Posts Tagged ‘words’

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