Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: Word-Swapping.

Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day


It’s something like a Murphy’s Law of language: two words that can be confused will be confused. Sometimes, the more popular word will encroach on the less popular (as when “demean” took over the sense “bemean” [= to make base or low; degrade]). At other times, the less well-known word encroaches on the better-known one. The following pairs are illustrative: “affect” gets used for “effect.” “bizarre” for “bazaar,” “comprise” for “compose,” “deprecate” for “depreciate,” “effete” for “elite,” “fortuitous” for “fortunate,” “luxurious” for “luxuriant,” “recant” for “recount,” “reticent” for “reluctant,” “vortex” for “vertex,” and so on.

How does this happen? Because people enjoy experimenting with words — not going so far as to engage in true sesquipedality, but merely using slightly offbeat words that everyone has heard before — they’ll replace an “expected” word with one that strikes them as more genteel. And they’ll do this without ever bothering to look the word up in a dictionary.

In the old days, this psychological impulse probably didn’t have a great effect on the language. But in an age of mass communications — when millions of people can be simultaneously exposed to a barbarous error in speech — the effect can be almost immediate. One speaker’s carelessness with the language spreads as never before.

And because writing follows speech — as it must — these confusions, over time, get embedded in the language. The dictionaries record that “infer” sometimes means “imply”; that “precipitous” sometimes means “precipitate” (adj.); and that “regretfully” sometimes means “regrettably.” It’s the lexicographer’s duty to record what’s happening in the language; if various words are in flux, then the dictionaries will reflect it.

That’s where a good dictionary of usage comes in: it helps people understand which words are worth continuing the struggle to preserve in their traditional senses; which words are all but lost in the short term (skunked terms); and which words, though once confused, have undergone semantic changes that can’t be objected to any longer. In any given age, various sets of words belong at different places on that continuum.

Rarely do the preservationists — the ones who want to keep traditional distinctions — prevail. Sometimes they do; more often they don’t. But that doesn’t mean the struggle is in vain. To the contrary: it means that these speakers and writers will be better equipped, among their contemporaries, to avoid stumbling and thrashing about in the language. Among astute listeners and readers, they’ll have a higher degree of credibility. There’s much to be said for that.

For information about the Language-Change Index click here.
Quotation of the Day: “Sometimes one is struck by the way in which a word one has known all one’s life suddenly takes on a new meaning.” B.L.K. Henderson, Chats About Our Mother Tongue 79 (1927).

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Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: Word Patronage.

Word Patronage.

Word patronage is “the tendency to take out one’s words and look at them, to apologize for expressions that either need no apology or should be quietly refrained from” (Modern English Usage, 1st ed. at 733). A flourishing example today is “no pun intended.” But others are ready at hand as well — e.g.: “Hopefully — to use an ugly word — the dilemma will be solved by the proposed legislation.” In his preface to MEU’s second edition, Ernest Gowers indulged mildly in word patronage when he wrote: “This was indeed an epoch-making book in the strict sense of that overworked phrase” (p. iii). The tendency is not at all uncommon:

o “The Bloomsberries were also relentlessly elitist, in the true sense of that much-misused word.” “Time to Decry Woolf and All Her Bloomsbury Snobs,” Daily Telegraph, 14 Sept. 1995, at 14.

o “Ruth is meant to go through changes that give her some hint of — pardon this ghastly word — empowerment.” Liz Braun, “Ruth Walks Line Between Laughter and Tragedy,” Toronto Sun, 7 Feb. 1997, at 57.

o “In future, I’ll explore alternative officing (don’t you hate all the new words?) with an open mind.” Lynette Evans, “Alternative Officing or How to Live Without People,” S.F. Examiner, 3 Sept. 1997, Habitat §, at 1.

o “It is, to use a term now in vogue in feminist art discourse, a deeply gendered object, but it isn’t feminist at all.” Paul Richard, “Homer’s Debut on Display in D.C.,” Portland Press Herald, 7 Sept. 1997, at G1.

For information about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “Fiction is nothing less than the subtlest instrument for self-examination and self-display that Mankind has invented yet.” John Updike, “The Importance of Fiction,” in Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism 86 (1991).

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LawProse Lesson #172: What’s new in the third edition of “The Winning Brief”?

What’s new in the third edition of The Winning Brief?

Answer: Hot off the presses, the 775-page third edition contains nine new sections. This new material includes tips on understanding judges’ reading habits, answering opponents’ arguments, writing effective reply briefs, using authorities persuasively, and organizing arguments based on statutes and contracts.

The book also contains what Bryan Garner believes to be the best appellate brief ever written—coauthored by a third-year associate and a junior partner in a pro bono case. It’s the new Appendix C in the book, and everything in it is first rate: the table of contents, the issue statement, the introduction, the methodically researched body of the brief, and the conclusion. Every lawyer—no matter how experienced—can learn from it.

Speaking of tables of contents, Garner reproduces more than a dozen models from exemplary briefs to demonstrate how a good argument progresses from syllogistic presentation to demolition of opposing points. You’ll find insights here that are nowhere else as fully developed.

To see Garner’s live presentation of The Winning Brief, register here.

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Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: wont.


Although Samuel Johnson reported in 1755 that this word had slipped from use, it hangs on today as a slightly whimsical way of expressing customary behavior. It is used almost exclusively as a predicate adjective {as he is wont to} or as a noun {as is her wont}, although other forms do exist. The dominant pronunciations are /wahnt/ and /wawnt/, although /wohnt/ and /wuhnt/ are also accepted. Probably because it is usually a homophone for “want,” and because its meaning intertwines with that simpler term (one who is wont to do something generally wants to do it), it is occasionally misspelled “want” — e.g.:

o “Montgomerie had been the target of catcalls from American fans all week. As is his want [read 'wont'], he exacerbated the situation by letting the fans know how much they irritated him.” Paul Kenyon, “Death Deals Golf a Cruel Blow,” Providence J.-Bull., 26 Oct. 1999, at D1.

o “He was skinny all his life. But, as a body is want [read 'wont'] to do, it’s acquired an extra pound, or two or three, in its sunset years.” Lisa Gutierrez, “Shawnee ‘Santa’ Hands Out Toys, Hands Down Art,” Kansas City Star, 13 Dec. 2000, at F1.

The adjective “wonted” (= habitual), which invariably appears before the noun that it modifies {his wonted practice}, is archaic and literary. But it sometimes appears in popular writing — e.g.:

o “A few glancing high notes aside, she brought zest to ‘Endless Pleasure’ and lent ‘O sleep, why dost thou leave me?’ its wonted aura of lazy sensuality.” Allan Ulrich, “Scintillating ‘Semele,’” S.F. Chron., 2 Nov. 2000, at B1.

o “He has also claimed to have farmed out complaints to inattentive helpers — an act at variance with his wonted heavy hands-on approach to his pastoral duties.” Editorial, “Why Is Cardinal Law Still in Office?” Wash. Post, 23 June 2002, at B7.

Language-Change Index — “want” misused for “wont”: Stage 1.

For information about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “Nothing reveals fuzzy thinking as effectively as making yourself write out the thesis for the paper in a single sentence.” Elizabeth McMahan, A Crash Course in Composition 6 (2d ed. 1977).

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Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: Miscellaneous Entries.

Miscellaneous Entries.

workers’ compensation; workmen’s compensation. These words contain a plural possessive, hence “workers’” and “workmen’s” — not “worker’s” and “workman’s.” “Workers’ compensation” now predominates, doubtless because of a sensitivity to the sexism of the other. Another erroneous form is *”workers compensation.”

workforce; workload. Each is one word.

working. Radio announcers throughout the Southwest commonly say that an accident is “working” at (say) Walnut Hill and Preston Road. What they apparently mean is that a police officer or an emergency crew is at the scene and working to clear the way. The usage seems to have originated in police jargon.

working class denotes “the class of people who work for wages to earn a living.” The term usually refers to manual laborers and is often used pejoratively. But even doctors, lawyers, and the like work for a living. So where does the phrase come from? Originally, “working class” was used in contrast to “leisure class” — people who, because of their independent means, can while away their time. But the leisure class is now virtually nonexistent. And although “working class” doesn’t make much literal sense anymore, it’s probably here to stay as a close synonym for “proletariat.”

workout, n.; work out, v.i. & v.t. Although the noun is one word {a good workout}, the verb should be two — e.g.: “The Longhorns will workout [read 'work out'] once today, at 4:35 p.m.” “Extra Points,” Austin Am.-Statesman, 22 Aug. 1995, at C3.

workplace; worksite; workstation. Each is one word.

*Invariably inferior form.

For information about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “This is the usual destiny of euphemisms; in order to avoid the real name of what is thought indecent or improper people use some innocent word. But when that becomes habitual in this sense it becomes just as objectionable as the word it has ousted and now is rejected in its turn.” Otto Jespersen, Growth and Structure of the English Language 258 (9th ed. 1938).

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Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: womankind; *womenkind.

womankind; *womenkind.

*”Womenkind” is erroneous, since “-kind” includes all the members of the sex. E.g.:

o “Now she feels she’s pressured about what her roles will say to all of womenkind [read 'womankind'].” Matthew Gilbert, “Fiorentino Sees ‘Jade’ Role as Reward, Not Selling Out,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 16 Oct. 1995, at D1.

o “In the Neil Labute film, . . . two angry white men decide to avenge every wrong they think womenkind [read 'womankind'] has inflicted on them by dating the same woman with the intent of emotionally traumatizing her.” Duane Dudek, “Movie Stars Also Fight for Equality,” Milwaukee J. Sentinel, 14 May 1997, at 8.

The analogous error would be *”menkind” for “mankind.”

Language-Change Index — *”womenkind” for “womankind”: Stage 1.

*Invariably inferior form.

For information about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “Insistence that etymologically a preposition should be ‘placed before’ is as useful as saying that the lady who is ‘the cynosure of all eyes’ at the ball is etymologically the dog’s tail.” Basil Cottle, The Plight of English 13 (1975).

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Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: *without scarcely.

*without scarcely.

This phrasing is an optical illusion: something of a redundancy while something of an oxymoron. Whatever it is, though, it’s illogical — e.g.:

o “He shook hands without scarcely [read 'without' or 'scarcely'] noticing those who were there to encourage him.” Godfrey Sperling, “The Power of a Candidate’s Prose,” Christian Science Monitor, 8 Mar. 1988, at 11.

o “How can a band keep plugging away — without scarcely [read 'without' or 'scarcely'] batting an eye — in the face of such departures?” Beach Patrick, “The Sound and the Spectacle,” Des Moines Register, 12 June 1994, Entertainment §, at 1.

Language-Change Index — *”without scarcely” for “without” or “scarcely”: Stage 1.

*Invariably inferior form.

For information about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “All through the life-long process of learning one’s ‘mother-tongue,’ one is liable to apprehend wrongly and to reproduce inexactly.” William Dwight Whitney, The Life and Growth of Language 34 (1875; repr. 1979).

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LawProse Lesson #171: “On” or “upon”?

On or upon?

These prepositions are usually synonymous and used in virtually identical ways. The distinctions are primarily in tone and connotation. On — the shorter, simpler, more direct word — is generally preferable {the trial court’s decision was based on the parol-evidence rule} {service on a defendant} {the case centers on a 2006 contract} {the burden is on the plaintiff}. Upon is stylistically inferior when on will suffice — if only because it tends to sound stuffy.

Yet upon is preferable in one circumstance: when it introduces a condition, occurrence, or event {upon a proper showing by the applicant, a license will be granted} {upon being served with interrogatories, the plaintiff called his lawyer} {he was arrested upon returning to the United States} {the voter left upon being told the polls were closed}. The sense “with little or no interval after” is often an important nuance of upon {the board may remove the officers for good cause shown upon a petition, notice, and hearing}.

Upon is also imperative in stock phrases such as once upon a time and take it upon yourself.

Stop yourself when you write upon and ask whether it’s introducing a condition, occurrence, or event. If not, use on. Your style will become fresher and more down-to-earth just by deleting two letters.

Further reading:
Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 633, 917 (3d ed. 2011).
Garner’s Modern American Usage 589, 834 (3d ed. 2009).

Thanks to John Crouchley and Charles L. Warner for suggesting this topic.

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Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: with.


“With” is increasingly being used as a quasi-conjunction to introduce a tag-on idea at the end of a sentence. The sense is close to “and” {John went to Houston and Sarah went to Minneapolis, with me going to Chicago}. Avoid this sloppy construction — e.g.:

o “Labor also has an edge on unemployment and welfare and social issues, with the Coalition considered better able to handle the environment, interest rates and taxation.” Michael Gordon, “Voters Swing Back to ALP on Issues,” Weekend Australian, 20-21 Jan. 1996, at 1. (A possible revision: “Labor also has an edge on unemployment and welfare and social issues; the Coalition is considered better able to handle the environment, interest rates and taxation.”)

“We separated, with me carrying [read 'and I carried'] a couple thoughts [read 'a couple of thoughts'] back to the office.” Dana Parsons, “Life on the Outside of the American Dream,” L.A. Times, 14 Nov. 1997, at B1.

Language-Change Index — “with” as a quasi-conjunction: Stage 3.

For information about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “The Spanish abound and delight in words of many syllables and where the English expresseth himself in one syllable, he doth in 5 or 6, as thoughts ‘pensamientos,’ ‘fray levantamiento,’ &c., which is held a part of wisdom, for while they speak they take time to consider of the matter.” James Howell, New English Grammar 40 (1662).

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Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: wisteria; wistaria.

wisteria; wistaria.

Americans are often surprised to learn that the flowery vine was named “wistaria” (after Caspar Wistar, an anatomist), not “wisteria.” A prominent etymologist calls the change in spelling “apparently a misprint” in 1819. Robert K. Barnhart, Dictionary of Etymology 885 (1995). The original does still show up in American print sources, but usually in proper nouns — e.g.: “Last month they celebrated the annual Wistaria Festival in honor of a sprawling 114-year-old vine that is recognized as one of the world’s largest blossoming plants.” Joe Mozingo, “Fire Looms over Sierra Madre,” L.A. Times, 29 Apr. 2008, at B3. Even when California papers are reporting on the Wistaria Festival, though, they spell the plant name “wisteria.”

The Oxford English Dictionary favors “wistaria,” but American dictionaries list it as a variant spelling. It is so uncommon in American English that some writers feel compelled to comment on it — e.g.: “[W.D.] Rose promised that the drink would ‘conjure up visions . . . of wistaria [sic] blooming in old patios, of sights and smells associated only with the Vieux Carre.’” Amanda Hesser, “1935: Ramos Gin Fizz,” N.Y. Times, 15 June 2008, at MM67 (ellipsis and “[sic]” notation are in the original).

Language-Change Index — “wisteria” in American English: Stage 5.

For information about the Language-Change Index click here.
Quotation of the Day: “Verbal miasma, when it deliberately obscures the truth, is an offense to reason.” “The Euphemism: Telling It Like It Isn’t,” Time (as quoted in Language Awareness 59, 61 (Paul Eschholz et al. eds., 2d ed. 1978)).

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