Word Court


Maureen Migrditchian, of Mission Viejo, California, writes, "As a teacher, I keep correcting student writing that uses can not as two separate words when the student would appear to mean cannot. I have seen this mistake in other nonpublished writing, such as bank letters. Could you please address the difference between 'I cannot tell a lie' and 'I can not tell a lie'?"

Cannot rules out a possibility; can not implies that one has a choice. I take it you don't let your students use contractions. Still, you might tell them that if they can mentally substitute can't without changing the meaning, then they should write cannot. There is an exception to this rule, though. Cannot may turn into two words when the negative statement is being contrasted with an affirmative one: "I can cheerfully obfuscate but not tell a lie."

Charles Spungen, of Highland Park, Illinois, writes, "My wife used the phrase inspires confusion, as in 'His music inspires confusion in listeners.' I said confusion is not normally a product of an inspirational experience. She said she was using inspires in a straightforward fashion, such usage being sanctioned by the eighth or ninth dictionary definition of inspire, which indeed suggests that inspire can mean nothing more than cause. I replied that sows or causes is better. I pointed out that most definitions of inspire (such as 'exert an exalting influence' or 'impel') trade metaphorically on its derivation from breathe (albeit in a transitive sense—that is, to animate something by infusing it with vital air). I maintained that even if the metaphor is for the most part forgotten, it lurks just powerfully enough beneath the surface to sow confusion as to how something life-giving (a breath of air) can create something life-muddling (a state of confusion). Naturally, my wife thinks I'm a perfect ass. This may be true, but I'd like your opinion (well, support)."

It's awfully easy to get carried away with niceties like this, and the language is rife with them. Does a dog have a personality, for instance? Is awfully cruel redundant?

The living, breathing inspirational connotations of inspire might keep me, for one, from joining that word with confusion. And, in fact, the combination is unusual, turning up about as often in periodicals as the typo carful where careful belongs. But some of those few inspire (or inspires) confusion citations come from such reputable sources as The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Los Angeles Times. So I wouldn't say that your wife is wrong. It's a matter of taste.

Please don't assume, by the way, that the first dictionary definition for any given word is the primary one. Some dictionaries give obsolete meanings first, and most group related definitions conceptually. Your dictionary's front matter will tell you whether its "eighth or ninth" definition of inspire is meant to be less prevalent or important than ones higher on the list.

William Frucht, of Danbury, Connecticut, writes, "In recent years a number of publications have indulged in a habitual, almost ritualistic reversal of the familiar from ... to sequence. I think this practice started in the business press ('The stock declined yesterday to $.09 from $116.32 in light trading') and spread to other media from there. As a reader encountering such phrases, I often feel I'm being knocked to post from pillar. Can you help discourage such awkwardnesses before things go to worse from bad?"

You're not the only person to have written me about this seeming trend. Most of the citations I've found that illustrate it are indeed from the business press. Surprisingly, in the media in general the likes of increasing to and decreasing to are actually more common, respectively, than increasing from and decreasing from. But after most of these to phrases no from ever turns up, so the sentences give no cause for complaint.

Language doesn't promise to present events or ideas in chronological order, but when it brings us things in reverse chronological order, as to ... from tends to do, the writer or speaker ought to have a good reason and provide ample signposts to make clear what he or she is doing. Otherwise, as you've neatly demonstrated, the result can be disorienting. Some people who write to ... from imagine, I think, that they are calling attention to the word that comes first. And maybe they are in a sentence like your hypothetical example, which concludes with a bland prepositional phrase. Still, "The stock declined in light trading yesterday from $116.32 to $.09" would be an improvement, because as usage authorities are fond of pointing out, ordinarily the most emphatic place in a sentence is the end.

Do you have a language question or dispute? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, or send e-mail to msgrammar@theatlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court. Ms. Grammar is also on the Web, at www.theatlantic.com/courtrecord.

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Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at barbarawallraff .theatlantic.com, to see more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and words that meet David K. Prince’s need. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives. More

Barbara WallraffBarbara Wallraff, a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic, has worked for the magazine for 25 years. She is also a weekly syndicated newspaper columnist for King Features and the author of Word Fugitives (2006), Your Own Words (2004), and the national best-seller Word Court (2000). Her writing about language has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Magazine.

Wallraff has been an invited speaker at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the National Writers Workshop, the Nieman Foundation, Columbia Journalism School, the British Institute Library of Florence, and national or international conventions of the American Copy Editors Society, the Council of Science Editors, the International Education of Students organization, and the Journalism Education Association. She has been interviewed about language on the Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and dozens of radio programs including Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, and All Things Considered. National Public Radio's Morning Edition once commissioned her to copy edit the U.S. Constitution. She is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. The Genus V edition of the game Trivial Pursuit contains a question about Wallraff and her Word Court column.

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