More Mulling Over Miscellany

A few weeks ago we explored some English miscellany, linguistic bits perhaps too small for full and separate treatment yet still worthy of a closer look. Much of the miscellany to consider comes from you, our faithful, thoughtful readers.

In our last article, we referred to such items as fireflies in a jar. Today we’ll observe two more that are flashing after we captured them from the yard of correspondence.

Healthy vs. Healthful

Once upon a time careful writers distinguished between these words. They used healthy to describe good physical condition (Eating well and exercising often can help make you healthy). To convey something conducive to that condition, they used healthful (Eating healthful food helps to make you more healthy).

Such precision may prosper until common usage overtakes it. At some point, we, the English-speaking and -writing community, made healthy robust enough to serve either definition. Merriam-Webster, for example, defines healthy as both “enjoying health and vigor of body, mind, or spirit” and “beneficial to one’s physical, mental, or emotional state.” Similarly, dictionary.com includes “possessing or enjoying good health or a sound and vigorous mentality” and “conducive to good health.”

Because the tide has been turning against the distinction for a while now, a sentence such as Healthy food contributes to healthy people can now pass screening even if some style or grammar books still counsel against it.

This does not mean the careful writer must follow the exodus from contrast. If original accuracy still matters to you, Healthful food contributes to healthy people will remain concise, as well as preferable within certain circles.

One other oft-debated application of healthy has been its meaning as “large” or “vigorous,” as in The boss gave Janet a healthy raise. The Careful Writer’s Theodore M. Bernstein relegated such usage to “pure slang.” However, both Merriam-Webster and dictionary.com include “prosperous and flourishing” under healthy, as in a healthy economy and a healthy sum of money. Here we see again that the force of popular use has overturned a former linguistic edict. Whether you wish to use healthy to mean “large” or “prosperous” is a matter of your personal choice, and you would not be wrong.

These Ones vs. Those Ones

We’ve all at some point said or written this one or that one (I’ll take this one and that one. I like them both.). Either phrase can stroll into the native speaker’s ear. Why then do grammatical hackles stand when we read or hear these ones or those ones (I want these ones plus those ones over there)?

Some believe the phrases are unforgivable bloopers. Others will cite references saying they’ve been in acceptable use for centuries. Despite any stance on the issue, grammatical rules governing usage for them don’t appear to exist; rather, the dispute continues in the court of public opinion.

Furthermore, usage seems to vary regardless of education level. Where a person grew up can also play a part. For these reasons, these ones and those ones float in the no-man’s land between standard and nonstandard English.

Those who eschew the plural treatment often put forth that these and those alone aptly identify a multiple count (I prefer a particular style, so I’ll take those). Here we see that including ones would not add to meaning or clarity.

Conversely, we often find little fault with phrases such as We will spend the holidays with those loved ones who need us and Why are you buying all that’s left of these better ones before anyone else has a chance? Comfort here likely stems from the intervening adjective. Without it, we become more aware of these and those as demonstrative pronouns that make ones a tautology.

What then, you might ask, is our verdict? Our view is that dictionaries, grammar books, and style guides support writers’ missions to define the black and white of careful composition. At the same time, as we’ve stated along the way, people and language evolve, and certain grammar rules differ as they age and then expire. That we might not like a certain current use will not always mean it is wrong.

Our position is that these ones and those ones will stay in use and, if cited as mistaken, be accused only by opinion. For formal writing, however, we believe the phrases are best avoided unless they are vital to clarity in a context rarely encountered.

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