anyone cares enough to call him on it.

We should think twice about using an old-fashioned or archaic phrase for effect; often it simply sounds like a cliché. But if we use one, let’s get it right: “woe to the pitcher …” or “woe betide the pitcher …”

Too Many Hyphens

A reader notes a minor epidemic of unnecessary hyphens:


Unless there is a last-minute reprieve — a committee of four board members is making one final effort to find one — this metropolis of 3.1 million people, which prides itself as culturally rich, will have no place to see opera, short of chancing a drive to Los Angeles that can take anywhere from two-and-a-half hours to four hours each way.

There’s no call for hyphens in a number expression like this, despite the “half.” Just say “two and a half hours.” We err frequently, apparently confusing this use with a compound-modifier construction that would require hyphens, like “two-and-a-half-hour drive.”


It is not just a rickety bridge, residents say, but their rickety bridge, three-and-a-half miles of steel that has passed its prime, gently rising up above the Meadowlands of New Jersey and dropping down again.

Ditto. Make it “three and a half miles.”

In a Word

This week’s grab bag of grammar, style and other missteps, compiled with help from colleagues and readers.


Kentucky never led, but it felt like that would happen, especially when Young threw down a vicious dunk over Amida Brimah, igniting the pro-Kentucky crowd into hysteria.

It felt “as if” that would happen.


Some lawyers I surveyed on the subject, most of whom refused to comment on the record because they work at one of the dozens of firms involved in the Silicon Valley case, said that it might be permissible for a company to decide against poaching an employee of a business partner in a specific instance — even if it was just about keeping good relations with the company — but that a blanket ban on hiring as part of systemic strategy would be plainly anticompetitive.

It seems that we really meant “systematic,” a more common word, meaning “carried out in a methodical or orderly manner.” The jargon “systemic,” meaning “related to an entire system,” is better confined to describing biological systems or the financial system, as in “systemic risk.”


President Obama deplored on Friday what he called a Republican campaign to deny voting rights to millions of Americans as he stepped up efforts to rally his political base heading into a competitive midterm campaign season.

Don’t put the time element between the verb and its object (in this case the relative clause). If it can’t go after the object, put it before the verb.


Exhibit A, for him, is the Affordable Care Act, for which Ms. Shaheen voted and has supported.

The single relative pronoun can’t serve both as the object of the preposition “for” and as the direct object of “has supported.” We could say “for which Ms. Shaheen voted and which she has supported.” Or perhaps the “has supported” is redundant and unnecessary.


After spending the next eight years in the Pirates’ and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ organizations, his optimism was waning.

A dangler. His optimism didn’t spend the next eight years etc. Make it “After he spent …”


OKLAHOMA CITY — The archbishop of Canterbury, under fire for appearing to link expanded gay rights in the United States to violence against Christians in Africa, said on Thursday that he is advocating for a slow and deliberative response to same-sex marriage, mindful of the global implications.

Two points. Sequence of tenses requires “was advocating” after the past-tense “said.” And there’s no need for “for” after the transitive verb “advocate.” Simply say “he was advocating a slow and deliberate response.”


Of all the crime declines in New York over the past two decades,the virtual eradication of car theft has been among the most complete: They are down 94 percent from the 1990s, when blaring multitune car alarms served as the city’s after-hours soundtrack.

The plural “they” doesn’t have a plural antecedent to refer to. Perhaps just say “Thefts are down …”


In a case that has heaped ridicule on the under-resourced police force, the baby boy was charged alongside four adults in connection with a violent protest in a Lahore slum in February.

Avoid this awkward business jargon.


The disclosures cast a light on a man whose life has had many chapters, a man whose prominence and proximity to power is underscored by the roster of speakers at his conference — Mayor Bill de Blasio is also scheduled to appear.

Make it “prominence and proximity to power are underscored …”


Sounding nostalgic for a world before Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz, the 61-year-old said he would only run if he could bring a “hopeful” message and campaign “joyfully,” avoiding “the vortex of the mud fight.”

Precise usage places “only” adjacent to what it describes; make it “he would run only if …”


Ángel Llorente, an official with Spain’s Ministry of Justice, said the government was cooperating with the Argentine judge and has allowed the extradition process to continue.

Sequence-of-tense rules call for “and had allowed” after the past-tense “said.”


She worked in the Clinton administration for the first woman White House counsel, Beth Nolan.

Avoid “woman” as an adjective. Make it “female White House counsel” or else something like “for the first woman to serve as White House counsel.”


would have liked to have heard about the way he became such an aggressive golfer — we know from “Arnie” that he listened to what his father, Deacon, told him, and there is a clip of the elder Palmer instructing his son about his grip — as well as more insight into what how it felt to upend the golf world, and if he struggled emotionally when Nicklaus usurped his position.

This tangled sentence needed pruning (including eliminating the stray “what”). Use the present infinitive (not the perfect infinitive) after “would have liked”: “I would have liked to hear.”


SEATTLE — Entrepreneurs are lucky to have one big score. Richard Barton has had a string of them, by repeatedly asking the same simple question: What piece of marketplace information do people crave and don’t have?

In this construction, the first “do” is understood with all parts of the predicate; make it “do people crave and not have.”


The Museum of Modern Art’s controversial decision to demolish a neighbor, the former American Folk Art Museum, is about to become reality.

Most of the decisions we write about are controversial. We should have tried harder to find something specific to say about this one in the lead.


The list of songs include “Runnin’ Wild,” “Let’s Misbehave” and, most brazenly, “The Hot Dog Song,” a novelty number that becomes the high (or low) point of phallic humor that abounds in this show.

Don’t be confused by the plural “songs” in the modifying prepositional phrase: A singular subject (“list”) calls for a singular verb (“includes”).


Like other practices on Wall Street, however, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

A dangler. There’s no noun for “like” to refer to.

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