Image source: xkcd
Happy holidays! As the year wraps up we look at why avoiding tautologies is a great way to avoid repetitive writing. We also explore whether or not to capitalize ‘Internet’. And as usual, we share some Confusables – pairs of words often mistaken for each other.
Tautologies are expressions of superfluous overkill. They state the same idea twice in different words, just like ‘superfluous overkill’ in the preceding sentence does. The words don’t necessarily have the same meanings, but used together they can seem repetitive and, well, overkill. The first tautology I remember hearing was from my paternal grandmother. She would often preface an opinion with “To tell you the honest truth.” At the time I didn’t know it was technically a tautology, of course, but I did smile while wondering what other kind of truth there could possibly be!
Virtually everyone uses tautologies, often without even realizing it, with terms like ‘formulate a plan,’ or ‘valuable asset.’ Some people use ‘definite proof’ or ‘most optimum’ intentionally to underscore an expression or point they want to make. However, it’s generally best not to use such expressions, if for no other reason than to avoid being perceived as less than confident in what you are saying.
Perhaps one of the most famous tautological expressions was this one from baseball legend Yogi Berra: “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”
“Internet”: To Capitalize, or Not to Capitalize
It’s always been standard practice to capitalize the word ‘Internet.’ In recent years though, there has been a growing trend to write it with a small ‘i.’ While a capital ‘I’ reflects the conservative, popular usage, and the perceived status of the global network as a unique entity, use of the lower-case spelling has been gaining momentum since 2012, perhaps because it’s simply easier that way.
Usage of “internet” will soon eclipse the capitalized version, although there are viable arguments against it. If the Internet is a ‘unique entity,’ then it should be capitalized. Many U.S. and Canadian style guides still promote capitalization.
An ‘internet’ is a network of networks. There are lots of internets, but only one Internet. On the other hand, capitalization can be like a speed bump for the eyes when reading. WIRED magazine recently observed that rote capitalization also treats the complex, dynamic internet like a static object. They also note “(the fact that) it transformed human communication is beyond dispute. But no more so than moveable type did in its day. Or the radio. Or television.”
Consistency is important. Whichever spelling you choose, use it in every reference.
Here are some pairs of words, from The New American Dictionary of Difficult Words, which are often mistaken for each other or used incorrectly:
Majority/Plurality – Majority means more than half. A plurality is the number of votes over those any other candidate receives – the most in a context of three or more candidates, where no one gets more than half (a majority) of votes. It’s also the number by which one candidate outpolls another, as in, “She won by a plurality of three hundred votes.”
Malign/Impugn– To “malign” is to speak misleadingly about someone, whether intentionally or not. A lawyer might malign a witness he wants to discredit. To “impugn” someone is to attack them or challenge their statements or motives as false. For example, “The senator from Maine was impugned by the Judiciary Committee.”
Meteor/Meteorite – The big difference between these types of space debris is where they are. A “meteor” is a piece of debris moving through, or vaporized in the atmosphere, visible as a streak of light, as in “a meteor shower.” A “meteorite” is a piece of space debris that has landed on earth.