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The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Slipshod Extension

Henry W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, published in 1926, is still the greatest of all English grammar guides. The first edition or the lightly revised second edition (1965) is highly recommended.

Sprinkled among Fowler’s entries are topics that typify the author’s innovative approach to the study of grammar. His titles for these entries are often sly, with a soupçon of snark. Some examples: Sturdy Indefensibles, Presumptuous Word-Formation, Unequal Yokefellows, Pairs and Snares, Slipshod Extension.

That last topic is today’s focus, because slipshod extension may be more widespread nowadays than it was ninety years ago. The phrase refers to the maddening tendency of careless or ignorant speakers and writers to debase a word by overextending it beyond its proper meaning.

Calling a spider an insect is slipshod extension of the word insect: a spider is an arachnid. Calling a whale a fish is slipshod extension of the word fish: a whale is a marine mammal.

Here are a few of the countless other words that are susceptible to this lamentable practice:

Alibi  Be careful when you use alibi, originally a Latin word meaning “somewhere else.” When you say, “I have an alibi,” it means that you can prove you were elsewhere when the crime occurred. Fowler said of alibi: “That it should have come to be used as a pretentious synonym for excuse is a striking example of the harm that can be done by SLIPSHOD EXTENSION.”

Dilemma  The di in dilemma (like dichotomy or dioxide) indicates two: if you have a dilemma, it means you’re facing two tough choices. Do not use dilemma when all you mean is predicament. Fowler: “The word is a term of logic, meaning an argument that forces an opponent to choose between two alternatives both unfavourable to him: he is … on the horns of a dilemma, either of which will impale him.”

Literally  As all nitpickers know well and grow weary of saying, literally should be used only with the bare facts—no exaggerations, no analogies. Yet statements like They literally threw him under the bus show no sign of abating. What could be more slipshod than applying literally to an incident that literally never happened? Fowler: “Such false coin makes honest traffic in words impossible.”

Two revised editions of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage have been published in the last twenty years, but those in charge of editing these later versions have overruled many of Fowler’s traditionalist views and insights. In the process they have stifled one of the most distinctive and delightful voices in the field of linguistics.

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8 responses to “Slipshod Extension”

  1. Mike Phares says:

    This has nothing to do with Slipshod Extension, but I can’t find any category where this fits.

    Can you tell me the difference between “unfitting” and “ill-fitting?” I am working with a usage where something doesn’t fit correctly, like an ill-fitting shoe. But the writer I’m working with is using “unfitting” as in “the shoe was unfitting (i.e. not fitting correctly). I always thought “unfit” had to do with behavior, like an unfit mother. But when talking about size or something not fitting correctly, you would use “ill-fitting.” Can you give me an opinion? Thanks so much.

    • The word ill-fitting refers specifically to a garment or shoes of the wrong size or shape for the person wearing it. Unfitting refers to something that is not suitable or is unbecoming. If you are describing a garment or shoes, we recommend using ill-fitting.

  2. Eolwaen Linden says:

    I notice under the heading of dilemma H. W. Fowler refers to two alternatives. I thought the two to be redundant since I was taught that there could only be two alternatives. I looked the word up in several dictionaries, both UK and US, to find all accept more than two alternatives which is in conflict with what I was taught over 60 years ago. Has the accepted meaning of the word changed with time or was my English teacher merely wrong? I have a copy of the 1926 Fowler which I regard as a treasure.

    • Slipshod extension is real, and this word has been subjected to it. Our position is that since predicament has many common synonyms, there is scant justification for including dilemma. Other more liberal viewpoints will disagree.

      • David says:

        I think Eolwaen Linden was asking about the meaning of the word “alternative.”

        • According to the online Etymology Dictionary, the word alternative originated about 400 years ago and referred to “one or the other of two.” We do not know when that began to loosen, but dictionaries have allowed for “two or more” for many years.

  3. Richard S. says:

    How would you compare the Straus, et al Blue Book to Fowler’s 1987 book? From a purely practical viewpoint, which is better for answering questions? I see the Blue Book includes punctuation?

    • We feel that Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage remains a useful guide for the English-writing enthusiast and the business individual who might be writing without a style consistency to achieve with other people. We often speak about formal, written English usage vs. informal usage. Fowler’s book could be considered “formal” formal—it has more of a British or Queen’s English feel to it.

      What we’ve sought to achieve with The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation is to reinforce our goal of defining common written English while applying proper, generally accepted grammatical style and rules. In other words, the Blue Book‘s guidance observes proper, formal style and grammar while keeping aware of and current with contemporary communication. We bend but don’t break as the language continues to evolve. Fowler’s is a bit more straight-laced, but remains a valuable resource for us.

      And, yes, The Blue Book also comprehensively covers punctuation as well.

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