Opinion

Why because? Since it sounds better, that's why

An inquiry comes from Peter E. Demmin in Amherst, N.Y. He asks, “Are we immune TO something, or are we immune FROM something?” As an exhibit he offers a headline from The Wall Street Journal: “Silicon Valley Finds It's Not Immune From Credit Crisis.”

To or from?

The question is a new one on me, but not to the experts. They're as indecisive as we aging editors. R.W. Burchfield says, “A person is said to be (a) immune TO an infection (i.e., resistant to, protected from or against); or (b) immune FROM some undesirable factor or circumstance (i.e., exempt from, not subject to). But the division is not clear-cut; in some contexts FROM is idiomatically used in type (a) and TO in type (b).” All clear?

Bryan Garner, in his magisterial “Modern American Usage,” is equally decisive. He says that “immune” may take either preposition “depending on nuance.” He adds: “What you're ‘immune from' can't touch you; what you're ‘immune to' may touch you, but it has no effect.” Thus we may be immune TO the market's gyrations because we sold our bank stock a year ago. We are immune FROM jury duty because octogenarians get a pass.

Wedded to past

Moving on: Reader R.H., from somewhere in cyberspace, asks why The New York Times is wedded to the past tense. The complainant quotes from a recent interview with experts on the stock market: “They said a wiser course was for government to rebuild the badly depleted cash levels.” Would it have been better to say that a wiser course IS? The Times reported that “G.O.P. leaders said they were worried that John McCain was heading for defeat.” Would “are worried” and “is heading” have been a better choice?

Yes! For the same reason that active verbs are generally better than passive verbs, a lively present tense will beat a sodden past tense every time. It's the difference between a saunter and a trudge.

My most reliable West Coast correspondent, Nicholas Park of Seattle, sends along a splendid batch of oopsies, defined as slips on the rim of a copy desk. For example, a medical publication speaks on one line of “detectible” levels of HIV. Three lines later it speaks of levels regarded as “undetectable.” My dictionaries sanction both “-ible” and “-able.” Which is preferable? I stand indifferent in the cause, but we ought to be consistent.

Mr. Park forwards a feature story about San Francisco in which the writer “hones in” on two neighborhoods. Should that have been “homes in”? Surprisingly – surprising to me, anyhow – the authorities approve both “hones in” and “homes in.” The gnomes of Merriam-Webster define “hone in” as “to move toward or focus attention on an objective.” They add a usage note suggesting that the two forms are equally acceptable, but if a writer is uncomfortable with either one, let the writer resort to “zero in” and go have a drink.

Causal or temporal?

Moving on: Let us return, one more time, to the fleeting uncertainty that accompanies that old troublemaker “since.” For a millisecond, a reader stumbles: Is this “since” a causal since or a temporal since? It is not a huge problem, but even small confusions merit a writer's concern. Writing last month in The Washington Post, columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. said: “Since Obama was a child when Ayers was part of the Weather Underground, and since even Republicans have served on boards with Ayers, this is classic guilt by association.”

Dionne was employing “since” in a causal sense. Question: Would the columnist have gained in clarity by writing, “Because Obama was a child” and “because even Republicans have served”? I used to argue that in these constructions, “because” would be clearer than “since,” but now I'm in doubt. A small gain in clarity may be won at the price of a substantial loss in euphony. Or so it seems to me this afternoon. A “because” may look better tomorrow.

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