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November 22nd, 2006

Emitting a smell, and researching word questions on the Internet

by Barbara Wallraff

Ellen Richards, of Hampden, Maine, writes: “Please settle a discussion for me. In something I was writing about times past, I included the phrase ‘the light, sour smell it emitted,’ referring to a stein of beer. A member of my writers’ group insisted that a smell could not be emitted. I took out the offending word. But was my use of it incorrect?”

Dear Ellen: It was just fine, and let me tell you how I know. The Internet allows us to answer zillions of language questions like this one. Used cleverly and wisely, the Internet can give you more definitive information about current language than has ever before been available. If you don’t have a computer at home, your local library probably has one that you can use.

Start by finding the Google News page (http://news.google.com) online. Here you can search for words and phrases that have appeared in the media over the past month -- that is, on Web sites for newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations and the like. Unlike what appears on Web sites in general, most of the material you’ll find on Google News has been professionally written and edited. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, of course -- but it is professional-quality writing.

To research your question, type “smell” and “emitted” into the Google News search box. Then click on “Search.” When I did this -- presto -- up came 152 articles containing both “smell” and “emitted.” I looked them over to make sure they were relevant. Sure enough, nearly all were: “in the narrow tunnel, which emitted a fetid, dirty water smell ...,” from the Los Angeles Times; “the strong smell of sulphur, emitted by ...,” from CBC New Brunswick, Canada.
By Internet standards, 152 results isn’t many, so I thought I’d see whether I got more or fewer results for the likeliest alternative phrasing I could think of: “smell” and “gave off.” I put quotation marks around “gave off” in the search box, to tell the search engine to look for that exact phrase, not just those two words separately. This time only 10 articles came up. I also checked “the smell it,” with quotation marks around it, to see what other verbs might follow. I got just a handful of relevant results, including phrases with “has” and “released.”

That almost tells you what you want to know: According to professional writers, yes, smells are “emitted” regularly. Before deciding to stick with your word, though, it’s always a good idea to review your search results skeptically. And check the sources of the articles. For instance, if all 152 uses of “emitted” had come from tiny or overseas papers and all 10 uses of “gave off” had come from major domestic news sources, you’d have reason to think twice about using “emitted” after all. But that wasn’t the case.

You can refine this technique in lots of ways. For instance, if you want only articles from U.S. sources, type “location:USA” after the words you’re looking for. The Google News Help pages will give you more tips like this. If you’ve read this far (thank you -- you’re a kindred soul), you might enjoy the more detailed discussion in my book “Your Own Words” about ways the Internet can help you answer language questions. Another reason to visit the library!

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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