17 April 2017

"Dog-whistle editing" explained

For the English majors reading this blog...
English, in its superabundance, has many multiples of words and phrases that overlap contentiously in meaning. These confusables are the bread and butter of usage manuals: imply and infer, disinterested and uninterested, careen and career, defuse and diffuse, convince and persuade, militate and mitigate, refute and reject, and flaunt and flout.

Some of these pairs are worth distinguishing; others are not. Part of editing well – and writing well – is knowing which distinctions to preserve and which to disregard. Examining over versus more than, John E. McIntyre refers to dog-whistle editing: ‘the observance of nuances that only copy editors can hear, and thus a waste of time’.

Knowing the difference between flaunt and flout is not, for now, a waste of time. But the prospects are not promising. In a post at Language Log yesterday, Geoffrey Pullum says it ‘may be a lost cause’ – a gloomy diagnosis prompted by a BBC Radio 4 report that referred to politicians who were ‘supposed to impose party discipline, rather than flaunt it’. It should have been flout.

To recap: flaunt means to show off or display ostentatiously. One flaunts wealth or fancy clothes. Flout means to brazenly disobey or disregard. One flouts the law by openly ignoring it. The two are often confused: partly, we can assume, because they’re spelled similarly.
The discussion continues at Sentence First.

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