Word misuse. It’s on the top of most people’s Pet Peeves list. Whether it’s not using ‘there’, ‘their’, or ‘they’re’ correctly, claiming something is ‘ironic’ when it really isn’t, or using ‘literally’ when someone really means it figuratively, everyone has their one example that irks them when other people make the mistake.
But as the number of misusers gradually begin to outweigh the language purists, will the word usage rules bend to the weight of the masses?
Who makes these rules anyway?
The Associated Press (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.
Recently, the editors of the AP Stylebook announced that after much debate, they have changed the usage rules for the word “hopefully”.
Before the change, “hopefully” was considered an adverb that could only be used to mean “in a hopeful manner”. For example, ‘”Am I leaving today?” she asked hopefully’. However, now it can be used as a sentence adverb, meaning “it is hoped”. For example, ‘”Hopefully, I will be leaving soon,”she said’. The difference is that the speaker is not saying that she will be leaving in a hopeful, cheerful manner. Instead she is hoping that she will be leaving, regardless of state of mind. This misuse of ‘hopefully’ has been to the chagrin of language purists for some time now, as most people have been using the phrase incorrectly. However, now that the AP Stylebook has officially ‘OK’ed’ the misuse, it is no longer considered incorrect.
You don’t have to go far to find a debate about the proper ways to use the English language. There are more than enough words that trigger arguments amongst language formalists every day.
But language is merely a tool of the people, used to convey meaning back and forth. As culture and people evolve, so does the language. The rules are not set in stone by some outside set of forces. They are created by us so that there exists commonality to avoid misunderstanding. So shouldn’t it follow suit that if the majority of people use a word ‘wrong’, then that usage should be changed to make it considered ‘correct’?
There are examples throughout the English language where a word has changed meaning based on public opinion. However, language purists don’t question these changes, as they happened long before they were born. Some examples of these include:
- Anxious Once meaning only fearful, anxious can now mean eager, as in “I’m anxious to go to the carnival.”
- 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”.
So the question is not ‘if’ a meaning should be changed, but rather, ‘when’. Is it based on the number of people who misuse the word, or the length of time a word is generally misused that determines whether or not the usage rule should change? I guess it is not an exact science.
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.
Some examples of commonly misused words include:
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, 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.
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 Nunberg.
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.”
Source: BBC News