The Write Stuff
For and Against
The New York Times reports that John Bolton “advocated against” a deal with the Taliban that would allow the United States to withdraw from the war in Afghanistan. I’ve gotten used to the phrase “to advocate for” something, though I don’t like it. To advocate contains the idea of being for something, so it’s a redundancy. It uses two words when one is enough, and for those of us who buy toner for our printers, that’s a problem.
But to advocate against something is, strictly speaking, impossible. An advocate is, by definition, someone who supports something or someone. “How can you support not supporting something?” asks Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog. “That would be opposing it.”
What seems to be going on here — lamentable as it is — involves the use of the word “advocate” as a noun. That kind of advocate is a person who advocates on behalf of something, as in, “She is an advocate of clean air,” which all too soon becomes “She is an advocate for clean air.” But a better way of expressing that thought is to write, “She is an advocate on behalf of clean air.” (You might also say, “She is an advocate against dirty air,” but that’s just silly.)
But just lopping off the “for” can be tricky. Think of a disease, like juvenile diabetes. You could say, “She advocates for juvenile diabetes,” which is awkward, but to say, “She advocates juvenile diabetes.” That would mean she’s for it. And that’s probably unlikely.
Annoying Word of the Month: Epicenter. OK, this is a repeat. “Epicenter” was also my annoying word of the month back in May. At that time, it was the fad word for places where COVID-19 was spiking. The word said nothing that “center” didn’t say, but it sounded scientific and technical, so people who want to sound scientific and technical picked it up, or were just repeating what other people said or wrote.
But within weeks, it was being applied to cities where protests and demonstrations have been taking place. “Minneapolis has been the epicenter of protests,” the Associated Press reported. So did CNN. Then The New York Times told us that the CNN Center in Atlanta was the epicenter of the protests there. WTOP radio in Washington said New York was the epicenter.
I could say I’d like to lead a protest over the use of “epicenter,” but that might suggest I was being flippant and not taking seriously the pandemic or the protests, or even blues music. But I do take them seriously. I love B.B. King. And to the extent to which we do take such matters as seriously as they deserve, we should make sure that the language we use to talk and write about them is chosen with consideration and care.
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