A Desk-Book of Errors in English/C


cabbage for "steal" or "crib," as from a pony, is schoolboy slang.

cake, takes the: A slang equivalent for "wins the prize." Used usually to designate that the person, act, or statement to which it is applied exceeds in impudence anything within the knowledge of the persons present.

calculate: The verb signifies to ascertain by mathematical or scientific computation; and the word calculated therefore strictly means adapted by calculation. It is then illogical to speak of "measures calculated to do harm" when the measures were in fact designated for a specific purpose—that of doing good.

calligraphy and cacography respectively mean good and bad writing. It is therefore pleonastic to speak of excellent calligraphy or wretched cacography; and to describe the former as wretched would simply be to say that at the same time it was both excellent and the reverse.

cameo: The plural of the word is not formed by adding "-es" as in "potato" or "grotto" but by the adding of "-s "; as, cameos.

can: Misused for may. Can always refers to some form of possibility. An armed guard may say "You can not pass," since he has physical power to prevent; hence the question "Can I pass the guard?" is perfectly natural. But where simple permission is required may should be used. "May I (not can I ) use your ruler?"

can but, can not but: Discriminate carefully between these phrases. Both these sentences are grammatically correct, though they have not exactly the same meaning: "I can not but believe your proposition" means "I can not help believing," etc.; while "I can but believe your proposition" means "I can only believe," etc., a much less strong assertion.

canine should not be used for "dog."

cannon, a tubular gun, comes from Greek kanna, reed, and must be distinguished from canon, a rule or law, which comes from the Greek kanon, rule.

capacity. Compare ability.

caption is not to be used in the sense of title, save as to a legal document "showing the time, place, circumstances and authority—under which it was made or executed." "The affectation of fine big-sounding words which have a flavor of classical learning has had few more laughable or absurd manifestations than the use of caption (which means seizure, act of taking) in the sense ... of heading."—R. G. White, Words and Their Uses, ch. 5, p. 98.

carnival, which comes from the Latin caro, flesh, + levo, take away, and alludes in Catholic countries to the pre-Lenten "farewell to meat," which concludes with Mardi Gras, has been stigmatized by Dr. William Mathews as an "outlandish term" which "has not a shadow of justification" in the popular sense of a gay festivity or revel. Inasmuch as the pre-Lenten farewell is marked by festival, frolic and fun, the stigmatization is undeserved, and such expressions as "the crows are holding high carnival on the hill" are not merely permissible but good.

carry: Although formerly used with the meaning of "conduct," "guide," or "escort" the term in this sense is now archaic. Do not say "Mr. A. carried Miss B. to the party;" say rather, "...escorted Miss B...." Compare also bring.

case: Not to be applied to persons. The expression sometimes used of an eccentric or vicious person, "He is a case" or "a hard case," is an objectionable colloquialism.

casket, which is from the French casque, helmet, is frequently now used in the United States as a euphemism for coffin, which is from the Greek kophinos, basket. Such innovations are not to be recommended. They savor of pedantry, or, worse still, of pride. If coffin is not good enough for the worthy deceased or for his purse-proud relatives, why rest content with the simple casket, when by a mere figure of speech sarcophagus may save the reputation of both the living and the dead?

casuality is an obsolete form of casualty, and should be treated as such.

cataclasm and cataclysm are often interchanged. The Greek kata, down, is combined in the one case with klaō, break, and in the other with klyzo, wash. Where sudden overwhelming change is intended, as by revolution, cataclasm is to be preferred to cataclysm, which, though sometimes used to signify such a change, is strictly applied to an overwhelming flood of water, and, specifically, to the Noachian deluge.

catch on, to: A colloquialism having two distinct meanings, the first bordering on the vulgar, is used by persons with little sense of refinement in speech for "to understand"; the second, used instead of "to suit the popular fancy" or "to please the popular taste."

ceiling which in derivation is allied with the French ciel, Lat. cœlum, heaven, is to be distinguished from its homonym sealing, the act of attesting with a seal, which springs etymologically from the Latin sigillum, dim. of signum, mark.

celery, salary: Exercise care in spelling these words. Celery is a biennial herb; salary, a periodical allowance made as compensation for services.

cereal, a word derived from Ceres, the goddess of corn. It has nothing in common, save the sound, with serial, which fitly describes a literary publication in parts issued successively (Lat. series, sere, join). Exercise care in spelling these words.

cession, from Latin of cedo, yield, meaning surrender, must not be confounded with session, from Latin sedeo, sit, as used in the expression a session of court.

character, reputation: These are not synonymous terms. Character is what one is; reputation is that which one is thought to be. Character includes both natural and acquired traits; reputation designates only those traits acquired as by contact with one's fellow men. Holland in Gold Foil (p. 219) makes the following distinction: "Character lives in a man; reputation outside of him."

chargeable: Do not spell this word chargable. Remember its components are charge + able and the "e" is retained before the second "a."

cherubim and seraphim: Do not use these plurals as singulars. There is no such thing as a cherubim.

chew the rag: A low phrase sometimes used as an equivalent for "wrangle;" as, "stop chewing the rag," meaning, "cease wrangling." The use of expressions of this kind can not be too severely condemned.

childlike, childish: There is a distinction between these words. The one is used in a good sense, the other is spoken in derogation.

chin music: A low phrase sometimes used as an equivalent for "talk," but not uttered by persons of refinement.

chuck-full is the American colloquial form of choke- or chock-full, but this form finds no literary favor, and indeed the expression is far from elegant, both in sense and sound.

circus: This word should not be used as a synonym of "frolic;" as such it is a vulgar perversion.

cite, from the French citer (Latin cito, frequentative of cieo, call), means "mention by name, summon" and has no relationship with site, similarly pronounced, which means "local position," and is derived from Lat. situa, pp. of sino, put.

citizen: Not to be used for person, except when civic relations are referred to. "All citizens are entitled to the protection of the law," but not "Ten citizens were walking up the street," unless reference is had to some civic relation, as when opposed to soldiers, policemen, residents of the country, or the like.

claim: "He claimed that the discovery was his," "I claim that this is true," etc. Incorrect if the meaning is simply assert or maintain; but correct if the meaning is assert with readiness to maintain, and confidence that the thing asserted can be maintained, with the added idea that it makes for the advantage or side of him who asserts and maintains it.

clever: In American colloquial usage clever means "good-natured and obliging"; in English use it means "skilful." The American synonym for the English meaning of "clever" is smart, and the English synonym for the American meaning of "clever" is jolly.

climax, acme: Discriminate carefully between these words. A climax is a successive increase in force of language for the purpose of intensifying it. The acme is the highest point or greatest intensity attained.

climb down: As to climb signifies ascension, this colloquialism of the United States is apparently unwarranted. If, however, a descent be laborious, as though by hands and feet, crawl should be used as a substitute for climb.

coeval, contemporary: Discriminate carefully between these terms. Coeval is said of things existing at the same time; contemporary is applied to persons living in the same period.

coffin. Compare casket.

commence. Compare begin.

commodious. Compare convenient.

common. Compare mutual.

commonly: Do not confound this word with generally, frequently, usually. That is commonly done which is common to all; that is generally done, which is done by the larger number; that is frequently done which is done by a large number or by a single person on many occasions; that is usually done which is customarily done whether by many or one.

community is not a common noun personified, and therefore should always be preceded by the article. Congress and Parliament, State and Church have been personified, and may accordingly be used definitely in the singular number without the article; but to permit such treatment to army, navy, public, or community would be a literary solecism.

compare to or with: We compare one thing with another to note points of agreement or difference. We compare one thing to another which we believe it resembles.

"As a writer of English he [Addison] is not to be compared, except with great peril to his reputation, to at least a score of men."—Richard Grant White, Words and their Uses, ch. 4, p. 79.

He should have said with. If Addison is to be compared to the (presumably) able writers referred to, it can not be with "peril to his reputation." If comparing him with these men is perilous to his reputation, then for his sake the comparison should not be made. The sentence is an attempt to combine two ideas incompatible in a single construction, viz., "If he is compared with these men, it will be to his disadvantage," and "He is not to be compared to these men."—Standard Dictionary.

complected for complexioned is dialectical in the United States, and not sanctioned in general usage.

complement, compliment: Discriminate carefully between these words. Complement means "full quantity or number; that which is needed to complete or fill up some quantity or thing; or a complete or symmetrical whole." A compliment is "a delicate flattery, an expression of admiration or an act of civility or courtesy."

complete: A speech may be finished but far from complete. To finish is to bring to an end, but to complete is to bring to a state in which there is nothing more to do. You finish your dinner, but complete your toilet.

completion. Compare final.

comprehend. Compare apprehend.

conciseness. Compare brevity.

conclude should not be used for "close." To conclude is a mental process; to close a physical one.

condign means "well-merited "; therefore, the common phrase "condign punishment" is correct, but the phrase "Deserving (or not deserving) condign punishment," is absurd because tautological.

conduct: Although the dictionaries give both a transitive and intransitive place to this verb in the signification of "behave," it should properly be used only reflexively, as a transitive. Say, "How did the débutante conduct herself?" rather than "How did the débutante conduct?"

confess. Compare own.

congratulate. Compare felicitate.

congregation, corps: Exercise care in the use of these words. A congregation is an assemblage of persons who meet as for religious worship or instruction; a corps is a body of men associated in some specific work, as a marine corps; a corps of engineers. A congregation embraces both sexes, corps is restricted to the male sex.

con man: A vulgar term for a swindler's decoy or "bunco-steerer"; a confidence man: not used in polite society.

conscious, which relates to knowledge within one's self, should not be used for aware, which implies being on the lookout. The one refers only to the past, or a present allied to the past, the other to the future. We are conscious of suffering, but aware of imminent danger. One is conscious of the inner workings of his own mind, but aware of that which exists without him.

constantly does not always mean "continually." A man eats constantly but he would soon cease to be a man if he were to eat continuously. In this sense constantly means "regularly" and continuously means "without ceasing." Perpetually, which means "incessantly," must also, and for the same reason, be distinguished from constantly. Compare perpetually.

construct: Although this verb formerly had the meaning of construe, both words having the same etymology, being derived from the Latin con, together, + strua, pile up, it must no longer be used as synonymous therewith. You construe a sentence but construct a theory.

construction. Compare building.

construe. Compare construct.

consul, counsel, council: Discriminate carefully between these words. A consul is an officer appointed to reside in a foreign port or city as the representative of his country's commercial interests; a counsel is a lawyer engaged to give advice or act as advocate in court; a council is a body of persons elected or appointed to assist in the administration of government or to legislate; a councilor is a member of a council; a counselor is one who gives counsel; or, who is an adviser or a lawyer.

contagious, contiguous: Discriminate carefully between these words. A disease may be contagious, that is catching; fear is contagious when it spreads from one to another. Contiguous is used chiefly of neighboring regions or places and means "adjacent or situated so as to touch."

contemplate: May be used in the sense of plan, intend, but unless the matter in question be somewhat doubtful and involves further thoughtful consideration, it is better to say intend or propose.

contemporary. Compare coeval.

contemptible, contemptibly, contemptuous, contemptuously: Discriminate carefully between these words. A contemptible person is one deserving of contempt as for meanness or vileness; contemptibly means "in a contemptible manner" or "in a manner deserving of contempt." A contemptuous person is "a disdainful person." One who speaks contemptuously of another speaks of him with scorn or disdain.

continual, continuous: Continual implies the repeated renewal of an act; continuous means its unceasing continuity. The following sentence will serve to illustrate the correct use of these words. " Continual interruptions impede continuous work."

continually. Compare constantly.

controller, derived from the French contre rôle, and indicating a person whose office it is to keep a counter roll or check in the accounts of others, should not properly be spelt comptroller, which word originates in a false derivation from compter, to count. Instead of the word being thus derived, the spelling has been accommodated by some to the imagined derivation.

convenient, commodious: These terms are not always interchangeable. A room may be "convenient" in that it is suitable for a required purpose and "commodious" because it affords ample accommodation for the purpose for which it is applied. A book may be convenient in size or arrangement but not commodious.

correspond: When the word means " answer or conform to "it is followed by the preposition to; when it means " hold written communication " the preposition is with.

cotemporary which implies " equally temporary " should not be used for "contemporary" which means existing at the same time.

cough up: Used as an equivalent for "pay up," is vulgar and, therefore, not used in polite society.

council, councilor, counsel, etc. Compare consul.

couple: Does not mean merely two, but two united, as it were by links. Thus a man and wife illustrate a couple; but to talk of " a couple of weeks " is an absurdity for were two weeks coupled so as to become one, the product (one week multiplied by two) would no longer be a week but a fortnight.

couple, two: Discriminate carefully between these terms. Couple as an indefinite amount is a Teutonism common in America. Do not say " He has a couple of dollars in the bank"; say rather, " He has some money in the bank." Compare couple.

courage. Compare bravery.

courier, currier: Discriminate carefully between these terms. A courier is a special messenger sent express with letters or despatches; an attendant on a party of travelers. A currier s a man who dresses leather or combs a horse.

covey: As this word means " a brood or hatch of birds," especially quails or partridges, it should not be applied to persons or things as is done by Thackeray in "The Virginians," ch. 27.

creditable is sometimes confounded with credible, but the one word means that which redounds to one's credit, whereas the other signifies that which is worthy of belief.

crime, sin, vice; Exercise care in the use of these words. Crime is an abstractly, flagrant violation of law or morality in general; sin, disagreement in word, thought, deed, or desire, whether by omission or commission, with the divine law; vice is the habitual deviation from moral rectitude.

crow, a colloquialism for exult.

crush implies to force out of shape, therefore, it is pleonastic to say "crush out," of a mutiny.

cultivation, culture: Discriminate carefully between these words. While one of the various senses of cultivation is culture, culture should be used only of the development of the individual.

cunning, meaning "artful," and by extension " innocently artful," and hence "bright," "amusing," or "characterized by quaint and playful moods," is often improperly introduced to imply "dainty," "choice," especially if applied to anything diminutive. Such usage is not permissible. A kitten may properly be said to be cunning, but not a brooch, although (in archaic usage) that may exhibit the cunning or skill of the artificer.

curious, in such expressions as "It is a curious fact" has been hypercritically censured. The propriety of the usage is unquestionable. "Curious first … denoted a state of mind, interest or diligence in inquiry or prosecution; then it was predicated of things which exhibit evident tokens of care (cura), dextrous application, ingenuity; and, as such things are out of the common and are apt to arrest attention, it naturally acquired the sense of 'novel,' 'unusual,' or more generally 'novel and noticeable.'"—Fitzedward Hall, False Philology, p. 25.

cuss: A vulgar corruption of "curse," designating a worthless or disagreeable person, and as such it should be avoided.—To cuss and swear, that is, "to use blasphemous language" is a phrase that also should be avoided by persons having pretensions to refinement.

custom, habit: It is the custom of a person to do a thing until it becomes a habit. From a voluntary act of the will it has grown into an involuntary practise. It will thus be seen that whereas a custom is followed, a habit is acquired. Moreover, as involuntary acts are not predicated of bodies of people, habits are of necessity compared to individuals, "The custom of social nipping tends to individual habits of dissipation."

customs. Compare excise.

cut it out, with the sense "eliminate," is of recent introduction and may be characterized as expressive though inelegant.

cute, which is an abbreviation of acute and means "shrewd, smart, clever, or bright" is a colloquialism, and as such is not favored in certain literary circles.