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Words, April 8



Our March 25 column noted the misuse of the word noisome in a newspaper article about The Oxford American magazine. Marc Smirnoff, editor of the magazine, responds:

“Ironically, that word is part of an editing test we force on interns. Most of these kids, naturally, think ‘noisome' relates to noisy, but they learn.”

In a casual “oh, by the way” manner, Smirnoff then calls attention to a sentence written by an Arkansas Times editor in the same March 25 issue: “Rep. John Boozman of the Party of No, joined Orval Faubus, George Wallace, etc., on the wrong side of history.” He quotes a usage authority:

“In strict usage, et cetera (and the rest) is neuter and so can refer only to things, and et alia (and others) can refer only to persons. Do not end a list of persons with etc.; instead, use and others. Using etc. at the end of a list introduced by for example, such as, or a similar expression is also incorrect. (Note: A comma is required after etc. unless it ends the sentence. Also note that et does not require a period but al. does; et is a word, al. is an abbreviation.)”

Smirnoff writes: “While I realize that the matter of usage is hardly a science, and varies with different media, our preference at the magazine is to recognize the etc./et al. distinction. What's yours?”

My preference is the same, and I'd add that one should never write and etc. either. But I wouldn't be surprised to learn that I've occasionally put an etc. in the wrong place. Anyone who finds an example of this can just go ahead and keep it to himself.

Though sometimes unavoidable, etc. is easily overused. Garner's Modern American Usage says, “Writers should generally try to be as specific as possible rather than make use of this term.”

Headline: “Bush and Clinton visit devastated Haitian capital.”

An exaggeration, surely. The earthquake did most of the damage.

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