The Other Half of Eloquence


Editor's Note: This is the first piece in a two-part series by Dr. David Tubbs on common errors in English language usage. Please find Part II by clicking here. In two previous contributions to the Empire State Tribune, I noted that mastery of the English language is often seen as a sign of a superior education.  Because the faculty at King’s want to give our students a superior education, all of us—students and faculty alike—should strive to improve our command of the spoken and written word.  To that end, I described some rhetorical exercises used with “the King’s English” that might promote this mastery among our students.

Cultivating these skills can be immensely satisfying, and the skills themselves have “market value.”  But achievements in this area can be offset by certain errors in English usage.  In the world outside TKC, highly literate persons—and there are many such persons in New York—often judge these errors harshly.

With the goal of sparing our students potential embarrassment, I would like to offer some advice regarding words and idioms that are routinely misused, even among the educated.

This task would be easier if we had a definitive list of the errors that can elicit such harsh judgment.  But there is no such list. All we have is a rough consensus, to be gleaned from important reference works such as Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, Theodore Bernstein’s The Careful Writer, Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage and the first and second editions of H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage.  For students at King’s, the “Glossary of Usage” in The Bedford Handbook is helpful.

What follows is a list of common errors that educated persons should recognize as errors. Go easy on yourself, however, if you have been making any of them, because they are ubiquitous. Nonetheless, if you want to achieve eloquence in the spoken and written word, you must pay attention to the rules of English usage.  A smooth delivery, a talent for using figures of speech, a sensitivity to the rhythm of sentences—all of these may contribute to success in pursuits rhetorical, but they are not the whole story. Knowing the rules of usage is the other half of eloquence.

Aggravate/Irritate:  These words are not synonyms.  Aggravate means “to make something worse” and irritate means “to annoy.”  So a college student should not be telling friends that a younger sibling was “aggravating” over break.  A synonym for aggravate is exacerbate.

Alumnus and alumna; alumni and alumnae:  Here are a few words of Latin origin related to academic life.  When a young man graduates from King’s, he becomes an alumnus; a young woman becomes an alumna.  Taken as a group, all of the graduates—male and female—can be referred to as “alumni.”  But “alumni” is plural, so an individual man or woman should not refer to himself or herself as an “alumni.”  What about “alumnae”?  This word is the plural of “alumna.”  So the graduates of a college exclusively for women are “alumnae,” not “alumni.” Similarly, a letter written to graduates of the House of Margaret Thatcher or Susan B. Anthony might begin with the salutation “Dear Alumnae.” Finally, the words “alum” and “alums” are fine in casual conversation, but they should probably be avoided in formal prose.

Ambiguous/Ambivalent:  These words are not synonyms.  “Ambiguous” means unclear in some respect, and “ambivalent” means undecided.

“Between you and I…”:  Regardless of how many people might say these words, and regardless of how important those people might be—President Clinton once said this in the presence of journalists—the phrase is incorrect. Because “between” is a preposition, the first-person pronoun must be “me,” not “I.”   If you want to avoid mistakes like this, you should consult The Bedford Handbook, chapter 24 (2010 edition).

Criterion/Criteria:  A criterion is a standard, and an important journal of cultural criticism is called The New Criterion.  Educated people are probably more likely to hear the word “criteria,” the plural of “criterion.” (Example:  What are your criteria as you shop for a new car?)  “Criteria” is an irregular plural in English and of Greek derivation, much like the word “symposia,” which is the plural of “symposium.”  The common mistake is to think that “criteria” is singular and use a singular verb with it.

Flaunt/Flout:  The first word means to show off, as a vain man or woman might flaunt an expensive watch or a piece of jewelry.  “Flout” means to disregard in a bold or brazen way.  So Anna Karenina flouted certain conventions of polite society in imperial Russia.

Feeling overwhelmed? I hope not, because we’re just getting started.