Tuesday Terminology: Enallage

You ain’t got you nary any writing skills until you seen this literary device.

And, no, that’s not bad grammar—it’s enallage. The difference is intent (as with most grammar-defying constructs). I began this post with an obviously incorrect line to grab attention, and that’s the core of today’s term.

  • enallage: intentionally making grammar mistakes for characterization or to create (or use) a catchy statement [Note: There’s a wider definition we won’t discuss here.]

For example, in American culture the phrase “You ain’t seen nothing yet” is well known—and also wrong. But part of what makes it memorable is the brash defiance of the rules. It’s a rebel sentence. Newspapers, magazines, and advertisers often use these (sometimes with excessive quotation marks) to capture the culture or for humor.

As is normal, you should definitely approach this with caution. Some readers don’t like authentic dialect (which is a type of enallage) or an abundance of grammar-bending buzz phrases, as both tend to wear thin with overuse. So, be sure that your use of this device makes sense for the work.

By the way, intentional spelling errors are often considered neologisms or metaplasmus and not enallage. We’ll talk about this later.

For now, hows about yous guys hit me with your favorite enallage?


An Infinitive in Need of a Split

Some rules in English grammar are actually grammar folklore. We accept them; we get graded on them; and they take on iconic status. But they aren’t really as ironclad as they seem.

I already tackled ending a sentence with a preposition. So, today we take on split infinitives.

Most people know how to use infinitives—even if they don’t think about what they’re called. The basic format is to + a base verb:

  • to be
  • to hear
  • to go
  • to listen

Growing up, you may have been told that infinitives cannot be hacked apart. That is, the to has to go right with the verb and nothing shall render it asunder. If you’re like me, you may have even run up against a few red pens when you crossed that line.

But I’m here to free you from the historical misunderstanding. In Latin, an infinitive can’t be split because it’s one word (e.g., amare—to love), and since Latin was once considered a model language, this rule-that-is-not-a-rule crept into English.

English isn’t Latin, however. Oh, sure, there’s Latin in our jumbled language, but there’s no reason to abide by Latin constructs (especially for a German-based tongue). So, don’t feel guilty. Go ahead and use these:

  • to boldly go
  • to never surrender
  • to slowly slip

I do want to caution you, though. If you bump the infinitive apart and squeeze in an adverb (as I did above), some readers will think of it as wrong. The myth is too well engrained to easily be removed.

Also, some infinitive chopping can actually make the phrase confusing:

We need to before the day dawns go to the mountain.

The infinitive to go is so widely split that it’s awkward. The better sentence is this:

We need to go to the mountain before the day dawns.

A word or two between the to and the verb is usually fine. But three or more makes the brain work too much.

Continually Continuous

I’m the first to admit my grammar faults, and the difference between the words continual and continuous continually trips me up—if I’m not vigilant. In fact, this once popped up on an editing test I took, which has since made me redouble my efforts to keep them straight and to develop a mnemonic device for simplicity.

Here are the basics:

  • continual: intermittent, repeated often (i.e., not always happening)
  • continuous: uninterrupted, unceasing (i.e., always happening within a certain period of time)

If something is continuous, that does not mean that it has to go on forever. For example, a person’s talking can be continuous for the span of a minute.

How do I remember the difference between these two words? You’ll have to dive into my brain to find out. Your results may vary.

  • Continual ends with an L because the same thing happens after a lull.
  • Continuous ends with an S because it doesn’t stop.

The proper use of these words looks something like this:

  • The frequent storms are a continual reminder that fall is fast approaching.
  • The rain fall was continuous from morning until night.

Fewer or Less and Farther or Further

The distinction between the words fewer and less can seem almost silly. However, the train of English grammar over the centuries has kept on a specific course. And this is what we have for now:

  • The word fewer (a plural noun) is used when you can count the number of items in question (no matter how high or microscopic the number is).
  • The word less (a single noun) is used when you cannot make an accurate count because what’s being measured is an abstraction.

That leaves us with correct usage that looks something like this:

  • There are fewer than five chips left for the salsa.
  • You have less patience than you did before I scratched your paint.

Is there an exception to this? You bet. When less is followed by than, it can function exactly like fewer.

  • No less than 90,000 fans watched their team lose in the last minute.

As a bonus, farther and further are becoming more and more segregated (in much the same way as fewer and less). The interesting aspect here is that this is a newer development.

  • Prefer farther when you can actually measure spatial or temporal distance. (In other words, further is acceptable, but farther is considered better.)
  • Use further when there’s no physical distance.
  • With metaphorical distances, you have the option of either term depending on preference.

Here’s what I mean:

  • The ball sailed farther to the left than he would have liked. [measurable distance]
  • He worked on further refining his kicking game. [no distance to actually measure]
  • Nothing could be further/farther from the truth. [pick wisely—based on what the editor likes]

Like or Such As

Although the terms like and such as are often used interchangeably, they do have slightly different functions. Formally, at least, these differences still matter.

Here are the classic definitions:

  • Use like to compare something you’ve mentioned to an example or examples.
  • Use such as to show that the example is representative of a category.

But there’s an easier way to remember:

  • Like shows a relation. (X is compared to A, B, and C.)
  • Such as gives specific examples without comparing. (A, B, and C are types of X.)

I’ll show you what I mean:

  • Sally wants to be a famous cook like Julia Childs and Emeril. (Sally compares herself to the cooks.)
  • Many famous cooks, such as Julia Childs and Emeril, have inspired Sally. (There’s no comparison; the two cooks are examples of the ones who inspired Sally.)

Muting the Moot Points

Some trends drive this editor crazy. I love the malleability of the English language—how it grows, shifts, changes, and absorbs. But mistakes perpetuated are still mistakes. Our case in point for today is the difference between the words mute and moot.

Now, I do understand why there is some confusion. Moot is one of those archaic words with roughly one main use, and it also happens to have similarities with mute. This closeness has given rise to the following type of malapropism:

Since he dropped out of the race, his fitness for the office is a mute point. [Please, please, please don’t use.]

This, however, is incorrect. Why? Let’s look at the definitions.

  • moot (müt): deprived of real significance, purely academic (the other meanings are rarely used)
  • mute (myüt): remaining silent, unable to make sound

If an argument has lost bearing because one of the main factors has changed or been removed, then the significance of that argument is gone. We can dream up scenarios of what could have been, but the point is no longer valid in actual fact. For this reason, the argument is now moot.

Here’s the bottom line: Most of the time, people mean that something is a moot point or a moot argument. If the argument were mute, they wouldn’t have heard it anyway.

[Update: A friend pointed out that some may also refer to these as “moo points” (a cow’s point of view).]

Complement or Compliment: How One Letter Causes Chaos

One thing that frustrates people about English is that two words can sound exactly the same, differ by a mere letter, and yet have completely different meanings. While those subtle differences actually interest me—how tiny shifts change everything in written expression—you don’t have to understand the technical aspects to keep confusing words straight. There are ways to cheat.

For today, let’s dissect complement versus compliment and the easy way to tell them apart.

  • Complement: Most of the time, we use this word to mean “something that completes” or “the number of quantity that makes complete.” Here are two examples:
    • Peanut butter is the perfect complement to jelly. [And it’s great with spaghetti.]
    • He had the usual complement of eyes and ears (i.e., two apiece).
  • Compliment: This is the noun and verb you use when referring to how we butter people up and tell them how great they are.
    • He complimented me on my dashing choice of pink and green pants. His promotion came through the next day.
    • The dog seemed uninterested in the compliment about its hair.

The easy way to remember the difference is to think that most of the word complete is a part of complement (with an e)—think of it as “completement.” This makes sense, as both words come from the same Latin root. We won’t dive into that, but understanding word origins does help in knowing why something works like it does. Most dictionaries can help you with that.

Any similarly spelled words that give you fits? Leave them in the comments.