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Grammar And Style Guide - L

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Latinate versus Germanic Diction.
English is an unusual language in that it derives from two main language families, Latinate and Germanic. Its origins are Germanic; in the fourth or fifth century, Old English or Anglo-Saxon was a Germanic dialect, a relative of modern German. (You wouldn't be able to read a word of it without a class in Old English. Here's the first sentence of the most famous Old English poem, Beowulf: "Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,/ þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,/ hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon." Yes, that's English. I warned you.) There was a later influx of Scandinavian words when the Vikings arrived, but the Scandinavian languages are also Germanic, so English remained fundamentally Germanic. (You can see how English is related to other Germanic languages, and other Indo-European languages generally, in an Indo-European Language Family Tree I've prepared.)

The picture changed some time after 1066, when the Normans — French speakers — invaded England. For a few centuries, the peasants continued to speak a Germanic English while the nobles spoke French (a Romance language, derived from Latin). Over time, though, the two vocabularies began to merge; and where Old English speakers and French speakers had only one word each for something, speakers of the new blended English often had two, one based on the Germanic original long used by the peasantry, another based on the French import that had currency in the court. (Later still, a great many words entered the language directly from Latin without stopping along the way at French, and sometimes we have near synonyms from all three origins: kingly [from Germanic könig], royal [from Latin by way of French roy], and regal [directly from Latin rex, regis].)

There's a moral behind this history lesson: even today, a millennium after the Norman Invasion, words often retain connotative traces of their origins. Words of Germanic origin tend to be shorter, more direct, more blunt, while Latinate words tend to be polysyllabic, and are often associated with higher and scientific diction. If you want a memorable example, compare the connotations of shit (from the Germanic scitan) with those of defecate (from the Latin defaecare).

The practical lesson: you'll sound more blunt, more straightforward, even more forthright, if you draw your words from Germanic roots. An extensively Latinate vocabulary, on the contrary, suggests a more elevated level of diction. Choose your words carefully, then, with constant attention to your audience and the effects you want to have on them. [Revised 3 August 2001.]

Lay versus Lie.
A tricky pair. Here's the deal. In the present tense, lay is a transitive verb, meaning it takes a direct object: you lay something down. Lie doesn't take a direct object: something just lies there. If you're tired of holding something, you should lay it down; if you're not feeling well, you should lie down. (Of course I'm excluding lie, "tell an untruth" — this is just the reclining lie.)

Not too bad: if this were the whole deal, there'd be nothing to worry about. But it gets messier, because the past tense of lay is laid, and the past tense of lie is, well, lay. It's easier in a little table:

Present Tense He lays the bag down. He lies down.
Past Tense He laid the bag down. He lay down.

You can see, then, why it's easy to confuse 'em. Try to keep it straight: correct usage of lay and lie is a telling shibboleth. [Entry added 14 Sept. 2004.]

Less versus Fewer.
Less means "not as much"; fewer means "not as many." Trust your ear: if you'd use "much," use "less"; if you'd use "many," use "fewer." You earn less money by selling fewer products; you use less oil but eat fewer fries. If you can count them, use fewer. [Entry revised 3 November 2000.]
A yucky vogue word. Look for something precise.
Like versus As.
In formal writing, avoid using like as a conjunction. In other words, something can be like something else (there it's a preposition), but avoid "It tastes good like a cigarette should" — it should be "as a cigarette should." Quickie test: there should be no verb in the phrase right after like. Even in phrases such as "It looks like it's going to rain" or "It sounds like the motor's broken," as if is usually more appropriate than like — again, at least in formal writing.

I trust I needn't comment on the barbarous, slack-jawed habit of using like as a verbal crutch: "It was just, like, y'know, like, really weird, like." (Actual sentence overheard on the New York City subway: "He was just like — and I was all like, whatever." There's a swell taxonomy of what likes are like in Maggie Balistreri's charming Evasion-English Dictionary.) It's bad enough in speech: I encourage people to try to go an entire day without saying "like," and few can manage. If you use it in writing, though, you should be afflicted with plagues and boils. Shame on you. [Entry revised 12 April 2001.]

Don't use listing as a noun where list will do. A phone book is a list of names and numbers, each of which is a listing.
Use the word literally with care, and only where what you are saying is literally true. "We were literally flooded with work" is wrong because the flood is a metaphorical one, not an actual deluge. Don't use literally where really, very, or extremely will do.
Long Words.
There's nothing inherently wrong with long words, but too many people think a long word is always better than a short one. It doubtless comes from a desire to impress, to sound more authoritative, but it usually ends in imprecision and gracelessness — and, what may be worse, if you use long words improperly you sound like an ass. (Look up malapropism in your dictionary, or, better yet, read Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play, The Rivals.) Words like functionality and methodology have their proper uses, but they're not the same as function and method. See also Anticipate, Utilize, Obfuscation, and Vocabulary.