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In the grammar world, many people -- though not all -- are divided between prescriptivists and descriptivists. Stuffy-sounding words, I know.

Here's my generalized take on the two. Prescriptivists support exact rules for the language with no exceptions. Descriptivists simply explain how people use language.

I have been reading Yes, I Could Care Less by the late Bill Walsh, a Washington Post copy editor who wrote a couple of books on language. He seems to dislike both camps, though I haven't finished the book.

I'm somewhere in the middle of the two camps. I'm not a big believer in taking a stand and attacking all other views not in lockstep with mine. I hope this column never gives that impression.

(Hold on. There's one thing: I adore milk chocolate, and I believe that white chocolate is the devil's work. On all other matters, though, I'll listen.)

After last week's rant about redundancy, I heard from a few people who said the language should allow for poetic license. Absolutely, when you are writing poetry, do what you wish with the words you choose. In other contexts, though, I still believe that if you can use fewer words to say the same thing, you should.

Never forget that people have short attention spans. (Proof of this? Immediately after writing the paragraph on chocolate, I had to go find some.)


A reader asked me to explain "envious" versus "jealous."

When you are envious, you crave something that someone else has. When you are jealous, you are afraid of losing what you have, usually a person in your life.

When you're eating the last piece of key lime pie, your husband across the table may be envious. When your spouse's co-worker calls to say she has made him a whole key lime pie, you may feel jealousy. You wonder: Is she trying to steal him?

One reader asked me why we called one sickness "the flu" but another "a cold."

I love that flu is short for influenza. Although I know little Italian other than food words, I thought "influenza" sounded Italian. It is. It's the Italian word for "influence," because epidemics were thought to be influenced by the stars. The shortened word, "flu," appeared around the 1800s.

Unfortunately, not even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could provide an answer on why "flu" usually takes "the" and "cold" often is preceded by "a."

Another reader asked me to talk about the words "fabric" and "fabrication." It's understandable that when one word is used as a building block of another word, you think the meanings are similar.

In this case, they're not. Fabric is cloth. It's also the framework or structure of something. A fabrication is a highfalutin word for a lie. It also is a synonym for manufacturing. But the fabric or cloth itself is not called "fabrication."


A number of readers sent me examples of other redundancies. Did they mean to make me cranky? I certainly hope not.

Here are some of those:

Each and every (Yes, all of them.)

Tuna fish (You don't say salmon fish, do you?)

ATM machine (The "m" is for "machine.")

Breaking news (News is new information about a topic. I guess it's OK to use this if you also acknowledge that you have a section for "old news.")


A couple of weeks back, I kept stumbling over the pronunciation of this long word. It's from a Swedish word, but I never seem to stumble over "Ikea."

An ombudsman is someone who checks out complaints from the public and tries to resolve them or at least explain how they happened.

The Swedish term "umbothsmathr" would cause me to stumble even more. It translates as "commission man."


This Latin term means "the reverse of what I just said is true, as well." It translates to "in-turned position."

Prescriptivists turn up their noses at descriptivists, and vice versa.

The term often is misspoken as "visa versa," perhaps because it sort of creates a rhyme.

Sources: Merriam-Webster, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Oxford Dictionaries,, Common Errors in English Usage by Paul Brians

Reach Bernadette at

ActiveStyle on 02/12/2018

Print Headline: Differing views OK with few exceptions


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