My father was a grammarian. Language usage and grammatical errors were like scraping fingernails on a chalkboard for him.
He once wrote me an entire letter ranting about the use of the word “snuck” by a professional newscaster on television. “Imagine!” he exclaimed.
At the dinner table, when I was in high school, I said “these kind” of something-or-other. “These kinds,” he corrected.
Dad would have appreciated the email I received last week from a reader who began sending me examples of verbal faux pas after reading a pair of columns on usage errors published last July.
“‘Without further adieu’ is a hoot,” he wrote, quoting a reporter who “can’t get his cliche straight” and asking if he really meant “goodbyes.”
Homophones — words with the same sound, but different spellings and meanings — can be a problem, i.e. ado and adieu. How many times have we read phrases such as, “He lead me astray,” knowing the writer meant to use the verb “led” and not the heavy metal.
Last week’s email led me to review a list of usage errors I have been compiling since those columns appeared, beginning with one from a reader who stopped me in the grocery store to suggest I discuss “bring” and “take.”
I consulted the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage by William and Mary Morris who polled 136 professional writers and editors for their views on hundreds of usage issues, publishing both comments by the experts and percentages of their approval and disapproval. William Morris edited the American Heritage Dictionary, and his wife Mary co-authored the Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins.
The Morrises posed this question: “Purists emphasize a distinction between ‘bring’ and ‘take.’ ‘Bring’ implies transporting something from a distance to where the speaker is. ‘Take’ means transporting something away from where the speaker is. Do you observe this distinction?”
The panelists’ responses:
In writing: Yes 91 percent. No 9 percent.
In casual speech: Yes 84 percent. No 16 percent.
“Purists, for God’s sake? The distinction is in the very roots of the language,” said Anthony Burgess, in agreement with Charles Kuralt who called it “a third-grade distinction which seems elementary to me.”
“‘To bring’ means to fetch. ‘To take’ means to tote,” wrote Hal Borland. “If the ear doesn’t make the distinction, the writer is deaf as well as dumb.”
In less strident responses, John O. Barbour explained, “Take it from there to there or from here to there,” and Orville Prescott offered, “You can’t bring something away from you, but you can bring it with you.”
“I am astonished anyone confuses these,” said Peter S. Prescott. “Do people really say, ‘Take it here’ and ‘Bring it there’?”
Well, yes they do, even newspaper reporters. Another reader of my previous columns on usage errors sent me a booklet of examples he put together as associate editor of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette in Massachusetts. I consulted “The Right Word” by Millinocket native Sid McKeen and sure enough, there was an entry on “bring/take,” citing “one of our sharp-eyed readers [who] wrote to needle us gently” for constructions, such as “The Leary family advised the girls to bring the bag to the Millbury police station, about a block away.”
Language is in constant flux and the Morrises lament that while “most dictionaries observe the distinction” between bring and take, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary ignored it. My American Heritage Dictionary, of course, includes a special usage note on the distinction, with the example “one ‘takes’ checks to the bank and ‘brings’ home cash.”
Neither of my other favorite sources for answers to usage questions — the Associated Press Stylebook and “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk and E.B. White — comments on the “bring/take” issue, but they do weigh in on “that” and “which,” a distinction clarified by punctuation.
“‘That’ is the defining or restrictive pronoun,” say Strunk and White, with the example: “The lawnmower that is broken is in the garage.”
A clause introduced by “that” is essential to the meaning of the sentence; one introduced by “which” is not. Such clauses, they say, “do not limit or define, they merely add something: ‘The audience, which had at first been indifferent, became more and more interested.’”
“If you can drop the clause and not lose the meaning of the sentence, use which,” advises the AP Stylebook. “A ‘which’ clause is surrounded by commas; no commas are used with ‘that’ clauses.”
“The careful writer,” say Strunk and White, “goes which-hunting, removes the defining ‘whiches’ and by so doing improves his work.”
A final distinction addressed in three of my reference books, though not “The Elements of Style,” is the misuse of ‘reluctant’ and ‘reticent.’
“Off-street facilities are available within a short walk of the building, but workers are reticent to use them,” quotes Sid McKeen in his critique of writing at the Worcester newspaper. “‘Reticent’ means quiet. The word we just missed was ‘reluctant.’”
It happens all the time. I just finished reading a novel misusing reticent.
“A reluctant person is one who does not want to do something,” say the Morrises. “A reticent person is one who does not wish to speak, especially one who is habitually quiet.”
The AP Stylebook concurs, using as examples: “He is reluctant to enter the primary” and “The candidate’s husband is reticent.”
And Dad would be pleased to know the AP Stylebook also tells reporters: “‘sneaked’ [is] preferred as the past tense of ‘sneak.’ Do not use the colloquial ‘snuck.’”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.