Word Court

Wrong time to write right; expressing discretion

Illustration by Greg Clarke

JERRY LAUB, of Springfield, Ohio, writes, “I believe the expression in the wrong place at the wrong time is overused. Example: if a person walks down a dark alley at midnight and is knocked over the head by a mugger, I would agree he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. If, however, a person is walking out of church on a Sunday morning and is struck by a meteorite and killed, I would say he was in the right place at the wrong time. Do you agree that oftentimes this phrase is applied incorrectly?”

Please tell me you made up the church-and-meteorite example and nobody actually called those circumstances the wrong place at the wrong time. But they’re not the right place at the wrong time either. This phrase has to do with a potentially advantageous situation that someone is unable to exploit. For instance, a right fielder on the Modesto (California) Nuts baseball team was quoted in The Modesto Bee as saying, “We hit well at this field, but a lot of the balls we hit get run down in the outfield. We hit a lot of the right balls to the right place at the wrong time.”

All the same, I agree with you that the wrong place at the wrong time is overused—even a cliché. It hasn’t been fresh since the middle of the Korean War, when General Omar Bradley said, in testimony before a Senate committee, “Red China is not the powerful nation seeking to dominate the world. Frankly, in the opinion of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this strategy would involve us in the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.”

It’s true that any one of Bradley’s four wrong phrases would have made the same point—but less emphatically. Oddly, the two main ways to be forceful in English are to be succinct and to be wordy. The latter is out of fashion, and people who don’t like it call it redundancy. Those of us who do sometimes like it call it pleo­nasm: “the using of more words than are required to give the sense intended … often resorted to deliberately for rhetorical effect,” as H. W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage explains this term.

Del Cain, of Orlando, Fla., writes, “I am a retired librarian and occasionally, out of curiosity, look at Internet personals sites. It seems that most of the time people who want a discreet meeting say they want a discrete meeting. Webster’s New World Dictionary, under discrete, does say in a note, ‘(see discreet),’ but the definitions it gives—‘separate and distinct, … unrelated’ and ‘made up of distinct parts’—are not what people are trying to communicate in their ads. Why the confusion in usage?”

Most visitors to personals sites aren’t there to meet good spellers. Nonetheless, it doesn’t take a particularly bad speller to write discrete instead of discreet, meaning “confidential.” This mistake is common, and not only on the Internet.

I can see why: if I were trying to turn discretion into an adjective off the top of my head, that’s probably how I’d spell it, too. And checking a dictionary wouldn’t necessarily set me straight. Among major American dictionaries, only The New Oxford American actually points people reading the discrete entry toward discreet. The note you cite isn’t trying to help users distinguish between the two words. It just means to say, in lexicography’s telegraphic fashion, that they’re related etymologically. So unless I decided to look into the word’s history, I wouldn’t illicit—excuse me, elicit!—the information I needed.

Do you have a language question or dispute? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic, P.O. Box 67375, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467, 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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