Thursday, January 14, 2016

Defending Precise Language

Zestful Blog Post #141

When I make a mistake with language, I welcome being corrected. For instance, some time ago a reader of one of my Writer’s Digest articles let me know that I’d misused the word ‘devolve.’ I’d used it as the opposite of ‘evolve,’ as in ‘things deteriorating / falling apart / going to hell,’ basically. It really means the transfer of something to a lower or further level. When the commander got shot, control of the vessel devolved to the lieutenant commander. The house devolved to the widow. I appreciated knowing my mistake, and have not made it since.

But because many people make the same mistake I did, the wrong definition will probably become an accepted definition. Ref. my rant on descriptive-vs.-prescriptive dictionary entries in Zestful Post #103.

Not everyone appreciates being corrected, however, and this has always surprised me. I used to have a boss who asked me to proofread his weekly staff memos. One time I pointed out that he’d misspelled ‘supersede.’ He’d made the common error of spelling it ‘supercede.’ He argued with me, then finally grabbed the dictionary (pre-desktop PCs) to check. He was so angry. I’d been respectful; it isn’t as if I’d called him an idiot. This same boss also used the word prone to mean supine, and employed the phrase ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ when he meant ‘put all your eggs in one basket.’ I stopped correcting him after supersede, though.

Word meanings fade and morph as cultures change, of course. I’ve noticed the phrase ‘marking time’ is increasingly used to mean keeping track of time, as in checking off the days on a calendar. Did you know it’s actually a military term that means to march in place? As such, it’s also correctly used as a metaphor for wasting time or not making progress. I think more Americans knew the meaning during and after WWII, when so many people were more familiar with military culture, either being in the service themselves or being close to a service member.

‘Penultimate’ is another good one. Many folks use it to mean like, man, super-ultimate, the livin’ end, you know? Actually it means second-to-last. Ultimate, of course, means last or final. Ultimately, we decided to go to the movies. The penultimate letter of the alphabet is Y.

Then there’s pronunciation, which is essentially hopeless. I remember pronouncing the word ‘flaccid’ correctly (flak-sid) in conversation with a friend, who began finding ways to use the same word but pronouncing it ‘flassid’ as most people do, thinking she was subtly giving me the hint that I’d been saying it wrong.

Think about it. We don’t say someone had a car assident, or has a French assent, or is essentric because he wears a derby. It’s flak-sid, goddam it.

Defenders of precise language, unite!

And finally, happy birthday to my friend Special K.

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  1. I just did a quick check of six online dictionaries and 5 out of the six give flas-id as at least an alternate pronunciation. That may, however, just be an indication of the mispronunciation becoming acceptable. In any event, I love reading your posts. I too am somewhat of a stickler for using the English language properly.

  2. Yes, you're absolutely right, John. The alternative pronunciation used to not exist, but now does because of usage, and I'd imagine some dictionaries even have it as the primary pronunciation.

  3. Love your handle, cornbread ninja. Thanks for stopping in.

  4. I laughed when I read this post. I am an Australian of a certain age *uh hum* who was raised during the period when most of our televised entertainment was British based. These days it is predominantly American. I went through a period where I corrected nearly everyone who spoke/wrote with American interpretations. The sad thing about current times is that Australia is losing it's cultural identity due to our reliance on being entertained and not finding entertainment within the community.
    Anyway, I digress. It was pointed out to me that language constantly changes, and reading Shakespeare highlights this fact. What I learned to do initially was grin and bear it. Now I am just happy that people are trying to communicate, to understand and learn.

  5. I think typing or saying words is very important to be accurate and correct. Even if the internet is dumbing down the written word. I, myself, write like an eighth grader, or on a good day an average freshman in high school. Although I will never be perfect when typing or speaking... it is my goal to strive for perfection before I leave this earth.

    If I add just one verse to this powerful play called life... I left my mark for hope for the future proper grammar and speaking community.

    As a kid growing up I would say "Yea" instead of "Yes." My grandpa would get very upset. Now after becoming an old adult... I understand the point he was attempting to make with me. Grammar and speaking ability are very important when communicating with each other.

  6. Thanks for sharing your thoughts & experience, Earl. I think it's also fair to say grammar, usage, and pronunciation are class indicators. My parents, immigrants, had strong feelings about speaking English correctly for that reason.

  7. As someone who was in journalism at school, I was devastated at the increasing lack of proof reading done online. I know that the whole dumb down decade has taken it's toll, but I held the belief that a journalist would honor the tradition of proper writing for better communication.

    Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case. I've seen typos, double sentences and plain bad grammar used in The Times, Huffington-Post and others.

    These are big newspapers, why are they having terrible headlines, half finished articles and rotten proof reading done?

    I feel saddened by the loss, they aren't even teaching students how to write manuscript anymore. Language may evolve, but this trend is more devolution which is not positive.

    I've trained my own kids to communicate properly, they go after errors in their writing and always proof read before posting. They also know the difference between proper communication and casual writing. Shame the general press has crumbled, online journalism has become 15 sec. memes and 140 character tweets.

    Anyone have a time machine to send me back to the early 1970's?

  8. On one hand, the time machine idea is attractive... on the other, I'd hate to give up some of the social progress we've made since then...


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