Solution to the “Like or As” Problem

I never thought about considering the simile as a solution to deciding whether to use “like” or “as” in a sentence until I saw this remarkably content-free comic:

A simile is a figure of speech that compares two things (think noun) by saying one is like the other. Its companion figure of speech is metaphor, which compares two things by saying one is the other. 

Simile: A donkey is like a horse
Metaphor: You, sir, are a donkey

I never heard of anyone in English class having a problem getting these right. 

Deciding whether to use “like” or “as” is a different matter. And here’s the solution:

Are you comparing two things? It’s a simile—use “like.” The donkey is like a clown.
Is it about verbs or adjectives? Use “as.” The donkey is as funny as a clown (is.) He hit his head as he bent over. He’s sick as a dog (is).

(The “is” is implied; I put it in so you could see it.)

Why You Need to be Careful with “Only”

English puts adjectives directly before the words they modify. Say you have a red car. You don’t say, “Red Tom can wash my car.” You don’t put the word “red” anywhere except in front of “car.”

The label on the bottle is a good illustration of the effect of adjective location:

We tend to play fast and loose with this rule when the adjective is “only.”

Beware! Don’t write “It’s only going to rain half the day” when what you mean is that it’s going to rain only half the day. Putting “only” first is okay in casual conversation, but be more precise when you write.

Here’s another example, with a better solution than putting “only” where it belongs:

But without a way to accurately gauge how many people are actually on the grounds — attendance is only counted at the end of the night — and with nowhere to send people if they had to be turned away, Hammer says the 322-acre fairgrounds will just have to make room for more.

You might correctly put “only” after “counted,” but the best solution in this case it to leave “only” out altogether. 

An “old” Mistake

We don’t use “whence” and “whither” much any more. But when you do, be sure to get the words right!

Whence means from which, from where, or from when, depending on the context.

Whither is similar, but the implied preposition is “to.”

I enjoy Michael Shermer’s column in Scientific American (in this case, the July 2018 issue, page 73). His material is interesting and thought-provoking. But hah! I caught him in a solecism! Here’s the quote:

That is the compatibilist position from whence volition and culpability emerge. 

“Whence” already means “from where,” So he doesn’t need the “from.” I’d say that considering the rest of the vocabulary in that sentence, maybe he’s being careless; “whence” without the “from” would certainly fit.

An Unparallel Compound

Whenever you have two (or more) of something in a sentence, they should share the same structure. For example, if you have a list, they should all be the same part of speech. Line items in bulleted lists should have the same structure. (I wrote about parallelism several times in the past. Look up “parallel” in the search box in the upper right corner.)

I’m not sure how this is wrong, but it’s wrong. The sentence has a compound direct object that doesn’t match itself:

This time around the threat is contained, but flight crews have detailed and practiced responses to more extreme problems.

Maybe it’s because the source is British. I Americanized the spelling.

“Detailed” looks like an adjective (a detailed response), and “practiced” looks like a verb (they practiced responses). Not the same. Bad. Maybe “detailed” is a verb? What is the sense of detailing a response? Is “practiced” an adjective? What’s a practiced response? I think the sentence is just plain not well written.

They could fix this with a simpler sentence; for example:

This time around the threat is contained, but flight crews have practiced detailed responses to more extreme problems.

One verb, one direct object. Nice. 

Use Facts Truthfully!

I can let this comic stand on its own. Expository writing needs to have the facts right, needs to be correct. (Do a search on “correctness” in the search box in the upper right corner of this page. I mentioned this several times in the past.)

Here’s a way not to do it! Don’t twist facts to make them not tell the truth!

The Bratty Kid Gets it Right

One of my favorite hobby horses—getting “whom” correct.

Subordinate clauses are stumbling blocks for a lot of people because these clauses often put the direct object first, where the subject usually goes. So the nominative form, “who” gets used, even though the actual subject is “you.”

Whenever you have a who/whom decision to make, first decide what is the verb, then look for the subject. Then decide whether the “who” word is the subject or the object. “Who” is a subject, “whom” is an object.

Could Your Reader Get It Wrong?

Ambiguity is the bane of expository writing. You want your readers to understand what you write the first time they read it, and without strain doing so. The rule is 

Bad documentation must not be justified with the excuse that the reader will figure it out.

Here’s an example, from Wired:

Most radio astronomical surveys have a single job: Map gas. Find pulsars. Discover galaxies. 

Huh??? The writer says “a single job,” then the sentence lists three jobs! What gives? That’s a pretty obvious mistake; must be something going on. (Hmm Hmm Hmm) Aha! The writer mentions surveys, plural. So the surveys have one job each, mostly! I’m so smart; I figured it out. The writer wasn’t wrong after all.

Except the writing was ambiguous. How would you write the sentence to remove the ambiguity?

Here’s a picture of the telescope, almost a third of a mile across:


Think About Your Synonyms

Synonyms are words that have similar, but not necessarily identical meanings. 

Here’s an example: Recently I saw a headline that mentioned the auction price of a car:

Ferrari GTO Sold For $48.4 Million, Breaks Auction Record For Most Valuable Car

This wasn’t the only similar headline. My point is that the headlines used the word “valuable.” The correct word is “expensive.”

Value is subjective; it varies from person to person. It tends to have a certain emotional punch, too, certainly more than a mere number, which is what most expensive refers to. (To be fair, I should add that the fact-laden article used the less-emotional phrase “highest-priced car.”)

Emotionally charged words make better headlines, but if you’re explaining something, stay away from emotion; stick with the facts.

A Careless Compound

First, here’s the bad sentence:

Because it will be able to collect more light than any telescope every built, including light from the edge of the universe, the device will allow us to determine the distance of far-off objects from the Earth and their composition.

(First, that “every” should be “ever.” This is a plain old typo, resulting from carelessness. Shame on the proofreader.)

The real mistake of writing in this sentence has to do with the phrase “their composition.” At first (careless) glance, it looks like a compound object of 
from,” which doesn’t make sense.

“Their composition” is part of a compound direct object of “determine.”

The sentence has two solutions:

  • Put a comma after “Earth.” This separates “and their composition” from the prepositional phrase.
  • Put “composition and” right before “distance.” That gives you “…determine the composition and distance of far-off objects…” Now put “far off” where it belongs, next to the preposition: “…determine the composition and distance of objects far off from the Earth.”

I prefer the second choice even though it’s more work. The sentence is smoother.

Oh. Here’s a picture of the telescope, scheduled to be completed in 2024.

Image Credit: GMTO