Common v. Correct

By Lari Bishop

Decided May 17, 2006

Cases before the court:

Bring v. Take
Like v. Such as
Over v. More than/Greater than

Big Bad Book Blog delivered the opinion. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary occasionally dissenting. Chicago Manual of Style occasionally dissenting.

Common usage has invaded the domain of correct usage. The two parties constantly battle for dominance in the written language. Over time, correct usage eventually accepts certain elements of common usage, blurring the lines for writers and editors. And of course, multiple parties take sides in the dispute—editors, linguists, publishers of dictionaries and style manuals. In the end, the true victim is the writer. How is the writer to determine when common usage is acceptable?

It is the opinion of this blog that it is always better to be more specific than less specific when writing. That rule, as well as solid knowledge of the exact meanings of words, should guide writers and editors. Of course, there are always exceptions, instances when common usage, though not correct, is more appropriate. Dialogue is a good example, as is use of slang to make a point or set a tone. And since the tone and writing style of most blogs is very casual, you will no doubt find some examples of common usage here, too.

Keep in mind that it is possible to be correct and specific without sounding pompous or stiff. Following are a few cases that can easily be decided by the writer and will generally not change the tone of a sentence.

bring v. take: People often use bring when take is more correct. For example, “Don’t forget to bring the book with you on your trip.” The difference between bring and take is all about location. When you are asking someone to deliver something to your current location, you should use bring: “Please bring me a glass of water.” When you are asking someone to carry something to another location, you should use take: “Don’t forget to take the book with you on your trip.”

like v. such as: Like is used in so many different ways in our language; it’s not surprising that it rapidly takes the place of a variety of other words and phrases. However, it is important to keep in mind that like really means similar to. In writing, it’s best to use like when similar to could be used instead. If a better replacement phrase is such as, use such as. For example, “Sheila enjoys period films, such as Sense and Sensibility” (meaning Sheila enjoys Sense and Sensibility and other period films), and “I often go to family dining restaurants like Denny’s, but I never go to Denny’s.” When speaking, you might say “films like Sense and Sensibility” (meaning Sheila enjoys films similar to Sense and Sensibility, but not Sense and Sensibility) and it wouldn’t sound strange or incorrect. But when you write, you should try to be more specific.

over v. more than/greater than: This is a classic example of being specific and a classic example of common usage becoming correct usage. Merriam Webster’s and Chicago Manual of Style will tell you that it is just fine to write, “He makes over thirty thousand dollars a year.” But don’t be surprised if your editor changes that “over” to “more than.” For a long time, it was not correct to use over (a term for direction or placement) when you meant more than or greater than, and more than is still more specific.

In the case of Common v. Correct, the Big Bad Book Blog awards the defendant the point of specificity, but acknowledges the plaintiff’s right to assert itself within the language. It is not our intent to deny the natural evolution of acceptable usage. However, it is best for a writer to err on the side of specificity.

It is so ordered.

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