A Desk-Book of Errors in English/B

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A Desk-Book of Errors in English by Frank Horace Vizetelly
Contents: IntroductionA B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z


back on, go. Compare go.

back or back up, with the signification of uphold or support has the countenance of high authority, but is still, except in the sporting sense, regarded as savoring of slang.

back down: A colloquialism for withdraw as from an argument, a position or contest.

back out: A colloquialism for to withdraw from or refuse to carry out an agreement.

back talk: A vulgarism for any impertinent reply; as, "Don't give me any back talk." Persons of refinement say, "Don't be impertinent," or, "stop your impertinence."

bad: This word is the antithesis of good and embraces various degrees of wickedness or evil as well as those of unsatisfactoriness. Bad is a term often misapplied. One may say "a bad boy," "a bad egg," but not a "bad accident"; say rather, "a serious accident." In referring to things which are necessarily bad, or the reverse of good, select some less pleonastic adjective. An acute, a severe or gnawing pain would be preferable expressions to a bad pain.

bad egg: An undesirable expression used colloquially to designate a worthless person: not used in polite society.

bad grammar: This phrase has been condemned as false syntax by some persons unfamiliar with the different meanings of the word bad. The phrase is not only good English but is cited by the Standard Dictionary as a correct example under the word bad to illustrate the meaning "containing errors or faults; incorrect; as bad grammar." badly: This word should never be used for greatly or for exceedingly, very much, etc. Do not say "Your father will miss you badly"; say rather, "... will miss you greatly." Instead of "I wanted that badly" say "I wanted that very much" or "I was in great need of that." "The carpet needs to be beaten badly" is a ludicrous blunder for "The carpet badly (or very much) needs to be beaten"—the construction connecting badly with beating rather than with needs which it qualifies.

balance, remainder: These terms are not synonymous. A bookkeeper obtains a balance as by addition or subtraction. A mathematician deducts a smaller sum from a greater and obtains a remainder. Do not say "The balance of the evening was devoted to music," but "the rest of the evening. . ."

ball up (to), is slang for "confuse," "embarrass" either of which is to be preferred.

baluster: Compare banister.

band, beat the. Compare beat.

banister is a corrupt form of baluster which is one of the individual pillars which unite to form a balustrade.

banquet: This word designating a sumptuous feast in honor of some person or event should not be used as the synonym of "dinner" or "supper," which both designate less formal functions.

bare in the sense of uncover must be differentiated from its homonym bear, to suffer or endure.

base, bass: Discriminate carefully between these terms. Base means the bottom or support of anything, that part on which it rests; also, that which is low. Base is sometimes used in the sense of found; as, "he based his argument on the evidence." In chemistry it is a compound which unites with acid to form a salt. Bass is the name of various sea-fishes; also the name of a tree and of things made from its fiber. In music the bass consists of the lowest tones in the scale, instrumental or vocal.

bat: Formerly a provincialism but now a vulgarism for "wink." Do not say "Quit batting your eyes at me;" say rather, that is, if you must say anything of the kind, "Stop winking at me."

bathos and pathos are sometimes separated by only a fine line, and it may be rather a matter of intelligence than of philology that fails to make use of the desirable term. Pathos is from the Greek pascho, suffer, and designates the quality that awakens the tender emotions, as compassion or sympathy; bathos is from the Greek bathys, deep, and signifies a ridiculous descent from the lofty to the depths of commonplace.

battalion: In this word the "t" is always doubled, as in battle, from which it is derived; it is, however, correctly spelled with only one "l."

bear. See bare.

beastly: A British colloquialism expressive of disgust or contempt; as, "This is beastly weather"; sometimes even used adverbially; as, "I was beastly tired." This locution, essentially in bad taste, though often affected by college students and others who should know better, seems never to be defensible except in the phrase "beastly drunk," and even this is objectionable as being a libel on the beast. Compare nasty.

beat should not be used for "defeat."

beat it should not be used for "go away" or "clear out."

beat the band: A vulgarism for "to surpass or be immeasurably superior to."

because: Although this word means "for the reason" it is often used in the same sentence with this expression—"The reason why I do this is because (=for the reason that) I please myself by doing it." Substitute that for because.

because why: A term common among the illiterate. Because is used correctly when it precedes the explanation of an act; why, when used interrogatively. Do not say "I did it, because why"; here omit "why" and continue with the reason for the act. Instead of "I did not come sooner; because why?" "I was delayed." Say "I did not come sooner; why? I was delayed."

beef is coarse slang for "boast" or "brag."

begin: Commence is frequently substituted for begin work where the change should not be made. Begin is applied to order of time; commence relates to the work on hand with reference to its subsequent completion. The man who strikes the first blow begins a fight, but both parties to a law suit commence litigation at the moment when they severally undertake the first step.

begin by him: This is incorrect; say, "begin with him."

behave: Strictly means "comport." When used with a reflexive pronoun as, "Behave yourself," this word is correctly applied. When the pronoun is omitted as, "Will you behave?" the sentence is incomplete and the expression a mere colloquialism.

being: The phrases "is being built," "was being built," and kindred forms of English imperfects passive are condemned by certain critics as recent and unwarranted; Fitzedward Hall points out that they are neither recent nor unwarranted, and have been used by the best writers for a century. He says: "Prior to the evolution of is being built and was being built, we possessed no discriminate equivalents of ædificatur and ædificabatur; is built and was built, by which they were rendered, corresponding exactly to ædificatus est and ædificatus erat."—Modern English, App., p. 350.

Is growing, was growing, indicate an activity from within; as, the tree is growing (from its own internal forces); is being grown, was being grown, the activity of some agent from without; as, the plant is being grown (by the gardener). So also, and strikingly, is bleeding (as from a wound), and is being bled (as by a surgeon).

belong: Used absolutely; as, "He doesn't belong,", "We all belong" (sc., to this organization society, community, or in the place, sphere, or associations where actually present): recent in the United States, and apparently rapidly spreadng in popular use, though with no literary support.

beneficence, benevolence: Although formerly the meanings of these words were distinct they are not so any longer, and benevolence now includes beneficence. "Beneficence, the quality of being beneficent or charitable: benevolence is the disposition to seek the well-being or comfort of others; charitableness." According to the etymology and original usage beneficence is the doing well, benevolence, the wishing or willing well to others; but benevolence has come to include beneficence and to displace it. We should not now speak of benevolence which did not help.

benefit. Compare advantage.

bequest, devise, legacy: These words are not exactly synonymous. A bequest is a leaving by will of personal property of any kind; a devise is a gift of land by a last will and testament; a legacy is personal property bequeathed. Devise is sometimes used loosely for any testamentary disposition of property but, applied strictly, refers specifically to land, whereas legacy applies to any kind of personal property.

berth, birth: Discriminate carefully between these words. Berth, which is probably derived from bear, (Anglo-Saxon beran, carry), means a place of accommodation, whether as bunk or bed, apartment, or engagement. Birth, similarly pronounced and derived, means "a coming into existence. "

beside, besides: Much confusion exists, and has long existed regarding these words. Gould, who in his work on "Good English" explained the use of these terms in 1856, from which Webster borrowed in 1876, states that "besides is always a preposition and only a preposition." This is not so. It is sometimes an adverb when used in its prepositional sense of "by the side (of)."

Of besides as a preposition, Skeat, in his "Etymological Dictionary," says:—"The more correct form is beside; 'besides' is a later development, due to the habit of using the suffix -es to form adverbs; the use of besides as a preposition, is, strictly incorrect, but is as old as the 12th century."

Beside is also a preposition in the sense of "in comparison with" and "physically or mentally remote from." "Beside your work his is poor"; "Beside the point at issue"; "The poor fellow is beside himself." Besides as a preposition means "in addition to" or "except." "Besides wealth he had health"; "Besides death he knew no fear." As an adverb it means "moreover" or "other than." "Besides, it is late"; "He was heedless of all the world besides." Beside, then, conveys the idea of conjunction, separation or comparison; whereas besides implies addition or exception.

between. Compare among.

between you and I: This is incorrect. Both pronouns are objects of the preposition between and should be in the objective case; say "between you and me." Compare you and I.

bevy: A word sometimes misapplied. It is applied correctly to a company of girls, a flock of birds, as, quail, grouse, or larks; also to a small herd of deer or heifers.

big, great: Discriminate carefully between these words. Big is not synonymous with great. A man may be physically big but is not necessarily great mentally. Emerson was mentally a great man, and although tall physically he was not a big man. Big and large are synonymous, but while big is more emphatic, large is a more refined or elegant term.

big-bug: A slang term used to denote a person of consequence, actual or self-imagined. Say rather, "A prominent" or, "an important man."

big-wig: A slang term common in England for a person in authority or of prominence. Compare big-bug.

bird: In the phrase "You're a bird" an inane and, therefore, undesirable expression.

bit: Primarily a bite, a small piece, or by extension a small quantity; as, a bit of bread, a bit of fun. By error, the word is sometimes applied to liquids; as, "there is not a bit of water on the farm." But when reference is to liquid to be drunk, it is more discriminating to say, not a bit, but a sip.

blame on: Indefensible slang. We blame a person for a fault, or lay the blame upon him. Not, as in a New York newspaper, after the last Presidential election, "I do not blame the defeat on the President," but "I do not blame the President for the defeat," or "I do not lay the blame, . . upon," etc.

blow: A colloquialism for boastful talk, which is expressed less coarsely but with as much force by "bluster" or "brag."

blowhard: A coarse term for "boaster" synonymous with windbag; not used by persons of refinement. Compare windbag.

boiled shirt: A slang phrase designating a white linen shirt. It originated in the Western States of America but its use is widespread among persons addicted to careless diction.

boost, to: A vulgarism for "to assist"; used also as a noun, as "He gave me a boost in business" for "He assisted me…."

borne, the past participle of bear, must not be confounded with the adjective born. "Man is born to sorrow, which may or may not be well borne."

both: When both is used in a negative sentence, the meaning intended is sometimes doubtful. "Both applicants were not accepted." Were both applicants rejected? Or, was one rejected and the other accepted? Or, was neither applicant accepted or rejected? A similar confusion of sense occurs in some negative sentences containing all, when not is misplaced; this practically contradicts the sense intended, or makes it ambiguous; as, all will not go, that is, not all will go—meaning some will and some will not go. "All were not of that mind" (probably) not all were of that mind, or (possibly) all were of a different mind or minds from the one spoken of. So, also, when all is used substantively. "All that glisters is not gold"—not all that glisters is gold. A peculiarity of both is that it can not be negatived by connecting not immediately with it, except elliptically in sentences of unusual form that are obviously arranged for the prevention of misunderstanding—as in correcting the doubtful meaning of the sentence cited above, "Both applicants were not accepted." If one asks, in order to clear its confusing impression, "Were both rejected?" the reply may properly be, "Not both were rejected; one was rejected and one accepted"—a connection of not with both that is usually inadmissible. The confusion in meaning of a negative sentence containing both will be best avoided by making the sentence affirmative; "Both applicants were rejected," "One of the two applicants was rejected and the other accepted," etc.—Standard Dictionary.

both: As an adjective or pronoun both emphasizes the idea of two. It has been well defined as "the two, and not merely one of them"; it can not properly, therefore, be connected with or refer to more than two objects. As a conjunction, however, both has a more extended meaning and employment than it has as an adjective or a pronoun; thus, it is permissible to say, "He lost all his live stock—both horses, cows, and sheep." Both, as so used, emphasizes the extent or comprehensiveness of the assertion. The use has been challenged, but has abundant literary authority, and antedates Chaucer.

both alike: A pleonasm. Two things may be alike but alike should not be used as an adjective. Both daughters may be like their mother, but to say they are both alike, meaning that they resemble each other, is incorrect. Both should never be used with alike.

bounce: A colloquialism for "discharge" or "eject forcibly," an apt rather than an elegant term. bound: This word may be the participial adjective of buā, prepare, or the past participle of bindan, bind. The words should not be confused. "I am bound to have it:" yes, if constrained or compelled; but no, if merely resolved. It is true that in the United States a colloquial usage to this effect has become popular, but it is none the less an error of speech.

bountiful, plentiful: Bountiful which originally meant "generous in bestowing gifts" has gradually come to mean "showing abundance," "yielding in plenty." In the latter sense it is synonymous with plentiful.

bourne: From the French borne, bourne (Latin bodina, limit), means that which marks the end, and hence the end or goal. It does not mean country which it is so often supposed to mean—presumedly from Hamlet's "undiscovered country, from whose bourne no traveller returns." Readers who on this authority construe bourne as country make the mistake of substituting the word "which" for the phrase "whose" bourne.

brand-new often incorrectly written bran-new. The original and etymologically correct form of this word is brand-new, from brand, meaning "fire" or "burning," and new meaning "fresh"—the "fire-new" of Shakespeare (Twelfth Night, act. iii., sc. 2) is best explained by his own words, "fire-new from the mint," meaning "fresh and bright " like a new coin, as being newly come from the fire and forge. Bran-new is a colloquialism.

brand of Cain: By a peculiar perversion of facts, this is invariably referred to as a stigma similar to the scarlet letter with which Hester Prynne was indeed branded. But the brand was an act of mercy and "a token of Divine protection," for "the Lord set a mark on Cain, lest any finding him should slay him."

bravery, courage: Inasmuch as the courageous may be without bravery and the brave without courage a careful discrimination should always be made in the use of these terms. Courage is rather a virtue of the mind, whereas bravery is temperamental. Your courage may ooze out, as it were, at the palms of your hands, but bravery which is instinctive, remains. For this reason bravery may often be misplaced, true courage—which ever seeks to do the right thing at the right time, regardless of results—never.

bred and born: An erroneous sequence of words. One is born before one is bred therefore say "born and bred."

brevity, conciseness: Words sometimes misused. Brevity is commonly applied to shortness of time, but it has the sanction of literary usage for conciseness or condensation of language into few words. A speech may be concise yet comprehensive; that is, it may cover the entire range of a subject in few words and as such be characterized by conciseness; another may be short in duration, the theme being one that does not permit of expansion and as such be characterized by brevity.

bring, carry, fetch: Discriminate carefully between these words. Bring expresses motion toward some person, place, or thing, and implies to bear from a distant place to one nearer; carry expresses motion away from; fetch expresses motion from a given place to another, as for the purpose of obtaining some article, and return to the given place with the article required. Go and fetch is pleonastic.

Britannia: This word is often misspelled "Brittannia." It is from Britain and should be spelled with only one "t" but two "n's."

broach, brooch: Discriminate carefully between these terms. Although both are derived from the same source etymologically (Latin, broca, a spike) they are now widely different in meaning. A broach may mean "a boring into an opening, a spit, or a spire." It is also the name of the boring bits or drills used in carpentering or engineering. It means also "to approach any one in conversation" on some particular subject. A brooch is "a breastpin or an ornamental pin or clasp used as for display or to fasten some part of a dress."

broke: A word often misused for "broken." Do not say "I'm broke" say rather "broken"—To go broke: A colloquial phrase common in commercial circles for "to become bankrupt." These terms are avoided by persons who cultivate a refined diction.

brothers: Distinguished from brethren. The one applies to those who are brothers by birth, whereas the other indicates fraternal relationship in some order or society.

building, being built: There are advocates of either form. Fitzedward Hall has shown conclusively that "is being built" has been used by the best writers for a century or more, and now has universal literary sanction. Richard Whately, George P. Marsh, Richard Grant White, and other critics have strenuously objected to this use. In literature there is support enough for their views: Milton wrote "while the Temple of the Lord was building." Dr. Johnson, in writing to Boswell, of his Lives of the Poets said "My 'Lives' are reprinting;" Macaulay followed the same style and wrote "Chelsea Hospital was building;" "while innocent blood was shedding." Being has a special modern use with passive forms of verbs to express progressive action. For example, is, are, or was being built, expresses what is expressed also by is, are, or was building, a-building, or in building. Both forms are permissible, but "is being built" is more frequently heard and, perhaps, preferable.

building, construction: Alfred Ayres (Some Ill-used Words, p. 44) quotes the following example of the misuse of these words: "These two advisory bodies have recommended the building of battleships. It is understood that Mr. Long is opposed to the construction [constructing] of any armorclads." Mr. Ayres points out that if building is correct—and it is—then construction is incorrect and the correct word to use is constructing.

bum: A vulgar term for "an idle, dissolute fellow; a loafer,"—on the bum. A vulgar phrase used to denote that that to which it is applied is of poor quality, badly done, or has been subjected to careless treatment.

busted: A slang term for financially broken, not used by persons accustomed to a refined diction. Compare broke.

but, however: Discriminate carefully between these words. Do not say "He is suffering—not, however, acutely;" say rather, "He is suffering, but not acutely."

but that: Implies a negative, but when it follows another negative phrase (as "I don't know but that I did it") it suggests the positive or, as in the example given above, the likelihood or possibility that some act has been done. Locutions of this kind should be avoided as inelegant, say rather "I may have done it."

but what: This is equivalent to but that which and is an incorrect expression for but that. "I am not sure but what I shall be there" should be written but that, and indicates the possibility or even probability of being there; but note that if the but be omitted from the latter (and correct) usage, the indication is the reverse. Compare but that.

but yet: Should not be used when either but or yet is sufficient by itself; as, "Wealth may seek us; but wisdom must be sought"; not but yet. When, however, Archbishop Trench says, "But yet these pains hand us over to true pleasures" (Study of Words, p. 232), each conjunction has its distinct adversative sense. This appears still more clearly in "Ye are but common men, but [on the contrary] yet [notwithstanding that fact] ye think with minds not common." Coleridge Wallenstein 2, 3.

bute: A vulgar corruption of "beauty" used by illiterates; as, "She's a bute." Correctly "She is a beauty" or "a beautiful woman."

butt in, to: A vulgar although expressive phrase meaning "to interfere officiously or inquisitively with," not used by persons accustomed to refined diction.

by: Properly used before the agent or doer; with before the instrument or means; as, "He was killed by the assassin with a dagger." But active forces are often thought of as agents, so that we properly say "The house was destroyed by fire." "His friends were displeased by the selection of another chairman" means that the action displeased them; "his friends were displeased with the selection," etc., means that the man selected was not their choice.

"A gentleman by the name of Hinkley."

"Oh, no! You mean 'A gentleman of the name of Hinkley.' This is English, you know."

One may say "I know no one of the name of Brown," or "I know no one by the name of Brown"; but the meaning is different. One might know a man of the name of Brown, but know him by the name of Smith. It is better to say simply "a man named Brown."—Standard Dictionary.