Posts Tagged ‘language’

[Oh, before I start, just a reminder about the photos I’ve used in this blog this year. Other than shots I’ve taken myself, or have express permission to use, they come from an iOS app entitled Unsplash which supplies copyright free photos. Also on:]

You’d think the subject of this post would have occurred to me during the amount of time I’ve spent on Twitter but no; the rising to the fore of this particular irritation was occasioned by me spending half an hour trying to wrangle a sentence, a bit of dialogue in a short story, into doing what I wanted.

Which it stubbornly refused to do.

For British readers, you have to remember in the next sentence that Americans call them lightning bugs, not – as we sensible Brits call them – fireflies. But Mark Twain once observed that for a writer

“The difference between ‘the right word’ and ‘the wrong word’ is the difference bewteen the lightning and the lightning bug.”

And while any writing I do is attempting to use the lightning rather than the firefly, I’ve spent part of today trying to use exactly the right word. And thinking about the vagaries of language.

For example, why do we listen to something, but merely read something. When I visit my friend’s place off Mainland Scotland, am I in Skye, or ‘on’ the Isle of Skye?

You know what irregular verbs are, right?

They’re when you say something like:

I’m single-minded
You’re determined, whereas
He’s an awkward bastard

Or, to steal from Yes, Prime Minister

I’ve just given an unofficial briefing
You’ve just leaked some information, and
He’s just been charged under section 2(a) of the Official Secrets Act.

What made me think of the above was when I wondered this morning, what’s the difference between “defending your actions” and “being defensive”? Or between “doing yourself down” on the one hand and “being realistic” on the other?

Where is the line between cockiness and arrogance? Or between modesty and faux-modesty. Or, I guess these days, between the brag and the humblebrag?

While some might justifiably argue that cynicism is very different to scepticism, does it matter when the two are [incorrecly] so often used as synonyms of each other?

Is gullibility merely an extreme form of open mindedness? Or are they fundamentally different?

If one is cruel when being scathing, are the two inherently linked? Can one be scathing without being cruel?

And then there’s ‘passionate’. I’ve come to intensively dislike the word, as it’s so often used as an excuse; he didn’t mean to be offensive, he’s just passionate about [insert subject matter], as if that excuses it. of ‘He got carried away and stepped over a line.… but it’s because he’s so passionate.’ Again, offered only ever as an excuse.

Or, of course the biggie… when is ‘it’ a lie?

You might think that everyone agrees: it’s when someone knowingly tells, propagates or invents an untruth, something that is, let’s face it, untrue; a falsehood.

But it’s the ‘knowingly’ that catches you out.

Can you ever know, know for a fact that there was an intention to deceive on the part of the politician you dislike? One might argue that if they’ve been corrected but continue to spread the misinformation, the incorrect statistic, the untrue information, that then they knowingly lie.

But not necessarily. They could disbelief the ‘correct’ information or could believe that the information itself is a lie. They could be fucking stupid. Any or all could happen.

In which case are they still lying?

I don’t know.

I think all you can do is form your own judgment and then act on it.

And for as much as I rail against the horror that is “…and you know it…” in a disagreeable social media post or tweet, I’ve as much faith that it’ll continue as I have in the sun coming up tomorrow.

At some point we need to start talking about how we find sources of information, fact checkers, that everyone can rely on, and everyone can cite, rather than assuming bias because we don’t like them telling us we’re wrong.
Something else tomorrow…

No, sorry, if you’re looking for lots of nice things in here, I’ve misled you. Oops.

Not entirely my fault, but yeah, given the Saturday Smiles and the occasional “here are some nice things” posts, it wouldn’t be unexpected that there’d be below this paragraph some YouTube videos of hedgehogs stretching. Or puggles, baby echidna.

Or even a cute video of babies on trains going through tunnels.

Ok. I don’t mean that.

Although it is really cute.


(I mean, they are cute, aren’t they? Really cute.)

No, moving on.

My English teacher hated her pupils using two words: “nice”, and “lots”.

She figured it was lazy to use those words and that when writing her pupils should exercise and express their vocabularies in order to find better, more accurate words.

At the time, I didn’t think she was correct. There are times when nice and lots just work, particularly in dialogue, because people use those words, whether or not you want them to.

As I got older, I kind of saw the wisdom in what she was forcing her pupils to do.

And now I’ve reached the age of 55 and hope like hell she wouldn’t still caution against using “nice” as I’ve come to appreciate that it’s a much underrated attribute. I can’t wholly define niceness, but I absolutely would apply it to many people I know, and many people with whom I interact.

My local doctor is professional, courteous, friendly and… just plain nice. Part of the reason I continue to have her as my doctor is, of course, the professionalism and courtesy and friendliness. Part of the reason I like her, however, is because she’s nice.

But “lots”? Yeah, there I have some sympathy with her, especially when you consider its brother: many.

What does many actually mean?

As always, best to start with the dictionary:

Right, so no bloody use at all.


What sparked this was seeing, lots (naah), many (naah), ok, several (better) uses of the word.

Primarily, in the “many Jews support Jeremy Corbyn” claim offered by his supporters.

Whichever definition you use above, it’s not true. Hell, a survey suggested that 87% of British jews actively think he’s personally antisemitic, while only 6% actively think he’s not. (Whichever you go by, while there are undoubtedly jewish people who support Corbyn, they equally unquestionably form an entirely unrepresentative sample of the Jewish population in the UK.)

But the ‘problem’ is wider than purely political.

If it’s number based, and you say anything over, I dunno, 1 million is “many”, then you’re saying that “many Americans” could apply to ⅓ of a % of the population.

If it’s solely % based, then you’re saying that – using America again – that 10m Americans (only 3% of the population) aren’t “many Americans”.

What would “many Londoners” mean? There are roughly 10m people in London. Is 1m Londoners ‘many Londoners’? Is 20% of them? 40%?

There are 200 countries in the world.

Are 150 ‘many countries? Is it solely the absolute number?

Or are 30% of countries “many”? Only 90 or so.

I don’t know. And the ambiguities of language, while something I ordinarily like, sometimes piss me off.

Can something both be “many” and entirely unrepresentative sample of the population?

Can something be both “many” and “few”? Apparently so.

I’m forced to conclude that yes, it can. To both.

There are, according to reports, almost 19m millionaires in the US. If it’s numbers alone, then “many Americans are millionaires”. But also, given that 19.m is only 6% of the population, also fair to say “few Americans are millionaires”.

For clarity’s sake, I’m obliged to a journalist friend of mine, Stu Nathan, who when I posed the above to him, suggested “proportionately few Americans are millionaires”.

I’m obliged, Stu. Genuinely.

But it does rest upon the intention of the writer to be… clear. Rather than asserting a point which they believe rests upon its own weight, rather than the mere assertion of it.

The only things I can, fairly, conclude I think are:

  1. ‘Many’ has to be a combination of numbers and proportion

  2. I should use ‘proportionately’ if I’m using %

  3. people bullshit a lot.

Oh bugger it, have some cute puppies.

Lots of them.

Something else, tomorrow…

I love the English language… I’m just not so keen on those who misuse it.

Actually, that’s not true; I quite like people who misuse it in gloriously, wonderfully, absurd ways. When they make language do stuff it’s not supposed to. When they combine words in a way that breaks all the rules, but somehow… works. There are plenty of writers who I’ll read for the sheer pleasure at what they do with words, how they treat sentences, how they spoil the reader with superbly written paragraphs.

I merely don’t like the misuse of language when it’s incompetently done, when it’s been achieved through ignorance, or malice, or stupidity.

But on the whole, yeah, I like language, and I take pleasure in the glorious ambiguities that can arise from time to time.

There’s a building around the corner from where I used to work. On the door was the legend:

This door is permanently alarmed.

I can’t tell you the number of times that I wanted to go up to it and say “Boo!“.

Similarly, not far from where I live is a roundabout with traffic signals; on each of the traffic signals is attached a sign that reads:

Part Time Traffic Signals

I surely can’t be the only person who wonders what they do on their days off…?

I was thinking today about language, particularly about why ‘in’ and ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ aren’t followed by prepositions:

I was in the room; the UK is inside the EU; the UK will be outside the EU.

But out is.

I was out of the room.

And I long ago gave up wondering whether one is on the island of Skye or in Skye.

But while I have just about managed to restrain myself on every occasion from grimacing when someone uses “decimate” to mean utterly destroyed – when the word means to “reduce by 10%” – there are some words and phrases that still annoy me when they’re misused.

Let me agree: I’m not talking about misuse through misspellings. Sure, they irritate but for an entirely different reason.

But folks who type ‘effect’ when they mean ‘affect’, for example; as often as not, it’s just a misspelling, or an autocorrect.

Typos, again, I have less of a problem with. For all the ‘the world is divided into two types’ gags around, one that’s invariably true is the division between those who’ve made a typo in an important document or popular social media post. and those who merely haven’t… yet.

After all, surely one of the first skills that anyone acquires online is the ability to read fluent tyop.

No, it’s the actual misuse of words that bugs me; the use of a word to mean something other than what it, y’know, means.

And yes, of course words’ meanings can and do change though the decades, through the centuries, through common usage.

But when a word is flat out incorrectly used, it… bugs me. It irks.

Mark Twain once said that for a writer, the difference between the right word and the wrong word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.

But that’s really about choosing just the right word, using a word that ‘works’ for the piece of writing, using not ‘claimed’ but ‘asserted’, using not ‘criticised’, but ‘condemned’, using not ‘damp’ but ‘moist’.

Twain wasn’t opining about using ‘bemused’ as a synonym for ‘amused’. The former means ‘bewildered’, not ‘found it funny’.

Here are some more that literally figuratively bug the hell out of me.

And yes, let’s start with that one: literally, when it’s used for emphasis. “I was literally over the moon”. No, you weren’t. You may have been using it to emphasise how delighted you were, how happy you were at an event, or a result, or even your own achievement, but unless you were either in a spacecraft, or are Superman, you weren’t literally over the moon.

Disinterested, to denote lack of concern, or to show you’re apathetic about something. The word you”re looking for is ‘uninterested’. Disinterest means you’re unbiased; you have no personal stake in it.

Imply vs Infer. As a general rule of thumb, the speaker/author might imply, while the listener or reader infers.

Similar to Nauseate vs Nauseous. Again, general rule of thumb? Someone or something else¹ might nauseate you² so that you feel nauseous.

Begging the question, when you’re suggesting a new question, or when you mean ‘raises the question, suggests an additional question’. Say that instead. Say it ‘raises the question’ or ‘of course that suggests an additional question’. just don’t write that begs the question’. Because ‘begging the question’ means a statement is inherently assuming something, and you’re questioning the assumption. “The politician said I should trust him because he’s a politician”. The statement inherently assumes that politicians are trustworthy, and begs the question.

Enormity doesn’t mean huge, at least not other than extreme evil, or extreme badness.

Reticent doesn’t mean reluctant, at least not unless it’s because the person is restrained or overly shy.

Ironic means weirdly incongruent, not funnily inconvenient or coincidentally unfortunate.

And now the two biggies. The two that will have me swearing at the television whenever I hear a politician – for it’s usually, politicians at fault – utter the words:

REFUTE DOES NOT MEAN DENY. At least not in and of itself. Refute means to prove with evidence that an accusation is incorrect. (It doesn’t imply the accusation was malicious, by the way.) Again… to refute something is to prove it false. To deny something is true, to claim something is false, with or without evidence, is to ‘rebut’ something.

I’ve pondered on occasion why so many seem to have a problem with this.

I don’t believe – as some have suggested – that politicians who use ‘refute’ know they’re using it incorrectly, that it means ‘to prove false’ but are banking on their supporters (and critics alike) either

  1. not knowing, or
  2. accepting that the politician can prove it but is saving their proof for another occasion.

I just think they think that ‘refute’ sounds more ‘official’. And theyr’e too lazy to use the proper word.

Also, while we’re here:

UNACCEPTABLE DOES NOT MEAN UNFORTUNATE. If something’s unacceptable, then it means, with an elegant inevitability, that you will not accept it.

If you then, reluctantly or otherwise, behave in a manner that – in every material and measurable way – is exactly how you would act if you eagerly consented… guess what? Turns out you don’t find it unacceptable at all.

Because you fucking accepted it.

Again, politicians think that ‘unacceptable’ is a good word to use. Because it sounds strong, it sounds decisive, and it sounds firm… unyielding.

That it’s incompetent and lazy use of language is less important to them.

Yes, yes, I know – politicians being lazy or incompetent?

Now there’s a shock.

And here’s one that doesn’t bother me in the least: fewer versus less. I genuinely don’t care about it. (Note that I don’t say ‘I could care less’; if I ‘could care less’, that means I currently care about it a great deal.)

But while there are rules about using fewer and less, there are plenty of occasions when the rule just doesn’t work, or an exception has been artificially created to let it work.

If I’m estimating how far it is to Manchester from London, I won’t say that it’s ‘fewer than 200 miles’; it’s ‘less than’, or – to be honest – under. And it’ll take less than six hours to drive there, not fewer.

See you tomorrow, with something else.

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to my fifty-fifth birthday on 17th August 2019. You can see the other posts in the run by clicking here.

¹ this blog entry, for example
² you, the reader