Wednesday, June 1, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: L

L is for LATE, like this post. The plans I laid for my long Memorial Day weekend fell victim to, well, me and my personal issues. Nonetheless, here is this week's list of language lamentations.

Latter vs. Last

There were a few missions carried out under Fred, such as the attempted theft of plans for an orbital laser cannon, an attack on Zartan, and an attack on Destro's castle in Scotland. None of these missions were successful, however, and the latter of the three resulted in Destro taking control of Cobra, with Fred and the rest of the Cobra hierarchy in executive positions. (link)

More than a year ago, I was introduced to hardcore punk with bands such as Dayglo Abortions, Toxic Narcotic, Black Flag, and Aus-Rotten, the latter of the four being my favorite punk band. (link)

Between August 1988 and March 1992 six at‐sea experiments were performed in which sea surface backscattering strengths were measured from ∼70 to ∼1000 Hz utilizing explosive (SUS) charges. . . . The latter of the six experiments (CST‐7) was particularly interesting. . . . (link) (This also holds the dreaded utilize, a word I detest.)

Although you have no problem understanding what the writers of these three excerpts were trying to say, each excerpt suffers from the same error: Each of those latters should have been lasts.

Latter refers to the second of two options; last refers to the final item in a list of indefinite length. If you think about it for a moment, you’ll notice that latter/last follows the same pattern as some other adjective pairs you know: younger/youngest, elder/eldest, and even former/first. (Although the histories of these words might not play out any actual etymological links among these pairs, there’s no reason you can’t link them in your own mind to help you remember.)

I talked about latter a bit back in January in Eleven Words That Don’t Mean What You Think They Mean. That’s a fun little blog post; go check it out.

Regarding the blatant misspelling of latter as "ladder": That’s a mistake native English speakers are allowed to make only once.

In the fourth grade.

On a Monday.

Lay vs. Lie

You would probably expect me to harp on this oft-botched pair. I can't . . . I have too many problems with them myself. The only thing I can ask is that you recognize that this is troubled ground. When you encounter this minefield in your writing, do what I do: Find a good map. (That is, look it up in a source you trust.)

Less vs. Fewer

I have my preference, you have yours. The secret is really no secret at all: Don’t be a jerk about it. See my earlier entry, fewer vs. less.

Light Year

A light year is the distance that light travels in a year.

Chant it with me: "A light year is a measure of distance, not time. A light year is a measure of distance, not time. A light year . . ."


If liquefy looks weird to you, then you've probably been spelling it wrong for a while. (I'm talking to you, creators of the Photoshop "Liquify" command!)


People have been griping about the misuse of literally for a long time. AMbrose Bierce was complaining about in 1909 in his Write It Right. Ninety-some years later, the now-defunct MadTV series even created a series of sketches that took the misuse to extremes, as in this video from May 2000:

More recently, Robe Lowe’s Parks and Recreation character, Chris Traeger, has made an artform out of misusing (and overusing) literally:

It appears that using literally to mean its opposite — figuratively or metaphorically — has become a part of the modern English language (and I here use a very broad definition of modern).

People who defend the idea that literally can mean “figuratively” or can otherwise be used as an intensifier in descriptions of non-real actions and situations aren't helping. With all respect to Mark Liberman, Benjamin Zimmer, Jesse Sheidlower, and other learned linguists and lexicographers, I just don’t buy it. From the viewpoint of examining usage both among the general population and by the greatest writers of English, their arguments make sense. But from an editorial point of view, I just can’t let it pass.

We need a word that means “in truth, without exaggeration.” Truly no longer cuts the mustard. (Have you ever stopped to think about what "Yours Truly" means?) Really is long gone. We still have genuinely, but how long can that hold out in a world where people buy and sell “genuine reproductions” every day?

No. We have to make a stand somewhere before all we’re left with is the horrible phrase “in actuality.” I stand by the literal meaning of literally in both my writing and my editing. If I'm editing something of yours and you want to use literally to mean figuratively, you had better be prepared to defend it. If you show any signs of wavering, your literally will bleed red.

Or purple, depending on what color pen I'm using to cross it out.

Loose vs. Lose

Loose — the opposite of tight — rhymes with goose, which leads to “loosey-goosey.” It also rhymes with noose: You might be able to cheat the hangman and slip out if the noose is loose enough.

Lose — the opposite of win — rhymes with snooze: If you do the latter, then you do the former.

Looser and loser are often mixed up, too. People like me who grew up in the ‘80s should remember that posers and hosers are losers (the first two rhyme with each other, but neither rhymes with the last).

I have no such mnemonic for remembering looser except to equate it with nooses and gooses, er, geese, and then adding an R at the end. If you have a better mnemonic, please leave it in the comments!