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.