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I always thought that aphorism, adage, axiom, maxim and proverb meant more or less the same thing. And that’s true as far as it goes, but it’s not the whole truth, I discovered when I came across this entry in the Cambridge Guide to English Usage:

“All these words refer to statements of received wisdom, and brevity is the soul of all of them. Dictionaries often use the words as synonyms for each other, yet there are aspects of each to differentiate.

“An aphorism is above all pithy and terse, as in Least said, soonest mended, whereas the wording of an adage has a centuries-old flavor to it: He who pays the piper calls the tune. A proverb expresses its practical wisdom in homely terms: A stitch in time saves nine. The maxim is also drawn from practical experience, but turned into a general principle and rule of conduct: People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. The axiom is the most abstract of the set, a statement embodying a recognized truth which is felt to need no proof: Crime does not pay.” (Try telling that to Halliburton.)

Now that I know the differences, I expect I won’t retain the knowledge for long: A fool and his proverb are soon parted.

“School districts can choose to participate in the merit-pay program to get a share of the legislatively appropriated $147.5 million. If any of Florida’s 67 school districts choose not to participate in the program, that district will forgo a share of that money — but it still must have a performance pay plan, according to a Florida Department of Education spokesman.”

Any can mean either one or some, which is to say it can be either singular or plural. But once you make the choice, you have to stick with it. Here, the writer uses the singular — “that district” and “it,” rather than “those districts” and “they” — but he fails to make the verb agree. It should be chooses. Remember the maxim: Don’t switch horses in mid-sentence.


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