Category Archives: Troublesome Words

More about whether … or not.

Two weeks ago we discussed the coupling of “whether” and “or not,” and learned that “or not” is usually unnecessary because “whether” implies “or not.”  But—of course—there’s an exception to the general rule.

“Or not” is necessary when “whether or not” means “regardless of whether.” Thus, “or not” is appropriate in these examples:

  • The game will be played whether or not it rains.
  • Court times are available whether or not you’re a tennis club member.
  • The child was required to eat his broccoli whether or not he liked it.

That is all for now …

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Whether … or not.

When using “whether,” it is usually unnecessary to add the words “or not.” Compare these examples:

  • Kaleen asked whether or not it was too late to pick a different kitten.
  • Kaleen asked whether it was too late to pick a different kitten.

In the first example, the words “or not” are superfluous because they add nothing to the sentence’s meaning. That’s because, ordinarily, “whether” implies “or not.” So the next time you use “whether,” pause … and then ask yourself if “or not” is necessary. It probably isn’t.

That is all for now …

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Gibe, jibe, and jive!!

Similar sounding words can be problematic. Let’s look at three fun examples: gibe, jibe, and jive.

A gibe is a taunt or tease: “The angry audience hurled gibes at the speaker.” Gibe can also be a verb: “The Ducks and Beavers gibed each other.”

To jibe with something is to agree with it: “Sam’s job interview jibed with her resumé.”

Jive generally means either to deceive by fast talking or to tease or taunt. This example is best illustrated by the Bee Gee’s classic song from 1975, Jive Talkin’:

It’s just your jive talkin’, you’re telling me lies
Jive talkin’, you wear a disguise
Jive talkin’, so misunderstood
Jive talkin’, you’re really no good

That is all for now …

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Assumptions and presumptions … what’s your functions?

This week we talk about assumptions and presumptions.  In everyday usage, there isn’t much difference between the two, with both words referring to something that we think is true (without proof).  But although assumptions (or presumptions) may be a good starting place as we consider new concepts and ideas—they really need to be revised from time to time as we gather facts (e.g., an assumption that the Oregon Ducks are no match for the defending national champs simply doesn’t match the known facts after the Rose Bowl).  As Isaac Asimov once said, “Your assumptions are your windows on the world.  Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”

Anyway, as interesting as assumptions and presumptions are in everyday use, this tip concerns assumptions and presumptions in legal usage.  And in legal usage, the two words are very different.

In legal usage, an assumption is an unverified belief that something is correct.  Because lawyers avoid building cases on unverified beliefs that may turn out to be untrue (or at least try to), assumptions are useless to a lawyer.  On the other hand, presumptions are very useful when proving a case.  Generally, as used in the law, a presumption carries evidentiary weight by raising an inference that must be rebutted by the opposing party.

In Oregon, the Evidence Code states that “a presumption imposes on the party against whom it is directed the burden of proving that the nonexistence of the presumed fact is more probable than its existence.”  The Code then lists useful presumptions such as “A person intends the ordinary consequences of a voluntary act,” “A person takes ordinary care of the person’s own concerns,” “Evidence willfully suppressed would be adverse to the party suppressing it,” and “The law has been obeyed.”  So as you can see, a legal presumption—unlike an everyday presumption—is a powerful legal tool!

That is all for now …

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So, what’s the difference between irritate and aggravate?

Over the past two years the Scribe has discussed some of the (far too many) words that are used as synonyms even though they don’t really have the same meaning.  Over time, disparate words take on a secondary meaning and robs the skillful writer of the right word for the job.  *Sigh*  So, in a last rearguard effort to save the original meanings some of these words, the Scribe reaches out to his legions of followers to help protect two of his favorite, and subtly different, words that describe negative situations—irritate and aggravate.

Let’s begin with some examples:

  • The person loudly talking on his cell phone on the MAX Yellow Line was irritating.  (Right)
  • The person loudly talking on his cell phone on the MAX Yellow Line was aggravating.  (Wrong)
  • The already bad traffic situation from Wilsonville to downtown Portland was aggravated by a light dusting of snow.  (Right)
  • The already bad traffic situation from Wilsonville to downtown Portland was irritated by a light dusting of snow.  (Wrong)

What makes one word wrong and another word right in these examples?  It comes down to definitions:  to aggravate is to make something go from bad to worse—but to irritate is to annoy.  Although the two meanings are similar (in that they both describe a negative situation), they are not the same.

So next time you’re stuck on the MAX with a rider jabbering on his cell phone, tell him that his conversation is irritating you—not aggravating you.  Of course, if you think that he understands the difference between irritate and aggravate and you want to annoy him right back, then use aggravate!

That is all for now …

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Please, don’t repeat numbers!

The Scribe has noticed that some writers (you know who you are) have an irritating habit of spelling out numbers followed by a parenthetical that repeats those same numbers, e.g.:

  • This temporary restraining order expires ten (10) days from the date of this order.
  • Your reply to this email is due five (5) minutes from now.

Grrr … why do writers do this?  It seems that the historical reason is that repeating numbers back in ancient times helped to prevent fraud by making it harder to alter documents (you’d have to alter both forms of the number).  But now that we don’t have Bob Cratchit copying letters by hand in an under-heated “dismal little cell,” fraudulent documents are less a concern and there is simply no good reason to continue repeating numbers.  So please … don’t.

P.S.  If you are wondering whether to spell out a number in text or to just use the number, here is a simple rule:  if it is a one-digit number, make it a word, e.g.,

  • The Red Sox have won eight World Series.
  • The hated and despised Yankees have won 27 World Series.

That is all for now …

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Was Brazil’s loss incredible … or incredulous?

Many writers make the mistake of using “incredulous” when they really mean “incredible.”  Such malapropos can be amusing when employed as a comedic device, but an unintentional error will have the reader laughing at you—rather than with you.

So what’s the difference?  “Incredible” describes something that astounds, especially in a pleasing way, e.g.,

  • Ron obtained an incredible trial result.
  • The view from the Tooth of Time was incredible.

But far too often the Scribe sees something like this:

  • Did you see the incredulous sunrise this morning?

Yikes!  Incredulous should not be used interchangeably with incredible.  Incredulous describes a state of being disbelieving, doubting, or skeptical.  It should never be used to describe an amazing event.

That is all for now …

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