February 3, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: advice/advise & waiting on line, in line, on, or for

Posted in advise/advice, waiting in line/on line, waiting on/for at 6:31 am by dlseltzer

ERRATUM: In last week’s WLUT, a question from a reader came with an error that I missed and that only one of the WLUT’s readers caught (I usually hear from a cast of dozens when there is an error). As a result, I thought it was something we should review, so we all catch it in the future: Here is the erroneous email:

A reader writes:

While I was discussing my K proposal with my mentor we came across the words, semiweekly and biweekly. In my proposal I meant to convey that a report to be generated once every two weeks (or twice a month). Which one I should use? We tried to look into the definitions and found conflicting answers.

Please advice.

Do you see the problem? No? Well, here is the email from my attentive reader who caught this and to whom I am extremely grateful.

So much restraint not to have said “adviSE” not “adviCE” to Tip 1 requester!!

Tip 1: Advice or advise

This is pretty simple, really (which is why, I am assuming, we all missed it).

Advise is the verb, and advice is the noun. What the reader should have written is “Please advise.”

When you advise someone, you give them advice.

Simple, right? However, I must admit that this word is a bit trickier than I first thought. For example, the person who gives advice is the adviser not the advisor as people often think. Yet, the role of the person whose responsibility it is to dispense the advice on an ongoing basis–at least in the context of academia–is that of advisor. For example, if you have a one-time, specific question, and you ask a lawyer for the answer, the lawyer who supplies the answer is an adviser. However, the person who is assigned to give you advice on your educational or career development for a certain number of years is your advisor.

Admittedly, there is controversy about this these days. What else is new? Some say that adviser and advisor are synonymous, and others say that advisor is not a real word and should never be used. The distinction I made, above, seems to me a reasonable compromise, and this is the usage I recommend.

And the report that gives the advice is the advisory.

Eek! Enough already.

Tip 2: Waiting on line, in line, on, or for

A reader asks:

I used to hear about people waiting in line, but more and more, I am hearing about people waiting on line. Is this because we say online when we are talking about the Internet?

Also, we used to wait for people, and it seems that now, we wait on people (and not just in restaurants). What’s up with that?

Let’s start with waiting on line. I think the reader is right that the use of waiting on line owes some of its proliferation in recent years to the Internet and how common the use of online has become, but that’s not the whole story.

In actuality, waiting on line has been around since the 19th century. It is a regional variation, commonly heard in New York. The authorities say that is common throughout New England as well. I have to disagree-I grew up in Boston and Cape Cod, and I never heard that expression. But, everyone seems to agree about New York, so let’s just think of it as a New York variation.

And that leaves waiting on and waiting for.

What are you doing here? Why haven’t you left? Who are you waiting for?

I am waiting on Bill. He was going to go with us, but he’s not here yet.

I could make this very simple and brief and say that the correct usage is waiting for when you are talking about waiting for a person, and waiting on is wrong. But that’s too easy. We all know that language evolves and waiting on may be part of the evolution. What I will say, however, is that waiting on when you are talking about people is not appropriate for formal writing and should NEVER EVER be used in scientific writing. This may change eventually as the evolution continues, but not while I am around.

What is interesting to me is that people imbue waiting on (as used in the second sentence above) with all kinds of emotion. Some say that saying waiting on someone is showing impatience or annoyance; others say the speaker is indicating that he or she can count on or rely on the person who is awaited. Still other say that waiting on is synonymous with waiting for, and the two can be used interchangeably. Well, it’s clear that the way it is said and the context drives the meaning.

The lack of precision is enormous, and you know how I feel about imprecision.

Let’s reserve waiting on for tables, and use waiting for with people. Life is simpler that way.

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