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, 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, 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 Nunberg.

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 222.

    The more Germanic form used in the US makes them happy to invent long words.

    Murdoch jr. got "Good Old Days"-style gasps from the crowd at RTS lectures with his "hyperfragmentalisation" (it went over him). My favourite for "fix" is "deproblematicise".

    The American who said "can I get a steak?" to a waiter and was met with "certainly, sir, but wouldn't you rather I brought it?" is a grin too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 221.

    On top of all one's objections there are a host of others . The use of head up, to lead, testing out for test,one horror is the use of trial as a verb , Trialing is 'orrible. of course some americanisms are fine in their context , the USA for example , they are foreign after all . One big problem in conformity is the fact that English is used by a very wide public from a worldwide context.

  • rate this

    Comment number 220.

    @154 - I'd be lost without my apostrophes. Don't take away my apostrophes' right to exist because the its-it's confusion. Take away the exception and make "it's" both a contraction and a possessive (most people do anyway) the possessive "its" only came about because there is no real usage of plural it (only near plurals - "they" "those" and the like)

  • Comment number 219.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 218.

    4 Hours ago
    The use of Ed Milliband as meaning, no, no.

    Oh dear, lowest rated. All I can say is "Calm down deers, did we loose our sense of humor then".

  • rate this

    Comment number 217.

    I feel nauseated by the Americanisation the BBC propagates. This is not purism, and my English is guttural at best; moreover, the society that defiled human servitude with the phrase “can I get” also happens to be the most unequal and socially corrupt on the planet.

    I’m European thank you very much, and I’d like my “UK English” to reflect that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 216.

    I completely agree with #44.Serendipo

    If a Victorian gent/lady could hear a modern 'well-spoken' person talk today, they would most certainly turn their nose up at their use of the English language. As Serendipo commented, maybe we should start using words like 'Thou' again if you're really that purist about the English Language?

  • 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 214.

    It does annoy me, that some MS software now apparently only allows me to spellcheck in American (intentional), rather than English, which it FAULTS. I've scrolled the list but the option's not there.

    I see more and more British using those spellings, alas. I like being able to distinguish a meter from a metre, for instance.

    It is, I'm sure, intentional and imperialistic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 213.

    Our problem is the mixture of evolved English and bad contrived language which is in effect sloppy or bad English .It behoves the user to use an understandable format . Those of us who use other langauges grow a greater respect for one's own .We have more and more adding suffixes to make words due to the lack of vocabulary of some of us .

  • rate this

    Comment number 212.

    @ 175.John Stevens:
    You're even worse than those santimonious (sic) posters - you are trying to tell me what I think!

  • rate this

    Comment number 211.

    Even centuries-old changes annoy me. 'Prove' used to mean 'Test' - as in 'The proof of the pudding is in the eating'. But people spout the saying 'The exception proves the rule' as if it were some sort of argument against you when you point out a counter-example of their rule. Then they look dumbfounded as you try to explain that the exception 'tests' the rule, and that their rule failed the test.

  • rate this

    Comment number 210.

    192.The Deutsche
    ""We are moving to a time when innocent non-racist comments are being singled out of context and labelled racist."
    It's down to the person who is subjected to particular language to decide whether it's racist or not, not to the person who uses the language. You can't bully people into accepting racist comments as innocent comments.

  • rate this

    Comment number 209.

    Language as a means of communication demands that the other person understands you so one is obliged(not obligated) to use certain standards .Sadly today the language is accessed , a new usage made necessary by the computor, by a number of people who's education is limited , we have many missuses due to this . one's use of language has to be comprehended by others .

  • rate this

    Comment number 208.

    As a teacher I am always correcting students' grammar and spelling.

    "But, Miss," they whine, "This is ICT not English!"

    I tell them that whereas I can guess what they mean, computers require precision input, and that even IT geeks have to communicate effectively with human colleagues.

  • rate this

    Comment number 207.

    Let's begin with the yuccy-classes and BBC's now continual usage of the word HUGHLY. It makes me feel like flattening the radio each time I hear it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 206.

    Ah Well. They don't talk proper England like what I used to do when I was a children.......

  • rate this

    Comment number 205.

    Language is for communication of something to someone. It is a tool and can and should be adapted to suit the purpose depending on what you want to communicate to whom. The onus is on the communicator to get it right. Use language well and you will do well. Using it well does mean being flexible with how you use it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 204.

    It is not so much words that annoy me, but nods.
    You know that awful moment when the news presenter asks the reporter a question, the nod starts, imperceptible at first, but, the longer the question the faster the nods.
    They never used to do it, now all the news channels do it. There must have been a EU diktat about it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 203.

    Recent misuse of English :- , Hero for Conscript, Awsome for slightly impressive, Fabulous for enjoyable, Fantastic for amusing. Blockbuster for well received movie.


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