2 More: Disinterested and Uninterested

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I’m not sure when it happened, but “disinterested” has come to mean the same thing as “uninterested.” Oddly, at least according to this, that was what it originally meant anyways. This is wild speculation, but I think that at least some of the shift comes from a sense that people have that the prefix dis- is more powerful or makes you sound smarter than the prefix un- (dis- is from Latin, while un- is from Middle English*).

I don’t really care about whether one meaning for “disinterested” is right, or whether using it to mean “uninterested” is a mistake, but I will point out that it is a useful distinction to keep in mind. You might want a disinterested reader, but you almost definitely don’t want an uninterested one.

* “Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones…” -George Orwell, Politics and the English Language.

One Fish, Two Fish, Red & Blue Fishes

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The word “fish” has a strange feature: while the word is singular and plural, there is an alternative plural, “fishes,” which is used to refer to more than one type of fish. So, “I own a fish,” “I own lots of fish,” and “I own fishes” can all be correct. Thus “all the fish in the sea” means each and every fish, while “all the fishes in the sea” means all the different types of fish.

English has a bunch of words where the singular and plural are the same (especially animal words, like “moose,” though I’ve never read a thorough explanation for that).Other examples are “cannon,” “species,” and “Euro”* (as in the currency; “bitcoin” is also used as a plural.)

One note about the Euro is that as I understand it, the intention was for “Euro” to be the plural, and that is the official position of the EU, but there is widespread use of “Euros” in languages where plurals are ordinarily formed by adding an “s.” There’s even a Wikipedia entry on this.

Proprietary Eponym

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A “proprietary eponym” is a word that began as a brand name, but has come to mean the generic product (also called a “generic trademark,” apparently.)

Some of these are obvious and well-known, like rollerblade for in-line skate, kleenex for tissue, and xerox for photocopier, but I didn’t know until just know that heroin is also a proprietary eponym.

I’m also not sure just how embarrassed we should be that we need a word or phrase for this. At least a little, I would think.

“i.e.” and “e.g.”

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These two cause more confusion than they should. I suspect that some of that confusion is because they are used to gussy up writing without a lot of thinking. Each is pretty straightforward, though:

“i.e.” stands for “id est.” It means “that is,” and means “in other words.” “put another way.” It is used for re-phrasing the previous sentence, or giving a small bit of explication.

“e.g.” stands for “exempli gratia.” It means “for example” and is used for giving, wait for it, examples of the thing just described.

That’s it. Another post with a short quiz at the end is here.

The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed. (2010), 5.220 includes a rule that you should always include a comma after either “i.e.” or “e.g.” Bryan Garner, in The Elements of Legal Style, 2d ed (2002), 113 takes the softer position that they should “generally” be set off by commas. I can’t say I have a strong view on this. Or think I’m likely to develop one. I think I’d be more likely to worry about whether they should be italicized. For someone who does care about this more than me, and even made a chart comparing various style guides, take a look at this. No seriously, go look at it.

Quasi- & Pseudo-

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Often used interchangeably as prefixes, but there’s an important difference: “quasi-” means “almost,” and “pseudo-” means “fake.” A more interesting discussion might be the differences in how “pseudo” and “faux” are used, which is a little more complicated.

To see the difference between “quasi-” and “pseudo-,” consider the difference between a quasi-experiment and pseudoscience.