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07/09/2013 07:40 am ET Updated Jul 09, 2013

9 Common Word Mistakes (EXCERPT)

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The following is an excerpt from Bill Walsh's new book Yes, I Could Care Less. Copyright © 2013 by Bill Walsh.

If you’re using “I could care less” and “My head literally exploded” because you’re trying to affect a breezy manner, or you’re simply dashing off a casual e-mail, or you’re a learned linguist trying to show how just-folks you are, or your head literally exploded, go right ahead. (In the latter case, I can totally understand why you could care less.) If you’re writing something of some importance and choosing those words because you don’t know what words mean, I will helpfully point out that you may be sending a message you’d rather not send.

In the coming chapters, I’ll argue for maintaining some tiny distinctions and rejecting some fairly well-established usages in the name of distracting as few readers as possible. I’ll even argue for some new usages because the traditional ones have become so antique as to be distracting. But there’s no pleasing everybody, and so we have to pick our battles in the war on distraction.

Could care less and the non-literal literal are just two of the evergreens in the picky-about-the-language biz, disputed or evolving usages that separate the eager from the hesitant when it comes to language change. It’s tempting to treat all these disputes as one and the same, as I just sort of did (or “one in the same,” as people who like to be wrong would say), but that’s an oversimplification. These disputes run the gamut from outright errors (your for you’re) to errors on which some are giving up (infer for imply) to errors gaining traction (hone in for home in, straight-laced for strait-laced) to useful evolution in progress (bemused for “wryly amused”) to useful evolution that’s well established (host as a verb, gender for sex) to the displacement of antiquated words (careen for career) to the rejection of unfounded superstitions (hopefully as a sentence adverb). And I’ve probably missed a category or two.

It’s unlikely that any two people will display identical linguistic fingerprints—personal stylebooks, you could say—as they tick off their stances on these questions. As we saw with literally, even the learned linguists have their aversions.

Some will say these issues are shibboleths—questions on which the right answer establishes you as a member of a select group. That’s true in a sense, but you won’t catch me pronouncing shibboleth with such disgust that spittle flies from my mouth. A shibboleth isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For instance, although there’s no longer any reason for newspaper copy editors to use the spellings hed for head-as-in-headline and lede for lead-as-in-lead-paragraph, I would be wary of hiring a copy editor who was not aware of those spellings. The shibboleth can be a shortcut, the tip of a knowledge iceberg. The select group it’s putting you in could be the group of people who know what the hell they’re doing.

Reject whom in many of its traditional roles if you like (I do), but if you’re a native speaker of English and you tell me you had no idea the word even existed, I’m going to make some inferences about how smart you are. The same is true, to varying degrees, about many of the disputes I discuss in this chapter and this book.

In the Internet age, when you’re likely to “meet” far more people than you actually meet, the way you use language will be the only clue most of those people have about your intelligence and your capabilities. So it’s a good idea to have a working knowledge of the flash points. What follows is a by-no-means-comprehensive survey.

bemused

The established meaning is basically “bewildered.” The new meaning, the one you generally hear nowadays, is just starting to join the old one in dictionaries, and I have to concede its utility. Whereas there are plenty of ways to say bewildered, dazed, confused or distracted, I can’t think of a single synonym for bemused as in mildly and wryly amused. You’re not guffawing, but you are wearing a little grin. Perhaps you’re a little confused as well—you’re not quite sure why your new album is charting in Japan while it’s being ignored at home, but it makes you smile.

Here’s where I get into trouble: I like this evolution and consider it useful, but I reject the usage for now. It’s just too new. Too many people actually know what the word is supposed to mean. If the dictionaries, which are inherently descriptive, haven’t recognized a usage, it’s not a good idea to get out in front of them. If the books don’t describe, you must proscribe.

comprise

My country comprises 50 states. Or is composed of 50 states. Or consists of 50 states. Those 50 states constitute my country. If all those com- and con- words are too confusing, just say the country is made up of 50 states, or 50 states make up the country. I hope I’ve provided enough choices to make it clear that there’s no need to add is comprised of to the menu. Even if the phrase has been used by notables from Lord Byron to Donald Trump.

disinterested

Uninterested is readily available, at popular prices, so just use it already and save disinterested for phrases such as a disinterested observer, in which it means impartial.

enormity

The group of people who know that the word means great evil or wickedness continues to shrink, but the enormousness of their potential laughter at something like “the enormity of this honor” is reason enough to hold on to the distinction. The word will get plenty of exercise, often in references where it could refer to both evil and magnitude, such as the enormity of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

gauntlet, gantlet

To review: You throw down and/or pick up the gauntlet, which is a glove; you run the gantlet, which is a narrow lane formed by two rows of people intent on punishing or otherwise tormenting you. The similar spellings and similarly medieval natures of the two words have caused them to merge over time, but careful writers maintain the distinction. It’s nice to leave room to talk about picking up the gauntlet and running the gantlet, as opposed to picking up the gauntlet-as-in-glove and running the gauntlet-as-in-lane-of-torment.

graduate

When I hear “I graduated college,” I want to answer “No, you didn’t.” The expression evolved from was graduated from to graduated from, and it is evolving again, but—at least for now—you call your education into question if you omit the from

insure

You buy car insurance to ensure you don’t go broke in the event of a crash and assure yourself you’re doing the right thing.

lay and lie

In actual writing if not casual conversation, I lay my glasses on the nightstand before I lie down. The past tense of lie, confusingly enough, is lay: I lay in bed for half an hour before I realized it was a workday. I’ve heard rumblings about crossing this off the list of things to worry about, but that would be a downright futuristic move. Literate people overwhelmingly observe the distinction.

strait-laced

That’s the spelling, not straight-laced. The latter is increasingly common, but a lot of people also misspell supersede and stratagem and minuscule and sherbet, too. I prefer correct spelling. Maybe it’s just me.

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