July 22, 2010

Weekly Language Usage Tips: on or upon & torturous or tortuous

Posted in on/upon, torturous/tortuous, torturous/tortuous/tortious at 6:42 am by dlseltzer

Sighting 1:

A reader spied this:

The current application will reside under the hospices of the ABCD in order to leverage resources.

What a great sighting!

Of course the application is not going to live under a hospice, which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as “a program that provides palliative care and attends to the emotional and spiritual needs of terminally ill patients at an inpatient facility or at the patient’s home.”

The word the writer intended was ‘auspices,’ which means, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, “protection, patronage, or support.” It also has other meanings but this is the one intended for the Sighting.

Sighting 2:

I was going to write about Sarah Palin’s new word, refudiate, but this sighting beats that out by a long shot.

As many folks know, the summer is a new season for television shows, and new shows keep popping up on cable channels. One such show is a police procedural show on TNT starring Angie Harmon. On this week’s episode, while examining the body of a murder victim, the medical examiner was talking to the detective and said, “Some researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have proved that optimists live longer.” The actor was referring to a recent study by Hilary Tindle. How cool is that? It’s one thing to be quoted in the national press, but to be a pop culture reference…Way cool.

Mea culpa

Unfortunately, another reader spied a mistake I made in an example last week:

This recipe describes six discrete steps associated with making the ultimate Hot Fudge Sunday.

The reader correctly points out:

A Hot Fudge Sunday has only two ingredients: hot fudge and a Sunday. The Hot Fudge Sundae does have six ingredients.

Well, he’s absolutely right, and I must say that I am very gratified that folks read their wlut so closely!

Tip 1: On or upon

A reader writes:

We focused upon the value of the student postings.

Should it be ‘focused upon’ or should it be ‘focused on’?

‘On’ or ‘upon.’ There are lots of opinions out there, and I swear I’ve read them all. There are lots of different rationales for distinguishing the words and LOTS of ways to do this-some depend on spatial characteristics and some depend on other facets of the relationships; however, I don’t find any of these ideas convincing. I think that it is difficult, these days, to delineate a distinction between the meaning of the two words.

I would say this: ‘upon’ is more formal than ‘on.’ That’s not a recommendation for use; it’s just an observation. Most of the time, I would go with ‘on.’ It is short, clear, straightforward.
Garner supports the use of ‘on’ and suggests that we use ‘upon’ when introducing a condition or event (e.g., upon receipt of the grant award, I will start the hiring process), and I agree with that.

I also find Bryson’s advice sensible when he says, “The choice is sometimes dictated by idiom (‘on no account,’ ‘upon my soul’) but in all other instances it is a matter of preference.”

Can you imagine a fairy tale starting “Once on a time” instead of “Once upon a time”? Neither can I.

But beyond these conventions, it’s writer’s choice. Use whatever sounds better to you.

[NOTE: See ‘About Language Tips’ at <https://languagetips.wordpress.com> for complete references for Garner and Bryson.]

Tip 2: Torturous or tortuous

At the end of the torturous journey over hills and across valleys, the exhausted riders collapsed onto their beds.

While the journey sounds a little bit like torture, the word the writer was looking for was not torturous but tortuous.

Torturous means pertaining to torture or pain. Tortuous means twisted, winding, or crooked (e.g., a tortuous path) or convoluted or devious (e.g., tortuous reasoning).

These two words are often confused. and to make matters worse, there is also  ‘tortious’ which is a legal term meaning pertaining to a tort.

All stem from the same Latin root, torquere, meaning to twist, to wring.

I suspect that since our research usually does not involve torture or torts (with a few notable exceptions), the word we want to use in much of our writing is tortuous. And with any luck, our writing won’t be.



  1. Lindsey said,

    I would love to receive the weekly updates via email.

    I came across this one in the literature and was wondering if you could set the record – is it Alzheimer’s Disease or Alzheimer Disease?

    • dlseltzer said,

      Alzheimer’s disease is the correct term. Most diseases don’t use the apostrophe in their names, but this one does.

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