Editing for Liberty #9: The Dismal Science

Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881)

Can You Spot the Error?

  1. I spent all of Saturday in the tub, reading a historic romance about a Spanish pirate and a Dutch duchess.
  2. Economics’s reputation as a “dismal science” can be traced back to Thomas Carlyle.
  3. He was friendly, but he remained apart, aloof … an outsider.

Read on for the solutions!

Historic vs. Historical

The meanings of “historic” and “historical” are just close enough that it’s hard to distinguish them — and just far enough apart that you get silly results if you mess them up.

“Historical” is the broader of the two, and it refers to anything in the past. “Historic” is narrower, and it refers only to past events that were important in history. Antony and Cleopatra had a “historic romance.” Your novel about the pirate and the duchess is just a “historical romance.”

So sentence #1 should be

Anna swooned into Rodrigo’s muscular embrace when he declared their love to be “historic.”

I spent all of Saturday in the tub, reading a historical romance about a Spanish pirate and a Dutch duchess.

If you find it hard to remember which is which, Grammar Girl has a mnemonic for you:

You can remember the meanings of these two words by thinking that “ic” is “important,” and they both start with i, and “al” is “all in the past,” and those both start with a.

When the Singular Is Plural

You form the singular possessive of almost every word by adding ’s, even if the word ends in s, as for Mises. But what about those strange nouns that already use their plurals as their singulars?

Chicago 7.19 notes that

when the singular form of a noun ending in s looks like a plural and the plural form is the same as the singular, the possessive of both singular and plural is formed by the addition of an apostrophe only. If ambiguity threatens, use of to avoid the possessive.

politics’ true meaning

economics’ forerunners

this species’ first record (or, better, the first record of this species)

Thus, sentence #2 should be

Economics’ reputation as a “dismal science” can be traced back to Thomas Carlyle.

Or you could also say,

The reputation of economics as a “dismal science” can be traced back to Thomas Carlyle.

This rule also applies to plural names that are used in the singular, like the United States:

The United States’ flag is red, white, and blue.

An Em Dash of a Pause

Authors often try to mark a pause or skip a beat in a sentence with an ellipsis,

He was friendly, but he remained apart, aloof … an outsider.

But in fact an ellipsis indicates an omission, something removed from a quote — an outcast. We need to use an em dash to mark a pause:

He was friendly, but he remained apart, aloof an outsider.

The Dismal Science vs. Slavery

Stephen Mauzy writes that “one hundred and sixty years ago, historian Thomas Carlyle educed ‘the dismal science’ epithet to describe economics.” We have all heard the expression “dismal science,” and many of us know Carlyle coined the term. But do you know the context?

Someone on the Mises scholars list commented on the source of the expression:

I keep seeing the term “dismal science” applied to economics in the popular press. It appears as well as in a recent Mises Daily article in a context that suggests that the term reflects negative or unwelcome prognostications by economics. More ignorant writers [such as Diane Coyle recently did in The Soulful Science] attribute the coining of the term to Thomas Carlyle as his reaction to reading T.R. Malthus’s exposition of the population principle.

This is just a reminder that Eric Crampton informed all of us on this list in December, 2001, of David Levy’s book How the Dismal Science Got Its Name (University of Michigan, 2001). There, David explains that Carlyle coined the term in an article titled “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question” in Fraser’s magazine in December 1849. He was reacting to the opposition of classical economists to black slavery. Carlyle was a proponent of such slavery and an opponent of the free-market economy.
I propose that anytime someone applies this term to economics the response should be “What? You’re in favor of the slave society and opposed to a market economy?”

Just for Fun


Is there something you’d like to contribute or see covered in Editing for Liberty? Post a comment! Cartoons, quips, and contributions to “Spot the Error” are especially welcome.

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