Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Bad Language

Our language is dynamic and ever-changing. We devise new words, we use familiar words in new ways, we borrow colorful words and phrases from other languages. I welcome and embrace the changes that enrich our language and our understanding of it. But I shudder when I hear (or read) misused words, and I feel a little sad when persistent misuse of a word leads to the eventual acceptance of the “mis-usage” as correct usage.

Here are two of my favorite — or rather, least favorite! — examples:

Enormity – An enormity is “an outrageous, improper, vicious, or immoral act” (source) or “an act of extreme wickedness” (source) or “the quality of extreme wickedness” (source). However, many people confuse enormity with enormousness or immensity, mis-using the word enormity to denote large size or immense numbers. I suppose that the immensity of evil implied in enormity has, over time, “translated” to mean immensity of dimension, size, or number, and thus enormity has come to be used to mean “anything of large size.” This is how our language develops. Nevertheless, it was startling — even shocking — to hear a television news person comment on the "enormity of the crowd" at President Obama’s inauguration.

Decimate – This word means to reduce by ten percent. Specifically, it means “To kill one man chosen by lot out of every ten in a legion or other military group; to reduce anything by one in ten, or ten percent.” (source) It does not mean to annihilate, to ruin everything, to eliminate entirely. If an army is decimated, one in ten soldiers has been killed. If a crop is decimated by hail, one tenth of it has been damaged.

Here are a few other common linguistic perversions that drive me nuts.

No Problem! – I’m beginning to think that all young cashiers and retail clerks are trained to use this phrase when responding to customers.

CASHIER: Here’s your change.
CUSTOMER: Thanks.
CASHIER: No problem!

CUSTOMER: Thanks for bagging my groceries carefully.
STORE CLERK: No problem!

Though “No problem” can be offered with a smile, the very phrase implies that a problem may exist. When I hear this, I often wonder if the cashier or clerk is implying that he or she has interrupted some other activity in order to wait on me, even though his or her sole function is to be there to give me change and bag my groceries and help me to spend money in the store. Whatever happened to a more positive response such as “You’re welcome” or “Happy to help”?

Adjectives and Adverbs— Many people don’t know the difference between an adjective (a word used to modify nouns and pronouns) and an adverb (a word used to modify verbs or adjectives); consequently, they often confuse these parts of speech in written and spoken English. Poor grammar makes the speaker or writer sound ignorant.

One common example of this confusion is in the use (or mis-use) of the common words faster and quickly.

Fast, faster, and fastest are adjectives, words used to describe people, places, or things. In these examples, fast, faster, and fastest (or their synonyms, quick, quicker, and quickest) describe the people:

Barack is fast. (OR “Barack is quick.”)
Barack is faster than George. (OR “Barack is quicker than George.”)
Of the two, Barack is faster. (or quicker)
Barack is also faster than John. (or quicker)
Of the three, Barack is fastest. (or quickest)

Quickly is an adverb, a type of word used to modify a verb, that is, to describe action. (There is no adverb “fastly” to describe rate of speed. The archaic word “fastly,” which means securely or firmly, is rarely used.) In these examples, quickly describes the act of thinking, not the people:

Barack thinks quickly. (NOT “Barack thinks fast.”)
George does not think quickly. (NOT "George does not think fast.")
John does not think quickly, either. (NOT "John does not think fast, either.")

We can add adverbs such as more or most to modify an adverb:

Barack thinks more quickly than George. (NOT “Barack thinks faster than George.”) [This is the most common mis-usage.]
Barack also thinks more quickly than John. (NOT “Barack also thinks faster than John.”)
Barack thinks more quickly than John or George.*
Of the three, Barack thinks most quickly. He is the fastest. He is also the quickest.

Even the reporters and writers at National Public Radio seem not to understand how to use these common words correctly. I find myself editing out loud as I listen to the newscasts!


* Barack probably thinks more quickly than John and George put together, but that's material for another day.

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