“Advisor” or “Adviser”?

Pick one and stick with it. It’s that simple. “Adviser” is more common than “advisor,” but both are common, and either is correct.

If you have a house style guide that specifies one of the spellings, use that one.

If you are writing about someone whose job title includes “Advisor” or “Adviser,” use the spelling that person’s office uses, even in preference to your house style.

Expatriate, Ex-Patriot, Ex-Patriate

An “expatriate” is someone living outside his home country: “American expatriates in Taipei all seem to know each other.”

An “ex-patriot” would be someone who used to be a patriot: “Brandon calls himself an ex-patriot—he used to love his country, but now he thinks it can go to blazes.” But we often see “ex-patriot” used where “expatriate” is meant.

Wrong example: …international schools that cater to the ex-patriot student.

Change it to: …international schools that cater to the expatriate student.

Wrong example: Considerations for ex-patriot employees working in Canada

Change it to: Considerations for expatriate employees working in Canada

Wrong example: Erwin Muller, a 74-year-old German ex-patriot who left Germany in 1959 for the United States, has lived in northern Aroostook County since 1972.

Change it to: Erwin Muller, a 74-year-old German expatriate who left Germany in 1959 for the United States, has lived in northern Aroostook County since 1972.

This is a good example of the phenomenon linguists call “folk etymology”: we hear the word “expatriate,” and we explain it in our minds as meaning someone who used to be a patriot—in other words, an “ex-patriot,” which sounds identical to “expatriate” in current American pronunciation.

“Expatriate” is one word. “Ex-patriate” doesn’t work, because the prefix “ex-” with a hyphen carries the meaning of “used to be,” as in “ex-president,” “ex-linebacker,” or “ex-priest.” For the same reason, the colloquial short form “expat” is correct, not “ex-pat.”

Rein, Reign

The Editor has written about the confusion between “rein” and “reign” once before, but it is distressingly common. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, for example, may be one of the world’s oldest daily newspapers, but it is not immune to embarrassing front-page errors:

In many cases, the Editor is willing to let what was once a mistake pass into standard usage. English evolves that way, and the Editor has long since accepted “data” as a singular (though he still can’t bring himself to use it that way in his own writing).

But “reign in” will never be correct, because it will never make sense. “Rein in” is an equestrian metaphor, and we see no sign that the “reins” of a horse will soon be spelled “reigns.”

We all use metaphorical expressions whose meanings we understand without thinking about where they came from. But, as a writer, you should try to do that thinking. When you use an expression like “reign in,” stop and think to yourself, “What does that mean, anyway? Does it mean to exercise some sort of royal power over someone? That doesn’t quite seem to fit.” Then go off and find out what it does mean, and incidentally whether you’re spelling it right. Or—and this is perhaps an even better option—use another expression, one whose origin you know for certain.

In Lieu Of

The word “lieu” is just French for “place,” so “in lieu of” can be translated “in place of” or “instead of” with almost no loss of meaning. We say almost no loss, because “in lieu of” has developed a vague connotation that the thing replaced was more desirable than the thing replacing it.

The Editor has sometimes seen “in lieu of” used wrongly where “in light of” is meant. From an article on the demise of the Ubuntu One cloud-storage service:

Wrong example: While the reasons behind its closure make sense for the company in lieu of its broader ambitions elsewhere, there’s no getting away from the fact that if you used it daily, you’re going to be left a little peeved.

The writer meant “in light of,” or “considering.”

This sort of confusion is always a warning sign. If it becomes common, it means that we can no longer use the expression “in lieu of” in technical writing, because a significant number of our readers will take the wrong meaning from it.

What Information Do Your Readers Need?

The Editor noticed that his scanner software had a menu with four different modes: Full Auto Mode, Office Mode, Home Mode, Professional Mode. What’s the difference? Well, a look at the help file should tell us.

Mode Selection list box

The list box at the top right of the window displays the current scanning mode and allows you to change it. Click the small arrow to the right of the list box, and then click the name of the desired mode to change the mode. You can choose from the following modes:

Full Auto Mode
Office Mode
Home Mode
Professional Mode

This is all the help file has to say about this menu. Now, what can we learn from this information?

We can learn how a drop-down list box works in computer software. But you don’t have to explain common interface tasks, like moving the pointer and choosing an item from a list, in the help file for your scanner software. In fact, it’s a bad thing to add useless information like that. Unnecessary information makes it hard to find necessary information.

So what else do we learn? We learn the names of the four modes. But we already learned them by looking at the menu, which is already there in front of us, which is why we were looking at the help file in the first place.

In other words, we have learned absolutely nothing from this help file. It was no help at all.

So what might we want to know?

We might want to know what happens if we choose one of those four modes. How is Office Mode different from Professional Mode? What happens if I use Home Mode in the office?

When you’re writing any kind of documentation, eliminate all useless information. If the reader is looking at an on/off switch, it does not help to say, “The switch has two positions. The upper position is labeled ‘ON,’ and the lower position is labeled ‘OFF.’ Placing the switch in the position labeled ‘ON’ will apply power to the device. Placing the switch in the position labeled ‘OFF’ will turn off power to the device.” All that information is plainly useless, because it is already conveyed by a mere glance at the switch.

So be ruthless in eliminating useless information. And if, when you have eliminated the useless information, you have no information left, then you have not yet given your readers the information they really want.

Importune, Inopportune

“Importune” is a verb meaning “to request earnestly and often” (as Bailey’s Dictionary defines it). It is a word very rarely used in current writing, or at least very rarely used correctly.

“Inopportune” is an adjective meaning “unseasonable” or “coming at the wrong time.”

The Editor has lately seen these two words mixed up more than once:

Wrong example: Blaine also attended a well publicized dinner with many of New York City’s wealthiest at the lavish Delmonico’s restaurant—considered importune during the economic downturn.

“Importune” should be “inopportune.”