The Write Stuff

Soxy mates

2004-07-14 13:38

There are a few soxy words/phrases in English - that is, ones that are like socks: they work in pairs rather than alone. I'm referring to sets like both . . . and; neither . . . nor; either

. . . or; from . . . to; not only . . . but also.

Four points regarding the use of soxy mates:

Sometimes we are careless and combine the wrong words (rather like wearing non-matching socks), for example, (i) "neither" + "or" as in: "Neither John or his sister wants to go to bed early"; and (ii) "both" + "but also" as in: "This course can be beneficial for students, both during their studies but also in their future careers."

Sometimes our carelessness manifests itself in our not taking the literal meaning of these words seriously. For example, "either . . . or" clearly implies a choice between two things, yet it is not uncommon to see sentences reflecting three options, for example: "We can either visit the museum, or we can go to the Bot Gardens, or we can pop up to the Quarry." The same applies to "both . . . and" - we cannot have sentences like "He was both a good father, a good husband and an excellent cricketer" and "Our concern has both anthropological, epistemological and existential roots and motivations", where three things are listed in each case.

Some of these pairs (as pairs) have synonyms; for example, instead of saying: I consulted both the atlas and the encyclopaedia, we could say: I consulted the atlas as well as the encyclopaedia. What we need to guard against is combining one of the members of a pair with a synonym of the pair as a whole and ending up with something like: I consulted both the atlas as well as the encyclopaedia.

Sometimes we (legitimately) use a dash (- as a synonym for the pair "from . . . to" or the pair "between . . . and", for example, "6 - January" instead of "from 6 to 8 January", or "R100-140" for "between R100 and R140". What is not correct is to combine "from" or "between" with the dash, as in: "The show will run from 6 - January" and "The dresses cost between R100-140".

As is often the case, the remedy is not a university course in linguistics but simply this: pay attention, pay attention, pay attention.

  • Nicky Grieshaber, formerly a university lecturer, is now a translator, text editor, study skills trainer and general entrepreneur.

    Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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