November 21, 2018

M. J. Maddox, PhD
is the American English Doctor.
 
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Wit and Whit

A post from a newspaper supporting a political candidate got the words whit and wit confused:

If the whole Republican v Democrat thing is all that matters to you, our endorsement doesn’t matter one wit.

The word the writer was reaching for is whit.

The meaning of whit is “smallest particle.” The editorial writer is saying that the endorsement won’t matter even a little bit to the person who is voting a straight party line.

Both whit and wit have been in the language for a very long time, but wit has several uses, whereas whit is always used to suggest a lack of interest in something and is usually accompanied with the verbs matter or care. Here are some examples from the media:

You might not care a whit about mental health care for California prisoners. Criminals get what they deserve, right? —The Sacramento Bee, November 1, 2018.

When documented gcc behavior says one thing, and the standard might be unclear, we really don’t care one whit about the lack of clarity in some standard.—a blog called Destroy All Software.

Your company doesn’t care one whit about you and will fire you at the drop of a hat, so why on earth should you give them two weeks–or any length–of notice before you quit? —Moneywatch, February 21, 2011.

Andrew Coyne: Ontario promises a balanced budget, but it stil doesn’t matter a whit. —National Post, April 28, 2017

Wit has several meanings, but I’ll focus on the meaning, “the faculty of thinking and reasoning in general.” This is the sense in the following familiar phrases:

to be at wit’s end (at a loss what to think or do).

to have lost one’s wits (to be unable to think rationally)

to keep one’s wits about one (to be mentally alert)

to live by one’s wits (to make a living without any set employment)

to be half-witted (to be intellectually deficient)

Because readers are distracted by errors, editorial writers with important things to say need to care more than a whit and keep their wits about them.

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