Oblivious! Obnoxious!Obtuse!Obtrusive!& Obscene

This was sent to me by my two Socialist Chums. 👿   Ira & Neill,  who thought that I should give it an airing.

I did check as I felt sure that PiedType would have jumped right onto this; however, it  appears she missed it or left it for me.

It appeared in the New Yorker and is right on the money. 

I cut and pasted, as you can tell and take no credited for anything, except the heading, should anyone think of something better I suggest you keep it to yourself 😈



Never pass up a teaching moment.

Recently, some of my friends have spoken of “alternate facts,” and others of “alternative facts.”

There is traditionally a difference between the adjectives “alternate” and “alternative.” “Alternate,” as in, say, “alternate fact checker,” refers to a fact checker who takes turns with another fact checker: six months on, six months off. Think of the verb “to alternate”: “to perform by turns or in succession.”

“Alternative fact checker” would be a fact checker who was brought in instead of another fact checker. He or she would represent a choice. An alternative fact checker might wear a nose ring or a funky hat, or have special knowledge of a foreign culture, but the main thing is that he or she would get the job done.

I used to be a stickler for this point of usage, always changing “alternate route” to “alternative route,” although the shorter version is more often seen on road signs (“USE ALTERNATE ROUTE”). A writer of fantasy or science fiction might refer to an “alternate reality” (or parallel universe), and I would routinely change it to “alternative reality.” Not long ago, a writer objected to this, on the ground that “alternate reality” is common usage, and I caved. To paraphrase Noah Webster, there is no fighting common usage.

This week’s issue contains a piece by Raffi Khatchadourian about creating the technology for movies that allow a viewer to choose what a character does, thus altering the outcome of the story. It uses the phrases “alternate reality” and “alternate world.” In fact, the piece is titled “Alternate Endings.”

Language authorities would disapprove. How were we to know that the phrase “alternative facts” would come under such scrutiny over the weekend?

To clarify, if such a thing is possible: according to Webster’s, a fact is “something that has actual existence.” “Alternate facts” would refer to two facts in rotation with each other. They would still be facts. “Alternative facts” do not share that quality. They do not have actual existence. Alternative facts are delusions.

At least Kellyanne Conway got the usage right.

Mary Norris began working at The New Yorker in 1978, and has been a query proofreader at the magazine since 1993. Her book, “Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen” (Norton), is now available in paperback. 


17 thoughts on “Oblivious! Obnoxious!Obtuse!Obtrusive!& Obscene

  1. Here, in North America, “alternate” does mean constituting an alternative as well as alternating (syntax matters).

    One remember must there be no rules to language, written or otherwise. Well, there be one rule, and only one rule – that your intended audience understands your meaning.Giving import to pedantic worries of the few don’t be justification for eschewing the simplester way to communicate to the many.

    Sure, purists will call upon some mythical structure, but writing is not a science subject to natural laws. Neither should it be subjected to arbitrary laws made up by stuffy individuals lacking the capacity to grok intent and meaning when they be perfectly clear.

    Unless they be lawyers and we be pounding out a binding contract with monetary consequences. Even then, that language is often correct but used to obfuscate actual intent which more often than not aims to screw one party or the other. Plain-speak, the kind understood by the masses has far fewer instances for potential misrepresentation by anyone other than people with a broom handle up their proverbial language center.

    But, that’s just me opining my opinion . . . not all — and especially not broomstick-laden “language experts” — will agree.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That sort of misuse is taking precision out of language. It is unlikely that favour would be found in trying to establish a custom of saying ‘black’ when one means ‘grey’. Yet here much the same sort of thing is happening. A definite distinction is being lost.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Languages evolve. One could argue that precision is what usage dictates it to be. Words enter the language every year that never existed before. They do so because they are needed for precision. Old words take on new meanings because of usage, and they do convey precision.

        Me saying “that’s cool” expresses precisely what I mean, and not that the idea is lower in temperature than some unreferenced and arbitrary measure of temperature.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It amounts to devolution when misuse of a word causes it to lose the ability to convey its previous, definite meaning.
          Use of slang, as also in ‘she’s hot!’ does not generally take away from the understanding of the original term, so thar’s cool with me and doesn’t leave me cold.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Yes, but words do change in meaning, and always have, through how they are used. Defecate used to have quite a different meaning, as did awe (two words that might occasionally be linked but not in a good way). Bully is another that changed through usage, as did matrix.

          You can still find those definitions if you look, but usage has supplanted them with newer definitions.You might be precise in your use of those and other words, but I would wager the meaning you convey to modern readers will be a lot less so.

          The arguments (sorry, discussions – argument is another word that has changed in meaning) generally occurs only in words that are undergoing a “transition” period. I mean, I’m pretty sure few people would want to insist they are selling filters to defecate water (although that is, overall, a good idea).

          This particular investigation . . . sorry, discussion . . . hangs on the insistence (also not meaning what it used to) that people should use a particular word over another because otherwise it will not be understood. I say that is false. The intended audience has no problem switching and adapting the intended meaning in context.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Dammit, I hate giving Conway credt for anything.
    I used to split grammatical hairs for a living. I guess it’s a good thing I’m retired now because I think Mary Norris is making a distinction without a difference.


    1. I knew someone who could split hairs and weave baskets from the results.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Actually, the difference in this distinction is definite and precise. In fantasy or SF, when one jumps from one reality to another and back, that is ‘alternate’. When the setting is another universe, that is ‘alternative’.

        Liked by 2 people

    2. @ disperser – Here I must beg to differ. In this instance the context will frequently fail to provide a clue as to which of the meanings is intended, whereas habitual use of the proper term would put the issue beyond doubt.


      1. Were you confused? It seems to me that the people who complain are the ones who knew what was meant but wanted a different word. Any confusion they might have felt was likely voluntary.

        The people who did not complain, I’d wager, also knew what was meant and did not spend any time worrying about it.

        In that regard, it seems a manufactured “controversy” at best. Wait . . . “manufactured” is wrong . . . I meant “made up”.


        1. If I see a blurb about an alternate reality and what I get in the book is an alternative one, then I have been misled. No, admit it, two perfectly good words have been corrupted to the detriment of language.


        2. It’s obvious you feel about this the same as I feel about sauces on pasta. Lightly buttered and salted to taste is the only way to eat pasta.

          . . . other disagree . . .


  3. In my field of interest in fantasy, I have often bemoaned the misuse of ‘alternate’. Very simply, that is only appropriate when one is switching from one thing or place to another and back again. Night and day alternate. ‘Alternative’ means a different option for the same object, place or action. An alternative route is a different road leading to the same destination. The words are not interchangeable, and perpetuation of misuse arises out of ignorance or laziness.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I must admit, that I’ve enjoyed reading the comments, much more than the post.

    Anything to do with President of the USA, I now steadfastly avoid.

    I’m thinking of cancelling my subscription to the New York Times, as they do report on said person. 👿


  5. I’m staying out of this…..Can a comment be No Comment?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’ll notice I’ve stayed well clear of it too.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m with you! Much obliged, I might add. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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