Undo, Undue

To “undo” is to reverse something that has been done. Most computer software, for example, has an “undo” function to reverse the last thing you’ve done if it turns out not to be what you wanted to do.

“Undue” means “not justified”: “Local news gave the story undue prominence” means that you think the story did not deserve the amount of coverage it got.

In many dialects of American English these two words are pronounced identically, so it is easy to confuse them:

Wrong: It is also good to warn investigators not to let the psychic information become a distraction, or to receive undo attention.

Change it to: It is also good to warn investigators not to let the psychic information become a distraction, or to receive undue attention.

The writer meant unjustified attention.

“Tarnished with the Same Brush,” “Tarred with the Same Brush”

The Editor ran across the expression “tarnished with the same brush” recently, and was amused by the mistake. But then it occurred to him to search for the expression on the great wide Internet, and he discovered that the mistake is very common.

Mistake, he says, because the expression is “tarred with the same brush,” which makes sense as a metaphor—whereas “tarnished with the same brush” will never make sense, because you don’t use a brush to tarnish things. To be “tarred with the same brush” is to be made to share in another’s infamy. In older writing, “tarred with the same brush” often means simply “sharing the same undesirable qualities”: “We men are all tarred with the same brush, after all.” But from the twentieth century on, the expression has usually included the idea that the undesirable qualities are unjustly attributed to the person or thing that is “tarred with the same brush”:

l am very concerned that, as real culprits are identified, the Census Bureau will be tarred with the same brush.

In other words, the writer is afraid that the Census Bureau will unjustly be thought guilty of the same crimes, whatever they are.

A quick search reveals that “tarnished with the same brush” is not yet nearly as common as “tarred with the same brush,” but it is common enough to worry about. For example, here is the sentence in which the Editor first noticed the mistake, from an article about bogus vintage wine:

Wrong: Real vintage wine makers in Europe prefer to ignore what is going on, as they are afraid of being tarnished with the same brush.

We don’t have to go far to multiply examples (which we do with the ulterior motive of perhaps drawing more Internet searchers to find the truth on this page):

The vast majority of employment service providers do not operate in this way, and should not be tarnished with the same brush.

Families who have two dwellings on their property are being penalized and tarnished with the same brush as if they are commercial landlords.

As is often the case, the actions of the few sadly become the perception of the many and the entire sector is tarnished with the same brush.

It’s probably just time to find a different angle, and hope that we won’t all be tarnished with the same brush as those acting less than honorably.

We can think of two reasons why some people might incorrectly substitute “tarnished” for “tarred.” One is that no one you know tars things with a brush these days, so the expression does not bring up an image in memory. The other is that Americans especially are very sensitive to language that can be perceived as racist. To tar something is to make it black, and “tarred with the same brush” implies that being made black is undesirable.

Make Your Designer Not Hate You

If you’re writing for publication, chances are pretty good your designer hates you.

It’s nothing personal. Your designer may not even know you. But your designer hates all writers. Writers make designers’ lives miserable.

Yet your designer doesn’t have to hate you. You can do a few simple things when you’re writing that will make you the designer’s favorite person on earth. And the best part is that they’ll make your life easier, too.

1. Avoid direct formatting. Always use styles.

Don’t highlight text and change the font.

Use your word processor’s default style for text:

Microsoft Word: “Normal”

LibreOffice or OpenOffice Writer: “Default Style”

Google Docs: “Normal text”

If you don’t like the font, change it in the style. Yes, you’ll have to learn to work with styles. It may take you an hour to learn the basics, and then you’ll probably save an hour’s worth of work every single day for the rest of your writing career.

For subheads or titles, use one of the built-in heading styles. Again, if you don’t like the way it looks (and most of them are ghastly by default, no matter what word processor you use), change the style.

If you stick to the rule of using styles rather than direct formatting, you spare your designer the longest and most frustrating part of preparing your text for publication: getting rid of all your direct formatting.

The Editor will make one exception to the no-direct-formatting rule, which is that italics should be directly applied. Many designers will plead with you to use character styles for italics, but italics in English are a form of punctuation that should be under the writer’s control. The Editor mentions this because he once wrote an article for the Web using proper <em> tags for italics, only to discover that the designer had implemented the <em> tag as italic, bold, blue, larger, and a different font. That should never happen. The writer should be able to rely on italics being the same size and weight as the rest of the text, and in the matching italic font.

2. Don’t use tabs except in tables.

Don’t indent paragraphs with a tab. Just start typing. If you want indented paragraphs, change the style to add a first-line indent. (Again, you’ll have to learn how to do this, and again, you’ll be very happy you did.)

And if you do make a table, use one tab per column, and learn to set the tabs where you want them. Don’t just tab-tab-tab-tab until the cursor is approximately where you want it. If you make a table that way, it will make your designer want to kill you and mutilate the body.

3. Don’t double-space between paragraphs.

If you like a space between your paragraphs, add it to the default style.

4. Use proper apostrophes and quotation marks.

Not the typewriter-style straight-up-and-down kind, which your designer will have to replace before your work is published. Most word processors will use their intelligence to replace your quotation marks and apostrophes with proper typographic ones, and they’ll get it right nine times out of ten. Watch out for the 10%, though. The Editor has explained elsewhere how to fool your word processor into giving you the marks you want.

A warning to LibreOffice and OpenOffice users: for as long as the Editor has used them, these programs have been set up by default to change quotation marks but not apostrophes to their proper typographic equivalents. There is no accounting for this obviously wrong decision; one simply has to fix it in the preferences. And because it is devilishly difficult to find the setting, the Editor will tell you where it is: in the Tools menu, choose AutoCorrect Options, then the Localized Options tab, and make sure the “Replace” box is checked under Single Quotes. And this is inexcusable, but you’ll probably have to do it again every time you update, because most LibreOffice installations (though not all, and the Editor does not know what the difference is) will lose those settings when you install a new version.

5. Learn the publication’s house style.

You can save your copy editor and designer a lot of busy work by learning the publication’s house style. Does it use em dashes or en dashes surrounded by spaces? Does it use the serial comma or not? Most publications have some sort of internal style guide and will be happy to let you see it.

All these things make your life easier.

They make your life easier for the same reason they make the designer’s life easier. If you ever have to revise your work, and especially if you have to change the format, it can all be done with a few quick steps, rather than by laboriously going through and changing everything by hand. You’ll save yourself countless hours of work if you remember to make things as easy as possible for your designer.

Providence, Provenance

Providence is “the act of providing” (as Samuel Johnson says) for future needs, and in particular (in fact almost always) God’s care for his creation.

Inscrutable are the ways of providence!

He shall never want, because he believes in a protecting Providence, and in a God that has never forsaken him.

Provenance is where something came from. In the world of art, antiques, or other things of value that people collect, it means the record of the chain of ownership. In archaeology, it usually means an exact record of where an object was found; the alternate form provenience is also commonly used. (Some archaeologists will tell you that provenience is the only correct form in archaeology, and others will tell you that it’s not, and the Editor can only advise you to go by the standards of your university or journal.)

When experts have questions about a work’s authenticity, they will want to see its provenance.

In the museum catalogue its provenance is given as “near southern base of Mound, western court of Main Structure.”

Providence and provenance sound similar when spoken carelessly, and we sometimes see providence used where provenance is meant.

Wrong: Never fails to amaze that there are super-rich people out there willing to shell out millions of dollars for “newly discovered” works by famous artists, even when the providence is so shaky.

Wrong: Efforts to find this story online or to trace its providence have proved to be futile.

In both cases, providence should be provenance.

Conscious, Conscience, Consciousness

These three words are easily confused, but it’s easy to sort out the confusion.

Conscious is an adjective meaning aware—either, as Samuel Johnson puts it, “Endowed with the power of knowing one’s own thoughts and actions,” or “having the knowledge of any thing without any new information.” “I am conscious of the pitfalls in writing about a controversy like that,” for example, would mean that I already know what the pitfalls are without anyone’s having to tell me.

Conscious is almost never a noun except as a technical term of Freudian psychology, where “the conscious” can mean “the self-aware mind,” as opposed to “the unconscious.”

Consciousness is the state of being conscious. “It was a while before women’s rights entered the public consciousness” means that it was a while before the public at large became aware of women’s rights as an issue.

Conscience is “the knowledge or faculty by which we judge the goodness or wickedness of ourselves,” again quoting Johnson. “My conscience is clear,” for example, means “I know I did nothing wrong.”

We often see conscious used incorrectly for either conscience or consciousness.

Wrong: He also added his conscious is clear. “I’d been in the village for 25 years, and I felt I did as much as I could for the county,” he said.

The local politician quoted here meant that his conscience is clear—unless he was using the Freudian technical term “conscious” as in “conscious mind,” in which case he means “I don’t have a thought in my brain.” We’ll let him pick which interpretation he likes best.

Wrong: The whole trilogy seemed to have evaporated from the public conscious.

The critic means that the trilogy evaporated from the public consciousness, meaning that the public is no longer aware of it.

We’ll Have to Abandon “Inane”

Inane means empty or meaningless. That’s all. A novel that is inane is boringly worthless; a speech that is inane says nothing in spite of all its words. Here is an example of Julie Andrews using the word correctly:

“The lyrics were a bit inane,” Andrews explained. “Actually what I did, because I couldn’t make sense of it and I have to have lyrics that make sense, I decided the best way to sing ‘I Have Confidence’ was to go completely nuts with panic and fear and busy work.”

She means that the lyrics were devoid of meaning, and that she had to find some way to invest them with meaning—an ironic meaning—before she could perform the song.

The fact that the word resembles insane (it’s only off by one letter!) seems to have infected the meaning of it for many writers. It seems to be veering toward meaning “madly stupid.”

Wrong: The goal is to gut derivatives regulation and the Volcker Rule. The reasoning is as short-sided as it is inane.

This was a subhead in Salon magazine, and the other glaring mistake in it (“short-sided” for “short-sighted”) shows us that this is a writer who is often led astray by similarities of sounds. Similarly, a rant by Allen B. West has this headline:

Wrong: The absolutely inane reason Cuba was taken off the terror list

And it begins with this sentence:

Let me clearly state that the pure definition of insanity is to continue to do the same thing and expect different results.

He could not make his own mental connection between the two terms clearer. Meanwhile, from further left on the political spectrum, a headline from the Washington Post:

Wrong: Inane attack: Jeb Bush not conservative?!

The question mark and exclamation point together tell us all we need to know about what the writer thinks inane means.

It is inconvenient that words sometimes change meaning, but it is after all a thing that happens to every language. The problem is that the people who know what inane means are pushing back. You will not find the meaning “madly stupid” even in Merriam-Webster, the temple of description-not-prescription, and you will find many columns by language nerds grumpily explaining that inane means empty or meaningless, nothing more.

For a large part of your readership, then, the meaning of inane has not changed. For a different large part of your readership, it has changed—or, rather, they never knew the correct meaning of it. No matter which meaning of inane you intend, many of your readers will misunderstand you. When a word is likely to be misinterpreted by a large number of your readers, you cannot use it to communicate effectively, and you have to abandon it.

Useful substitutes for inane: vapid, empty, pointless.

Useful substitutes for the changed meaning of inane: ludicrous, ridiculous.

Through the Wringer or Through the Ringer?

This is a wringer, also known as a mangle. Its job is to squeeze the water out of the clothes you wash, and it does it much more efficiently than wringing them (meaning twisting and squeezing them) by hand. You turn the crank and feed the clothes between the two rollers, being very, very careful not to let your hand get in there as well.

To put someone through the wringer is a common expression meaning to put someone through a lot of trouble until it seems as though everything is squeezed out of him.

Since no one you know uses a wringer anymore, many people have forgotten what a wringer is. We often see the expression written “put him through the ringer.” As far as the Editor is concerned, that use of “ringer” will never be correct no matter how common it becomes, because it will never make sense: there is no meaning of the word “ringer” that describes something you can put someone through to squeeze the life out of him.

Attributed to, Attributes to

To attribute is a transitive verb, meaning that it needs a direct object. It also needs the preposition “to” and another noun.

Most scholars attribute the play to John Ford.

“Scholars” is the subject; “play” is the direct object; “John Ford” identifies to whom the subject attributed the object.

Attribute is very commonly used in the passive voice:

The play is attributed to John Ford.

His sudden change of heart was attributed to indigestion.

The passive voice conveniently avoids mentioning who did the attribution, which means you don’t have to look it up in Wikipedia.

So now you know enough to see why this sentence is wrong:

Wrong: The country’s wealth attributes to its large reserves and exploitation of oil and natural gas.

Change it to: The country’s wealth is attributed to its large reserves and exploitation of oil and natural gas

The Editor attributes this incorrect usage to the influence of ill-informed teachers who told their students that the passive voice is always bad.


The word “includes” is too often used where just “are” would be better. We have brought up the use of “includes” before:

“Includes” or “including” implies that part of a list is being given, not necessarily the whole list. Saying “The group includes Apple, IBM, and Motorola” leaves open the possibility that it might also include Texaco and Happy Farmer Markets, Inc. If you want to say that Apple, IBM, and Motorola are the only members of the group, say “The group is made up of Apple, IBM, and Motorola.”

“Include,” according to old Noah Webster, means “To comprise; to comprehend; to contain.” Webster gives an example that is worth a look:

The history of England necessarily includes a portion of that of France.

Notice that what follows “includes” is not everything that is included. The history of England also necessarily includes the reign of Alfred the Great and the South Sea Bubble, but we have not mentioned these things. We are merely saying that we are going to have to talk about France as well as England, because the two countries kept spilling into each other.

Many writers automatically substitute “includes” for “are” or similarly simple words. Here is a paragraph from the Web site of a certain West Virginia conservatory, in which the writer has somehow managed to stick some form of “include” into all three sentences:

The Agriculturally Important plant category includes those that are important to most people usually because we eat them or use their products in some way. Examples include cashew, chocolate, banana, papaya, sugarcane, and coffee. Another useful plant includes the carnauba wax palm.

Let’s take each of those sentences individually. First:

The Agriculturally Important plant category includes those that are important to most people usually because we eat them or use their products in some way.

This is not a bad use of the word “includes.” The sentence gets a bit murky toward the end, and the Editor might revise it this way:

The “Agriculturally Important” plant category includes any plants that are important to people because we eat them or use their products in some way.

The Editor frankly can’t imagine any other reasons for a plant’s being “agriculturally important,” so he got rid of the “usually.” Now the next sentence:

Examples include cashew, chocolate, banana, papaya, sugarcane, and coffee.

Again, not an incorrect use of “include,” but it would be better to use a colon to avoid slipping into bureaucratic language:

Some examples: cashew, chocolate, banana, papaya, sugarcane, and coffee.

Now the third:

Another useful plant includes the carnauba wax palm.

This is so silly and wrong that, if you cannot see why it is silly and wrong, the Editor will not be able to explain it to you. Rewriting it is simple:

Another useful plant is the carnauba wax palm.