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 462.

    456: "boarding will start momentarily" is quite clearly a statement that those with tickets will be asked to 'board' the conveyance (be it train, plane, ship) in a short time. The bad news is that since W (an American President in the recent past) It could just refer to a method of extracting information from unwilling participants in a a debriefing. I NEVER want to hear it that way!

  • rate this

    Comment number 461.

    Let's get something straight.
    Language does change, but it doesn't 'evolve' or 'develop'. These words suggest improvement and people who use them are unwittingly playing the same ideological game as those who say that English is in decline.
    That's a game that no serious linguist wants to play.
    So less of the inane gabble about the wonders of English.
    It's no more special than any other language.

  • rate this

    Comment number 460.

    Of course, the BBC news website itself isn't immune from bad English on occasions. I cut them slack because of the sheer volume of output they produce, but I still notice it.

    Here's a recent example:

    "He defended women whom he said were being forced into late-term abortions [...]"

    Putting "whom" instead of "who" in this sentence sounds really formal and correct, but actually it's plain wrong.

  • rate this

    Comment number 459.

    My pet hate amongst one or two others is the use of the phrase "Police Officers this or that." It implies policemen of Inspector and above which is clearly not meant. Once could say that " Officials of x yz force," or "Policemen" or "The Police" or even "Constables this or that" but no it's always Police officers. Inaccuracy and generalisation always bad journalism

  • rate this

    Comment number 458.

    Sometimes there really is more to worry about than things like this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 457.

    I have no real problem with evolution of language. The problems arise from the fact that this evolution takes place so quickly and locally that it is almost impossible to keep track and keep up. This creates a situation where misunderstanding becomes not only more possible, but more probable. I do realize that the WWW is responsible for both the rate of change and the changes per se.

  • rate this

    Comment number 456.

    Most of this kind of wrong usage is from the US. Everytime I hear that "boarding will start momentarily" I wonder what that really means.

  • rate this

    Comment number 455.

    Once upon a time words were what the people around you spoke. Later they became what was said by people speaking on film and TV, be they actors or public figures (but trained or educated for the purpose nonetheless). Then everybody got their shot on TV. People who can't speak coherently suddenly were heard by millions. Sports people, policemen, activists, etc. That's how it all went bad.

  • rate this

    Comment number 454.

    111 helo thar
    "You're and your. People endlessly get this wrong and 95% of the time this doesnt bother me, but occasionally I get confused as to their meaning"

    You don't have to make grammatical 'mistakes' in order to write ambiguously.
    Does 'their meaning' mean the word's meaning or the people's meaning?
    Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
    Or simply, gotcha!

  • rate this

    Comment number 453.

    Living languages evolve. What's unique about English is how influenced we are by a dead language (Latin). That's why some people think it is incorrect to split infinitives. Star Trek's powerful theme, "to boldly go where no man has gone before", would be "wrongly used" according to this rule.

  • rate this

    Comment number 452.

    6 Minutes ago
    Language is often used to make people feel inferior. When it comes down to it, we are all just monkeys.

    You might, as seems to be an unfortunate trend, aspire to the language skills of monkeys. I don't. Language is a precious gift which sets us apart from monkeys, and I aim to respect it and use it correctly. If that makes you feel inferior it's your problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 451.

    Most folks are quite aware of the decline of our spoken, as well as our written, language skills. Partly, it is due to the increase in "texting" abbreviations but is also due to our changing priorities in grade school. Instead of holding our children, students, and professionals to a higher standard we have allowed this change for reasons of expediency and ...intellectual laziness.

  • rate this

    Comment number 450.

    contn. of 447. You
    ......and he wasn`t Australian you understand.

  • rate this

    Comment number 449.

    To 430, TheMardler.
    I tried to rate you positively, but I only get thie following note:

    We're having some problems rating this comment at the moment. Sorry. We're doing our best to fix it.

    I found myself appreciating your sensible comments pertinent to the article. (You made it look so easy, maybe others will give it a try).

  • Comment number 448.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 447.

    I apologise in advance and issue a warning that the following observation may cause extreme discomfort and sniggering. I heard a scientist being interviewed, on "Material World" I think it was on Radio 4 using, repeatedly, the Australian rising inflection at the end of his sentences. So what? you might say. Well, he sounded 45-50yrs old.
    It was truly, terrifyingly horrible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 446.

    Language is often used to make people feel inferior. When it comes down to it, we are all just monkeys.

  • rate this

    Comment number 445.

    @259.A Fishcold Panda,
    I agree with you.Many of the Civil War-or as we say "War Between the States"-letters written by soldiers were eloquent in wording, even though their education&spelling were uneven.One reason may have been familiarity with the King James Bible, works of Shakespeare,etc If we don't hear or read that type of literature we can be "tone deaf" to language.

  • rate this

    Comment number 444.

    Ref 435 No 7: I agree totally with your sentiments.
    Do you know what I mean?
    Otherwise rendered by some as
    "y`no waddameen"

  • rate this

    Comment number 443.

    "Fogarty set out to defend the traditional usage in her upcoming book, 101 Troublesome Words."

    Vermont Royster, the late editor of The Wall Street Journal, sent the following memo to the news room: ''If I see upcoming in the paper again, I'll be downcoming and someone will be outgoing.'')


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