You Keep Using That Word...
Any fan of Princess Bride knows the rest of the quote: “I do not think it means what you think it means.” I know I’ve been busted from time to time for misusing a word, most painfully after the piece has gone to press. Captured forever in time, my ignorance and, yes, arrogance, at choosing a top-shelf word to show the world my level of erudition, only to reveal my nescience (okay, I had to look that last one up).
Solid writing skills are important, no matter what you’re writing. If you find a Post-It stuck to the refrigerator door that says, “Pick up dog fud,” it might lead you to wonder if the dog wrote it. Spelling matters more than you think. Misspelled words in articles or online posts tend to yank the legs of credibility out from underneath the writer. I read enough online opinion pieces and letters to the editor to see that correct spelling apparently isn’t that important to a lot of people. That’s unfortunate, and it only reduces the impact of their message.
One of my biggest pet peeves, though, is the willful misuse of words. A friend recently posted a photo of her dog on a Facebook page. The dog was on her back, splayed out, blissfully snoozing on the living room rug. “Here’s Lilac,” she wrote (the dog’s name has been changed to protect the innocent), “nonplussed as usual.” Apparently she thinks “nonplussed” means “unfazed.” Nope. It means pretty much the opposite. If someone rushed into the Kinko’s where you were running off copies of your résumé and announced that a vehicle matching the description of yours had rolled across the parking lot and smashed into another car, you probably would be nonplussed. Confused. Bewildered. Frozen in mild panic. Definitely fazed. Oh, and sometimes I’ll read how a writer boasts that some calamity like this “didn’t phase me.” That’s not all that impressive, as getting “phased” is something that rarely happens outside of “Star Trek.”
“Discreet” and “discrete” are sometimes used interchangeably, and they have nothing to do with each other. As a recording musician, I discovered the difference years ago when a guidebook mentioned recording discrete tracks, meaning a separate track for each instrument. Its homonym, of course, means low-key or out of public view. It’s the basis of the word “discretion.” If you’re married but fooling around with someone from the office, you might be having a discreet affair. If you’re having a discrete affair with this person, that means you’re keeping it partitioned off from all the other coworkers with whom you are messing around.
Some widely used words just don’t exist. “Irregardless” is among the most popular, and it hits my ear like a metal chair being dragged across a concrete floor. To my mind, when someone prefaces their argument with “irregardless,” their argument is automatically moot. Which is not to say it’s mute, in which case you couldn’t hear it and no solution could be reached.
“Orientated” is another one that misses the mark. Astronauts returning from space don’t get reorientated to earth’s gravity, they get reoriented. “Preventive” and “preventative” are both acceptable, although you see the more economical “preventive” more often. In health care jargon, “preventive”means the same as “prophylactic,” but it’s always been used as a noun as well, and I’m not going to go into that here. So to speak.
Another word that trips up many writers is “pore,” as in, “as I pored over the instructions for the spice rack I bought at Ikea, I became disoriented as the writing was in Swedish.” It’s not “poured,” as in, “I poured bacon grease over the spice rack instructions and vowed to get by on salt and pepper.” Pored is synonymous with peruse. Peruse that manuscript for suspect words before you submit it to your editor.
Recently I saw “effect” used in the headline of a local newspaper, when the proper word should have been “affect.” These two are easy to mix up, and for years I was one of the people who incorrectly used “effect” as a verb, as in, “to effect change.” You affect change. The weather affects your mood. Effect is a noun, affect is a verb.
Decimate is another word I misused many times before it was called to my attention. The prefix “deci” should have tipped me off. It means to destroy one-tenth of something, like an army or a termite infestation. Example: “Best we can do here is decimate that nest,” said the Orkin man. I used to freely substitute it for “obliterate,” which created the hilarious oxymoron, “the village was completely decimated.” Maybe I caught on to this one so late in life because we never embraced the metric system in the U.S.
The list of improperly used words goes on, but hey, we all have writing to do, right? I’ll leave you with one of the most infamous improperly used words. And that’s irony. You might remember the kerfuffle among word geeks like us over the Alanis Morissette song, “Isn’t It Ironic?” The bulk of the imagery she wrote in the lyrics was not, in fact, ironic. Rain on your wedding day? That’s sad, but not ironic. It would be ironic if all the guests had been given commemorative sunglasses. A black fly in your Chardonnay? Not ironic. That’s a health violation. Have you ever found a thousand spoons when all you needed was a knife? I have. It happened when I rented a Forest Service cabin that was supposedly stocked with cutlery. It wasn’t ironic. It was a pain in the ass. Have you ever eaten a steak with a spoon? Ironic doesn’t mean sad or funny. It can be a little tricky to recognize or convey, but you know it when you hear it. It’s like sarcasm. When someone says, “There’s a fly in my Chardonnay. I’m so glad I took my wine out here on the deck instead of inside the lodge where all that gross flypaper is hanging,” they are being ironic.
As I said in my introductory post, I don’t claim to be the world’s greatest authority on language or writing. My aim is simply to share writing-related subjects that interest or amuse me. Hopefully, I can bring a smile or two from you in the process. As always, thanks for reading. Now it’s back to the eel-infested waters of writing. And if you do something right, don’t let it go to your head.