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Inflammable green ideas sleep furiously

I’ve been thinking about this because we’re doing the final copyediting for our book . . . there are some words you just can’t use because people get confused:

– “which” and “that”: Some people, including copy editors, are confused on this; see here for more on the topic). The short answer is that you can use “which” pretty much whenever you want, but various misinformed people will tell you otherwise.

– “comprise”: I once had a coauthor correct my manuscript by crossing out “comprise” and replacing with the (wrong) “is comprised of.” I try to avoid the word now so that people won’t think I’m making a mistake when I use “comprise” correctly.

– “inflammable”: This one has never come up in my books, but I’ve always been amused that “inflammable” means “can catch fire.” But it sounds like it means “nonflammable,” so now we just use “flammable” to avoid confusion.

– “forte”: According to the dictionary, it’s actually pronounced “fort,”, not “fortay.” But everybody says “fortay,” so I can either use it wrong, like everybody else, or say “fort” and leave everybody confused. I just avoid it.

– “bimonthly”: I think by now you know where I’m heading on this one. Again, I just avoid the word (on the rare occasions that it would arise).

– “whom”: I never know whether I should just use “who” and sound less pedantic.

– splitting infinitives: I do this when it sounds right, even when (misinformed) people try to stop me.

By the way, my copy editor has been great. He’s made lots of unncessary comments (for example, on “which” and “that”) but I just ignore these. More importantly, he’s found some typos that I hadn’t caugh.


  1. Phil Price says:

    "Forte" is an example of a class of relatively recent imports from foreign languages. "Bruschetta" is another one of these: Should I say it the Italian way, broo-sketta — sch is pronounced "sk" in Italian — or the American way, broo-chetta? Even in an Italian restaurant, I'll sometimes say it the Italian way and the waiter will repeat the order back the American way. Unlike with "forte", there's no option of just avoiding the word: if you want to order the item, you have to say the word. I think the right answer is to pronounce it the American way: I would say Naples rather than Napoli, Rome rather than Roma, etc. I also use forte = "fortay" sometimes, even though (as with broochetta) it always pains me just a little to do so.

    As for "straw person," this somehow makes me think of the grief that some reporters (and Jon Stewart) gave White House spokesman Tony Snow about using the phrase "hug the tar baby": some people thought, or claimed to think, that this is a racist comment! Sheesh.

  2. Steve says:

    "'whom': I never know whether I should just use 'who' and sound less pedantic."

    Who when it refers to the subject of the sentence, and whom when it refers to the object.

    – splitting infinitives: I do this when it sounds right, even when (misinformed) people try to stop me.

    I think I read in the Economist that it's OK to do this now and then.

  3. Daniel says:

    Those reporters (and Jon Stewart) were just being niggardly.

  4. I think you may have meant "hadn't caught." :)

  5. Greg says:

    Actually, "fortay" is the first pronunciation listed in most American dictionaries I've seen. OED lists "fortay" as the second pronunciation and "fort" as deprecated, and lists usage of the word in English as early as 1682.

  6. Corey says:

    I try not to take it literally when someone claims to be nauseous, because the word means "causing nausea", not "nauseated".

    If a learning curve is a plot of time versus skill in a task, then a steep learning curve indicates that the task is *easy* to learn.

  7. David Pattison says:

    What about, e.g., "a paper of Gelman's." It's surprising to me how many writers (and copy editors) will insist that this should be "a paper of Gelman," on the grounds that the "of" already makes it possessive. Yet they'll admit that "a paper of mine" is correct but not "a paper of me." The odd usage seems more common among math-types, economists, etc., than in lieterature. (I've seen, in economics, phrases like "a graph of Lucas."

    To avoid the problem, I write "a paper by Gelman."

  8. derrida derider says:

    My favourite wince-phrase is "prison escapee". The warders are the escapees – the erstwhile prisoner is the escaper.

  9. Rahul Dodhia says:

    There's a wealth of illogic in the language. How about the phrase "all but…". I always took it to mean "everything except …", leading to a lot of confusion when people actually meant "almost entirely…". E.g., "all but ready for the game" – is he (sorry, she) in any state possible except being ready, or is he/she totally ready?