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Language use and misuse: ‘Evolving’ is one thing …

William Souder
Photo by Dani Werner
William Souder

I’ve been a writer for a long time. One reason I keep writing is the hope that, eventually, I’ll get good at it.

Writing well is simple — but not easy. It’s the hardest thing you can do while comfortably seated. The challenge is to be both plain and elegant, to write clearly about even the most complex or murky topics. You accomplish this by sticking to ordinary words and cutting away any that don’t belong. “Omit needless words,” we are counseled by William Strunk Jr. in “The Elements of Style.” If you do only that, you can accomplish great things.

But I am constantly reminded that our shared understanding of “ordinary” words isn’t what it used to be. Everyday language is increasingly an approximation of proper English. People misuse words ever more frequently, confusing assumed meanings with original meanings, and picking up habits of speech only because certain mistakes have become so common that everyone now understands them to mean what they did not mean in the first place.

For the record, I am not a member of the language police. I do not insist that everyone use correct English. Why should I? It’s to my advantage as a writer to be able to say things better than most people can, even if they are not aware of why my way is better. Nor am I opposed to change. The language evolves. Common usage eventually becomes correct usage. So be it.

But here’s the cost: When the language “evolves” through ignorance — that is, when a word or phrase comes into common usage that is untethered to the original meaning because people don’t know better — we are embarked on a dumbing-down process that ultimately leaves us with a less-robust form of English. We are harder-pressed to say what we mean as the language shrinks.

Many have ‘given up the fight’

Consider the now-common use of “disinterested” to mean “uninterested.” If you’re not sure of the difference, look up both words. The exercise will do you good. Or, better still, consult “A Dictionary of Modern American Usage,” by Bryan Garner, a book that every writer should study closely and that anyone can profit from reading. Garner notes that, apart from language purists, most people have “given up the fight to preserve the distinction” between disinterested and uninterested.

This is unfortunate, Garner writes, because “disinterested captures a nuance that no other word quite does.” A disinterested observer is not merely impartial, Garner writes, but is someone with no stake in any outcome at issue. A basketball player sitting glumly at the end of the bench may be uninterested in the game, but he or she is not disinterested, because winning or losing matters to the team.

I would add that this is a one-way mistake. Nobody misuses uninterested to mean disinterested. So the use of uninterested is shrinking, and it’s not hard to imagine that one day it may have become archaic or unknown to most people. And our language will be poorer for the loss.

There are other instances of this kind of confusion leading to new meanings that, while technically incorrect, are becoming acceptable. Saying or writing “hone in” when you mean “home in” is so pervasive that I wonder how many people know the difference. Or care that there is one. They might want to hone their language — or open up the dictionary and home in on what’s proper.

‘Begs the question’

We are also regularly exposed to phrases that do not remotely mean what seemingly everyone thinks they mean. Take the expression “begs the question.” We hear this all the time, in the sense that some statement invites an obvious question. What President Obama should do about Ukraine begs the question of what he can do, might be an example. In fairness, this expression makes sense and it would be hard to argue that such a meaning isn’t useful. It is, however, not only wrong but way off the original meaning.

“Begging the question” actually refers to a type of logical fallacy that is so complicated and hard to grasp that it even has a Latin name. Basically, it means that a question can’t be answered because its premise is a similar question. Or something like that. No matter how often I look this one up, I never quite get it. I suppose that begs the question of why I shouldn’t just go along with the common usage. I’m pretty sure this one is coming to mean what we insist on thinking it means. And given how little use we have for the correct meaning, ditching it won’t be much of a loss.

But that’s not true of other misused phrases, some of which have no chance of ever being “right.” An example is the phrase “a Hobson’s choice,” indicating a choice between two or more equally unattractive options. This isn’t even close to the original meaning, which comes to us from 17th-century innkeeper in Cambridge, England, named Thomas Hobson. Hobson advertised that his guests could use any horse in his stable — as long as it was the horse closest to the door. So a Hobson’s choice is really not a choice at all, but simply a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

What makes the misuse of this phrase even more unfortunate, as Bryan Garner notes with amusement, is that some people think it is actually a “Hobbesian choice,” a wholesale invention evidently arrived at by mixing up Thomas Hobson  with the philosopher Thomas Hobbes. This lends a wacky metaphysical sense to a phrase that has been made up out of thin air.

This is no way for a fine language such as English to evolve.

On our toes

The silver lining to the widespread misuse of English is that it keeps those of us who care about proper usage on our toes. The common language is so common that we have to keep checking on ourselves. I, for one, know the difference between “compose” and “comprise.” But I see both used incorrectly often enough that sometimes their proper use looks wrong to me. And then there’s only one thing to do:

Look it up. And that’s never a bad idea.

William Souder is the author of three books and has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is currently working on a biography of John Steinbeck. He lives in Grant, Minn.

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Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 04/11/2014 - 08:10 pm.

    Clarification

    Thanks, Mr. Souder for the clarification on some of these misuses of the language. Or malapropisms.

    I’ve run into the problem of “begs the question” as few times. But I quite agree that it robs the meaning of it’s English language translation of the Latin term for the logical fallacy ‘petitio principii” as translated from Aristotle. Maybe we need a new term that more forcefully conveys the idea of circular reasoning.

    I thought the term “Hobson’s choice” came from the 1950’s film of that name starring Charles Laughton. Thanks for the etymology.

  2. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 04/11/2014 - 08:37 pm.

    Writing

    Sadly, count me as one of the people who have given up. I tend to focus on punctuation rather than the nuances of words, but even that’s a hopeless cause. People simply can’t tell where to put a comma or an apostrophe and usually end up getting it wrong not just now and then, but all the time.

    Yesterday I received an email from a company president who wants to get my business. In the span of six sentences of a short email I counted no less than eight grammatical errors. For a brief moment I thought about emailing him back to point out the problems, but then decided it was not worth my time and simply deleted it. It was his presentation to the business world, to put his shingle out, and he should put his best foot forward. He would only resent the intrusion though and look at me as the enemy. At the end of the day no one would be served.

    My copy of “The Elements of Style” is gathering dust on my desk.

    • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 04/12/2014 - 11:56 am.

      The business community really is the worst force in destroying our ability to say what we mean and mean what we say.

      Take for example the use of the word “metric” for “measure.” We know what they mean, but it is the mark of an ignorant boob.

      Mr. Hintz has the answer, I guess, but it is a hard one for those who have learned jargon with the value of any old gibberish in selling to anyone who speaks, writes, and understands English.

      Don’t give up. Sprechen English.

  3. Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 04/12/2014 - 08:31 am.

    As Professor Liberman said…

    “[L]anguage, in addition to being a means of communication, is an object of culture, a garden in which flowers coexist with weeds.”

    https://blog.oup.com/2010/09/like/

    Prof. Anatoly Liberman teaches courses in linguistics, etymology, and folklore and has written extensively on the curiosities of English. He has also spoken on MPR, and I recall that he uttered something like the statement quoted above.

    We language caretakers don’t have to give up in despair over the weeds that we see invading the garden of our language. We can’t control what other people say, but we can be careful guardians over what we choose to say and write, and we have the right to offer criticism. I think this approximates the point that I heard Professor Liberman making.

  4. Submitted by David Markle on 04/12/2014 - 07:25 pm.

    There’s trouble with phonics, too.

    I’ve tried to correct quite a few radio newspersons or commentators who want to pronounce “divisive” as if it were spelled “divissive.” English is chock full of irregularities; why tear down any meager semblance of order?

    The entertaining and stimulating Anatoly Liberman said he’s exasperated when students mean “would have been doing,” but say “would of been doing.” Apparently they said it as they heard it. I suggested that “wood of been doing” meant sawdust.

    I don’t care for the obscure expressions, “Begs the question,” or “Hobson’s choice;” I’ve never used them.

  5. Submitted by richard bonde on 04/12/2014 - 10:24 am.

    “Minnesota nice”

    My recollection of the origin of this smug and tiresome phrase was that it came from newcomers to Minnesota and was meant ironically to describe shallow, insincere, politeness toward new residents.

    It then was taken seriously and took on an opposite meaning.

    Is there any truth to my recollection?

  6. Submitted by Peter Pesheck on 04/12/2014 - 10:53 am.

    Even more important…

    since we (at least I do) form thoughts using words “in my head”, if we dumb down our language, then we–to some degree–also degrade our ability to formulate mental distinctions, i.e., clarity of thought.

    By the way, I would also distinguish “dumbing down” from the “spicing up” of our language under the influence of science, the arts, and contributions from around the world via our immigrant communities.

  7. Submitted by dan marshall on 04/12/2014 - 12:51 pm.

    Language evolves

    Our language is owned by the people who use it, not by the people who write dictionaries. Celebrate that or not, it’s not possible nor even desirable to police the language.

    Your essay provides multiple examples of words used outside of their original meanings.

    In your fifth paragraph, you write, “we are embarked on a dumbing-down process”. Surely you do not mean we are boarding a boat? Yet that is the original meaning of the word embark, which is now seldom used.

    Later, your write, “And given how little use we have for the correct meaning, ditching it won’t be much of a loss.” Again, you are not speaking of digging a trench, the original meaning of ditching. Your meaning, to discard, is less than 200 years old.

    Even the meaning of the word evolve has changed substantially in the last 500 years. It used to refer to the opening or unrolling of a book.

    Language is a living thing. Let it be free.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/14/2014 - 09:58 am.

      Right

      As my son the lexicographer says,
      dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive.
      He’s an editor at Merriam-Webster, and spends most of his time researcher how people now use words.

      Mr. Souder sounds more like my mother the English teacher, who believed that language should be frozen as of 1950.

      The best that might be said is that a really effective writer should first know the rules, then break them.

      As Churchill was supposed to have said (he probably didn’t, but certainly could have):
      “This Is the Sort of Nonsense Up With Which I Will Not Put”.

      • Submitted by Ken Bearman on 04/16/2014 - 03:56 pm.

        This kind of crabby response

        impacts me negatively.

        (Of course, “impact” is a noun. Using it as a verb has a bad effect on English.)

  8. Submitted by john schmoe on 04/13/2014 - 11:50 am.

    Sounds like William Souder would be good buddies with Antonin Scalia.

  9. Submitted by Craig Foster on 04/14/2014 - 12:21 pm.

    Put him in the Doge House

    Such peevy
    Very disinterest
    Wow
    Amaze contradiction (expand definition=shrink language?)
    Many stodgy

  10. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 04/14/2014 - 03:23 pm.

    A new John Ciardi would be helpful.

    He had a regular radio spot in which he walked through the etymology of a particular word or phrase, often touching on related tangents. I stopped what I was doing, turned the volume up a little, and listened closely whenever one of these came on the air.

    I’ve often wondered why MPR hasn’t brought out a new instance of this same type of spot. Each one was only a few minutes long.

    Would it be as popular today ?? I’d like to hear it.

  11. Submitted by William Souder on 04/15/2014 - 02:03 pm.

    Hmm…

    Not speechless. Thinking.

  12. Submitted by William Souder on 04/15/2014 - 02:04 pm.

    Thanks for you (newer word) “input.”

    Several comments inexplicably ignored my statement that the language evolves, often in ways that expand and enliven our vocabulary. My point was that we sometimes lose nuance and valuable forms of expression when it evolves though ignorance.

    Obviously, Mr. Marshall and Mr. Brandon cannot both be right about dictionaries.

    • Submitted by dan marshall on 04/16/2014 - 09:46 pm.

      Yes language can lose meaning as it evolves. (Although, as Darwin noted, evolve is really the wrong word as it suggests progression.) Whether this is out of ignorance or not is debatable.

      Yes our culture recognizes an “official English”, knowledge and use of which confers social status. This does not mean that people who do not use official English are not capable of thinking sophisticated thoughts or expressing the difference between uninterested and disinterested, even if they don’t use those exact words.

      Indeed, we need to be more disinterested in the rules of official English if we are to bridge growing class divides in this country. The quality of an idea is more important the quality of the language used to express it.

  13. Submitted by Brian Balk on 04/17/2014 - 09:36 am.

    Value of concepts

    Mr. Souder, thank you for an excelent article.

    I’m not an expert on logic. But if I understand ‘begging the question’ correctly, then your statement that, because of “how little use we have for the correct meaning [of ‘begging the question’], ditching it won’t be much of a loss,” itself begs the question that we don’t have a good use for that concept. Not using an idea, or even knowing that it exists, doesn’t mean that we don’t need it. We do need distinct concepts and rules for clear and accurate thought, just as much as we need robust language to organize and communicate ideas.

  14. Submitted by John Larmer on 06/11/2014 - 01:34 pm.

    misuse of “hobble together” “based off of” & “build off”

    My current peeves are when people say “hobble together” a plan or whatever, when they mean “cobble together.” I even heard Hillary Clinton say it yesterday.
    Also noticing younger colleagues saying “based off of that, we should do this…” which I can never accept, I mean c’mon, why the extra words? But I am gradually accepting “build off” because I guess it’s related to a visual image of something being added to a structure.

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