Regular readers of this column know that I spend a lot of time talking about grammar wrongs that aren’t — the countless mythical language no-nos that get passed down from generation to generation of people who never bother to look them up.
Broken-record metaphors apply. I replay ad nauseam the same scratchy refrain: “People think it’s an error to [insert grammar myth here], but it’s not.”
So, for a change of pace, I thought I’d talk about a popular usage that some people call wrong and (here’s the twist) that really is wrong — an error I can’t defend with all the grammar apologist powers at my disposal. It’s the term “flush out” used in place of “flesh out.”
Unlike the grammar “errors” that you’d put in quotation marks, this actually is an error. Here’s how it goes down.
Imagine a writer is talking about a partially conceived project. He has an outline for a story, but no story yet, and he says: “I really need to flush out the plot and characters.” Or imagine an office manager talking about a meeting or get-together being planned and saying, “We have the location and the theme, but we still need to flush out all the details.” Not good.
For any usage that means to fill out, round out or complete, you want “flesh out.” I’ll let Garner’s Modern American Usage explain why:
“To flesh out is to put flesh on bare bones — that is, to move beyond the merest rudiments and to elaborate, to add some nuance and detail. To flush out, probably a hunting metaphor, is to bring something into the open light for examination.”
So if you have a rough outline for a story, you need to flesh out your plot and characters. If you have a basic plan for a party, you need to flesh out the details. No flushing required.
Of course, you can’t condemn a common figure of speech based on the opinion of a single source. So I checked others. What’s most remarkable about “flush out” is that nowhere in my language library can I find a single source to defend using it in place of “flesh out.”
Not even the ultra-descriptivist Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which is filled with so-called grammar errors that it outlines then promptly debunks, has anything to say on the subject. Like most of my language reference guides, it doesn’t talk about this matter at all.
When all else fails, the best source is always a dictionary. So I looked up the verb forms of both “flesh” and “flush” to see if, anywhere in their definitions, I could find a gray area that would allow one to “flush out the details.” I did not.
The verb “flush” can mean “to expose or chase from a place of concealment, as in, “They flushed the boys from their hiding place.” It can mean “to flow,” “to cause to flow” and even “to glow,” as in “Joe’s many compliments about Mary’s dress caused her to flush.” It can mean “to drive out” and even “to make even.”
But nowhere in the dictionary is a definition of “flush” that means anything like to complete, to fill out or to add detail.
Saying that you want to flush out the details constitutes a rare situation in English: a commonly made but totally indefensible error. Details, rough outlines and other vague beginnings you flesh out, you add flesh to these bare bones. Only when you want to push something away or force it from hiding do you flush something out.
This is one case where the rules really are that clear.
JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.