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February 20th, 2008

Accuracy vs. grammar / excess thats / peruse

by Barbara Wallraff

Barbara Negley, of Washington, D.C., writes: “Have you ever encountered a choice between accuracy and correct grammar? I don’t believe such a dichotomy exists. A copyeditor once tried to make a case for it, but I remain unconvinced and I know of no one else who has made such a claim.”

Dear Barbara: Fascinating question, and I wish I could give you an equally fascinating answer. But both “accuracy” and “correct grammar” are in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes one person thinks his or her wording is accurate and grammatical, and another person justifiably thinks the wording is one or the other, or neither. I believe you’ll see what I mean if you read the questions and answers that follow.

Jean Kruse, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, writes: “Whenever I read anything, I notice the use of ‘that’ when the sentence reads perfectly without it. An example from my local paper: ‘The pallets are painted blue on the sides to designate that they are a part of the leasing system.’ Am I correct in suggesting ‘... to designate they are …’ would be better?”

Dear Jean: I’ve had other readers complain that writers don’t use “that” enough! Whether to use “that” is often a judgment call, or a matter of aesthetics. The word is definitely useful where it prevents misreading, even if the confusion is only momentary. For instance, doesn’t “The messages are color-coded to designate their importance is low” trip you up for half a second? At first you think they’re coded to show how important they are – but no, they’re coded to show their unimportance. The true meaning is clear faster if the sentence reads “… to designate that their importance is low.”

The “pallets” sentence you quote wouldn’t be confusing without “that,” but to me it’s less well constructed that way. The kind of “that” we’re talking about is a subordinating conjunction, whose purpose is to let readers know that not just a noun but a whole clause – a little sentence within the sentence – is coming up. When the clause is very short – like “they’re available” in “… to designate they’re available” – readers don’t need the advance notice “that” would provide. But when the clause starts to get long – as in “they are a part of the leasing system” – “that” helps orient them.

Shirley Sloan, of Brighton, Mich., writes: “The verb ‘peruse’ is commonly used when referring to reading something quickly, scanning or skimming, such as ‘peruse a magazine.’ The American Heritage Dictionary defines ‘peruse’ as ‘to read or examine, typically with great care.’ Is ‘peruse’ commonly misused, or is this word a contronym?”

Dear Shirley: No doubt “peruse” will someday be a contronym – a word with two opposite meanings (like “off” in “The alarm clock is going off – turn it off!”). But it isn’t yet, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, the New Oxford American Dictionary and also me. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate and Webster’s New World disagree – but what is the point of having a slightly fancy word that can mean both “read carefully” and “skim”? If “peruse” can mean both equally, we’ll stop using it to mean anything at all. I hope you’ll join me in sticking with the traditional use.

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

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