Here’s a handful of linguistic bloopers from a week’s worth of reading and listening to the U.S. media in October — a week rich in misused words and expressions:
* “I’m speaking here chiefly of legal experts who have honed in on the possible indictments in the case.”
* “Eventually, the police honed in on a man who’d recently moved into the neighborhood.”
* “So without further adieu, let’s hone in on this troublesome topic.”
The word “hone” means to sharpen. In each of the three cases above, the journalist means “home,” not “hone.” One hones a cutting instrument such as a knife, scissor or razor, and we also, metaphorically, can hone a skill. “Home in on,” however, means to be guided by or to guide toward a destination — as with, for example, homing pigeons or guided missiles.
The third of the examples above contains a second error: “So without further adieu.” The word “adieu” means farewell. What could be the intent of “so without further farewell” — especially when the commentary is just beginning? This writer meant “without further ado,” ado denoting fuss or bother.
* “The hearings demonstrate the need to conduct interviews that are fulsome and intense.”
“Fulsome” means offensive or disgusting. The sense of full or ample as it applies to this word has been obsolete since the 16th century.
* “It’s still one of the only avenues to better understanding the candidate.”
“One of the only” is an illiterate construction that has suddenly begun appearing in media writing and speech. These journalists mean “one of the few,” or some such. Something can be the only or one of the few, but there’s no way to be “one of the only.”
* “Critics charge that in failing to respond, the president is cutting off his nose despite his face.”
This expression is “cutting off his nose to spite his face.” “Cutting off your nose despite your face” may be vaguely amusing, but it’s also meaningless.
* “If you think that, you have another thing coming.”
This is an oddity in which the writer repeats what he thinks he heard, but which in fact makes no sense. This expression is correctly rendered: “If you think that, you have another think coming.”
* “The author asserts in this book that the consumer has to learn to be more suspect of those who are misinforming us.”
If the author really asserts that, then he doesn’t know the difference between “suspect” and “suspicious,” and we shouldn’t quote him. (This is a paraphrase, in any case, so there’s no reason to repeat source error.) “Suspect” can be a verb or a noun or an adjective of a certain kind, but the adjective for suspecting someone or something (describing a state of mind) is “suspicious”: “We consumers must learn to be more suspicious of those who misinform us.”
* “She said she’d made it clear that she wouldn’t be at his beckon call.”
This is another oddity in which the writer repeats what he thinks he’s heard. “Beckon call” is a dopey redundancy that forces the verb “beckon” to act as an adjective and misconstrues the expression “at his beck and call.”
“Beck” is an archaic verb that first appeared about 1300. It’s a shortened form of the older but still current “beckon,” which has been around since 950 and means to make a “mute signal or gesture.” The Oxford English Dictionary says the gesture usually indicates a command or assent.
So being at someone’s “beck and call” means obeying that person’s every command, even unspoken.
* “I mean, I know it’s a doggy dog world and everything, but there should be room at least for professional courtesy.”
“Doggy dog world” is yet another example of the hazard of writing what you think you heard. The expression is “dog-eat-dog” world.
Paula LaRocque, former Dallas Morning News writing coach, is author of The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well and Championship Writing. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.