When Sentences Get The Hiccups


I found this sentence hiccup in a national newspaper last week: in all good conscious. The same hiccup appeared in an email that I received later that day.

What’s a sentence hiccup? An incorrect word that disrupts the flow of a piece of writing. Often, the offender is a malaprop; it sounds like the right word, but has a different meaning. (I once thought my brother was taking flamingo guitar lessons.)

When people write in all good conscious, they mean to write in all good conscience.

The confusion is understandable. The words share a Latin root, conscire, which means “to be mutually aware” (from com– “with,” + scire “to know”). But conscious is an adjective that Merriam-Webster defines as “awake and able to understand what is happening around you.” Conscience is a noun that describes “the part of the mind that makes you aware of your actions as being either morally right or wrong.” We use the phrase “in all good conscience” to underscore our good intentions.

Sentence hiccups can be amusing – just listen to Yogi Berra or Archie Bunker. They can be embarrassing, too. So how do you get rid of them?

Swallowing sugar or holding your breath won’t help. But reading will. Reading lets us see words and not simply hear them. (“Flamenco!” I said with a laugh, after seeing the cover of my brother’s guitar lesson book.) However, the reading cure only works if the writing is hiccup-free.

I can’t reference malaprops without retelling a story that first appeared in this blog in May 2012. A three-year-old had the misfortune of getting a rash on his private parts. The boy knew his parents had used an ointment to soothe his woes, but confused Vaseline with another word: “Hey, Dad, should we put more gasoline on it?”

Clearly, he hadn’t learned to read yet.

Glass by Oliver Walsh. http://www.owglass.com

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