An editor asks:
“What’s with journalists and the verb ‘sunk’? We’re getting it wrong all over the place. Her spirits sunk, slowly the truth sunk in — like that. I learned to conjugate ’sank’ in the third grade!”
That editor and I must have had the same third-grade teacher. I’ve noticed this error, too, and have written about it in this space. Some exhibits from my “sunk” folder:
• The economy was struggling even before the real estate market sunk.
• Hundreds are missing after a South Korean ferry carrying high school students sunk on its way to the resort island of Jeju.
• They got out of the car and lifted out the walker. It sunk in the snow.
• Our economy sunk into a deep hole during the Bush administration, but we’re slowly digging our way out.
• Apparently that simple idea never really sunk in.
• The World Cup’s most shockingly appalling moment came … when Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez sunk his teeth into the shoulder of defender Giorgio Chiellini.
“Sank” is the right choice for each of those examples. As the editor notes, it’s simple third-grade English:
Simple present: The boat sinks.
Simple past: The boat sank.
Past participle: The boat had sunk.
Snarky? Fact is, when errors get this goofy — especially among professionals — snarkdom is the only place to go.
More email from Quill readers:
Q. Please explain “stanch” and “staunch.”
Although some dictionaries accept these commonly confused words as variant spellings, most do not, so it’s best to stick to traditional distinctions. Use stanch as the verb meaning to stop the flow of (as in the flow of blood) and staunch as the adjective meaning strong or steadfast (as a staunch supporter).
Q. Would you deal in your column with “whence,” “hence,” “thence,” “henceforth” and “thenceforth”?
First, have a stylistic reason to use archaic expression. Here’s a simplified explanation:
Whence is often thought to be a highfalutin word for when, but it is not. It means “from where” (I know whence I came). Hence means “in the future” or “as a consequence.” Henceforth means “from this/that time on.” Thence means “from that place,” and thenceforth means “from that time.” In all cases, avoid the redundant “from whence” and “from thence.” Those words stand alone.
Q. Could you please mention in your column that the expression “light year” measures distance, not time?
You just did, and I thank you. A light year is a unit in measuring stellar distances. Specifically, it’s the distance light travels in one mean solar year — about 5.88 trillion miles. In informal use, we might hear something like: “She moved to a suburb that might as well be light years away.” But the following is meaningless: “I knew him in high school, but that was light years ago.”
Q. I wrote: “His refined responses suggested he was to the manor born.” My editor changed it to “the manner born.” I can see how either would work, but why wasn’t what I wrote OK?
Because it was wrong. You misquoted Shakespeare, whose words you borrowed. He wrote “to the manner born,” meaning accustomed to aristocratic manners. The words were Hamlet’s: “Though I am native here and to the manner born.” (On the other hand, the British TV comedy “To the Manor Born” was clever wordplay from folks spoofing their source.)
Let’s finish with a few more random notes — this time from the snark:
“The mass exodus of Rwandans into Zaire …” Redundant. The sense of mass departure is built into the word exodus.
“The price point of the home in Cedar Hill is admittedly more attractive.” The price point? Is that anything like the price?
“There’s a certain amount of hyper-inflation even in this market.” Talk about inflation! How inflated does something have to be before we call it “hyper-inflation”? Why isn’t inflation enough?
More “hyper-inflation”: “By the time he stepped into the overcrowded elevator, he was fuming.” How crowded does something have to be before it’s “overcrowded”? Why isn’t crowdedenough?
And more: “There’s so much positive about this sports event that focusing on lowered hotel occupancy is criminal.” Criminal! Just focusing on hotel occupancy is criminal? Why isn’t it enough to say simply a shame, too bad, unfortunate?
And still more: “The Cowboys’ loss is especially tragic considering the circumstances.” Tragic? Especially tragic? This kind of hyperbole is common from some writers. But it’s “hyper-inflation” unless someone gets hurt, or collapses, or dies on the playing field. In other words, only tragedy is tragic. And only catastrophe is especially tragic.
Paula LaRocque is author of five books, among them “The Book on Writing.” Her latest work, a mystery, is “Monkey See,” available on Amazon.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Blog and website: paulalarocque.com