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 142.

    #138 Teddy555

    why not indeed? It is in my dictionary as informal term for young person or child. It is part of our language, why not use it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    "Paralympics" & "Deaflympics" rankle me.
    I'd prefer them to be called Para Olympics, and Deaf Olympics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    thanks Chequevara, I take your points well.
    Even so, it still leaves me with a bad taste that the punishment does not fit the crime.

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    One of my pet hates is when someone (esp on YHS) criticises another persons grammar, spelling or understanding of the meaning of a word INCORRECTLY - or makes an even bigger blooper themselves. Especially when the subject for debate has nothing to do with use of language.

    I must admit to correcting 'holier than thou' folk with much relish, though I wouldn't normally dream of correcting someone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    Children should not be called "kids".

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    Reply to 132: I think you need to increase your awareness of offensive use of language. I understand from your son's point of view but the issues need explaining to him. When have you ever seen 'Aussies go home' as daubed onto a wall? Also, use of the word 'coloured' is not right to describe someone. Not enough room here to enter that debate but I suggest you look into it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    we are being moderated out guys.
    No 132, no 135.

    This has proven Bradford #127 absolutely right!

    Shame on you BBC!

  • Comment number 135.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    all will be lost when the English start to say "winningest"

    since most sports commentators are to some degree illiterate, I am surprised it hasn't happened yet

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    The only thing I have to say to the "language purists" is the Old English example of the Lord's prayer.
    Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum;
    Si þin nama gehalgod
    to becume þin rice
    gewurþe ðin willa
    on eorðan swa swa on heofonum.
    urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg
    and forgyf us ure gyltas
    swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum
    and ne gelæd þu us on costnunge
    ac alys us of yfele soþlice

  • Comment number 132.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • 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 130.

    Yet another excuse to bash education it would seem. My wife heads an English Dept. in a local school. She took a programme from a recent theatre trip into an example of how NOT to use English.
    In her opinion, it wouldn't have got a D at GCSE...full of constructions like 'different to' and 'should of'. Presumably written by the adult educated in the The Good Old Days.

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.


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

    Yes, to the extent that when most school-chavs talk you need subtitles to understand them!


  • 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.

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    The big issue is not people using misusing words but that everyone is now being dictated to what words they can use and what they can't in the name of political correctness

    It would have been inconceivable 10 years ago to put people in prison for words however hateful, now it is a reality

    We have not been consulted on this politically correct revolution Politicians & judges should back off

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    and what's all the misuse of the apostrophe all about? I HATE seeing it being used as a plural! I hate to see it ignored (you're for you are, not your; could've for could have (not "could of" I must emphasise). Grankid somone posted....either Grandkid (if you accept kid instead of child) or Gran'kid please. "Its" only has an apostrophe if it's short for IT IS.
    We're all doomed!

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    Some people just love getting themselves worked up over things they can do nothing about.

    Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Anyone who dares to criticise the speech/writing of others leaves themselves open to similar criticism. Few people can live up to their own linguistic ideals. You have been warned!

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    Who wud of thunk it?

  • Comment number 123.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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