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How To Avoid Sounding Like an Idiot

Avoiding the Pet Peeves of People Who Read Your Stuff (II)

Gerunds & High Anxiety Prose

High Anxiety Prose (HAP) is what people write who are self-consciously trying to be especially formal. Graduate students' grant applications are often written in HAP. In such prose, one "obtains" rather than "gets" things, "engages" rather than "hires" assistants, "resides" rather than "lives" in a house, "commences" rather than "begins" the research, and the like. Passives abound in HAP, where "it is here proposed" and "it is thought by some" are preferred to "I suggest" and "some think."

HAP is intended to suggest subliminally that the writer (who has doubts about being sufficiently educated and competent) is very educated and competent, and is also taking the task at hand very seriously. When it is bad enough to intrude on the reader's attention, HAP mostly suggests high anxiety, and perhaps an intention to deceive and it rapidly becomes annoying or silly. Being formal without being silly is a challenge, to which HAP is not a very good answer. (Actually, being human without being silly is rather a challenge, but never mind that now.) In the following absurd use of the passive, the chair of the Democratic Party opened himself up to widespread giggling as he described its goals in 2004:

We want to support the ability of the Congress to be taken back by the Democrats.

One characteristic of HAP is overuse of the gerund. An English gerund is a verb form ending in -ing that is used as a noun:

"Eating is a fine thing to do unless you are served ants."

As a verb form, a gerund can still have an object, even though it works as a noun:

"Eating ants is not a fine thing to do."

But since, however verbal, it is nevertheless also a noun, its object can also appear as a prepositional phrase rather than a garden-variety object:

"The eating of ants is incompatible with good digestion."

In about 80% of all such structures found in termpapers, research proposals, and dissertations, it is better to leave out "the" and "of" and say "eating ants" rather than "the eating of ants." Note how the marked omissions improve the flow of the following examples.

Footnote on ant eating

Caution: Not all gerunds in this form involve an object. "The crowing of roosters" and "the eating of roosters" have very different structures lying behind them. The result is that "the eating of roosters" can be rewritten as "eating roosters" (so long as it is the roosters who are to be eaten!) with no significant change of meaning. On the other hand "crowing roosters" are roosters, but "the crowing of roosters" is the sound. It is not easy to make hard and fast stylistic rules that are also simple!

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Outrunning One's Vocabulary: More High Anxiety Prose

Another aspect of High Anxiety Prose is the tendency to use fine-sounding words that one can't really define and probably would not use in speech. Some of these produce the desired effect. Others subvert the high tone of your paper by producing unexpectedly comic results. (Indeed the character of Mrs. Malaprop in a classic play called "The Rivals" enshrined forever the term "malapropism" for words accidentally meaning something different from what the speaker seems to think.)

Here are some charmingly silly examples, mostly from old papers and exams:

It can of course happen that people use the wrong word simply through carelessness, when they in fact know better.

George, 73, who did not want his last name used, has been found a room in the Sara Frances Hotel downtown. He is the benefactor of a Senior Community Centers' program that helps the homeless find shelter and other assistance. —San Diego Union-Tribune [For "beneficiary."]

[Vertebrate digits were] produced by unequal proliferation of the posterior part of an ancestral appendix. —Nature (375,678) [Presumably for "appendage."]
(A colleague sent this example to me with the comment, "The authors cannot tell their elbows from the lower ends of their guts.")

Today is an historic day to stay the lease.
[From a speech welcoming the new chancellor at UCSD; it probably should be "to say the least" with the final "T" out of place, unless the speaker thought the new chancellor would pay off UCSD's mortgage.]

For foreign speakers, the risk is, of course, much greater, since the errors are less likely to jump out when they proofread. This happens even in formal speeches or published pieces:

Taiwan welcomed the Dalai Lama with the warm hospitalization for which the island is famous. —The China Post [For "hospitality."]

… we were not only fascinated by their art; we felt the attraction of a whole way of life and were moved by the friendship and warmth that eradicated from them." (From a book written and published in Scandinavia.) [For "radiated."]

This conflation of language training with closely-associated sciences helps our students improve their capabilities in the practical application of their studies after graduation. (From a Korean university web site) [For "combination."]

Unfortunately, many readers assume the error is not a matter of sloppiness but of actual ignorance or stupidity. Notice how the following newspaper item uses exact quotes to make fun of the California supreme court for seeming to try to increase school segregation:

In 1976, the state Supreme Court [decided] in Crawford vs. Board of Education of the City of Los Angeles that "school boards in California bear a constitutional obligation to take reasonably feasible steps to alleviate school desegregation regardless of its cause."

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17.1. Idiom Errors

A special case of outrunning one's vocabulary is to use words in phrases that are unidiomatic. At least in student writing, idiom errors are surprisingly common even among native speakers.

(It is theoretically interesting to consider how native speakers can make errors of idiom, especially in the case of common expressions. But then it is also theoretically interesting to consider how spelling errors come about, given that most of the printed material we see is correctly spelled. Clearly the brain is not producing written English on the basis of models it has seen, but by using generative principles that are still poorly understood.)

Here are some examples:

17.2. Non-Existent Words

Some high-anxiety prose includes words apparently intended to be high-sounding, but which do not actually exist in English:

17.3. Mixed Metaphors

Another special case of outrunning one's vocabulary is to create mixed metaphors.

17.4. Mindless Pomposity

In an effort to create prose formal enough for the occasion, some writers so overreach the norms of everyday language as to make themselves laughable. There is nothing "wrong" about it exactly, but the strain to seem formal is so extreme that the effect is comical at best. The following writer seems very worried about details:

The details of the syntax of the Mesoamerican writing system will be introduced and the basic details explained, though no attempt will be made to go into detail. Such detailed analysis involves a work no smaller than a book.

This kind of problem is usually solvable by simply reading the text aloud.

Overblown style can, of course, become downright offensive. The following ghastly passage by a self-satisfied writer for a prominent anthropology journal is overloaded with pretentious words, and the writer worsens the situation by condescendingly glossing each one for the benefit of readers assumed to be too ignorant to understand them:

The epistemological issues of anthropological knowledge and the ethical conception of the anthropologist's work are consistently present throughout Lévi-Struass's work, in its ontological (nature of man and society), aetiological (denaturation of man and society) and salvational (return to the means, or the absence of means, to alleviate these evils) dimensions.
17.5. Misused Technical Vocabulary

Beware of words with technical meanings if you do not mean them in those senses. For example:

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"Anacoluthon" refers to shifting grammatical structures mid-stream. The result is a sentence that "doesn't scan." Here are two examples, the first from a politician , the second from a student who may be destined to become a politician:

The grammatical problem here is that there are two structures mixed together: "as basic … as" and "more basic … than." But "as … than" doesn't make a known English structure.

Here are a few more termpaper and thesis examples of structures that don't scan:

It is rare that any termpaper fails to include at least one example of anacoluthon, which is, unfortunately, a mark of careless and/or broken English. Watch for it in proofreading your penultimate draft! (A polite way to excuse it is to argue that you think so fast when composing that your mind gets ahead of your hand. Unfortunately, that can't apply to the final draft, where less charitable interpretations readily commend themselves to the reader's imagination.)

A special case of ambiguity arises when prefixes are applied to phrases rather than to single words. This often happens in technical jargon, when a multi-word phrase becomes frozen as a single technical term. For example, what is meant by "pre-terminal birthweight babies"? It seems to have four quite different interpretations:

  1. pre-(terminal birth weight) babies
    = unborn babies who have not attained their terminal birth weight
    =babies whose weight has not yet come up to their weight at birth
  2. (pre-terminal) (birth weight) babies
    = babies whose weight before birth is the same as it will be when they are at term
    =babies already born whose weight is the same as it was when they were at term

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Foreign Words

English is one of the rare languages that uses the Latin alphabet without diacritical marks. Foreign words used in English should normally retain the original diacritical marks (Méhariste, Ciudad de Tetuán, Ballo in Màschera, and the like).

In the case of languages not natively written with Latin letters (Russian, Sanskrit, &c.), important consonant and vowel distinctions are often shown using diacritics in Latin-alphabet transcription. Some editors carefully preserve these, even when only one or two words are carried across into an English text. Others casually ignore them, figuring that the Latin spelling is not normal orthography for that language anyway. An important consideration in making such a decision is what the reader needs to know. If there is one Sanskrit word in an English essay, the diacritics are unlikely to matter. If there are two words that differ only in their diacritics, then obviously the two must not be written identically.

Chinese. Chinese is something of a special case: Of all the languages which do not use a Latin alphabet, Chinese is the one most widely studied by English speakers, and therefore your readers are more likely to need or want detailed information for Latinized Chinese than would be true of most other transcribed foreign words. Ideally, they would also like Chinese characters if you are up to that.

In the case of transliterated Chinese, most Western publishers and editors ignore tone marks, which creates confusion only if (as is sometimes the case) two words that differ only in tone can potentially be confused with each other. (For example, Wáng with a rising tone is a different surname from Wāng with an even tone; Xú with a rising tone is a different surname from Xǔ with a tone that falls and then rises; The Jīn dynasty is different from the Jìn dynasty —by about a 800 years.) Ignoring the tones is traditional enough that your English sources will normally not include tone information even at the cost of confusion. I once heard a prominent American historian of China argue that the tones "don't matter because nobody speaks Chinese anyway"!

Given that tone marks are rarely included, leaving off other markers of consonant and vowel differences as well makes matters worse. Chinese nú (slave) and nǚ (woman) are still different (nu and nü) when the tone marks are removed because the vowels U and Ü are different. But slaves and women become interchangeable when both are transcribed "nu"!

Similarly old-fashioned spellings like ch'un (spring), chun (avaricious), chün (gentleman) and ch'ün (flock) should not all be reduced to "chun," although some magazine editors do this. And the city of Xi'an has two syllables, divided by the apostrophe, while the word for a local district, "xian," has only one, properly shown by the absence of the apostrophe.

Obviously, it is difficult to restore tone marks to spellings that do not have them, and diacritical marks should never be randomly added to dress up transcriptions! (I have had a rash of student papers with quite random "tone marks" written over Chinese spellings. Apparently some students figure I like diacritics, so they kindly throw in a few in order to bring me joy.) It is far better simply to follow one's sources.

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Latin Abbreviations

English is one of the few languages that uses Latin abbreviations without retaining the Latin expressions they stand for. (We also use a few short Latin words that are not actually abbreviated, but that "feel" like abbreviations.) However confusing this may be, the writer in English is expected to use them correctly. (Using "i.e." when you mean "e.g." is an illiteracy that signals to the reader that you are an inattentive person.) Since the abbreviations are technically in a foreign language, occasional editors still prefer that they be italicized (underlined) in acknowledgment of their foreignness. Other editors prefer not to italicize them, since they are so completely part of written English. Here are the commonest ones:

e.g. (exempli gratia = "for example")
followed by an example, never by a restatement. ("She has a lot of classical music CDs, e.g. by Elvis Presley." "Fill in vital information, e.g., blood type.")
i.e. (id est = "that is")
followed by a restatement, never by an example. ("She went to heaven, i.e., she died." "We need help, i.e. money!")
viz (videlicet = "namely")
followed by a list, especially an exhaustive list. ("We have something from each of the four major food groups, viz grease, sugar, preservatives, and alcohol." "Bring just the necessities, viz money and credit cards.")
(Truly fussy people omit the period after "viz" because the z is the historical remnant of a Renaissance period. Most editors insist on the period, however, since they don't know that.)
ca. (circa = "around")
meaning "approximately," especially in historical dates. ("She was born ca. 1530 and died in 1582.")
(Some writers use "c." rather than "ca." Because "a" is already the last letter, some editors omit the period after it.)
fl. (floruit = "flourished")
used in historical dates. ("Huang Liandong [fl. 950] was an entirely incompetent poet blessed by a good publicity agent. We do not know his dates of birth or death.")
ibid (ibidem = "in the same place")
referring to the source cited most recently. ("He goes on to say [ibid] that … ") (Although it is actually an abbreviation, it is common to leave the period out after ibid.)
op. cit. (opere citato = "in the work cited")
referring to a work cited earlier, but not most recently. ("As we saw earlier, Brown (op.cit. p. 337) disagreed.")
passim (= "in passing")
referring to a subject mentioned frequently but briefly throughout a source. ("She implies [passim] that kissing frogs is a normal thing to do if want to marry a prince.") (This is a full Latin word, not an abreviation, so there is no period.)
sic (= "thus")
placed in square brackets after an error in quoted material to show that the error is quoted exactly as in the original. ("He said, 'She weren't [sic] able to do it.'") (This is a full Latin word, not an abreviation, so there is no period.)

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Spelling & Proofreading

Proofreading is what you do when you finish a final draft to be sure nothing screwy got into it when you were typing it. Errors introduced by your hitting the wrong keys are called "typos." It is undignified to fail to eradicate them, but they don't usually reflect on your level of literacy.

Spelling errors are another thing altogether. English spelling is perhaps the most difficult of any language using a Latin alphabet. (Indeed, despite the use of a small number of signs that make up our writing system, it is open to question whether English writing can be said to be alphabetical in any strict sense at all.) Nevertheless, spelling errors are commonly considered a mark of poor mental ability, and even a strong argument is rhetorically undermined when the reader notices that it comes from a mind that can't "even" spell. If you have a computer spelling checker, you should leave it running as you type, or at least have it run over the text when you finish. (Don't let it change things automatically, however, or it may make some unfortunate decisions about what you had in mind.)

Of course the computer spelling checker won't catch everything. In particular it won't catch homonyms: except/accept, to/too, dew/due, aloud/allowed, and so on. (That is how we get examples like the famous mail-out that urban folklore tells us read, "You may already be a wiener!")

I will never forget the student who wrote:

A woman could, under the Confusion Cannon, be divorced.

picture The student meant to write "Confucian Canon," but managed to misspell both words. A "confusion cannon," I assume, would look more like the picture at the right.

Here are some more examples of errors from student papers (probably mostly spelling errors) that were missed by spelling checkers because they happened to spell other words. Can they help it if the effect was sometimes accidentally absurd?

Proofreading Beyond Spelling

In rereading a text, one catches other kinds of errors too, of course: sentence fragments and misleading punctuation are examples. Another common change made at this stage is the excessive repetition of a single word. The following student seems to have been very impressed by the idea of difference:

This variance illuminates, for epigraphers, differences in dialectical differences arising among scribal depictions of those from different regions and different time periods.

Some sentences, when read after the passage of time or by someone who doesn't already know what you mean, turn out to have more than one meaning, sometimes even opposite meanings. Here are some examples from ambiguously written newspaper sentences:

Some sentences can turn out to be not only confusing, but actively stupid. Famous outrageous examples come from newspaper headlines that hit the stands before the proofreaders noticed anything wrong ("MacArthur Flies Back to Front"; "Iranian Army Push Bottles Up Iraqis"). But accidentally saying what you didn't mean happens in non-headline writing too. ("The pastor will preach his farewell address. The choir will sing 'Break Forth into Joy.'")

Here are a few examples written in the haste of UCSD exams:

Here are some instructions for doctoral participants in the UCSD graduation in 1988:

Adviser or substitute will hood the student as follows: Student removes mortarboard, gives hood to adviser, turns back to adviser, and stoops, if necessary.

Most graduates had no trouble with that, since they had been stooping all through graduate school, but the instruction was more poignant than intended when worded that way.

A spokesman for the UC Office of the President seems to have forgotten the condescending and dismissive connotation of the common expression "trophy wife" when he outrageously described the newly appointed female chancellors of UCSF and UCD:

Both are considered trophy chancellors. They're a blend of academic leadership and managerial skills, and they're bona fide scientists.

A lot of us have trouble proofing our own stuff, although some people are generally worse at it than others. If you can find a patient friend to proof your writing (or bribe an impatient one), that is not a bad idea. If you have to do it yourself, try to let some time pass between writing and proofing.

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A Short List of Troublesome Expressions

Affect, All Right, Alright, Anyway, Appear, As, Compose, Comprise, Effect, Envious, Kind, I, Imply, Infer , In-laws, Inter , Intra, Introduce, Jealous , Lay, Lead, Led, Lend , Lie , Like, Loan, Manifest , me, Method, Methodology, None, Plus, Presently, Reason, Self, Simple, Simplistic, Than Type

All Right & Alright

The expression "all right" is formally written as two words; the compound "alright" is still often regarded as an illiteracy, despite the expression having obviously become a single word in spoken language.


In written English, as in most spoken dialects, the word is "anyway," not "anyways."

As … As & Than

The word "as" is used in comparisons in which one asserts the equality or inequality of two things:

"As" is also used with multiples like "twice as much" and "half as much":

The word "than" is used in comparisons other than multiples to state that one thing has more or less of some quality than another thing:

For some reason, when the sentence gets a little longer, careless writers sometimes confound these two different kinds of comparison, and produce unacceptable hybrid expressions like the following example of anacoluthon:

As & Like

"Like" is a preposition and can occur only before a noun or noun-phrase. "As" is a conjunction, and can introduce a subordinate clause:

Rule of Thumb: If you can't change "like" to "unlike" and still have a grammatical sentence, then you should probably use "as" (or "as though") or "the way"!

Observation: Some of the finest writers and rhetoricians in our language have used "like" as a conjunction, and colloquial English requires that usage in some styles of writing. (That is presumably why it was used in the Winston cigarette jingle cited above.)

It does not follow that you can ignore the distinction. The fact that the usage is very likely to be regarded as substandard by many readers means that it should be used in writing only with careful thought. Remember that it is possible to lose out in competition for a job because of an inadvertent "illiteracy" in your letter of application. From the employer's side, a job applicant inattentive to the stylistic demands of an application letter may be thought likely to be inattentive in other areas as well. That would be something the prospective employer would wish to avoid!

Finally, some students, in common with my grandfather in his day, use "as" to mean "because" in formal writing. ("He did not attend, as he was sick that day.") The usage is not wrong, but it is often confusing if the context allow it to mean mean either "because" or "while." Moreover, "as" meaning "because" does not normally occur in spoken language any more, and it has never been particularly common even in writing. When "as" is used to mean "because" more than once per termpaper, it becomes obtrusive.

Compose & Comprise

Smaller parts compose a larger whole. (The provinces compose the nation; the nation is composed of the provinces.) In contrast, a larger whole comprises smaller parts. (The nation comprises the provinces.) In recent years people have taken to saying the smaller comprise the larger (the provinces comprise the nation), but this usage is still unacceptable to many speakers.

Effect & Affect

These two words are pronounced identically in most contexts, and most English speakers will go to their graves never having quite sorted them out. One wonders sometimes who came up with stuff like this. Still, it's how it is, so here are the rules:

efféct (N) the result of something:
He petitioned the governor to no effect.
The effect of his petition was that he was hanged.
His money had no effect on the election results.
efféct (V) to cause or bring about:
The missionaries finally effected a mass conversion.

afféct (V) (1) to have an effect on (!); (2) to pretend:
It was too late for his speech to affect the election results.
He affected not to know the child.
She affected to be a person of great education but spelled it "edjucation."
áffect (N) emotion (a technical term in psychology):
She exhibited no affect as she told of the rape.
She had an affect disorder and laughted at inappropriate times.


The plural of kinship terms ending in "-in-law" is formed before the "-in-law" is added. The possessive is formed afterward:

Being married twice, he had two mothers-in-law.
That is my mother-in-law's phone number.

(I never figured out what to do with the possessive plural, which would seem to be "mothers-in-law's," which looks pretty peculiar. Books on style wisely but unhelpfully keep silent on this.)

Infer & Imply

Imply = to state indirectly, hint, intimate. (People, their writings, or even circumstances can all imply things.)
You seem to imply that we were to blame.
The report implies we were to blame.
Infer = to conclude from evidence; to deduce. (Only people can infer things.)
Reading the report led him to infer that we were to blame.
Wrong: This pattern of building infers a less rigid mentality.
Right: This pattern of building implies a less rigid mentality.

Inter & Intra

"Inter-" means "between." "Intra-" means "within."

Inter-familial strife = strife between families
Intra-familial strife = strife within a family

Inter-office memo = memo between offices
Intra-office memo = memo within one office


One usually introduces the newcomer to the established person or the group, not the other way around.

In some cases there is little practical difference, although there remains a slight implication that the person being introduced is the outsider.

Jealous & Envious

In spoken English the word "jealous" is far along in the evolution to being a nearly exact synonym of "envious." However written usage is more conservative. In written English, to be envious of somebody is to wish one could have or do what that person has or does. To be jealous of somebody or something is to be protective or possessive and to want to keep other people away.

Even in spoken English, "jealous" is not yet identical with "envious." For one thing, the burden of traditional written usage will probably always infect "jealous." For another, a fascinating new distinction seems to be emerging by which "envy" is a sin, while "jealousy" is an emotion. It will be interesting to read the dictionaries of 150 years from now to see what will have happened to this.

Lead, Led, Led (vb.) & Lead (noun)

Lend & Loan

"Lend" is a verb. "Loan" is a noun. What is lent is a loan. Although you can "loan" somebody something in speech without most people noticing the "error," in writing it still counts as a lapse of style.

Lie & Lay

"Lie" (lie, lay, lain, lying) is an intransitive verb and cannot take a direct object:
"I like to lie in a hammock."

"Lay" (lay, laid, laid, laying) is a transitive verb and does take a direct object.
"Please lay the book on the table."

The difference is that simple, but confusion is caused by "lay" being both the present form of intransitive verb and the past form of the transitive one.

Don't lie in the water.Don't lay the book in the water.
He lay in the water.She laid the book in the water.
He's lain there for a week.She's laid the book there again.
He's still lying there.She's still laying stuff there.
He sure smells bad.Don't lend her your books.

As the last example from (the speechwriters of) the first President Bush reminds us, in spoken English, the two verbs seem to be merging with each other, and one hears sentences even from educated speakers that do not observe the distinction described here, even though most editors still insist upon it in written English.

Manifest & Appear

"Appear" is an intransitive verb. "Manifest" is a transitive and reflexive one (except in some occult literature). (Manifest is also an adjective and noun, of course.)

Me & I

"I" is used as a subject, "me" as an object.

Apparently the dialectical use of "me" as a subject (or predicate complement) caused generations of English teachers to urge generations of urchins to stop saying, "Me and Jim played marbles" and start saying, "Jim and I played marbles." So uncharacteristically thoroughly was this learned that now the urchins of America say ungrammatical things like, "She told Jim and I to go play marbles."

Confusing "I" and "me" should be avoided, especially by non-urchins.

An exactly parallel problem occurs with he/him and she/her. Note how the clumsiness of this unfortunate sentence from an exam is amplified by the wrong use of "he":

"It's me," by the way, is so widespread as to be inconspicuous even in writing. Meanwhile, "it is I" has become so formal as to be obtrusive in all but the most stuck-in-the-mud English. That is even more obviously the case with "me too." As a whole utterance, "Me too!" is effectively a frozen, single word. Nobody would say "I too!" On the other hand, as part of a longer sentence, only "I" would work: "I too think it was a good play."

Method & Methodology

The method is the way you do something. Methodology is either the branch of logic that studies methods, or a systematically linked set of principles and practices appropriate to a discipline.


"None" seems like a contraction of "no one," and I assume historically it probably is, but in contemporary English it alternates between being singular and being plural. When it means "not one," it is singular. ("Of all the people in my dorm, none gets up before 10.")

It is singular also if it is followed by "of" and a singular noun. ("None of the chocolate is going to survive the day.") When it means "not any" of several things it is plural. ("None of the refrigerator drawers have green slime in them yet." "None of the books were available in time.")


The word "plus" corresponds to the "+" sign in arithmetic and is used to pronounce sequences like "2 + 2 = 5." Extensions into other contexts occur in spoken English, but only a few of them are acceptable in written English:

(That last example comes from an ad for the "American English Writing Guide," a computer program that probably should not be trusted!)


"Presently" means "very soon." "At present" means "at the present time" or "now."


One says "the reason … that," not "the reason … because":


Words ending in -self may be intensive ("he himself said so") or reflexive ("she shot herself"). The term "myself" should not be used simply to mean "I" or to avoid saying "me:

Simple vs Simplistic

Simple means easy, uncomplicated. In earlier English it also meant stupid, and that usage lingers occasionally. (Don't kick the dog; he's simple.) Simplistic means unrealistically simplified to the point of being unrealistic:

Type vs Kind

One speaks of a single type or kind of thing (singular), or of several types or kinds of things (plural), but not of one "kind of things" or "types of thing." (It is true that a single thing can come in many types and a single type can have many examples, but that is a reality about the world that standard English does not recognize in this kind of phrase.)

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