Literary Hub

Are You Misusing These Common Words?

alternate vs. alternative

To the discriminating writer, the adjectives alternate and alternative are not interchangeable. There is a subtle difference between substitution and choice.

The adjective alternate refers to a secondary thing that substitutes or stands in for a primary thing, a replacement: “The Aztec City Commission appointed a new alternate municipal court judge on Aug. 25” (Farmington Daily Times, New Mexico). By contrast, the adjective alternative means “available in place of another” and refers to anything you might choose over something else: “An alternative idea was to temporarily widen the road while resurfacing work took place” (Guernsey Press and Star, U.K.).

An alternate route is a backup route, the one you take when you can’t take your regular route. An alternative route is a route you choose to take because there’s less traffic, it’s more scenic, or you’re bored with the usual route. An alternate plan is the plan you adopt when the original one fails. An alternative plan is an additional plan that you consider or that you choose because you don’t like the original plan.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell which word is properly called for because the context seems to imply both substitution and choice: “An alternate title for the book might be ‘Idiots’” (New York Times Book Review). Are we talking about a title that might stand in for the original (an alternate) or a title that might be as good as or better than the original (an alternative)? I vote for alternative because the writer is proposing a title she thinks might be an improvement over the original rather than a replacement for the one the author and publisher chose.

As you might imagine, alternate (substitution) is misused for alternative (choice) far more often than the other way around: “The Village at Wolf Creek developer is considering an alternate [alternative] plan” (Valley Courier, Colorado); “The film sets up Howard as being Mary’s alternate [alternative] love interest” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).

On another note: It is often averred that although there may be many options there are only two alternatives because alternative can apply to only two choices. That claim is nonsense. Alternative may refer to only two choices or it may just as properly refer to more than two choices. Here is a ruling from one authority, among many I could cite: “The idea that alternative may apply to a choice between two and no more is a pedantry discountenanced by no fewer than nine authorities,” say Roy H. Copperud in American Usage and Style: The Consensus (1980).

disinterested vs. uninterested

The disinterested person is not selfishly motivated and has no personal interest or stake in the outcome of an event: a disinterested observer. The uninterested person, by contrast, simply has no interest and doesn’t care.

Those who were never taught this distinction often assume disinterested and uninterested are interchangeable, and they tend to choose disinterested when they mean “not interested” because it sounds more elegant or literary. This mistake has become so common that dictionaries now include the definition “not interested, indifferent” for disinterested, which has only encouraged confusion.

This is an eminently useful distinction that is not difficult to grasp. When you are disinterested you have nothing to gain or lose, so you can judge fairly. When you are uninterested, you simply lack interest. If you were on trial for your life, would you rather have a disinterested jury or an uninterested one?

i.e. vs. e.g.

Many people have trouble with these abbreviations. The usual mistake is using i.e. in place of e.g. Both stand for Latin phrases: i.e. for id est, meaning “that is (to say)”; e.g. for exempli gratia, meaning “for example.” We use i.e. to reword, clarify, or specify something: the real estate agent’s mantra—i.e., “location, location, location”). We use e.g. to introduce one or more examples: I like to read all kinds of fiction, e.g., mysteries, thrillers, and mainstream novels.

In regular text these abbreviations are not italicized, and they should be followed by a comma. But bear in mind that usage experts generally frown on using them in regular text (as opposed to footnotes, lists, scholarly annotations, etc.) and advise using the more comprehensible English phrases instead: that is or namely for i.e. and for example or for instance for e.g.

lay vs. lie

Most people today, including many professional writers and editors, simply have no idea how to conjugate these everyday verbs properly. Misusing lay for lie is surely the most prevalent usage blunder in the English language, despite the preventive measures proffered by scores of style guides.

To use lay and lie properly, the first thing you must do is memorize these definitions: To lay is to put or place. To lie is to come to rest, recline.

If you are not putting or placing something, you cannot use lay. That’s why I laid in bed, I was just laying there, and I have laid in that bed before are all wrong and make you out to be a chicken who deposits fat, fresh eggs in your bed.

Here’s how the tenses break down for the verb to lay (put, place): You lay a book down today (present tense); you laid it down yesterday (past tense); and you have laid it down anytime in the past (past participle).

Here’s how the tenses break down for the verb to lie (come to rest, recline): When you’re tired you lie down (present tense); when you were tired yesterday you lay down (past tense); and when you have been tired in the past you have lain down (past participle).

Do you see how the present tense of lay is the same as the past tense of lie? That’s where all the trouble starts. You can’t properly tell a dog to lay down (which means put down), but you can say you lay in bed (you reclined there in the past). Confused by this, people compound the problem by misusing the past tense of lay (which is laid) for the past tense of lie (which is lay); for example, I laid in bed last night. There’s that chicken again.

It may be tough to keep these two verbs straight, especially when so many educated people around you are confounding them. But I exhort you not to chicken out. It’s worth the effort. You will never be considered affected or pretentious for using lay and lie correctly, and properly distinguishing them will distinguish you as a careful user of the language.

peruse vs. skim vs. browse

In its traditional and still correct sense, peruse is a useful word that means “to read carefully and critically, examine closely, read through to the end.” For example, if you want to learn more about language you can peruse numerous dictionaries and usage manuals, as I have done while writing this book, but you won’t have to go to that kind of trouble if you peruse what I have written here.

In recent years, however, people have been using peruse to mean “to dip into or glance through”—a sense that overlaps uncomfortably and redundantly with the verbs to skim, “to read or look over in a hasty, superficial way,” and to browse, whose original meaning, “to graze, nibble at,” is still in good standing, but which is now most often used to mean “to look over in a casual or leisurely manner.”

This sentence, from a newspaper story on book collectors, misuses peruse: “Buying at the rate of 50 books a week has clearly made it impossible for him to read most of his purchases, though he strives at least to peruse [skim or browse through] each one” (San Diego Reader).

that vs. which

The distinction here is both simple and complex, and possibly irrelevant.

Way back in 1926, in Modern English Usage, the legendary grammarian H. W. Fowler exhorted us to distinguish between the relative pronouns that and which based on whether they were used in what he called “defining” or “non-defining” clauses, but which are now usually called either “restrictive” or “nonrestrictive” clauses or, more helpfully, “essential” and “nonessential” clauses. “The two kinds of relative clause, to one of which that & to the other of which which is appropriate, are the defining & the non-defining,” Fowler wrote, “& if writers would agree to regard that as the defining relative pronoun, & which as the non-defining, there would be much gain both in lucidity & and in ease.”

As you can see, Fowler didn’t write English as we are accustomed to now, but he had a point and it was this: If the part of the sentence beginning with that or which is essential to the meaning of the whole, prefer that to which (a wonderful memory that I cherish). If the part of the sentence beginning with that or which is not essential but rather additional to the meaning of the whole, and if it could be deleted or expressed elsewhere, use which, preceded by a comma, instead of that (a wonderful memory, which I cherish).

To put it another way, that defines or clarifies what precedes, whereas which adds information about what precedes or follows. That’s why all those great things that you do for me is different from all those great things, which you do for me.

But things, as they always do, get complicated—and the trouble can be traced to Fowler’s perhaps forlorn plea to follow this distinction. He hoped that we would one day write The scary movie that was on TV last night kept me awake rather than The scary movie which was on TV last night kept me awake. Although most modern usage experts would agree that the first sentence, with that, is American style, while the second, with which, is British, reputable usage has swung both ways on both sides of the pond, and before Fowler’s call for a distinction it decidedly favored which.

So, almost a century after Fowler’s admonitions, you simply have to decide the side that you’re on or the side which you’re on and take the necessary steps, or precautions. You may be comfortable swinging either that way or which way with something like the scary movie that/which was on TV last night or all the scary movies on TV lately that/which have caused me nightmares. But what are you going to do about something like the scariest movie that/which has been on TV lately that/which gave me nightmares? If you want to make any sense of that I think you have to be Fowlerian and transition from the essential to the nonessential: the scariest movie that has been on TV lately, which gave me nightmares.

All this can give a usage maven nightmares, but if you’d like to know where I stand, my money’s still on Fowler. His pronominal distinction does promote, as he put it, lucidity and ease—a lucidity that is liberating, which can be executed with ease.

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From How to Tell Fate From Destiny: And Other Skillful Word Distinctions. Used with the permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright © 2018 by Charles Harrington Elster.

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