Are language cops losing war against 'wrongly' used words?


Language enthusiasts bemoan the way words are being misused. But are the meanings they view as improper destined to take over?

The editors of the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook announced that after careful consideration, they had changed the usage rules for the word "hopefully".

The AP Stylebook is one of the premier guides for American writers and copy-editors, and its rules dictate how the vast majority of newspapers and magazines use words, phrases, grammar and punctuation.

Before the change, "hopefully" could only be used to mean "in a hopeful manner". ("Is dinner ready?" she asked hopefully.) Now, it can also take the more modern meaning, "it is hoped". (Hopefully, dinner will be ready soon).

Though the AP Stylebook is primarily used in the US, the question of what words can be used in which ways is a universal one. The debate about proper ways to use the English language occurs wherever English is read, written or spoken.

The use of "hopefully" is no longer as controversial as it once was, but there exists no shortage of words that trigger arguments amongst language formalists.

But how long before these constructions that make prescriptivists cringe are considered proper usage?

Once and future words

Several words that once meant one thing are now commonly accepted to mean another.

  • Anxious Once meaning only fearful, anxious can now mean eager, as in "I'm anxious to see that new film."
  • Decimate The word "deci" means ten, and decimate used to mean to kill 10% of a group. But now it means to destroy much more than that.
  • Presently Presently once meant "shortly" or "soon"; it's currently used to mean "now".

Begs the question This phrase is guaranteed to raise the ire of language purists. It describes a logical fallacy where one tries to prove a point by assuming the point is already valid: "Eating meat is immoral because meat is murder."

But "to beg the question" is often used to mean "to raise the question", and that usage increasingly dominates, says Mignon Fogarty, author of the book Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

Fogarty set out to defend the traditional usage in her upcoming book, 101 Troublesome Words. "After scouring articles and blog posts and being unable to find it used in the traditional way I became convinced it was a lost cause," she says.

Bemused Bemused means puzzled or confused, but is often used to mean slightly amused or entertained. It's one of a class of words that the linguist Bryan Garner calls "skunked". Those who know the word's proper meaning are upset when they see it misused, he says, and those who don't know the proper meaning are confused when it's used correctly.

"A lot of editors will avoid it altogether," says Colleen Barry, a copyeditor for IDG Enterprise and creator of the @CopyCurmudgeon Twitter handle. Instead, editors and journalists will often find a way to edit out skunked words, which disappear from traditional publications. However, they can still live on in Tweets, blog posts and other unedited web content, where the meaning is less likely to adhere to traditional rules of style - and as a result, the "inaccurate" definition becomes more accepted.

The rules are, there are no rules

Don't let someone misusing a word ruin your day, says George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. "These ideas of rules came about in the 19th Century, when there were rich people who wanted to know how to talk better and other people who decided they wanted to make money teaching them," he says.

Though it's useful to have understood definitions for clarity's sake, if the masses decide that a word has a common meaning, that's what the word means - no matter what the elite say. (At least in the US and the UK; France has an academy dedicated to codifying language).

There is value, says Geoff Nunberg, in pointing out misconceptions and explaining the definitions of some words - for instance the difference between literally and figuratively. "That's a process of becoming conscious of the language," he says. "It's a useful distinction." At a certain point, purists do need to cede lost causes, understanding that language is constantly evolving.

Disinterested In the same way that interested once meant having a stake - interested parties, for example - disinterested meant having no bias or gain. If she's disinterested in the Olympics, she won't benefit financially from the games, or have a family member participate. "Interested" is rarely used in that form, which puts disinterested at risk.

"When the positive goes, you can't expect to keep the negative around," says Geoffrey Nunberg, a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley.

Now, disinterested is often used synonymously with "not interested".

"That's too bad, because there is an uninterested already which means the same thing," says Ben Yagoda, professor of English and journalism at the University of Delaware, and author of When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It. "Disinterested is kind of a cool word, there's no other word that means just that."

Nauseous Nauseous is the descriptor given to something that makes you feel sick, eg a nauseous odour. But people who are feeling unwell often say "I feel nauseous". Purists argue that they should say "nauseated". Many dictionaries and usage guides now list both definitions - and do so in response to the way people have continuously misspoke. "Dictionaries are about words as they're used, not as they think they should be used," says Barry.

Who/Whom Whom is on the way to becoming as archaic as "thou" or "thee", says John McIntyre, the night editor at the Baltimore Sun newspaper. It was his letter to the AP that prompted the change to "hopefully".

"It's pretty much gone in spoken English and is increasingly abandoned in written English. You can see how precarious it is because when people use it, they often misuse," he says. "Increasingly it makes sense not to bother."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 442.

    There is no excuse for commencing a sentence or a paragraph with the word *And*

  • rate this

    Comment number 259.

    I think it's inevitable that language changes. Some words become redundant or are adopted for a different meaning. I do worry about the decline in eloquence and vocabulary. I once read a book of letters written by soldier in the US Civil War. Many were simple lads who worked on their family's land rather than go to school, but their letters home to their loved ones were so movingly well written.

  • rate this

    Comment number 215.

    I can't believe how some grown adults still don't know the difference between 'to', 'too' and 'two'

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    I quick glance at the comments here reveals that at least 50% of the people complaining about other people's bad English have made mistakes themselves.

    I don't say this to argue that the language continues to decline from some imagined golden age, but to point out the futility of such criticisms. Even the self-appointed judges can't live up to their own standards.

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    71 I agree; language SHOULD be fluid, constantly evolving over time. It's always been thus eg in Chaucers' time 'fond' meant 'foolish', 'buxom' meant 'obedient'.
    There is a sensible line between using language clearly without needing to be completely pedantic.
    There's also a time/ place for slang (with your mates), similarly with 'txt' speak; however also times when accuracy & clarity matter.


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