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Writers Talk About Writing

Troupe or Troop? Is That a Dilemma or a Difficulty?

If you Google the word "English," one of the top three results -- ahead of giants like the BBC Learning English homepage -- will be a humble but entertaining website called Common Errors in English. It's run by a professor at Washington State University named Paul Brians, a professor specializing in the history of ideas. "This is just a sideline for me," Paul says. But a sideline that has gained a loyal worldwide following since he launched the site in 1997. Paul has now come out with a handy book version of his website called Common Errors in English Usage. (And a daily calendar, too.) We talked to him about his work, and navigating language pitfalls.

VT: How many errors do you list on your site?

Paul: I haven't counted lately but it was over 1,200 the last time I did a census.

VT: What's your point of view?

Paul: I position myself as a defender and supporter of writers and speakers. I help shield them from humiliation and loss of opportunities that might come through non-standard usage. Instead of standing on a high horse and saying this is right, this is wrong, I've structured "Common Errors" as a way to entertainingly cajole people, so they realize they'll be thought of better if they write this way instead of that way.

VT: How do you choose the errors?

Paul: I use the word "error" loosely because it's a kind of fuzzy concept. There are some things that are pretty clear, like when someone confuses "bare" with "bear." That's just a mistake. But then you get into finer points. Take, for example, the word "behaviors." People in the social sciences, like anthropology, sociology and psychology, talk about "behaviors" as a plural. For everyone else "behavior" is already either singular or plural. What I say on my website is if you're not writing for a social science audience it's better to avoid "behaviors" because it sounds odd. I'm not saying it's wrong, I'm just saying it depends on the particular audience.

VT: Any other examples?

Paul: One that comes up quite frequently is "bald faced" versus "bold faced." The original expressions are, in fact, "bare faced" and "bald faced." There's been some debate about what they referred to; some think it had to do with not wearing a beard. I believe it means going without a mask. It goes back to the 18th Century when people used to disguise themselves in masks when they went out socially. "Bold face" is a modern attempt to make this phrase more rational for people but it's not, in fact, what the traditional expression says.

VT: What about the other side of the proverbial coin, errors that aren't errors?

Paul: I have a whole section of what I call "non-errors." For example, there are people who say you shouldn't write "unquote," it should be "end quote." In fact, it's "unquote." "End quote" might be more logical but that's not what people have traditionally said.

VT: So a preponderance of people consider "unquote" the standard?

Paul: Right. Here's another really interesting example that young people use: The expression "bum rush." It came out of the hip-hop realm and spread pretty widely. "Bum rush" in young people's language means to rush the stage at a concert. But there's an older expression, to give somebody the "bum's rush." If you say "bum rush" to someone, say, over 40, they're going to think of "bum's rush," which means kicking somebody undesirable out -- rushing a bum out a place. So the expressions are moving in opposite directions. It's important to know how other people understand things, not to say "this is right and this is wrong" -- but to make yourself clear to a diverse audience.

VT: Is your website still growing?

Paul: Absolutely. I've been adding to it like crazy lately. I've been getting lots of suggestions. I just did one about the expression "if you're going to talk the talk you got to walk the walk." A lot of people are condensing that down to "you got to walk the talk." You can see how that might be a very compressed version of the same idea, but it sounds weird to people who know the longer version.

VT: Besides the serious business of usage, your website and book are well, a lot of fun.

Paul: I try to make the entries as memorable as possible. I use mnemonics, rhymes, puns or visual comments where I can to make them humorous and fun to read. A lot of people tell me they browse through the book for amusement, which I don't think happens with language guides. I'll go pretty far to make a point memorable because that's much more important than it being scholarly. It just drives me crazy when I see language guides with very dry examples which can't even be understood let alone remembered by the people who are making the mistakes.

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