Monthly Archives: June 2012

Therefore and therefor …

This week we answer a reader’s question.

Dear Scribe: 

Please discuss the difference between “therefore” and “therefor.”  I understand the difference, but it seems that not everyone does.

Sincerely,

Frustrated

Dear Frustrated:

Once again we encounter the challenge posed by words that sound alike but have different spellings and meanings.

“Therefore” means “consequently” or “for that reason.”  Here’s an example:  

The owner of the Dodgers spent the team’s money foolishly, therefore the team filed bankruptcy.

“Therefor” means something entirely different.  It means “for that” or “for it.”  Here’s an example:  

The Oregon Ducks won the 2012 Rose Bowl and received a magnificent trophy therefor.

As you can see, the word “therefor” seems archaic and clunky; therefore, most commentators recommend against using it.

That is all for now …

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Nonplussed about the increasing misuse of nonplussed.

This week we discuss the verb “nonplussed,” which Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines as “to cause to be at a loss as to what to say, think, or do : reduce to a state of total incapacity to act or decide.”  The word derives from the Latin non plus, which means “no more, no further.”  E.g.,

  • For a moment after the judge denied his unopposed motion, the attorney was nonplussed.
  • The man simply stared, nonplussed at the news that his wife had joined a convent.

Increasingly, however, the word nonplussed has acquired an informal secondary meaning that is used in the opposite sense of its traditional meaning, as “unperturbed or unfazed,” e.g.,

  • Despite the withering criticism, he tried to appear nonplussed.
  • Although he lost the election, he seemed nonplussed.

Sadly, the increasingly widespread informal—and incorrect—use of the word nonplussed means that it can create ambiguity in a sentence, e.g., “He was nonplussed by the dreadful news.”  So … was he at a momentary loss as to what to do?  Or was he unfazed by the news?  As you can see, misuse of the word has created a danger that its legitimate use may cause confusion and lead your reader to interpret a sentence to mean the opposite of what you intended.

My advice?  Use the word sparingly, so you aren’t nonplussed if your reader misinterprets your sentence.

That is all for now …

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Inconceivable!

Today’s lesson comes from “The Princess Bride,” in which the following exchange between Vizzini and Inigo Montoya occurs:

[Vizzini has cut the rope that The Dread Pirate Roberts is climbing.]

Vizzini:  He didn’t fall?  INCONCEIVABLE!

Inigo Montoya:  You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.

Recall that Vizzini had used the word “inconceivable” to describe other situations that were hard to believe:

Inigo Montoya:  You are sure nobody’s follow’ us?

Vizzini:  As I told you, it would be absolutely, totally, and in all other ways inconceivable.  No one in Guilder knows what we’ve done, and no one in Florin could have gotten here so fast.  Out of curiosity, why do you ask?

Inigo Montoya:  No reason. It’s only . . . I just happened to look behind us and something is there.

[Later, after reaching the Cliffs of Insanity, and beginning the assent by rope.]

Inigo Montoya:  He’s climbing the rope.  And he’s gaining on us.

Vizzini:  Inconceivable!

So, is Inigo Montoya right—does Vizzi use the word “inconceivable” incorrectly?

Well, according to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, one of the accepted definitions of “inconceivable” is “falling outside the limit of what can be comprehended, accepted as true or real, or tolerated,” and describes situations that are “impossible to comprehend in the absence of actual experience or knowledge” or “impossible to entertain in the mind” or “impossible to accept as an article of faith.”  Under that definition, which requires something to be “impossible,” it appears that Inigo Montoya has the better argument.

But a second definition offered in Webster’s accepts something as “inconceivable” if it is “hard to believe or believe in.”  Under that definition, Vizzini seems to have used the word correctly.

Nevertheless, given that the word describes something that is not just unlikely, but nearly impossible to believe, it seems best to use the word sparingly—if at all.

That is all for now …

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