Stylebook: only, like, as

ON LANGUAGE
BY WILLIAM G. CONNOLLY
Some rules really aren't meant to be broken.

Is there a way to maintain order in a factory where hundreds of intelligent, energetic and quite independent scribblers, schooled hither and thither, at this time and that, are racing against deadlines? Is there a way to get the erudite and benighted alike to spell aesthetic the same way? To distinguish between that and which or lie and lay or who and whom?

There is, and it's called a stylebook.

A stylebook tries to be an encyclopedia (not encyclopaedia), dictionary, grammar text, journalism handbook and adviser (not advisor) to the harried writer and editor. It tries to be useful and efficient -- the savior (not saviour) a writer or editor turns to on deadline when the libraries are closed and the researchers have gone home. The bar across the street, alas, has given way to a wholesome, child-oriented theater (not theatre), so it's hard to find someone who can, at 1 a.m. (not 1 A.M.), quickly lay out the lineage of the Peruvian government (not Government).

The pity is that the simplest transgressions a stylebook deals with -- the ones all of us heard about in the sixth grade or earlier -- are the ones most often committed in publications that fancy themselves professionally edited. They are legion, those simple lapses.


William G. Connolly, a senior editor at The Times, is the co-author with Allan M. Siegal of The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage.

What puzzles people so driven that they actually write stylebooks is that their colleagues, with a little thought, would find it simple to solve the most common problems at the outset, thus mollifying millions of readers and avoiding sacks of angry mail.

Consider a few examples.

Perhaps the most misplaced word in English is the humble and peripatetic only. It often appears where it doesn't belong, sometimes with amusing results. Take the sentence that follows. There are seven places in it where only might appear, and each one renders a slightly different meaning.

1Thelma 2told 3Standish 4that 5she 6loved 7him.

With only at 1, the sentence means that no one but Thelma said she loved Standish. Not the best situation, but all is not lost for Standish. When only moves to 2, the sentence suggests that Thelma may have been misleading our man. She said, perhaps with a flutter of eyelashes, that she loved him, though she didn't really mean it. Poor Standish.

But life looks up. With only at 3, Standish is being told that he has exclusive rights to Thelma's affections. O glee! O wonder! Then the lady's mood changes when only gravitates to 4. Thelma has become taciturn, offering nothing beyond a cryptic assurance of her high regard for Standish.

And with only at 5, Thelma has warned our hero that no one else loves him. Life seems dour until only moves to 6 and matters become ambiguous. Perhaps Thelma means to say here that while she loves Standish dearly, she will not -- now or ever -- post his bail or bathe his cat.

Ah, but hold! Standish is vindicated anew when only migrates to 7. The sentence means what Standish has hoped for, that Thelma loves no one but him.

Obviously, where only appears makes a difference. In general, it should be as close as possible to what it modifies, and it usually works best immediately in front of what it modifies.

Idiom does, of course, produce exceptions to the rule. As John B. Bremner observed in Words on Words, an insightful and amusing handbook on usage, "I Have Eyes Only for You" would make a lousy song.


EXTOLLING THE PAST

Most everyday writing is in the past tense because we like to discuss what has happened recently. But tenses get complicated when we want to make clear the order in which two or more things occurred. To cite a simple example, "The ship sailed when Caldecott arrived" is not the same as "The ship had sailed when Caldecott arrived."

Ordinarily, events in the immediate past are described in the past tense. "Amelia said she was (not is) overwhelmed" means that she was overwhelmed as she spoke. Things further in the past are usually described in the past perfect tense. "Amelia said she had been overwhelmed" means that she was overwhelmed at some point before she spoke. And events in the future typically demand the conditional tense. "Amelia said she would be overwhelmed" means that she expected to be in that limp state at some point after she spoke.

When a sentence includes a time element, tense becomes moot. "Amelia said she was overwhelmed in March" means that she was overwhelmed before she spoke, but the sequence of events is clear. (And of course, "Amelia said in March that she was overwhelmed" is another matter entirely.)

A reference to an eternal, unchanging truth also renders the tense moot: "Dudley said the sun is hot." The present tense is appropriate because the sun will be hot forever (or at least until we no longer care).

The governing verb -- said in the examples above -- always appears at the beginning of the sentence. If it stumbles toward the rear, it no longer governs. For example, "Geeslin is injured, the coach said, and cannot play" means that Geeslin was injured when the coach spoke. But because said is not a governing verb, is and cannot are correct. If said becomes the governing verb, the other tenses must conform: "The coach said Geeslin was injured and could not play."

LIKE, AS IF YOU KNOW

A common grammatical stumbling block is the distinction between like and as. To some ears, knowing when to use one or the other makes the difference between literature and gobbledygook.

Like is a preposition that means "similar to" or "similarly to." If one of those phrases can be inserted in a sentence, like is correct. Here's an example: "The mood in Fresno was like that in Mudville after Casey struck out." It would have made just as much sense to say, "similar to that in Mudville," so like is correct. Both like and similar to require objects: that or the one. It's incorrect to say, "The mood in Fresno was like in Mudville."

Like and as are not interchangeable. The use of like as a conjunction ("Forsythe Spurlock dives like a politician promises -- with abandon") is out of bounds here and in many other places. But as can be a conjunction, so its use in that sentence would be proper.

Like is an acceptable conjunction only when it introduces a noun not followed by a verb. An example: "Pemberton Treakle plays the tuba like a pro." That's fine, but you cannot write, "Leatrice Pfister, as her teammates, wastes no words." The substitution of like for as, though, would tidy things up nicely.

Nor can like replace as if. "Ortrud Trost grinned like he meant it" is trying to say "Ortrud Trost grinned as [he would] if he meant it." Exceptions are made for idiomatic phrases: "Ethelbert's cuspidor looks like new."

Then there is the distinction between like and such as. Here's an errant example: "In boom times such as these, Chauncey loses his head." And here's another: "Other members of the team, such as Lionel Updegraf, wanted to capitulate." The problem lies in the nature of the comparison. Each of these is specific and direct, so like is in order; it's shorter and easier to read.

But when you're writing about a category of comparable things, such as is the ticket. If the examples had been comparisons involving several entities ("In such boom times as the 50's and the 90's" or "Such other members of the team as Updegraf and Pfister") there would have been no problem. Such as would have sounded natural.

So here's a tip: In comparisons that do not contain verbs, avoid such as unless you can gracefully insert some other words between your such and your as.

December 31, 2000

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company