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New Questions from the Inbox

   

In my experience you can tell true language buffs by the glee they display in pointing out the world’s verbal errors. Even the gentlest, most forgiving among us feel a deep, satisfying pleasure when we discover slip-ups in the language.

The first email below, one of several from my usage inbox, exhibits this sort of delight. Read it and see how you react. Then enjoy the other queries that follow.

Verbing advantage

Question: What’s your opinion of this sentence? I think you’ll get a kick out of it.

  • The low Canadian dollar continues to advantage Canada.

Have a great summer!
Federal department writer, Ottawa

[Those of you who are questioning the exchange rate, please note: this email goes back a few summers.]

Answer: I see what you’re getting at. Advantage here looks like an example of how "verbing weirds language," to quote Calvin and Hobbes.

The morphing of non-verbs into verbs is one of the most persistent trends in English usage and one of the most resisted by us language professionals. Nothing gets under our skin more than the distortion of a perfectly good noun or adjective into a nails-on-blackboard verb such as to action (to act on something), to cell (to call someone on your cell phone) or to mainstream (to make something mainstream).

But we have to be cautious in our resistance. Sometimes verbing is offensive; other times it’s legitimate. While on a gut level advantage may seem awkward in your sentence, technically it’s fine. Both the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2nd ed., 2004) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (11th ed., 2003) list advantage as a transitive verb meaning "to benefit"; Merriam-Webster’s dates the verb back to 1549. The sentence may strike the wrong chord with you, but it is correct.

Jargon—reflectorization

Question: Could you comment on the acceptability of reflectorization in the sentence below? The word isn’t in the dictionary, yet it’s used widely in transportation to refer to the application of reflective material to equipment (e.g., railway-related) for safety purposes.

  • The department continues to progress this matter at a high priority and, given the magnitude of change and rule harmonization required for reflectorization of every rail car in use between the U.S. and Canada, it is being progressed as quickly as possible.
    Federal agency editor, Ottawa

Answer: Yikes! We’re talking sharp nails on a mammoth blackboard here. Reflectorization is the mutant offspring of an act of verbing (in which the noun reflector becomes reflectorize) coupled with an act of nouning (in which reflectorize dons the noun suffix "-ation").

Yet given the context, reflectorization is the right word to use. Jargon words usually spring up to meet a need—in this case, the need for a concise way of saying "the application of reflective material." Once jargon enters a certain field, it can quickly gain acceptance. Changing reflectorization in a document intended for readers familiar with the word would be misguided.

Curiously, the word that piqued my interest in your sentence was progress. It sounded strange to me as a transitive verb, and I was sure it was an error. To be certain, I checked several dictionaries and found, to my astonishment, that I was wrong: progress is listed as a transitive verb. Who knew?

[Note: Since receiving the above email, I’ve used the editor’s sentence in a few usage workshops. Nearly everyone—crack editors, writers and translators included—thinks progress as a transitive verb is incorrect. It’s a lesson to us all: when in doubt about usage, check the dictionary; when not in doubt . . . check anyway.]

Punctuation

Question: How would you punctuate the following sentence?

  • Watch how people behave together, for example, how close they stand when they speak to each other.

Assume you can change nothing except punctuation, if change is necessary at all. No words can be added.
Freelance editor, Vancouver

Answer: An intriguing question, with intriguing instructions. I would change the first comma to a dash:

  • Watch how people behave together—for example, how close they stand when they speak to each other.

I’d make the change (and justify it to the author, who I sense wants as little editorial interference as possible) because I stumbled over the sentence the first time I read it. The comma in front of for example in the original leads the reader to think that "how people behave together" is one example of a thing to watch, to be followed by a second example of another thing to watch. In other words, I was expecting this:

  • Watch how people behave together, for example, and how they speak to one another.

Setting off for example with a pair of commas suggests that the phrase is a parenthetical element that could be pulled from the sentence without skewing the meaning. In your sentence, however, for example is not parenthetical. It introduces a distinct second part of the sentence (the example), which elaborates on the first part of the sentence (the independent clause). The punctuation should prepare the reader for that.

BTW, if the text is formal or academic, a colon would do just as well as a dash.

Usage of as such

Question: In recent years I’ve noticed a strange use of the expression as such in translations and English-language publications. It’s being used as a substitute for therefore, and neither I nor my experienced colleagues can understand why. Here’s an example:

  • I would be grateful if you would reconsider her application and, as such, grant her the $2,000 benefit.

Have you encountered this phenomenon? Surely it’s not proper English, is it?
Provincial government translator, Fredericton

Answer: You are right that as such is cropping up as a questionable synonym for therefore. The misuse is dissected in satisfying detail in two reliable usage guides: Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed., 2009) and the Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage (2nd ed., 2007).

As Bryan Garner points out, such is a pronoun that requires an antecedent (a noun or nouns for the pronoun to replace). Here’s a correct example of as such courtesy of Garner:

  • "I saw in this a threat to the British way of life, but I saw also that my seeing it as such was nonsense." (Anthony Burgess)

The pronoun such has a clear antecedent: the noun threat. Garner says:

"…[S]ome writers faddishly use as such as if it meant ‘thus’ or ‘therefore’…. This misuse is perhaps a slipshod extension from correct sentences such as the following, in which icon is the antecedent of such, but the sentence could be misread in such a way that as such would mean ‘therefore’: ‘She will become an icon; as such, she will be a role model for years to come.’"

The Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage  echoes Garner’s points but adds: "While this use [to mean ‘therefore’ or ‘this being so’] is far too common in academic writing to be labelled nonstandard, it is often awkward, particularly after the conjunction and."

This is an interesting comment. It acknowledges that the criticized usage is widespread, but at the same time suggests that because the spread has occurred among educated writers, we shouldn’t fully condemn it. From this we might infer that the new use is inching toward acceptability.

For now, I think the safest bet is to accept that using as such to mean therefore is still frowned upon. Stick with the well-established, grammatically defensible usage and leave the newly emerging one to emerge on its own, unaided by careful (and, yes, occasionally scornful) English enthusiasts.

Test yourself