Usage lessons: Idioms

Zach bought a Kindle version of Garner’s Modern American Usage, so now we own three copies of the same book. That means I again have access to Garner even though my text is thousands of miles away from me. Also, you may have noticed that I’ve changed my heading format. You know, accuracy. Here are some idioms Garner writes about:

life-and-death; life-or-death. Though the sense is “relating to a matter of life or death,” idiom has long sanctioned and in this phrase, not or—e.g.:

• “Easy’s temperament lets him saunter his way into any number of life-and-death situations and barely break a sweat.” Adina Hoffman, “Denzel: So Noir and Yet So Far,” Jerusalem Post, 1 July 1996, Arts §, at 5. (p. 511)

sooner rather than later. Not only is this idiom redundant; it isn’t entirely logical because the comparison is never completed. Sooner and not later than what? Soon is usually an improvement—e.g.:

• “If so, that could dampen fears that the Federal Reserve will act sooner, rather than later, [read soon] to boost interest rates again.” William Goodwin, “Jobs Report Fails to Shake Up Markets,” Am. Banker, 10 Oct. 1994, at 48. (pp. 759-760)

you can’t eat your cake and have it too; you can’t have your cake and eat it too. The second phrasing, now the more common one, is sometimes stigmatized: “The first form makes sense: once you’ve eaten the damned thing, you can no longer have it. Not so the later, corrupt form: you can have your cake—enjoy looking at it, or keep it in the freezer, or have it set aside for you at the bakery—and then, at the proper moment, eat it, too. But some dolt somewhere along the line reversed the order, and it stuck.” John Simon, Book Rev., The New Criterion, Mar. 1997, at 66, 69. In fact, though, it’s not clear that the second form is illogical—much less impossible. Assume that the phrase were you can’t spend your money and save it too; why couldn’t you just as easily say you can’t save your money and spend it too? Essentially, that idea is perfectly analogous to the one involving cake.

But Simon is right that the eat–have sequence is the traditional one. That’s the phrasing given both in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (14th ed. 1989) and in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (16th ed. 1992). The latter book traces a form of the phrase back to John Heywood’s collection of colloquial Elizabethan sayings: “Would ye both eat your cake and have your cake?” Heywood, Proverbs pt. I, ch. 9 (1546). The OED gives examples from 1562, 1711, 1815—all in the order that Simon prefers.

Yet the have–eat sequence has been the dominant one since the mid-20th century. . . . (p. 874)

Garner, Bryan (2009-07-28). Garner’s Modern American Usage. Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
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One Response to Usage lessons: Idioms

  1. DMM says:

    We love Garner so much. I got to bust Heather with the “apropos” article the other day. Ever since I read that one, I see it everywhere, eek!

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