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

When the language “evolves” through ignorance, we are embarked on a dumbing-down process that ultimately leaves us with a less-robust form of English.

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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