January 13th, 2010

Vocabulary Rant: Winter Edition

Remember last week when I was miserable? I read a lot, and every time I came across some vocabulary error I went on a (silent) rant about whatever it was being basic knowledge and who were these writers who didn’t even know the definition of “savory”??

Of course, that’s nonsense–vocabulary’s hard, because once you think you know a word, why on earth would you look it up to confirm the definition? If the word is esoteric, you might not even use it in conversation often enough for someone who knows better to hear it and correct you. You are stuck with this erroneous impression for life, perhaps…

I’ve carried mistakes around unvoiced for years, only to be blown away when, for example, my TA couldn’t understand what I meant when I said “re-TOR-ick” and another student had to step in and say, “I think she means rhetoric,” as if I were an over-precocious child or perhaps a trained monkey. Er, ahem, that was a bad day.

Anyway, this is a (modestly) good day, and I am ready to assert some things about some words in the hopes that it’ll help someone and, if I get anything wrong, some kind commenter will step in quickly to set me straight and save me from years of further errors. You’d do that for me, wouldn’t you?

I’m going to skip over where I found these errors, as the works in questions were actually pretty good and I don’t wish to embarrass anyone (as that oblivious TA did to me!!)

You can’t call sweets “savory,” because they are sweet. Foods that are savory have a predominant flavour of herbs, spices, salt, or some combination thereof. They are what one eats for appetizers or the interesting part of main courses (the potatoes/bread/pasta are the bland part). When someone is having a potluck and realizes that all the guests are bringing cakes and cookies and they say, “We have too many sweets and not enough…not-sweets,” what they mean is savory. In this context, sweet and savory are opposites–fruits, candies, cakes’n’pies, etc. are never savory–the issue I came across was a fruit being described that way, which sounds horrid (imagine a salty spicy strawberry!) I think the confusion arises from the verb “to savor” , one definition of which is to enjoy a flavour. That flavour can be anything, sweet or savory, so you see how people could think anything worth savoring could be described as savory but, sadly, it’s not.

I’m using American spellings here, because those are the dictionary references I could find online. In Canada, it should really be “savoury” and “to savour”.

Bemusement means confusion, not amusement…or am I confused? I was taught ages ago that bemusement is a kind of gentle confusion, often with some ironic tolerance built in–you can be bemused by your toddler’s insistence on putting toys in the fridge, but you can’t be bemused in the chaos after a car accident (well, I can’t). But then while I was fishing for online definitions for this post, I came across this one, which seems to imply that bemuse *can* be a 50-cent synonym for “amuse,” as I often hear it used. Is this a commonly accepted definition–anyone know?

That which you choose, that or which, makes a difference. This one breaks my heart, because it is such a useful nuance of language and I’m pretty sure it’s going to die out. I recently lost an argument with a teenaged friend about why *not* spell “all right” as “alright”–my argument, because we already have a perfectly good way of spelling it and the new way does not add any new angle to the word, nor even save all that much energy not typing the second L and the space. His argument was, well, people often do, and are perfectly well understood. Then the example of “hoodie” for “hooded sweatshirt” came up, and that’s an evolution I rather like, as the slang word for a sloppy article of clothing seems so appropriate, plus the word reflects how people actually talk, and does save a lot of typing time.

So, fine, I accept “hoodie” as an addition to the language, and “alright” as at least not much of a subtraction, but losing the that/which distinction leaves us poorer, I think. And I do think it’s going, despite many people’s adherence, because fellow *editors* ask me about this one, and though they listen and even write it down when I explain, they always end by saying, “Thanks. I never remember that one,” as if it were impossible to learn and not much of a loss, anyway. But here it is, one more time, with feeling:

Use that with no comma to introduce a restrictive clause–thus, to limit the statement to being about some part of a larger group. For example, to say, “Lorna thought about the sex she had with Steve that was great,” is to say, she thought about *some* of the sex she had with Steve, the times that were great, but not the other, less stellar, times.

On the other hand, use which with a comma to introduce a non-restrictive clause–that is, a clause that adds extra information about *all* of the topic at hand, and doesn’t separate out a subsection as different. Thus, to say, “Lorna thought about the sex she had with Steve, which was great,” says to us that Lorna is thinking about all the times she and Steve had gotten together, and by the way, it was always great.

You see there’s a big difference here, right? Both for Lorna (and Steve!) and for the reader. If you run into this baffling construction–“Lorna thought about the sex with Steve which was great”–who the hell knows how good their sex lives are?

Sometimes I get the impression that people think grammar rules are just snobbery, like rules about what fork to use for the shrimp–a way for people who know to feel that they are better than those that don’t know. And frankly, on really tough days, sometimes the grammar that I do know (which is certainly not all of it) is all I have to cling to. In truth, when it comes to Latinate rules like not ending a sentence with a preposition, it really is just rules for the sake of rules, but when it comes to Lorna and Steve, I think sentence construction does matter and is worth thinking about!

I would love to know, oh Rose-coloured readers, does anyone observe the that/which distinction anymore? Don’t be afraid–it’s 21 C in my apartment today, so I can take the bad news if it happens that you don’t!

Thanks for reading–it felt really good to get all that off my chest!

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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