Guide to Grammar and Style — B


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From the Guide to Grammar and Style by Jack Lynch.
Comments are welcome.


Sometimes a root word looks to the untrained eye like a combination of a root and one or more “affixes” — that is, prefixes or suffixes. For instance, some nouns ending in -ar, -er, or -or seem to be made up of a verb with a suffix on the end: burglar, for example, seems to mean “one who burgles,” and scavenger seems to come from scavenge. Historically, though, it's the other way 'round: the “simple” or “root” forms are actually derived from the longer words. There's also the word peas, which seems to be the plural of pea — in fact the original word was pease (as in “pease-porridge hot”), a mass noun, and only later did people assume that if you could have pease, you must be able to have a pea. People looked at the word sleazy and thought the y at the end was turning the noun sleaze into an adjective — the way frosty comes from frost or wealthy comes from wealth — but in fact there was no noun sleaze until after there was an adjective sleazy.

The resulting words are called back-formations. Here's a list of the more common ones, far from complete: accrete (from accretion), destruct (from destruction), diagnose (from diagnosis), edit (from editor), emote (from emotion), enthuse (from enthusiasm), escalate (from escalator), flab (from flabby), funk (from funky), injure (from injury), intuit (from intuition), kidnap (from kidnapper), orate (from oration), peddle (from peddler), televise (from television), and tweeze (from tweezers).

These back-formations aren't necessarily wrong; most of those above are now part of Standard English. And of course some can be used for comic effect: you might say someone is gruntled, for instance, or ept, or chalant. (Check out Jack Winter's “How I Met My Wife,” published in The New Yorker, for a whole bunch of back-formations from negatives.)

But when they're new, they'll strike many people as odd. Liaise, for instance — which seems to be the root of the noun liaison — is actually derived from it; and in America, at least, it's still struggling for acceptance. Be careful. [Entry added 3 Jan. 2005.]


Almost always useless. Qualifiers such as basically, essentially, totally, &c. rarely add anything to a sentence; they're the written equivalent of “Um.” See Wasted Words, and read it twice.


See On a —— Basis.

Begging the Question.

It doesn't mean what you think it means. Begging the question — from the Latin petitio principii — is a logical fallacy; it means assuming your conclusion in the course of your argument. If you say “Everything in the Bible must be true, because it's the word of God,” you're taking your conclusion for granted. If you say “The defendant must be guilty because he's a criminal,” you're doing the same. It's a kind of circular logic. The conclusion may be true or false, but you can't prove something by assuming it's true.

This is very different from raising the question, though people are increasingly using the phrase that way. It's sloppy, and should be avoided. Here, for instance, is a piece from The Times (London), 30 Nov. 2004:

The behaviour of ministers is a matter for prime ministers, who appoint and dismiss them. But this begs the question of who should find out what has gone wrong on behalf of a prime minister.

No it doesn't. It raises the question; it prompts the question; perhaps it forces us to ask the question; maybe this question begs for an answer. But it doesn't beg the question. [Entry added 21 Jan. 2005.]


Traditionalists observe a distinction between in behalf of and on behalf of. The former means “for the benefit of”: you might write a letter of recommendation in behalf of a colleague, or raise money in behalf of hurricane victims. The latter means “on the part of” or “as the agent of”: a lawyer acts on behalf of her client, or the producer may accept an award on behalf of the cast. [Entry added 31 Oct. 2006.]

Being That.

An overused and inelegant idiom, favored by those who want to sound more impressive. It probably comes from “it being the case that,” maybe with some influence from “given that” and “seeing that,” but it doesn't make much sense. (Being as has the same problems.) Avoid it. Use because, since, or something similarly direct. [Revised 15 December 2006.]

Between versus Among.

See Among versus Between.

Between You and I.

Between you and I? — Between you and I? — You should be ashamed of yourself.

First, the technical explanation: between is a preposition; it should govern the “objective case.” (In English, that's a concern only with the pronouns.) A preposition can't govern a pronoun in the subjective (or nominative) case, even when there are multiple pronouns after the preposition.

That explanation should be enough for the serious grammar nerds. For the rest of you, think of it this way: when you have two pronouns after a preposition, try mentally placing each one directly after the preposition. “Between you” should sound right to your ear, but “between I” jars: “between me” sounds much more natural. Since it's “between you” and it's “between me,” it should be “between you and me.”

Ditto other prepositions, like for, to, from, with, by, and so on. If something is for her and for me, it's “for her and me,” not “for she and I”; if Akhbar gave something to him and to them, he gave it “to him and them,” not “to he and they.” Try putting the preposition directly before all the following pronouns, and then use the form that sounds right in each case.

The problem probably arises from hypercorrection: it sometimes seems that you and I is “more correct” than you and me. It's not — at least, it's not always. Be careful. [Entry added 8 March 2005.]

Bimonthly (Biannual, Biennial, Biweekly).

Many people are confused: does bimonthly mean “every two months” or “two times a month”? It turns out that they're confused for a good reason: the word means both things. (Ditto biweekly, which can mean “every two weeks” or “twice a week,” and biannual or biennial, which can mean “every two years” or “twice a year.”)

Some purists insist bimonthly means every other month, and use semimonthly (or biweekly, which is very nearly the same thing) to mean twice a month. Eminently rational — but bimonthly has had both meanings practically since the beginning, so there's not much historical support for the policy. Worse still, even if you decide to adopt this distinction, you can't rely on your audience's familiarity with it.

What to do? When you're writing, your safest bet is probably just to abandon the words biannual, biennial, bimonthly, and biweekly in any context where you're not certain your audience will understand what you mean. When you're reading, be aware that there are several possibilities, and be careful not to make vacation plans based on an event that may not be happening.

It's not a very elegant solution — it always seems a pity to lose a word — but your first obligation is always to be understood. [Entry added 3 March 2005.]

Block Quotations.

Short quotations — say, no more than three or four lines — usually appear in the text surrounded by quotation marks, “like this.” Longer direct quotations, though — and sometimes shorter quotations of poetry — should be set off as block quotations or extracts, thus:

Notice that the quotation is indented on both sides: most word processors make that easy. Notice, too, that you don't use quotation marks around a block quotation: the indention (not “indentation”) is enough to indicate it's a quotation. Some house styles prefer block quotations to be single-spaced, others like them double-spaced; check to see what your readers expect.

Always be sure to include proper citations in block quotations; the usual route is to put either a footnote reference or the citation in parentheses after the closing punctuation in the quotation itself. [Revised 15 December 2006.]


Bad writing is often wimpy writing. Don't be afraid to be blunt. Consider things like “There appear to be indications that the product heretofore referred to may be lacking substantial qualitative consummation, suggesting it may be incommensurate with the standards previously established by this department”: what's wrong with “It's bad” or “It doesn't work”? Of course you should be sensitive to your reader's feelings — there's no need to be vicious or crude, and saying “It sucks” won't win you many friends — but don't go too far in the opposite direction. Call 'em as you see 'em. [Revised 15 December 2006.]


There's no reason to use boldface in typescript; spend your time writing, not fiddling with the word processor. See Fonts, Italics, and Titles.


See Interpolation.

British Spellings.

Although the large majority of words are spelled the same way around the world, there are some small differences between British and American English. (Of course other English-speaking countries have their own rules, which usually look to us like a medley of British and American spellings.) Many words that end in -ize in American English are often spelled with -ise in British English (sympathize, sympathise); many words that end in -or in America end in -our in Britain (honor, honour); many consonants that are single before suffixes in America are doubled in Britain (traveled, travelled). A good dictionary will show you most of the differences. (Jeremy Smith has assembled a catalogue of words that have different spellings in America and Britain.)

If you use British spellings, use them consistently. Inconsistent British spellings are an affectation. A few words can legitimately go either way: both theater and theatre are acceptable in America, likewise catalog and catalogue; both analyze and analyse are used in Britain. But dropping in the occasional colour into American writing is a bad idea. [Revised 15 December 2006.]


Arguments over grammar and style are often as fierce as those over Windows versus Mac, and as fruitless as Coke versus Pepsi or boxers versus briefs. Pedantic and vicious debates over knotty matters such as Prepositions at the End, That versus Which, and Split Infinitives may be entertaining to those who enjoy cockfights, but do little to improve writing. Know as much as you can about the rules, but strive above all for clarity and grace. Think always of the effect you'll have on your audience. Over time you'll come to trust your ear, which will be disciplined by reading the best authors and by constant practice at writing. See also Prescriptive versus Descriptive Grammars and Taste.

But at the Beginning.

Contrary to what your high school English teacher told you, there's no reason not to begin a sentence with but or and; in fact, these words often make a sentence more forceful and graceful. They are almost always better than beginning with however or additionally. Beginning with but or and does make your writing less formal; — but worse things could happen to most writing than becoming less formal.

Note, though, that if you open with but or and, you usually don't need a comma: not “But, we did it anyway”; it's enough to say “But we did it anyway.” The only time you need a comma after a sentence-opening conjunction is when you want to sneak a clause right between the conjunction and the rest of the sentence: “But, as you know, we did it anyway.” [Entry revised 12 July 2005.]


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From the Guide to Grammar and Style by Jack Lynch.
Comments are welcome.