Thursday, 9 June 2011

Soxy mates

There are a few soxy words/phrases in English – that is, ones that are like socks: they work in pairs rather than alone. I'm referring to sets like both … and; neither … nor; either … or; from … to; and not only … but also.

Four points regarding the use of soxy mates:

*  Sometimes we are careless and combine the wrong words (rather like wearing non-matching socks), e.g. (i) neither + or as in “Neither John or his sister wants to go to bed early”; and (ii) both + but also as in “This course can be beneficial for students, both during their studies but also in their future careers.”

*  Sometimes our carelessness manifests in our not taking the meaning of these words seriously. For example, either … or clearly implies a choice between two things, yet it is not uncommon to see sentences reflecting three options, e.g. “We can either visit the museum, or we can go to the Bot Gardens, or we can pop up to the Quarry.”

The same applies to both … and – we cannot have sentences like “He was both a good father, a good husband and an excellent cricketer” and “Our concern has both anthropological, epistemological and existential roots and motivations", where three things are listed in each case.

*  Some of these pairs (as pairs) have synonyms; e.g. instead of saying “I consulted both the atlas and the encyclopaedia”, we could say: “I consulted the atlas as well as the encyclopaedia.” What we need to guard against is combining one of the members of a pair with a synonym of the pair as a whole and ending up with something like: “I consulted both the atlas as well as the encyclopaedia.”

*   Sometimes we (legitimately) use a dash ( – ) as a synonym for the pair from … to or the pair between … and, e.g. "6–8 January" instead of "from 6 to 8 January", or "R100–R140" for "between R100 and R140". What is not correct is to combine from or between with the dash, as in "The show will run from 6–8 January" and "The dresses cost between R100–R140."

As is often the case, the remedy is not a university course in linguistics, but simply this: we should pay attention, pay attention, pay attention (that is, write thinking – think while writing).    –ws–


Kerry said...

I really enjoyed your post on "soxy mates" especially as I am sure that I have fallen into these traps before. Will have to watch myself in future. While I remember learning the 'neither...nor' combination in school, for some reason (perhaps as a lay-person?) I have always had the impression that it was an old school or old fashioned and not strickly necessary (that is, "or" would work in place of "nor"). Will make sure I apply it properly in the future.

Nicky said...

Thanks for the feedback, Kerry. It's so easy not to pay attention to our language usage, especially in today's rushed age! You're in such a good position as a lecturer to influence your students in this regard. Maybe they, too, could benefit by reading my blog regularly.