or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, February 03, 2012

Errors in Judgement

When I saw the title of the article 20 Common Grammar Mistakes That (Almost) Everyone Makes, I thought to myself, Oh, we'll just see about that, now, won't we? Because I had a pretty good feeling I knew what the article was about: prescriptive grammar of a kind that even I would find oppressive and misguided. I wasn't disappointed.

Some of them are beyond discussion: "who" versus "whom", for instance (although I suspect that "whom" is slowly dying out as an archaism, and will be a relic within a hundred years), or "lie" versus "lay" (although the meanings are bleeding into one another and may eventually be interchangeable), or the verbs "affect" and "effect" (between which the distinction will exist as long as the English language does). But others are just flat-out wrong.

"Anxious", we are told, may only express fear or distress and may not be used as a synonym for "eager" or "excited" with an overtone of impatience. But it has been used in exactly that manner ("We are anxious to see our grandchildren") for well over two centuries now, and I think it may fairly be said to be an established meaning of the word. (In fact, its sense of "excited" is so established that it has been used comically to mean "sexually excited": "I'm feeling a little, ooh, anxious, if you know what I mean," says the title character in the movie Beetlejuice. We know what he means.)

Likewise, the author demands that "nauseous" be employed only to mean "having the ability to produce nausea", parallel to "poisonous", and must never be used as a synonym for "nauseated". While I happen to prefer that the two words be kept separate, and I would never say I was nauseous, the fact is that the "nauseated" sense of "nauseous" has been in common currency for a long time, is universally understood, and can't reasonably be considered wrong, if it ever was outside the sphere of a clutch of pedants. ("Nauseating" has replaced the presumably correct sense of "nauseous", so it isn't as though there's suddenly a gap in the language.) The Oxford English Dictionary doesn't mention the usage, except to list a related one which it considered obsolete, but it is widespread in North America, with the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage going so far as to say, “Any handbook that tells you that nauseous cannot mean ‘nauseated’ is out of touch with the contemporary language. In current usage it seldom means anything else.”

"Impactful", we are told, "is not a word." It is. It's a terrible, ugly, jargony word, but it is incontestably a word nonetheless. Just don't ever use it.

The best thing about this list is that although the title is "20 Common Grammar Mistakes That (Almost) Everyone Makes", the URL contains "20-common-grammar-mistakes-that-almost-everyone-gets-wrong", which was the original title. Mistakes that everyone gets wrong? Uh-huh.


I am still working my way through The Young Man's Book of Amusements and it is hair-raising reading. I mean, look at this:

The previous page actually told you how to make your own nitrous oxide, aka laughing gas, and this one tells you how to make a device to use it.

This is from page 54:

In the name of making a household decoration the book instructs you to make your own fluoric acid, which is hellish stuff, able to cause severe burns that you don't know you have because they don't show up immediately or trigger the nerves that signal pain, and worse, kill you by causing the calcium levels in your blood to plummet. (A burned area of 25 square inches provides enough exposure to kill you; that's less than the surface of one hand.)

There are two baffling, possibly archaic, and also possibly incorrect verbs in that one little piece. The first is "disengaged": "fluoric acid will be disengaged." To disengage is to release, so this probably isn't wrong, although it seems very strange to me, as if the writer had meant "disgorged", though even that is not usual: nowadays we'd use "released" or "liberated".

The other one, though, I just can't make any sense of: "The fluoric acid gas will be absolved by the moisture." I don't believe "absolve" has ever been used in that context: the OED doesn't mention it, and every North American dictionary I checked lists only the obvious meaning of "absolve" — "to free from guilt or blame". The Wiktionary lists two obsolete definitions, "to finish or accomplish" and "to resolve or explain", neither of which fits the context either. Did the writer mean "absorbed by", or "dissolved into", or "attracted to"? I have no idea.


Blogger D.J. said...

From the context, it seems that "absolve" is being used as an antonym to "dissolve." I think.

Friday, February 03, 2012 7:23:00 AM  
Blogger pyramus said...

I thought that, too, for a moment, until I realized that the antonym of "dissolve" is "precipitate", which the author uses in the next clause, so what he actually seems to mean is that the gas is drawn to and fixed with the moisture somehow. I guess: I don't know anything about the chemistry of fluoric acid. I just think "absolved" seems wrong and weird in this context.

Friday, February 03, 2012 9:41:00 AM  

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