It must have happened during one of those moments when I wasn’t looking, but there’s no question that it did happen. I’m referring to the disappearance of fractions in communication. Here are two sentences that I recently encountered, not in casual conversation, but in published books: “Babies who were breast-fed had four times fewer respiratory infections . . . “ and “Among teenagers, four times fewer white girls committed suicide than white boys, and ten times fewer black boys than white boys.”
I think what the authors intended to say, and what would have been standard phrasing in times past, was “one-quarter of the respiratory infections,” and “one quarter” and “one-tenth” of the suicides, respectively. This phrasing has the added advantage of being meaningfully convertible to percentages. The phrasing from the books does not. It’s hard to understand “400 percent fewer.” Come to think of it, it’s just as hard to understand “four times fewer.”
What caused this change? Have fractions been classified as politically incorrect? Is innumeracy increasing? Whatever the answer, it is clear that more people are getting confused about what used to be simple language choices. And I, for one, am feeling peeved. Here is a sampling of some other common words and phrases that are often, and annoyingly, misused:
Between and among. Though these two words confound some, they are easily differentiated. If two people or things are involved, the right choice is between. If three or more, it is among. Examples: “There has never been any hostility between Tim and me.” “There has never been any hostility among Tim, Ed, and me.”
Each other and one another. The relationship between these expressions is essentially the same as that between among and between. Each other is correct when speaking of two people or things; one another, when speaking of three or more. Examples: “John and Agnes love each other as much today as they did when they met.” “Jesus taught us to ‘love one another’ as He loves us.”
Can and may. Can means able to do something; may means having permission to do something. Thus, “I can lose weight if I put my mind to it,” “The manager told me I may park here.”
Farther and further. Farther refers to distance; further, to degree. Examples: “I live farther from my office than you do from yours.” “Each month I seem to get further into debt.”
Healthy and healthful. Healthy means in good health or conducive to health in an indirect or figurative sense. Healthful means nutritious or health-producing in a literal sense. Examples: “Considering his advanced age, Ron is surprisingly healthy.” “Doctors say the climate here is very healthy.” “This recipe proves that a meal can be both tasty and healthful.”
Imply/implication and infer/inference. To imply means to suggest or hint at; to infer means to judge or conclude. Examples: “You seem to be implying that I got my job by dishonest means. I resent that implication.” “The essay infers that nuclear war is unavoidable. I reject that inference.”
In regard to and in regards to. Only in regard to is acceptable in standard usage. To avoid having to remember this, use regarding instead. In other words, instead of saying, “In regard to your invitation to the wedding, I regret that I cannot attend,” which is acceptable, say “Regarding your invitation to the wedding . . . .”
Lay and lie. The struggle to make the right choice between these words has been known to raise blood pressure to dangerous levels. The reason for the confusion is that one of the principal parts of both verbs is the same. The verb to lay means to place or put, and its principal parts are lay, laid, laid: “I lay the flowers on the table; I laid them there yesterday; I had just laid them there when Edna called.” The verb to lie means to rest or recline, and its principal parts are lie, lay, lain: “I lie down whenever I feel tired; I lay down this morning; I have lain down a lot lately.”
Reasoning and rationalizing. Reasoning is the thought process that leads to judgment. Rationalizing can have the same meaning, but it also can mean making excuses. Thus, to say that someone is rationalizing could easily be regarded as an insult.
Provided and providing. Provided means “with the provision that.” Providing means “furnishing.” The most common mistake is to say providing where provided is called for. In other words, it would be correct to say “I’d be glad to go to dinner with them, provided they let me pay for myself.”
Reason is that and reason is because. The words reason and because both refer to cause. Therefore, the expression reason is because is redundant. The correct expression is reason is that. Example: “The reason I was late is that I was stuck in traffic.”
Respectfully and respectively. Respectfully means “with respect.” Respectively means pertaining to what has preceded, and in the same order. Examples: “He was brought up to treat everyone respectfully.” “Lisa, Karen, and Randy attended Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, respectively.”
Who and whom (whoever and whomever). These days, even educated people will often go to great lengths to avoid choosing between these pairs. For example, they will substitute the word that whenever possible, as in “The people that were in attendance were all members of my family.” Or they will say “The people which were in attendance . . . .” The first substitution is generally acceptable, but the word which is never appropriate in referring to people.
However, there is no need to avoid who and whom because the rule for using them is quite simple. When the word will be the subject of a verb, use who. When the verb already has a subject, use whom. For example, it would be correct to say, “The man who runs the restaurant is sitting in the next booth.” (Who is the subject of runs; man is the subject of is sitting.) It would also be correct to say, “The man whom I introduced to Sally last night is Bertha’s brother.” (The verbs here already have subjects—I goes with introduced and man goes with is.)
As important as it is to understand and use the correct expressions, it is equally important to react properly when you hear incorrect ones used. If the error occurs in print or on a TV program, a reaction that is both acceptable and satisfying is to make the otherwise rude sound known as the “Bronx cheer.” If a friend commits the error, you may as a kindness take him aside and explain so that he can avoid embarrassment in the future. If the offender is a large, tough-looking stranger, the appropriate, if invalorous, reaction is to smile affably and say nothing.
Copyright © 2013 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved