Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Pet Peeves of Word Usage and Misusage

I keep a list of examples of less than perfect writing that I come across in my reading. Unlike many other readers, however, I don’t find a lot of the apparent errors annoying because I understand that language is fluid; it is always in the process of change and development. That said, a few things do stop me when I’m reading because I have to reconstruct the sentence in my head in order to capture the intended meaning.  When the list becomes unwieldy, I select a few to comment on. Here are a three of my favorites.

First, the word unique does not take a modifier. This word refers to something that is one of a kind, in a category all its own, without any other item of the same sort to which it could be compared. It cannot be more or less unique than something else; nor can it be very or somewhat or a little unique. It is either one of a kind or it isn’t. The word means “single, sole . . . having no like or equal; unparalleled.” Some dictionaries now include the increasingly common understanding of the word to mean “highly unusual, extraordinary, rare,” with the caveat “a common usage still objected to by some.” And yes, that would be me. I object—strenuously.

Second, I feel jolted when I read a sentence like this: “George shouldn’t be upset at Ellen’s tepid response; he’d long known of her disinterest in baseball.” The word disinterest does not mean “lack of interest.” Disinterest means “lack of personal or selfish interest,” but here again disinterest has absorbed the meaning of uninterested, or “lack of interest or concern; indifference.” Two distinct views of the quality of a person’s attention to something have been conflated so that now one word is used for both, leaving the reader combing through the sentence for a context to clarify the intended meaning. With greater care, the writer could avoid frustrating the reader and have a richer vocabulary. Consider this example: “George, the defendant, hoped the judge would prove to be disinterested, and also hoped the jury wouldn’t be so uninterested as to fall asleep.”

Third, a perennial favorite, is the distinction between that and which. That is used, among other reasons, to introduce a restrictive clause. Which is used to introduce a non-restrictive clause. Consider this example: Ellen rummaged in the trunk of her car for the knife that had blood on it. (She seems to have lots of knives in the back of her car but only wants one in particular.) Or this example: After dinner, Ellen washed the bloody knife, which she left in the dish drainer. (Where Ellen left the knife doesn't matter; she could have dried it and put it away in a drawer.)

No writer is going to know every rule of English (or whatever is the native tongue), but I admire writers who are precise in their use of language while also telling a good story vividly, or explaining a scientific breakthrough in accessible language.

All definitions quoted above can be found in Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition.

And now a moment of silence for George, wherever he may be, and all the words in English that have strayed from their original meaning.


16 comments:

  1. Misuse of words is more common today than it once was. The dumbing down of the English language is partly to blame.

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    1. I agree wholeheartedly, Jacquie. I also blame the decline in reading as well as the teaching of grammar in schools. Still, we keep trying to stem the flow downhill. Thanks for commenting.

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  2. Fun. [I love poor George] I'm always hauled up for using 'which' too often, 'that' is preferred. Maybe you could do an occasional series on Americanisms too. As an example to get you started, I heard this one this morning on the radio--"self-initialized activities." What does that mean? Spontaneous? Independent? Autonomous?

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    1. Maddy, I wouldn't dare try to define your example. I have no idea what it means. But I love your idea of another blog, on some of these very strange phrases writers now come up with. Thanks for the suggestion.

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    2. I'm guessing the writer was trying to say "self-initiated." It's unwise to be sesquipedalian beyond one's vocabulary.

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    3. I do run across passages in which the writer has overreached--it's confusing and counterproductive. And I haven't run into sesquipedalian in quite a while. Thanks for that.

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  4. One of mine is the confusion of affect/effect, as in, "Pilson drank the poisoned whisky, but it had no affect on him." Augh!

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    1. Larry, effect/affect was something I paid close attention to in school but I was never confident I had it right. That's a good subject for another blog. Thanks for the suggestion.

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    2. But the whisky (Scotch, of course, or it would be spelled whiskey) could effect a change of his affect.

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    3. Excellent example, Craig. May I use that in a future blog?

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  5. I'm so glad I'm not the only one who gets riled when people confuse and misuse that and which! I thought I was all alone in the world. Also, people are who, not that. Love this blog, Susan!

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    1. Alice, I should have included "who" also. I guess I got carried away worrying about George. Thanks for commenting, and good luck with your new Daisy Gumm mystery.

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  6. On a generous day, I can usually skid past the misuse of that and which, but I'm stopped cold when a that should be a who.

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  7. Earl, I've heard so many people comment on that/who that I may have to do another grammar blog sooner rather than later. Thanks for adding that to the mix.

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