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Troublesome words 6

Posted on 9 August 2017 by James Cowan in Troublesome words

A pair of non-interchangeable words that are sometimes in fact interchanged anyway, is "hung" and "hanged". "Hanged" is used almost exclusively to refer to a method of killing, usually following a judicial process. It is an instance of "passive voice", meaning that the process was or will be carried out on the person by someone else, generally unspecified. Thus "I sentence you to hang" or "to be hanged", and "Dick Turpin was hanged". "Hung" on the other hand, rarely involves a killing by someone else; one may have "hung" oneself for example – even though that used to be illegal! But one may also have "hung" a side of beef to make the meat more tender.

"Somewhat" and "something" too are often used interchangeably – which they are not! The first is an adverb, like "slightly" and qualifies the meaning of an adjective, as in "somewhat warm". "Something", in contrast, is a thing, a noun. While I am as bad as anyone about using "something" to mean "somewhat" for emphasis in speech ("It hurts something terrible"), where to use "somewhat" would actually de-emphasise the terribleness, when the words are written the difference between a noun and an adverb has to be observed. In this example, the question begged (not even asked) is "what thing was hurt and shouldn't terrible be terribly?". (I have just discovered another "rule" in the language, having earlier denied there were more than one [see "More art than science", under Proofreading"]. Sorry).

This being an election year (in NZ, where I live) there is a lot of talk of tax "avoidance" and "evasion". There is a subtle difference between them, lost on a great many people. Avoiding something means taking precautions – wearing high-visibility clothing on a building site to avoid being hit by a truck. Perfectly fair and legitimate. Evasion on the other hand, has implications of cunning, of dishonesty. So for tax purposes, leasing a vehicle, to incur an expense, is better from a tax perspective than buying it outright. But denying you received income is deception, and thus evasion.

I was already planning to write about "that" and "who" until I received a note asking for help with "that" and "which". So here I go. I have looked up the usage of these words in Oxford, and I find that "who" is always (and only) applied to people. "Which" has been in the past (as in the old Anglican version of the Lord's Prayer "Our Father, which art in heaven …"), but it is not the modern usage. "Which" and "that" are now used, interchangeably, but only to apply to things. This raises the question of how to refer to (e.g.) a dog: is it a "who" or a "which"? I am inconsistent here – dogs I know and like are "who" and generic dogs, or ones I dislike, are "which" or "that". But wait! Depending on the structure of the sentence, "that" may not be allowed for "things": "the dog to which I gave a bone" is definitely good, but "the dog to that I gave a bone" is simply WRONG. (Unlike "the dog that I gave a bone to", which works just as well as "the dog which I gave a bone to".) And in a similar way, "who" can change its form depending on usage – one of the very few words in English that does, as far as I'm aware: if the person referred to is the subject (the actor) of the sentence, they are "who", otherwise they can be (or must be) "whom". Thus "the man who I hit with a brick" and "the man whom I hit with a brick" are both acceptable, but "the man to who I gave a drink" is not; it should be "the man to whom I gave a drink". Don't you love English?


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