Problematic Words

Two pairs of words that cause confusion:

If you reproduce someone’s exact words, such as ‘Martyn Beardsley’s new book Murder in Montague Place is the best crime novel in years’…


…then it’s a quotation not a quote. The words are something you quote, but the thing you are quoting is a quotation. Clear? The problem is, so many people use quote as a shorthand version of quotation that we’re getting to the point where it hardly matters. In ye olde days dictionaries used to be the place we could turn to for the Truth, but these days they are so keen to be cool and with it that they cravenly give in to such trends. You will often come across phrases in dictionaries where they give the incorrect version as an alternative, with a proviso like ‘often used as…’ Dictionaries shouldn’t care how a word is ‘often used’! They should just tell us how it should be used!

The other pair of words I’ve personally always been less clear about, at least in certain contexts. This is my explanation, but I’m open to offers! When you check your bank account and see there isn’t a lot left in there, you would probably say, ‘I might buy Martyn Beardsley’s captivating Murder in Montague Place…’

You are in control of the decision and the outcome. But if you hear that it’s such hot stuff the shops are selling out, you would set off saying, ‘I may buy the book…’ because you don’t yet know whether it’s going to be on the shelves or not even though you fully intend to get it.

So might, in my little world at least, is for something over which we have control. May is used when the outcome is uncertain or can’t be known at that point. I might watch that programme about the Kennedy assassination. He may have been shot by someone other than Lee Harvey Oswald. (Although that’s perhaps a bad example, since he clearly was shot by someone on the grassy knoll…)



About ramblesofawriter

Writer, thinker, tea drinker.
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3 Responses to Problematic Words

  1. chloefb says:

    I have the same issue with invitation/invite as quotation/quote. You invite somebody with an invitation, not with an invite. But the (British) book I’m reading at the moment uses invite instead of invitation, and I think I’ve even seen it in a news article some time, so I guess I’m being old-fashioned. (While I’m on the subject of news articles, I’ve also spotted three recent uses of “try and…” instead of “try to…” in BBC articles. Is that acceptable now?)

  2. Hmm – ‘try to’ or try and’. I’m not sure there could be a right or wrong on that – more a matter of choice? I’d always plum for ‘try to’ myself. Just seems right.

    • chloefb says:

      I really thought there was a right and wrong, but maybe I’m mistaken, as the BBC seem fine with ‘try and’. I thought ‘and’ suggests two different actions, so “I’ll try and come to your party” means “I’m going to try and I’m going to come to your party”, rather than the trying relating to your effort to make the party!

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