Thursday, December 30, 2004

Look for Two Horns

You'll find dictionary entries supporting the use of dilemma as a synonym for problem, but a dilemma is a specific kind of problem: a choice between two equally unattractive alternatives. If you simply mean problem, use problem or one of its several legitimate synonyms.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004


In case Santa forgot, "The Elephants of Style" now joins "Lapsing Into a Comma" in the autographed-copies section of the Slot gift shop. (Hurry if you want "Lapsing"; I'm almost out.)

Thursday, December 09, 2004

The Dreaded 'Coed'

When coeducational colleges were still a novelty, female students at such colleges were often referred to as "coeds." As the '60s became the '70s, and the '70s became the '80s, the word did not age well. The term became virtually meaningless as same-sex schools became increasingly rare. Its use was ironic at best, sexist at worst, and the seemingly obvious original meaning got lost as people referred to women at non-coeducational schools as "Wellesley coeds" and "Barnard coeds."

I've used the word as a throwaway inclusion in copy-editing tests, including my contribution to this year's test for Washington Post copy-editing internships. This time it wasn't such a throwaway, as almost all the applicants let it stand. Only one flagged it with the red-pencil equivalent of the gasp it deserved. When I saw these results, a day after hearing a television reference to "coeds" that further eroded the original meaning by referring to students of both sexes, I started to think the word might be making a comeback.

The legitimate meaning of the word makes it difficult to use databases to gauge whether such a comeback is under way, but I implore you help me to nip this, if there is a "this," in the bud.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Two Fewer Things to Worry About

If you're still changing "raised" to "reared" when it involves people rather than animals, cut it out. People can be raised. I know I was. (If I was reared, it was done discreetly while I was sleeping.)

And documents can indeed "say" things. If you're tempted to change "said" to "stated," put the red pencil down and take a deep breath. Even if you were reared to say "stated."