As to ‘as to’…

August 30, 2008

Some English usage and style commentators are unperturbed by the widespread use of as to as a catch-all preposition; others are aghast. The best approach would seem to lie somewhere between their respective reactions: to neither avoid it outright nor open the floodgates. The careful writer will learn to use it discerningly.

First, we can probably agree that as to is fine when introducing a new subject, or returning to a subject that was mentioned only briefly before:

As to the lab’s upcoming experiment, we’ll just have to wait and see.
As to the cost of living on the island, that’s something worth investigating.

Here it is used in much the same way one might use concerning, regarding, with regard to, on the subject of, on the matter of, on the question of, or as for (which to my ear is slightly less formal than as to). Note that a simple rearrangement can sometimes do away with as to altogether:

The cost of living on the island is [something] worth investigating.

The disagreements arise in its other common application, as a compound preposition. This usage has a long and impeccable history: the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage contains lines by Jane Austen, Henry James, Daniel Defoe, George Bernard Shaw and others, all using as to in a manner apt to horrify the fussier grammarians.

Unfortunately, the term lends itself to overuse, especially as a default preposition for writers who don’t know or have forgotten a more suitable preposition:

We are awaiting confirmation as to the meeting schedule.
We are awaiting confirmation of the meeting schedule.

It is essential to have detailed guidelines as to the project structure.
It is essential to have detailed guidelines on the project structure.

The problem with using as to in this way is that it obscures the relationship between the parts it’s supposed to connect. When it displaces a more direct preposition for no good reason, it can weaken the sentence. Its vagueness is mistaken for versatility, even vitality.

As to often pops up before words like what, which, how, who, whom, why, and whether:

It was anyone’s guess as to whether it would snow.
She wasn’t sure as to which cat was her favourite.
The pilots had no idea as to why the plane malfunctioned.

In The King’s English the Fowler brothers called this usage an “absurd prevailing abuse”, but it is probably not wrong in most readers’ eyes. Still, the above lines tend to read better, being plainer, without as to.

There is no unbreakable rule about using as to as a preposition, but there are good reasons for being alert to how and when you might be inclined to do so.

Semicolons reinvented

August 19, 2008

After I wrote an overview of semicolon use, a friend pointed out that the mark is also commonly used in winking smileys: ;). He described it as a “salacious flirt”, a kinder term than the late Kurt Vonnegut’s “transvestite hermaphrodites“. I admit that I have used and occasionally abused the semicolon in emoticons – always in a highly informal context – but have yet to decide if that constitutes a lapse of some sort.

The semicolon is also used in computer programming code (e.g.   is HTML code for a type of space), but in this guise is rarely seen by the non-programming public. Whatever about the mark’s private life, its incorporation into emoticons and coding language has given it a new lease of life, albeit an odd one, and rumours of its demise are greatly exaggerated.

Misinformation and disinformation

August 12, 2008

These words have different meanings.

Misinformation is an old word meaning incorrect or inaccurate information:

In the popular press there is much misinformation about the mechanics of gene expression.

Disinformation is a newer word meaning information intended to deceive.

Persuading the population of the need for war would require both crude and sophisticated forms of disinformation.

Misinformation arises from ignorance; disinformation is designed to mislead. Misinformation might therefore be considered the lesser of these two evils – if that’s not too strong a word – because unlike disinformation it does not imply deliberate duplicity. Both terms are associated with propaganda, disinformation especially so.

Going forward into the future

August 9, 2008

“At the end of the day we would be looking at resourcing vision-centred and core value solutions on the ground, integrated and sustainable in the final analysis, that mark a paradigm shift at this moment in time and proactively incentivise the workforce in terms of these bottom line strategic issues going forward into the future.”

I exaggerate for effect, but this parody isn’t so distinct from the strings of clichés, buzzwords and business jargon that one regularly encounters nowadays. Except that I’ve left out a perfect storm of something or other. Practitioners tend to deploy this kind of language because they can’t or won’t say something in a clear and straightforward way. The degree to which they are aware of their rhetorical obscurity probably varies a great deal.

Clichés, buzzwords and jargon overlap in definition. A cliché is usually a trite and hackneyed expression, but it can be a word, a phrase, an image, an idea, an event, a stereotype, the word cliché itself, etc. Examples from the opening paragraph include at the end of the day and paradigm shift. Buzzwords are voguish terms that purport to be trendy and significant, but are rarely helpful or impressive. Examples above include proactive and going forward. Jargon emerges in any specialist or occupational vocabulary – scientific, marketing, medical, musical, fishing, political, bureaucratic and so on – and sometimes spreads beyond its original terrain. Examples above include incentivise and core value solutions.

If you want your words to appeal to a broad readership, try not to use this kind of language often. I don’t advocate avoiding clichés altogether – sometimes they are most apt, and preferable to alternative phrases that might be clunky, long-winded or downright mystifying. The trouble arises because clichés and buzzwords are naturally contagious and self-perpetuating, so they spread and become habitual, leading to epidemics of gobbledegook. Entire books have been written on this sort of language – or language abuse, if you’re in an unforgiving mood – and I’ll return to the subject as we move forward into the future (you’ll just have to touch base with me to see if I’ve kept up to speed after I hit the ground running). So I’ll conclude this post with quotes from two careful stylists.

[M]odern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.

– George Orwell in Politics and the English Language

The first [main vice of jargon] is that it uses circumlocution rather than short straight speech. It says ‘In the case of John Jenkins deceased, the coffin’ when it means ‘John Jenkins’s coffin’: and its yea is not yea, neither is its nay nay: but its answer is in the affirmative or in the negative, as the foolish and superfluous ‘case’ may be. The second vice is that it habitually chooses vague woolly abstract nouns rather than concrete ones.

– Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in On the Art of Writing

Hyphens in phrasal adjectives

August 9, 2008

Phrasal adjectives (or adjectival compounds, or compound modifiers) are phrases that serve as adjectives, e.g. six-hour delay, one-way street, tried-and-tested solutions, up-to-date catalogue, come-as-you-are invitation, and grammar-intensive blog. Phrasal adjectives often need hyphens, not just for grammar but also for readability. Hyphens tighten and demarcate the phrases, which is especially helpful when multiple compounds are used:

fast-growing free-range poultry

two-and-a-half-hour on-campus tour

In these examples, each group of words acts as a single idea (fast-growing poultry, not fast and growing poultry). By clarifying each group with one or more hyphens, these strings of modifiers need no further disentangling. Note that hyphens are not used if the phrase follows the object. Rewriting earlier examples:

Our catalogue is up to date

These solutions are tried and tested (clichéd but correct)

If your text has too many hyphenated phrasal adjectives, a simple rearrangement along those lines can often clear things up.

Writers should be careful not to overuse hyphens. H. W. Fowler described them as “regrettable necessities, and to be done without when they reasonably may”. Regrettably, they are more commonly done without in unreasoned ways. When long strings of interconnected modifiers are written without hyphens, they put unnecessary work on the reader.

Neglecting even a single essential hyphen can lead a reader astray, as shown by the following example in Ernest Gowers’ The Complete Plain Words:

When Government financed projects in the development areas have been grouped…

Hyphen omissions can also be amusing: imagine a school of twenty-odd teachers, and beside it a school of twenty odd teachers. A well-placed hyphen reduces the potential for such ambiguity.

An example from the Oxford Manual of Style is a little used car. Interpreting this phrase fussily, a little used car is a small second-hand car, but most readers would infer that the car hasn’t been used much. This is a reasonable assumption, since little-used is quite a common phrasal adjective, and small is used more often than little to describe car size. But the punctuation and meaning don’t match up, so you should be aware that in some contexts a reader might object.

Because the rules and guidelines are not commonly understood, hyphens in phrasal adjectives tend to be ignored or haphazardly applied. Strictly speaking, only the last of the following formulations is correct:

non profit making organization

non-profit making organization

non profit-making organization

non-profit-making organization

(As are non-profit organisation and not-for-profit organisation. See my post on non-life-threatening unselfconscious hyphens.) Of course, there are exceptions. Hyphens are omitted when the phrasal adjective begins with an adverb ending in -ly:

professionally typed letter

environmentally friendly products

Here, the -ly adverbs necessarily modify the adjectives that follow them, so a connecting hyphen is redundant and, to a sensitive eye, unsightly. Since this is the English language, there are also exceptions to the exceptions. Hyphens are reinstated if the -ly adverb is part of a longer compound:

formally-agreed-upon format

not-so-environmentally-friendly products

Hyphens don’t enter the picture if the phrasal adjective consists of capitalised words or foreign phrases, unless the phrases are already hyphenated, in prefix form, or part of a longer compound:

National Gallery exhibition

Lough Derg scenery

Austro-Hungarian Empire

ad hoc committee

cul-de-sac-based housing estates

post-Lisbon-Referendum mess

I heard the last phrase on RTE News on 21 June 2008, and idly wondered whether (and how) the autocue had hyphenated it. In some styles, a single en dash is preferred to multiple hyphenation, especially when the compound is a proper noun: post–Lisbon Referendum mess.

A handy device is the suspended hyphen. Here, a hyphen is “hung” on the end — or, less frequently, the beginning — of part of a phrasal adjective, where there is an omitted element in a common series:

I get on well with my brothers- and sisters-in-law

Please direct sales- and service-related queries to…

A street of three- and four-storey buildings

Wilson Follett wrote: “Nothing gives away the incompetent amateur more quickly than the typescript that neglects this mark of punctuation or that employs it where it is not wanted.” The trouble is, it depends on who’s reading and judging, or even noticing.

Some authorities suggest hyphenating phrasal adjectives as context dictates, taking each instance as it comes and avoiding ambiguity wherever possible. Others advocate a general rule to preclude ambiguity altogether, but this can lead to excessive hyphen use. Much depends on your own style, audience and subject matter.