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Troublesome words 7

Posted on 8 September 2017 by James Cowan in Troublesome words

There are a lot of words which end either in "-ice" or in "-ise" - for example advice and advise, device and devise - which have different meanings, and occasionally (actually, I think, only the ones already mentioned!) have a different pronunciation. There are quite a lot, too, which have different spellings due to local idiosyncrasies - "defence" does not exist in the USA, although "defensive" is used in both US and real English. However, as I am in an English-speaking country, I will attempt to confine my comments to English usage. I like to use the "advice / advise" difference to aid me in spelling, because it is the most clear due to the pronunciations. "Advise" is the verb - "I advise you to …" and the noun is "advice". "The advice I received was …". Remember it as being "nICE" to have. Where this alternative exists, such as licence / license, the pair works the same way - you possess a "licence", but you are "licensed to sell spirits" in the traditional phrase. But beware: there is no connection between the workshop device "vise" and the bad behaviour, "vice", which was of such interest in the past in Miami. Pronounced the same, yes, but derived from different words (Latin, via French, in both cases, but different at source).

Two words which are used interchangeably at times, though they do not in fact have anything in common apart from the first part of their sounds, are "relative" and "relevant": "I do not have the relative facts to hand" and "I do not have the relevant facts to hand". "Relative" means either "related by blood or marriage" (i.e. sister, cousin, et al are "relatives"), or is a comparative: "relatively pleasant weather [compared to last year]". "Relevant", on the other hand, means "appropriate" or "connected" - "facts relevant to the case". There is no corresponding noun usage of "relevant" - "relevance" shares its meanings with "relevant". Again, those Romans and Norman-Frenchmen have a lot to answer for.

Referring back to my blog on numbers (8 February 2017, under English Language, Proofreading and Writing), the pair "underestimate" and "overestimate" often cause trouble. Not on their own, but in phrases like "should (or must) not be overestimated" versus "cannot be overestimated". The "should not" version suggests that while the peril, for example, is big, it "should not" be seen as impossible to prevail over it. The "cannot" version, on the other hand, says that the peril is "big"; no, "it's huge"; no, "it's huger still", and so on (literally ad infinitum). Equally, while "should not be underestimated" suggests it is likely to be bigger than you think, it does not provoke the challenge of "cannot be underestimated", which, reduced to its final logical value, suggests there is no problem at all. Woolly wording giving rise to silly meanings.

One thing that appears often is the belief that "premises" is a plural word, so the singular must be "premise". NOT TRUE! Or not in modern usage. The divergence comes from a misunderstanding of the use of "premise" in 16th century legal documents, where it meant something similar to "aforesaid", "already stated". Thus in deeds for a house, one might have found a house described as containing "reception rooms, a ballroom and seven bedrooms", and being surrounded by "grounds containing a fishing lake and woodlands", and later referred back to as "the premises" being "the facts already given". And thus referring to either set as "a premise". Nowadays, the plural form is generally used to refer to one or more places, and the singular word is more commonly used in the context of logic: "Based on the premise that the earth is the centre of the galaxy, some of the planets that we can observe move backwards in their orbits".


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