February 17, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Idioms & that/which

Posted in idioms, that/which, which at 6:11 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Idioms

A reader writes:

I was reading an article in the newspaper about sex in the military, which went like this:

“Meanwhile, some Western women find themselves covering up even on U.S. bases. “I did not even like going to a gym in a sleeveless workout top,” said Erin Simpson, who recently returned from a stint as a civilian counterinsurgency adviser to the Army and Marine Corps. “A lot of these guys haven’t seen their wives or girlfriends in a year. It makes you a little maladjusted.”

To be sure, much of the military’s extreme sexlessness is a facade. Troops still sneak off for intimate liaisons on forward operating bases or ships. In Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers and Marines frequently make arrangements for friends to wipe their computers clean of pornography if they are killed in battle so that their mothers and wives won’t see the offending images when their laptops are shipped home.”

The phrase in question is: to be sure.

It haunts me because I used it once in a report to NSF or NOAA or EPA (I’m not sure which agency) and I struggled mightily at that time to try to figure out why it concerned me so much. I still don’t know. It sounded okay to me. It seemed to fit, etc. But for some reason, I never liked it, and I’ve NEVER used it since. And yes, I’ve justified my dislike by labeling it as archaic, pompous, _____ (fill in the blank).

So, my question is: do I have any basis for my antipathy to the phrase “to be sure”?

I like this question, because it gives me a chance to talk a bit about idioms again and our use of them. I think the reader’s aversion to the phrase ‘to be sure’ relates to it being an idiom. So, what is an idiom?

An idiom is a phrase, word, or expression that has a meaning that is different from the literal definition of the individual words. A commonly cited example is ‘kick the bucket’ which has nothing to do with punting a pail; rather, it means ‘die.’ Another example would be ‘take a load off my mind’ which doesn’t mean remove a weight from my head; rather, it means alleviate my worries.

‘To be sure,’ in the article quoted above, means ‘for certain’ or ‘undeniably.’ If we were looking at a literal translation of ‘to be sure,’ it would be something along the line of ‘to prove’ or ‘to ensure.’

And why use idioms? Well, idioms can add color to our writing by providing figurative language to enhance the words. However, there are caveats to its use that must be addressed (and these admonitions are, I suspect, what makes our reader so ill at ease).

First, idioms should never be used in our formal scientific or medical writing. Reserve idioms for informal use where the need for precision is not of such importance and where casual language is appropriate.

Next, idioms can be confusing for readers whose first language is not English. Imagine trying to figure out what these sentences mean if you didn’t already know the idioms:

With all this exercise, I’m on my last legs.

I tried to keep him in line, but he kept beating around the bush.

Another caveat is that idioms, when used frequently, often become old and tired and move quickly into the realm of cliché. At this point, they no longer enliven the language and should be put to rest.

I think that’s all I have to say about idioms. I’ll end this tip with a quotation by George Orwell on writing clearly.

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.

And there you have it.

Tip 2: Which or that

We’ve talked about this before a couple of times: About the rule that says ‘that’ should always be used with restrictive clauses (clauses that are essential to the meaning of the sentence) and ‘which’ should be used with unrestrictive clauses (clauses that are not essential to the meaning) and how when you use ‘which’ you must precede it with a comma. You know that rule, right?

Well, I wanted to bring it up once again. I am using a new version of Word (Microsoft Office 2011 for the Mac), and every time I start using a new version, I like to check out what “mistakes” the grammar checker notes. This usually lasts a week or so before I turn off the grammar function altogether and rant about it being absolutely atrocious. [NOTE: It just marked the words ‘absolutely atrocious’ as incorrect with no explanation…that’s what I mean.]

Well, this version of Word has created green squiggly lines throughout my document tell me that most of my uses of ‘which’ require commas.

The reason I wanted to bring this up again is to shout, “Lighten up!”

There are some that slavishly follow the rule I noted above. And that’s fine. But it must also be noted that there are others (great grammarians and writers among them) who don’t distinguish between ‘which’ and ‘that’ and use the words interchangeably. They also don’t believe that a comma is necessary before ‘which’ unless it helps clarify the sense of the sentence. And that’s fine, too.

This isn’t a question of the language evolving; it has always been this way. When a document pops up with lots of green squiggly lines, it seems to be yelling at me. When I want to yell back, “Lighten up and leave me alone,” I’m pretty sure it’s about time to turn off the grammar checker.

To avoid criticism from some quarters, you may want to follow the “rule.” But note, that there have always been differing points of view about this.

The bottom line is: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Life is too short.

And, lighten up.


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