Monday, November 2, 2020

 Correctly using our language

     Our language is endlessly expressive, but it must be used correctly to preserve its integrity and to be most effective. Too many times words are misused, so the language suffers. Here are a few examples:

     The original meaning of unique was one of a kind. As such, it could have no modifiers. You cannot have something that is very unique (very one of a kind). Something is either one of a kind or it’s not. The proper word you want if you’re going to use a modifier is unusual. Often something can be very unusual.

     The original meaning of enormity was a horrific abomination on a vast scale. The Holocaust was an enormity. An elephant is not, therefore, an enormity. An elephant is enormous, or unusually large.

     Credible means believable and does not mean credulous or gullible.

     Enervate means to weaken and does not mean to energize. A rush hour commute through insane traffic is enervating. A Starbucks cappuccino is energizing.

     Criteria is the plural, not the singular of criterion, which is the singular, and data is the plural form of datum.

     Bemused originally meant confused or perplexed. If you appreciate some humorous comment or incident, you are amused, not bemused.

     To imply means to suggest something without saying it outright. To infer means to draw a conclusion from what someone else implies. The speaker/writer implies, and the listener/reader infers.

     Comprise means to include; compose means to make up. When you use comprise, you put the whole first: A soccer game comprises (includes) two halves. When you use compose, you put the pieces or segments first: Fifty states compose (make up) the United States of America.

     Farther refers to physical distance, while further describes the degree or extent of an action or situation. “I can’t run any farther and I have nothing further to say about that.”

     Use fewer when you’re referring to separate items that can be counted, like apples or carrots; use less when referring to a whole category, like fruit or veggies: You have fewer dollars and therefore less money.

     We’re all clear on a lie meaning an untruth. It’s the other usage that can be troublesome. Lie also means to recline, as: “Why don’t you lie down and rest?” Lay requires an object: “Lay the book on the table.” Lie is something you can do by yourself, but you need an object to lay.

It’s even more confusing in the past tense. The past tense of lie is lay: “I lay down for an hour last night.” And the past tense of lay is laid: “I laid the book on the table.” (Sometimes it’s easier to just say, “I took a nap.” Or, “I put the book on the table.”)

     An often-misused phrase that particularly lights my fuse is center around. The center of a circle or sphere is fixed and unmoving in relation to that circle or sphere. Therefore, the phrase is impossible. You can center on something or revolve around it, as the planets revolve around the sun, which is stationery at the center of our solar system with respect to earth (the entire solar system collectively is moving through space). But the earth cannot center around the sun.

     There are lists of commonly misused words online. Study them to be sure you use them correctly.

     Of course, if enough people continue to misuse a certain word or phrase, the folks who write the dictionaries will eventually cave in, throw up their hands, curse (eloquently), and add the misused definition, sadly to the detriment of our language.


For some absorbing pandemic reading, try the thriller novel series Guns, Diamondback, Kllrs, and Deathsman, set in the misty folds of the Great Smokies and endorsed by top gun bestselling authors Lee Child, Ridley Pearson, and Stephen Coonts. Available in print or Kindle from Amazon or easily through my website. Money back if you don’t like them.

No comments:

Post a Comment