Defuse / diffuse

This is just wrong.

Renault were said to be furious with that retort and Red Bull motorsports consultant Dr Helmut Marko stepped in to try to diffuse the situation. – beIN Sports

Dif-fuse’. (v) Spread over a wide area.

So is this.

Afterwards, the team notified Gryphons athletic director Kristin Maile, who would likely be the one to diffuse any backlash from the greater community. – The Phoenix

The following is right.

Anyone who’s ever had to defuse a tense work meeting or even a stressful Thanksgiving dinner knows that sometimes thoughtful de-escalation is the best (and often only) way to get what you want. – Lifehacker

De-fuse’. (v) Remove fuse (reduce danger).

This is also right.

Studies have shown that carbon monoxide gas can diffuse through eggshells. – Environmental Research Web

This is a royal mess.

‘They don’t want to talk about his record. They don’t want to talk about his inexperience. They want to diffuse this just like they diffuse President Trump’s agenda about bringing up the Russian deal.’ – Real Clear Politics

We’re not commenting on the politics, only on the use of ‘diffuse’.

  • They want to diffuse this just like they diffuse President Trump’s agenda about bringing up the Russian deal.
  • They want to spread this around just like they publicize President Trump’s agenda about bringing up the Russian deal.
  • They want to disseminate this just like they broadcast President Trump’s agenda about bringing up the Russian deal.

I am not sure what he is trying to say. ‘Diffuse‘ seems to be the least effective way to describe the need to get the word out. We have many alternatives: ‘broadcast’, ‘circulate’, ‘disperse’, ‘disseminate’, ‘publicize’, ‘spread this around’.

Sorry for all the red ink, it is what it is. What is the real point here? Just that ‘diffuse‘ is tricky, as a verb. Its meaning is nice and clear when used to describe the movement of food coloring through water, or gases through a membrane. Everything gets murky when ‘diffuse‘, the verb, enters the social realm, or politics.

Splitting the infinitive

In prehistoric times it was a major no-no to cheekily separate the particle ‘to’ from its infinitive verb. ‘Do not split the infinitive’ was the law of the land. ‘What in the world are you talking about?’ responded anyone born after 1960. In fact, since that time the rule has more or less been ignored.

And then came its death knell, on September 8, 1966:

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before. – Star Trek

There is no longer any controversy, and for good or ill, the lowly adverb has flourished (despite ending in ‘-ly’, ‘lowly’ in this sentence is an adjective, and ‘adverb’ is a noun. Had to get that out there). Perhaps an adverb’s highest honor is to breezily insert itself into an otherwise mundane sentence.

An adverb’s highest honor is to breezily insert itself into an otherwise mundane sentence.

An adverb’s highest honor is to insert itself, breezily, into an otherwise mundane sentence.

What if we could do without adverbs altogether? The world would be a better place.

Inserted into an otherwise mundane sentence, the adverb felt mighty proud.

The adverb brightened the terminus of the otherwise mundane sentence.

It worked behind the scenes to buttress the verb’s presentation and eliminate the need for itself. This is an adverb’s highest honor.

Sentence stuffing

Why do some journalists feel compelled to stuff their entire thesis into a single sentence?

The time to advocate against zoning laws in Houston that left the city more prone to flooding during Hurricane Harvey is now. – The Guardian

I don’t know about you, but by the time I reached the end of the sentence, I had forgotten what the subject of ‘is’ was (it was ‘The time’. The time is now). Why can’t the authors be a little bit nicer to me and my fading short-term memory? After all, they do want me to understand their thesis.

Is this what they were trying to say?

Zoning laws in Houston left the city more prone to flooding during Hurricane Harvey. It is time to advocate against them.

Isn’t that better? Freed of the onerous single-sentence requirement, the authors might even have penned this:

It’s time we advocate against the existing meager zoning laws in Houston. They left the city open to intense flooding from Hurricane Harvey.

Or this:

Lax zoning laws in Houston left the city open to intense flooding from Hurricane Harvey. Down with those laws. They gotta go.

OK, maybe not that one, not for an impartial journalist. But wait, the original quote comes from an opinion piece. Coming down on one side of an issue: that is expected. And very often, the shortest sentence is the most effective.

Proved / proven

Not all behavior descends to Nixon’s level, particularly when so little of it is proved. – NYT (comments)

Proved‘ or ‘proven‘? Which one? Does it matter?

I think the NGRAM shows that ‘proved wrong’ is proven right. Who knew? But ‘proven’, after a slow start, is catching up to ‘proved’.

Keylor Navas has proved he deserves to be Real Madrid’s first-choice goalkeeper. – FourFourTwo

They narrowed down their findings to 33 foods proven to ease rheumatoid arthritis symptoms and slow down the progression of the disease. – Medical News Today

In science reporting, both forms figure equally. ‘Have proved’ is commonplace and efficient:

It was Charles Darwin who originally suggested that birds use their wings not only to fly but to communicate as well. Now, approximately 150 years later, scientists have proved him right, and in the process explained why pigeons make such a racket taking off. – Telegraph

In certain constructs, ‘is proven’ seems more refined:

Woodward is convinced it is proven, replicated and will scale to fast interstellar travel. – Next Big Future

He is talking about mach effect propulsion.

Proved or proven? It really doesn’t matter. Write it, then read it aloud and go with whichever is pleasing to the ear. This radio announcer has chosen ‘proven’:

Goodall discusses what it’s like to be proven correct all these years later, as well as why she thinks the argument that trophy hunting is a valuable way to fund conservation is ‘rubbish’. – Mongabay

The Jane Goodall interview starts at the 6:45 mark, with ‘proven‘ referenced at 7:28:

Stanch / staunch

You may have thought that stanch meant to stop the flow (usually of blood), and that staunch is what described an ardent supporter (often of a political cause). And you would be right, on paper.

To stanch the rhetorical bleeding:

The federal Liberal government says it will lower the small business tax rate to 10 per cent in January and to nine per cent in 2019, the start of a week-long effort to stanch the bleeding from a self-inflicted political wound. – The Canadian Press

To stanch a meltdown:

Dudley was a principal player in Fed decisions concerning the demise of Lehman Brothers, AIG and Bear Stearns, along with emergency measures taken by the central bank to stanch a meltdown in the financial system. – CNBC

A staunch feminist disappointing her friends:

Friends who described Hofmeister as a staunch feminist, generous friend and promoter of young professional women, say they are disappointed that she has become the public “apologist” for Weinstein. – PageSix

There are clear differences in meaning. We run into a problem when it comes to pronunciation. It may not be self-evident, but stanch and staunch are the same word. We need to hit the dictionaries for this one. We found the following on this excellent page in Collins English Dictionary:

Stanch in American English
(stɑntʃ; stänch; stæntʃ; stanch; stɔntʃ; stônch)

Stanch in British English
(stɑːntʃ) or staunch (stɔːntʃ)

As you can see by the intimidating vocal spellings, eight (8) different pronunciations of stanch are offered; five of these are accompanied by brief audible recordings. Some of them sound like staunch.

(stȯnch; stänch)

Make that nine (9) possible pronunciations.

. . .

Stanch made it as the word of the day in Merriam-Webster on 10/07/2009. Here is the podcast (did podcasts exist in 2009?):


We won’t bother with the adjectival form of perfect, it is everywhere. Let’s jump right to the verb.

UC Berkeley will conduct research to perfect a microbial factory for the compound artemisinin, currently the most effective treatment for malaria. – UC Berkeley News

Per-fect’. (v) To improve or refine.

Brendan Gleeson has told RTÉ Entertainment that several takes were needed to perfect scenes in Paddington 2, and admits it was challenging trying to “keep the energy up” during filming. – RTE

It seems that the verb is almost always in its infinitive form: ‘to perfect‘ something or other. Perhaps it appears otherwise, but we stopped looking.

Zhang, 25, has been working to perfect her English for several years and now speaks the language with little difficulty. – China Daily


Combat, the noun, has the stress on the first syllable.

Com’bat. (n)
First, military training and exposure to combat does not create the wacko battle-scarred soldier so often depicted by Hollywood, nor does it translate into criminal behavior. – Albuquerque Journal

Combat, the verb, has stress on . . . either syllable. It is tempting to get all purist here and insist on stressing the second syllable in the verb, but both forms have been widely adopted.

Com’bat. (v)
Com-bat’. (v)
A beefed-up corporate law enforcement unit, a new anti-fraud agency and more efficient criminal cases are among a suite of measures to be introduced to combat white-collar crime. –Irish Examiner

For combat, the verb, the stress distinction may be heading for extinction.

Can I help you?

Bona fide

If you read our post on ‘bona fides‘ you might think we were card-carrying members of the Latin Preservation Society. Well, bona fide will throw water on that hot theory.

The term bona fide has become thoroughly Americanized. It means ‘genuine’ or ‘authentic’ or ‘qualified’, and it is almost always pronounced this way:

bah-na f-eye-d

Sometimes the ‘o’ is long:

boh-na f-eye-d

Almost never is it pronounced as originally intended:

boh-na fee-day

Why not the latter? It has been trampled underfoot, a fate that might await many of the words in this blog.

These benefits result in worldwide tax savings for a U.S. citizen only if the individual is a bona fide permanent resident of the island under U.S. tax rules. An individual must satisfy stringent requirements, which require sustained physical presence on the island, to qualify as a bona fide resident of either the USVI or Puerto Rico. – JD Supra

What if you said “boh-na fee-day permanent resident”? It sounds like a legal reference, and perhaps it is intended as one. It no longer sounds natural; we have been worn down.

Try using the thoroughly Latin pronunciation here:

The band’s first album, 1985’s We Care a Lot, was issued on the indie label Mordam and generated a bona fide hit with the anti-anthem title track. – Cleveland Scene

It just doesn’t work. You would sound like an Italian journalist new to the staff (nothing wrong with that), even though you had lived in Cleveland all your life. No, it simply has to be bah-na f-eye-d. Otherwise the Charlatans would stumble over the phrase below:

Oh, the old man gathers up his suitcase,
And heads for the sun,
Me, I’m looking for some bona fide treasure
And it’s dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb. – The Charlatans

And that would be dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb.


Don’t use this word.

Adverbs can be suspect in the best of circumstances. Use them sparingly Be sparing in their usage. One adverb in particular, ‘increasingly‘, gives the writer up as lazy. But for some reason, ‘increasingly’ crept into the lexicon two or three decades ago, used by newspaper reporters as an easy way to reference a trend, even if the trend had just developed over the past few hours instead of, say, months or years.

Most of the aides who had been wandering around the convention center had found refuge backstage, away from the crowds staring at big screens hoping for a victory. “The path kept narrowing and narrowing and narrowing until there wasn’t one,” Parkhomenko recalled. “The mood behind the stage became increasingly grim.” – The Hill

The following trend ‘increased’ over years, until it was ‘resounding’.

Increasingly, leading cities are hiring “data people.” Whether with the title chief data officer, chief innovation officer, performance stat program director, or data scientist, these individuals are looking at government in a new way and using data to increase efficiency. Are these hires worth the investment? Resoundingly, the answer is yes. – GovTech

But why is gradualism so revered by the writer? It is not how the world works. And it might stand in the way of clarity: does she mean that each city is hiring more ‘data people’? Or that more cities are doing the hiring?

  • Increasingly, leading cities are hiring “data people.”
  • Leading cities are hiring more “data people” than ever before.
  • Leading cities are hiring “data people” in record numbers.
  • More leading cities are hiring “data people”.

Perhaps ‘data people’ should be in the lead.

  • Increasingly, leading cities are hiring “data people.”
  • “Data people” are in demand in leading cities.

You have so many options. Don’t use ‘increasingly’, ever. And for sure don’t use it in a song.

Long blends of days
Stream into nights
Consciousness barely coping
The land going by seems level
But really the tracks are
Increasingly sloping.
– ‘Slice of Time’ by David Crosby

Just don’t.