Monday, June 13, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: N

Today's gripes are brought to you by the letter N. If you're just joining us, why not start at the beginning and gripe along with us?


This word is simply overused. Not in the text that I edit, but on signs and in ads. How old can something be before it stops being new?
We have these other two great words that don't get used often enough: newer and newest. There's a big difference between, say, "Kurt Vonnegut's new novel" and "Kurt Vonnegut's newest novel." The difference is that the first is an outright lie, and the second isn't. Vonnegut died four years ago, and the last novel he wrote, Timequake, was published in 1997. It isn't new, but it's certainly his newest.

How about some truth in advertising? Anyone?


Face it: nonplussed is just a troublesome word. If you're nonplussed, you're flummoxed to the point of inaction. A nonplussed person might also be flabbergasted or gobsmacked and just stand there gaping.

I wrote a whole blog post about nonplussed and why I think it's such a tough word to use. The point, though, is that you either need to learn how to use it, or don't use it at all.

Numbers vs. Numerals

Numbers are the abstract ideas of quantity and subdivision. Numerals are the characters we use to represent those abstract numbers.

When you think about the size of a standard jury, you hold the abstract concept of "twelve" in your head -- that's the number twelve that you're thinking about. When you write it down, you can use a numeral or numerals, normally 12, but if you're feeling quirky: XII, 1100 (binary), or C (which is twelve in hexadecimal notation, but the Roman numeral for 100). The numeral 12 isn't the number twelve any more than your name written on a piece of paper is actually you.

I'm not a total snooty, prescriptivist grammar snob. You can get away with an occasional number when you really mean numeral, especially in speech but also when numeral would seem unnecessarily clinical. But if you ever try slip in numeral when you really mean number, you're asking for a six pack of editorial whoop-ass.