Seven common linguistic peeves

Editing is idiosyncratic, of course, but these irksome elements should be universally shunned.

We all have our editorial idiosyncrasies. Here are seven words, phrases or other subjects that make me peevish:

1. “Beg the question”

If you see this phrase in print, it’s likely to mean “to bring up an obvious question,” as in “That begs the question of how we are going to balance the budget” or “to prompt a question in response to something,” as in, “The new evidence begs the question of whether the defendant was guilty after all.”

To beg the question, however, originally meant to make a statement that assumes that the proposition in question is true; an example is, “Most scholars discount Smith’s theories because they don’t agree with him.” This original definition, however, is being overwhelmed by the new senses described above. They are so ubiquitous that they are coming to be accepted as valid, but such acceptance dilutes the value of the pure meaning. It’s best not to use the phrase at all. Try “raises the question” when that’s what is meant.

2. “I could care less.”

Perhaps I care about this too much, because it doesn’t come up often, but more than never is too much. The correct expression is “I couldn’t care less,” meaning, “The degree to which I care is the least possible amount.” Some people argue that “I could care less” is a way of shrugging an issue off by implying that the minimal extent to which one is concerned about it could be diminished even further. My opinion: It’s a mishearing of the correct form, and those who write it the wrong way are writing it the wrong way.

3. Different

When I read a sentence such as, “Seventeen different languages are spoken by students at the school,” my first thought is, “As opposed to seventeen identical languages?” In other words, different is redundant to the statement of plurality. Different is the default.

4. Latin

Latin abbreviations such as i.e. and e.g. are valid, but they’re often misused or at least punctuated incorrectly (or not at all), and “for example” and “that is” serve just as well. The same goes for the Latin for “and so on”: etc.—which, by the way, is redundant not only to the foregoing abbreviations but also to “such as”—and “et al.” (“and others”), which, outside of a bibliography, is simply not necessary. And why use ergo when you can write thus? A good proportion of English vocabulary derives from Latin, but I advocate minimizing direct borrowing.

5. Nonprofit

I abhor the use of nonprofit as a stand-alone noun, and I find I must append the word organization to that word, converting it into an adjective: “nonprofit organization.” The same opposition applies to multinationals; I favor “multinational corporations.”

6. Quality

I once worked for a publication whose editor in chief banned the word quality alone when “high quality” is meant, as in “This is a quality publication.” It was an oddly specific prohibition from a person who wouldn’t be expected to bother with such specific usage, but I agreed with her then, and I do now; I never use the term in isolation in that context.

7. Scare quotes

Quotation marks used as the written equivalent of wiggled-finger air quotes are usually unnecessary. They’re especially so in conjunction with so-called—in fact, they’re redundant in that case: “So-called notification laws require businesses to notify customers when certain unencrypted customer data is improperly accessed.”

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