Monthly Archives: August 2013

Contronyms: Literally having opposite meanings

literallyVociferous hue and cry arose recently over the inclusion of the figurative meaning of “literally” (that is, using it to mean “figuratively” instead of “actually”) in the dictionary. The history of the word’s usage and the purpose of a dictionary have been well discussed, so here I want to talk about the phenomenon of a word having two meanings that are opposites of each other.

These words are called “contronyms” (also “auto-antonyms” or “Janus words,” after the two-faced Roman god) and they’re more common in English than you might think. Here are a few examples:

Cleave can mean “to cut apart” or “to cling together.”

Impregnable can mean “able to be impregnated” or “unable to be breached.” (The tricky “im-/in-” prefix leads to confusion over the word “inflammable,” which means not “non-flammable” but instead “highly flammable.”)

Rent and lease can each mean either to allow someone to use something (such as a residence, vehicle or piece of equipment) for money without selling it, or to pay money to use something without buying it.

Sanction can mean “to allow” or “to restrict.”

Strike can mean “to hit,” or, in baseball, “to not hit.”

And, of course, literally can mean both “actually” and “figuratively.” No one can accuse English of making sense.

(Daily Writing Tips offers a much longer list if you want to see more contronyms.)


You still need a person

Machine translation isn’t there yet.

A recent post on the Economist’s language blog about a sign on a New York shop window discussed the inadequacy of relying solely on a computer or bilingual dictionary for translation. All the shop owner — admirably — wanted to do was welcome tourists in their own language (some of them, anyway, and I still don’t get the purpose of having a greeting in Latin, but it does bring to mind the classic Monty Python Latin grammar scene in “Life of Brian”). But instead of saying “Welcome!” the greeting, many of the words were “welcome” the noun, as in reception, which would have made little sense to visiting Norwegians, Russians and others.

The Economist post points out that one should at least check the part of speech when using a dictionary or computer translator. One word should be clear enough, but what about a whole sentence? That seems to inevitably result in gibberish, as is commonly spotted in signs around the world. And while bad signs or directions can be funny, they can also be confusing, misleading or offensive.

I’m all about clarity and accuracy, but I also realize that sometimes you need to say something in a language you don’t know. The only good way to do this is to get a speaker of both languages to help you. Barring that, if you must use a computer translator, check the translation by running it back into English to see what was lost.

Let’s try it with Austen: Continue reading

Don’t sweat it: Since and because

From "Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins," by Theodore Bernstein

From “Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins,” by Theodore Bernstein

I’ve already said not to sweat “due to” and “because of,” and here’s another pair that includes “because” that you don’t need to sweat. “Since” has been used with a causal meaning for centuries, and there’s no reason to prohibit that sense of “since,” even though some people insist we should (and discussions about it can get a little heated).

The reason for this insistence is that “since” might be ambiguous, since it can have either a time sense or a causal sense. But there are only a few instances where “since” may truly be ambiguous (“Since you came over, I feel better” — does “since” here mean “because” or “from the time that”?); in fact, most sentences containing “since” have enough context to make the meaning clear.

Bottom line: If you think a sentence containing “since” might be misunderstood or cause a reader to stumble, recast it to ensure clarity. Otherwise, use “since” to mean “because” wherever you like.

Stuff editors like: Office supplies

Office supplies

Most of the editors I know these days do the vast majority of their work electronically. But as I was looking through the Sunday advertising inserts — it’s back-to-school time and the ads were full of supplies — I realized that many editors I know have a fondness bordering on obsession for notebooks, pens, clips, sticky notes, index cards and the like.

Instead of awaiting fashion catalogs in the mail, we get giddy when the latest Levenger catalog arrives (no, I don’t get paid for mentioning it). We stroll the aisles of the big-box stores looking not at clothes or TVs, but at rows of writing implements and blank pages to use them on. We still send paper cards and mail letters on real stationery from time to time.

I could speculate that because so much work now is on-screen, the permanence and physicality of pen and paper has a stronger pull.

But I’m betting that those of us who love office supplies and paper now were children who loved going back school, because it meant we got pristine notebooks and brand-new pens, fresh boxes of crayons and unsharpened pencils, and unsullied binders and bags to organize them all in.

And I’m betting at least some of us are picking up a few things from the back-to-school section this month — you can never have too many notebooks.

Comings and goings, bringings and takings

Speaking of bring / brought / brought, people often get confused about when to TakeBringClouduse “bring” and when to use “take.” Some people use the two words interchangeably, but they aren’t interchangeable, or they aren’t if you are trying to communicate clearly.

“Bring” vs. “take” is easier to understand if it’s compared with “come” and “go,” because both pairs are distinguished by viewpoint.

“Come” and “bring” are both used when movement is “toward”:

Harry is coming at 8 tonight. He is bringing Hermione and Ron to meet us.
(The speaker is, or will be, where Harry is arriving.)

“Go” and “take” are both used when movement is “away” or elsewhere:

Harry is going to Hogsmeade. He is taking Hermione and Ron.
(The speaker is not, or will not be, where Harry is arriving.)

Continue reading

Why does English … ? Just because

As a child, I hated the answer “Because” when I asked the question “Why?” It’s a non-answer answer that imparts no information and implies that the matter is closed.

As an adult, I teach editing and writing, and work individually with students who need help in both. They have lots of questions — good questions — about why English is the way it is. And, unfortunately, the simple answer to many of those questions is “Because.” (In fact, many of the questions have complicated answers based on when words entered English, where they came from and when their forms were standardized, but those answers don’t fit neatly in a sentence or two, so I’m left with a choice between 10 minutes of explaining or “Because.”)

Continue reading