Friday, April 18, 2014

toe a fine line/tread a fine line, toe the line: The Weekend Edition—Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Friday–Sunday, April 18–20, 2014

toe a fine line/tread a fine line, toe the line 
When you tread (or walk) a fine line, you are trying to keep your balance between two alternatives, rather as if you were walking carefully along a narrow tightrope. Neighbors have to tread a fine line between being friendly and being nosy. A related expression is “there is a fine line between” two alternatives: “there’s a fine line between enthusiasm and fanaticism.” In this case you aren’t traveling along the line, but crossing over it. The fineness of the line suggests how subtly the two alternatives blend into each other. The first expression is used when you’re being cautious; the second is used when you’re observing how close two alternatives are to each other.

The expression “toe the line” means something rather different. It describes toes obediently and conscientiously lined up for review, military style. It refers to situations in which you are trying to be very careful to follow the rules, do precisely the right thing. Strict parents make their children toe the line.

It does not involve the emphasis on alternatives referred to by the other expressions. Envision yourself standing in front of a line like the starting line for a race. Such a line need not be particularly fine. What is emphasized here is the straightness of the line. But many people confuse “tread a fine line” with “toe the line” and use the mangled expression “toe a fine line.”


The Week's End Extra from the Archives: "How Much Is Lip Service Worth?" (July 18, 2012).

Thursday, April 17, 2014

bemuse/amuse: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Thursday, April 17, 2014

When you bemuse someone, you confuse them, and not necessarily in an entertaining way. Don’t confuse this word with “amuse.”

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

all ready/already: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Wednesday, April 16, 2014

all ready/already
“All ready” is a phrase meaning “completely prepared,” as in, “As soon as I put my coat on, I’ll be all ready.” “Already,” however, is an adverb used to describe something that has happened before a certain time, as in, “What do you mean you’d rather stay home? I’ve already got my coat on.”

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

subject to/subjected to: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Tuesday, April 15, 2014

subject to/subjected to
“I was told I could board the airplane subject to a security scan.”

“At the airport I was subjected to a humiliating search.”

Does it help you to distinguish between these expressions to know that “subject” in the first example is an adverb and “subjected” in the second example is a verb? Didn’t think so.

Although these two expressions can sometimes be switched with only a slight change in meaning, they are not equivalent. To be subjected to some sort of treatment is to actually be treated in that way, usually in an objectionable way.

But to be subject to a regulation, to taxes, to discussion, to inspection, to any sort of condition, is to be liable to it. In some contexts, the conditional action is mandatory: “Shipment will be made subject to approval of your charge card.” In others, the conditional action may be theoretical, not uniformly enforced: “This Web page is subject to change.” Many people mistakenly use “subjected to” in this sort of context.

Monday, April 14, 2014

gauge/gouge: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Monday, April 14, 2014

“Gauge” is an unusual spelling in English, and the word frequently gets misspelled. Your spelling-checker will catch “gague” (believe it!), but won’t catch “gouge,” which occurs more often than you might think. It’s pretty easy to find a “tire pressure gouge” for sale on the Web. If the word you want has an A sound in it, the spelling you want is “gauge.”

Friday, April 11, 2014

us/we: The Weekend Edition—Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Friday–Sunday, April 11–13, 2014

“We” is a subject form, “us” an object. We do things; things are done to or for us.

If this doesn’t help, you can try a couple of simple tests. If you are clear about the difference between “I” and “me,” try making your sentence singular. “We” becomes “I” in the singular and “us” becomes “me.”

“Our mothers and us are going shopping” becomes “my mother and me are going shopping”—which is wrong. So the sentences should read “My mother and I are going shopping” and “Our mothers and we are going shopping.”

But if that doesn’t seem obvious, try eliminating everything but the pronoun and the verb: “Us are going shopping” should be “we are going shopping.”

Test a sentence like “us girls have sold more calendars than the guys” by reducing it to “us have sold.” This sounds wrong. It should be “We girls have sold.”

But “they gave us girls the prize” is correct because “they gave us the prize” is also correct.


The Week's End Extra from the Archives: "Tendonitis" (July 8, 2012).

Thursday, April 10, 2014

zoology: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Thursday, April 10, 2014

Both O’s in “zoo” are needed to create the “oo” sound in this word; but the same is not true of words like “zoology” and “zoologist.” Here each O has its own sound: “oh” followed by “ah.” The first two syllables rhyme with “boa.”

Then there is a whole class of technical words like “zooplankton” where both O’s are pronounced “oh,” though the second “oh” is pronounced so weakly it comes out more like “uh.” But if you need to speak such words, you probably know how to pronounce them already.