April 26, 2012

Weekly Language Usage Tips: obligate or oblige & collective nouns and red flags

Posted in collective nouns, obligate/oblige, red flags at 6:32 am by dlseltzer


Good news! The AP Stylebook has come around to approving the use of ‘hopefully’ the way we all have been using it anyway! They made this pronouncement on Twitter:

Hopefully, you will appreciate this style update, announced at#aces2012. We now support the modern usage of hopefully: it’s hoped, we hope.

— AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) April 17, 2012

Previously, it was intended to be used to mean ‘in a hopeful manner.’

“Can I join in your game?” the little girl asked hopefully.

Now AP has legitimized it’s use to mean ‘it is hoped’ or ‘we hope.’ Whew, that’s a relief.

Hopefully (now, AP approved!), there won’t be too much of a hue and cry from the grammar prescriptivists.

Tip 1: Obligate or oblige

I was recently commenting on a case study, and I found myself writing comments like, “Isn’t Dr. Baker obligated to do x?” and “Wasn’t Matt obliged to finish z?” I was using the words interchangeably, and I wondered to myself, is there a difference between obligate and oblige? Thus, today’s first tip.

I’m going to start by giving you the bottom line. It is okay that I was using them interchangeably: in large part, they mean the same thing. If you look on the web, there is a lot of wailing and saber rattling about the two—evidently, obligate is not used in British English, only oblige, and the mere sound of the word, obligate, can bring shivers to a Brit. But, nonetheless, both are legitimate words and not back-formations as some suggest. Obligate is from the Latin obligationem, and oblige is from the French obliger.

[NOTE: A handy source for looking up a word’s etymology is the seemingly well-sourced “On-line Etymology Dictionary” found at www.etymonline.com.” ]

Many try to find some subtle differences in meaning, but since most people use them synonymously, there’s no point in parsing out any differences.. The main thing to remember is that in legal writing, such as contracts, obligate is most commonly used, and when expressing gratitude, oblige is always the word of choice:

Thank you, I am much obliged.

As am I.

Tip 2: Noticing red flags and collective nouns

A reader writes:

I am drafting a manuscript presenting findings from a survey of academic music programs and have sent it out for review.  Some reviewers want me to change the following sentence by substituting “have” for “has” and “are” for “is.”  My thoughts are that these refer to “subset” not “programs” and should remain as they are.  Can you provide the answer?

A subset of those programs also has developed or is developing PhD programs.

[NOTE: Certain details have been changed to protect the innocent.]

The reader is right that the verbs modify ‘subset,’ of course, but whether the verbs should be singular or plural is a little tricky  You see, subset is a collective noun, and collective nouns can use either singular or plural verbs depending on whether you want to emphasize the group or the members of the group. To decide for this sentence, I would think about whether the programs that belong to the subset are working together or individually to develop the PhD programs. I would imagine that they are working separately, so in this case, we would treat subset as plural.

A subset of those programs also have developed or are developing PhD programs.

But whether you are right or wrong is not always the most important thing. What makes this a red flag for me is that “some reviewers,” meaning more than one, thought that the sentence seemed awkward. The problem is that the sentence sounded wrong to them. So you could pull out one of your many grammar books (yeah, yeah, I know—you can borrow mine), or when in doubt, rewrite the sentence.

We are writing our manuscripts because we want to communicate clearly, and the audience collectively gnashing their teeth will only get in the way of this communication. This tells me that it’s time to rewrite the sentence.

Some of those programs also have developed or are developing PhD programs.

Or to be more precise, instead of ‘some,’ use the actual number or percent.

Twelve of those programs also have developed or are developing PhD programs.

There are lots of ways that the sentence can be written to ensure that it is not grating for the reader.

In this case, the reviewers were right—that plural verbs should be used. But this is the take home message: even if you, as the author are right about an issue, consider similar comments or corrections from at least two of the reviewers to be a red flag, and think about rewriting or clarifying your sentence.



  1. Jeff said,

    I have a question on the use of “respectively.” I can’t seem to find good answers anywhere else. Here is my example sentence:

    Company X and its president were awarded with the “Top Businesses” and “Excellent Entrepreneur” Awards respectively by the Shanghai Management Committee.

    Should there be commas or parenthesis to set off “respectively,” or would it be better with different construction? I’m not completely sure what to do in this situation.

    • dlseltzer said,

      There should be a comma both before and after respectively. Respectively is indication that Company x won the first award (Top Businesses) and its president won the second (Excellent Entrepreneur). I would argue that respectively is not needed here. There is no ambiguity. It is clear which award goes to the company and which to the president from the names of the awards, so my first recommendation is to take it out. If you are going to leave it in, then surround it with commas. Hope this helps.

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