Usage notes from 2011

Over at FB, I’ve been posting an occasional series of friday usage tips. Here’s what we’ve looked at so far:

Usage tip #1: That and Which. As a rule, use “that” for defining clauses, i.e. when what follows restricts what preceded (“the book that I wrote”); use “which” when what follows simply gives more information (“the book, which has a blue cover”).

Usage tip #2: Criterion and Criteria. “Criterion” is singular, “criteria” are plural. Avoid embarrassing malapropisms like “I have but one criteria” or (less common but heard on the radio just now) “he has ten criterion.”

Usage tip #3 is cosponsored by Embarrassing Malaprop of the Day: “[The bishops’ refusal to be assertive about Catholic identity] has left the Church open to attacks from secularists who hate it as antideluvian.” You can see where she went wrong—after all, it’s “deluge”—but rest assured that no one hates the Catholic Church for being opposed (“anti”) to “deluvian,” who or whatever he, she, or it may be, and only the dimmest of her critics would accuse her of being (as the writer presumably intended) antediluvian—from lat. ante=above/before + diluvium=flood/inundation.

Usage tip #4. The myth that a sentence cannot end in a preposition is, as Winston Churchill quipped, the sort of nonsense up with which we should not put. Our goal is always to write clearly, not to adhere to arbitrary rules. For precisely that reason, however, the sandwich’s stale bread shouldn’t put us off the good meat within, and the converse of Churchill’s point is also true: The gymnastics required to avoid ending a sentence in a preposition often produce an awkward and opaque construction, and fear of looking like a misguided pedant can produce muddier prose. Perhaps the translators of Crime & Punishment feared that they would seem wooden, formal, and old fashioned had they written “the moment for which she had waited so long had at last arrived,” or even “the moment she had awaited for so long had come at last,” but in avoiding it, they blundered into the horribly awkward sentence “the moment she had waited for [for] so long had come at last.”

Like that other irrepressible grammar myth that one must not split an infinitive, the preposition myth is a petrified exaggeration of a helpful rule of thumb: Ending sentences in prepositions can often produce muddier writing. Effective writers should treat the myth with a pinch of salt, always considering its guidance (and being aware of syntax in the first place), hewing to it when it produces clearer, punchier prose, and ignoring it when it doesn’t.

One more point about usage, although it’s not a tip per se and isn’t supported by any rule of usage—it’s just personal aesthetic taste. I suggest that the recent trend by anti-latin types towards forcing round latin loanwords into awkwardly square English pluralizations—rather than simply using the latin pluralization 1—produces ugly words. This is especially true of formerly second declension neuter nouns. It’s media, quanta, stadia, memoranda, addenda, aquaria, etc., not mediums, quantums, stadiums, memorandums, addendums, aquariums, etc. It is referenda not referendums, fora not forums, gymnasia not gymnasiums, maxima and minima not maximums and minimums, dicta not dictums… Although I confess that I balk at the thought of listing the alba in my CD collection!


  1. The accepted approach until recent decades, and still the accepted approach with appropriations from languages like french: “SolicitorS-general”!

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