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New questions from the inbox

Frances Peck
(Language Update, Volume 6, Number 4, 2009, page 12)

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 can’t help but feel a secret, satisfying pleasure when we ridicule the slip-ups of less word-savvy mortals.

The following email from my “Grammar/Usage” inbox anticipates this sort of mutual glee. Read it carefully and see what you think.

Question (advantage)

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

[Note: Those of you who are stuck on the reference to the exchange rate, rest easy: this email goes back a few summers.]

Answer (advantage)

I see what you’re getting at. This looks like an example of how “verbing weirds language,” to quote Calvin and Hobbes.

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

But we have to be careful. Sometimes verbing is offensive; other times it’s legitimate. While on a gut level advantage may seem awkward in the sentence in question (and I confess that it strikes me that way), technically it’s correct. Both the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2nd ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (11th ed.) list advantage as a transitive verb meaning “to benefit”; MW dates the verb back to 1549. The sentence may strike the wrong chord with you, but it is correct.

Question (reflectorization)

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 (reflectorization)

Yikes! We’re talking sharp nails on a huge blackboard here! Reflectorization is the mutant offspring of an act of verbing (in which the noun reflector becomes reflectorize) followed by 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 like this usually spring up to meet a need—in this case, the need for a concise way of saying “the application of reflective material.” Once a jargon word takes hold in a certain field, it may quickly become acceptable. Changing reflectorization in a document intended for knowledgeable readers who know the word’s meaning would be misguided.

Curiously, the word that piqued my interest in your sentence was progress. It sounded strange to me used as a transitive verb, and I was sure it was an error. To be certain, I checked the dictionary 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 sentence in some of my usage workshops. Nearly everyone—crack editors, writers and translators included—thinks progress is used incorrectly. It’s a lesson to us all: when in doubt about usage, check the dictionary; when not in doubt…check the dictionary.]

Question (punctuation)

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 (punctuation)

An intriguing question, and intriguingly strict 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. I expected a sentence like this:

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

Setting off for example with a pair of commas presents the phrase as a parenthetical element that could be pulled from the sentence without skewing the meaning.

In your sentence, however, for example is not parenthetical. Rather, 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.

P.S. If the text is formal or academic, a colon would do just as well as a dash.

Question (as such)

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, and if so, do you think it’s proper English?

—Provincial government translator, Fredericton

Answer (as such)

You are quite right that there’s a growing tendency to use as such as a nonstandard synonym for therefore. This misuse is dissected in satisfying detail in two recent usage guides: Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) and the Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage (2nd ed.).

As Bryan Garner points out, such is a pronoun that requires an antecedent. Here’s one correct example of as such that he provides:

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 then notes:

…[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, the misuse can’t be fully condemned. Reading between the lines, we might infer that the new use is inching its way toward acceptability.

For now, I’d suggest that the safest course is to accept that the misuse of as such is still generally frowned upon by usage authorities. 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.