The fifth film in the Die Hard series was released yesterday. The new flick, A Good Day to Die Hard, not only prompts us to marvel at how many film titles they can come up with from the words “die” and “hard,” but also causes us to wonder how many more action scenes they can squeeze out of an aging Bruce Willis. (My bet: many more. He’s looking really good for his age.)
But jokes aside, when I walk into the theater to see the latest installment, one thing is guaranteed: the film will be loaded with unexpected moments. In all of the Die Hard movies, things often end up being radically different than they initially appear.
Take the first Die Hard. John McClane (played by Bruce Willis) manages to contact the LAPD after Hans Gruber seizes the tower. While violence consumes the building’s interior, everything seems normal to the dispatched LAPD officer. The officer is unwittingly met by one of Gruberâ’s armed men, who masquerades as a security guard.
And later in the movie, John McClane surrenders his machine gun, causing Hans Gruber to believe McClane is defenseless when in reality McClane has a pistol taped to his back. (And let’s not forget in the third movie when one of the bombs ends up being a decoy.)
The plot twists and the perfidious villains ensure things are never as they seem.
In life outside of the Die Hard movies, a chasm can exist between what we think to be true and what is actually true. This happens with certain words in the English language. Consider the word dilemma. A lot of people think the word “dilemma” is simply another word for a problem. Isn’t it? And the words “continual” and “continuous” are synonyms, correct? And the words “historic” and “historical” mean the same thing, no?
If you believe any of those statements to be true, you’ve been deceived.
The good news is these tricky words are more like pesky knaves rather than the machine-gun-wielding nemeses in the Die Hard series. And fortunately being duped when it comes to grammar won’t cost you your life like it will in the movies. But it may cost you your credibility.
While Bruce Willis vies against bombs, bullets, and nefarious henchman, writers endeavor to keep Grammar Nazis at bay and to gain the confidence of readers (feats not as difficult as those faced by Bruce Willis but still challenging in their own rights). And even Bruce Willis needs help defeating his enemies; in the third Die Hard, help came in the form of the peerless Samuel L. Jackson. Writers need help too, especially when facing enemies like tricky, confusing words. Here’s some help.
Contrary to popular opinion, the word “dilemma” does not mean any old problem. It refers to a very specific type of problem. When you’re faced with two options, both of which are equally unpleasant or undesirable, you’re faced with a dilemma.
Let’s say I planned on buying a Die Hard DVD collection as a birthday gift for my friend. I go to Best Buy, and they don’t have it. I look online, and every copy is sold out. I’m now faced with a problem: I can’t find the DVD collection. This is a problem, but it’s not a dilemma because I’m not faced with two equally unfavorable options.
Now let’s say I promised my friend I would go see A Good Day to Die Hard with her on Friday night. But I also promised my mom I would go shopping with her on Friday night (clearly I’m a forgetful person in need of a calendar). I now have a dilemma: go to the movies with my friend and disappoint my mom or go shopping with my mom and disappoint my friend. I have to choose between two options, neither of
which is desirable.
Continuous vs. Continual
The words “continuous” and “continual” trick writers because while they sound remarkably similar, they differ in meaning. And even though not every person acknowledges the difference in meaning, some do, and I think it’s worth knowing the difference. “Continuous” is used to describe things that happen without interruption and never stop. If something occurs in an unbroken stream, it occurs continuously. A clock ticks continuously because it never pauses. The blood in my veins flows continuously because it never stops flowing.
“Continual” refers to something that happens regularly but with breaks in between. If something occurs frequently but not ceaselessly, it occurs continually. I get migraines continually because my migraines occur regularly, but there are periods in between the migraines when I’m normal and healthy. My life isn’t composed of one constant, never-ending migraine headache (fortunately).
Consider these sentences:
The bomb that Simon plants on the Brooklyn-bound train ticks continuously.
Until it detonates, this particular bomb in the third Die Hard never stops ticking. It never stops counting down the minutes and seconds, so I use the word “continuously” here.
Shooting sequences occur continually throughout “A Good Day to Die Hard.”
I use the word “continual” to describe the shooting sequences, because while the movie is filled with regular, frequent shooting sequences, the entire movie isn’t one unbroken stream of gunfire.
The continual chase sequences made the movie exhilarating.
While the movie is filled with regular, frequent chase sequences, the entire movie isn’t one long, uninterrupted chase sequence.
Historic vs. Historical
Like the words “continuous” and “continual,” the words “historic” and “historical” deceive writers because they sound so similar writers use them interchangeably. But they’re not synonymous.
If I describe an event as historic, the event was an important or momentous part of history. If I describe an event as historical, the event was part of history, but it wasn’t necessarily important.
I would describe the first time I saw Die Hard with a Vengeance as a historical event. It took place years ago, so it happened in the past and can therefore be termed historical. But it’s not a momentous or significant event in history, so I wouldn’t call it historic.
I would use historic in a sentence like this:
Filming of “A Good Day to Die Hard” began in Hungary in 2012, about six years after the historic Hungarian protests.
The Hungarian protests were an important, significant event in history, so I use the adjective “historic” to describe them.
I said above that the word “dilemma” can’t be used to describe any old problem. The adjective “historic” can’t be used to describe any past event. These two words are a little persnickety and particular.
Any past event is historical, because if an event happened in the past, it’s automatically part of history. But only certain past events are historic because only certain past events are significant and memorable.
Loathe vs. Loath
The humble, little “e” that differentiates these two words makes a big difference in meaning.
“Loathe” is a verb. If I loathe something, I strongly dislike that thing. Merriam-Webster says the verb “loathe” suggests utter disgust and intolerance. “Loath” is an adjective. If I’m loath to do something, I’m reluctant to do that thing.
John McClane loathes Hans Gruber.
John McClane strongly dislikes Hans Gruber.
I was loath to see “A Good Day to Die Hard” until I realized John McClane’s son is played by an Australian actor who has great abs.
I was unwilling to see the newest Die Hard movie, but I changed my mind because I can be swayed by attractive actors.
Placing a Bet
I have yet to see A Good Day to Die Hard, but I already know it’s going to involve villains trying to deceive Bruce Willis and Bruce Willis trying to deceive villains. And possibly because the rampant incorrect usage of these words seeped into our brains, the above words deceive many writers. But when it comes to Die Hard, past films tell me Bruce Willis will triumph against deception in the end (even if it’s only until the next movie comes out). And let’s hope correct usage and grammar also triumph, though in a more peaceful, family-friendly fashion.
Oh, and my bet for the title of the next Die Hard film: Die Hard or Go Home.
Tagline: You Can Never Die Too Hard.