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.

Presented by

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In