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.

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.

“Took a Different Tact” or “Took a Different Tack”?

Government regulators took a different tact than some expected, focusing on prices the stores charge in different markets.

The writer meant “took a different tack.” It’s a nautical metaphor: a tack is a change in course. Sailing vessels sail into the wind by tacking—taking a zigzag course so that the wind is first on one side and then on the other.

Tact, on the other hand, is social sensitivity.

This is a good demonstration of a general principle: know the meaning of every word you use, even in set phrases. If you know what “tact” means, then you know it makes no sense to say that the regulators “took a different tact.” If you don’t know what it means, then don’t use a phrase that has the word “tact” in it. This principle will spare you many small embarrassments.