Language Ethics: Letting The Inarticulate Control Expression


I know, I know.

Tell me about how the English language is dynamic. Next, “irregardless” will be in the dictionary—heck, maybe it is already; I’m afraid to look. Baloney. The fact that “everybody does it,” defined as “people in high places, like Joe Biden, who should know better but don’t,” does not justify treating inarticulate, lazy, careless, embarrassingly stupid language as acceptable. If “literally” means figuratively, then nothing means literally. When someone says that “her marriage was literally destroyed,” thanks to Google and the rest, the only way we know whether her marriage was destroyed or not is if we can find out whether or not the speaker is literate, and maybe not even then.

Call me a stickler, call me a crank, but making the public dumber and communication harder by declaring that those who are poor speakers and lazy thinkers are right and those who champion expressive and accurate language are wrong is not ethical. It is literally irresponsible.


Pointer: Fark

47 thoughts on “Language Ethics: Letting The Inarticulate Control Expression

  1. If complaining about the haphazard misuse of words makes you feel better, then have at it. The idioms of this age are literally, awesome, whatever, phat, and now it’s the 140 character words of Twitter.

    Just be grateful the words are in English. I met a young woman at a record store (Not even sure they’re called that anymore), who answered a question I had in RAP! Had no idea if I was being insulted, or told where the Jethro Tull collection was located. Complete with the three finger dance and what looked like a convulsion. I had to

  2. It depends on the role you think a dictionary should serve. If you want your dictionary to be prescriptive — spelling out the correct usage — then this is a deplorable decline in standards. But if the dictionary is intended to be descriptive — describing how words are actually used by native speakers of the language — then this is an accurate definition.

    Both types of dictionary are useful, depending on whether you are writing or trying to understand the writing of others. Google Search products typically tell you what other people have written, not what they should have written.

  3. Years ago I chose to give up using the word ‘forte’ to describe something in which one excels. It seemed that the conversation would always come to a halt because the person I was speaking with felt the need to tell me that the word is pronounced ‘for-tay’. I felt that dropping the word ‘forte’ and choosing another way to express what I meant was more acceptable than butchering the word (which I had always pronounced as just one syllable) just to keep the conversation on track.

        • Both pronunciations are listed in the Oxford Dictionary ( /ˈfɔːteɪ, ˈfɔːti, fɔːt/) but I would agree that the two-syllable pronunciation is less confusing and more common.

          • Well, as I have made obvious over time, language is my piano, not my forte.

            (I make a lot of noise with it, but rarely anything as appreciable as music.)

            Just making a stab at pun-fun with Italian etymologies.

    • Didn’t george carlin to a bit on that? It was in one of his books for sure but I don’t know if it made it to any live shows. The one-syllable is when something is your strong suit, the two-syllable is referring to playing music loud. If I remember, his example was “Playing the skin flute was her forte, especially when she played forte.”

  4. Pronunciations can vary, many words have split in different regions and countries. I learned many words from reading and had to learn the correct pronunciation later. But using a word in place of its opposite and not sarcastically is terrible.

  5. Misuse of “literally” has always been one of my pet peeves, especially since the abuser — upon being corrected — usually just shrugs and says, “You know what I meant.”

    I decided to turn the tables on them and misuse the word “figuratively”. It confuses the hell out of them, and telling them “You know what I meant” only confuses them more.

    • I can’t stand people who say “you know what I mean/meant”. I almost have a brain aneurysm when I hear that phrase.

      I want to tell them:

      No, idiots, I don’t know what you mean, especially when you don’t know what you mean. You see, we have words with meanings for a reason, so when you use a word that has a specifically agreed upon definition, I can be assured that the idea you wish to convey is contained in that definition. You see, when you try to tell me about a yellow vehicle that carries children to school but you use the word “cat”, don’t act like I’m the dumb one when I don’t know about what the hell you are talking.

  6. I’m sorry. I’m still ticked off that it is now acceptable to use the word “presently” to mean “at the present time” or “currently,” instead of “soon,” which is what it is supposed to mean. And don’t get me started on homonyms! “They’re going to bring their brains with them there.” We can only hope. Oh, yeah, “hopefully” is another one!

  7. Adverbs are dying a slow death as well as we seem to have completely dropped the use of “ly” where it should be employed. I’ve given up on healthy/healthful: “The Healthy Cookbook”. Great. I’m glad to hear the book is feeling well.

  8. For me, it’s the word “unique.” I had it drummed imto me by a college English professor when I used the phrase “most unique” in an essay. “Mr. Robins,” he said “‘Unique’ is an absolute’ it means ‘one of a kind.’ Something is either unique or it isn’y.” Since then (it was 1967), I cringe every time I hear someone misuse it.

    A more modern cringer is “You know what I’m saying?”

    • In that same vein, a couple of words in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution have long bothered me: “…in order to form a more perfect Union,…”

      I mean, I accept that the author meant “in order to form a Union more closely approximating perfection.” I give the author the benefit of doubt, and presume that he did not mean to say something “most unique.” Taking the Preamble phrase “literally,” and with perfect being an absolute (and a characteristic of dubious possibility, in the context of a political “Union”), “more perfect” becomes an absurdity.

      “Perfecter” (“purr-FECK-tur”) is a noun in the dictionary; if I had kept track, I could probably count on one hand the number of times I have used that noun in any context other than a discussion about Jesus Christ. So perhaps unsurprisingly, my personal curse word is, “perfecter” (“PURR-feck-tur”) – an adjective intended as an absurdity, uttered in sarcasm.

      • There’s nothing wrong with “more perfect” or “more unique,’ though the pedants like to claim otherwise. A species of pigeon is unique—the last Passenger Pigeon, at the time of her demise, was more unique.

      • I don’t think “more perfect” is an error. Taking the line that “perfect” is an absolute describing the 100% attainment of all the values/standards attributed to an object, then nothing can be said to be perfect. For use in rhetoric, knowing that NOTHING can truly be perfect, then using “perfect” implies the constant striving towards being “perfect” and therefore calling something “perfect” when we know it is not perfect leaves open the opportunities to compare something else as “more perfect”. I’m sure the Founder’s meant that “perfect” can’t be a goal as it implies that once a certain standard is met, then we stop. Striving for a “more perfect” Union implies that once certain standards are achieved, we don’t stop seeking ways to perfect our Union.

        I’m reminded of a Big Bang Theory argument between two of the characters, one being Sheldon. (quoted from memory, so not exact)

        Character: “That is more wrong.”

        Sheldon: “Wrong is an absolute and not subject to gradation.”

        Character: “It is a little wrong to say a tomato is a vegetable; it is very wrong to say a tomato is a suspension bridge.”

        Absolutes are great, but when used rhetorically, I don’t think they are meant to taken absolutely.

        From another standpoint, what exactly were all the connotations and denotations of “perfect” in the late 1700s? A quick survey of Merriam-Webster shows that obsolete definitions of “perfect” include: “sane”, “mature”, “certain”, “sure”, “contented”, “satisfied”. Who’s to say some of those ideas weren’t meant to be communicated in the Preamble? Merriam-Webster also indicates that “legally valid” is a definition of “perfect”, so I could see that being an idea subject to gradation.

  9. I gave up when Merriam-Webster (or maybe Webster’s) decided that “imply” and “infer” were interchangeable. Just because people don’t know how to use the language doesn’t mean that two completely opposite words should suddenly become synonyms,

    Pretty soon it will be just as fine to say something like “she don’t” instead of “she doesn’t.” But that goes to basic grammar usage, another topic..

    • This is too much. I remember getting what seemed to be a two hour lecture from my father when I accidently used imply when I should have used infer…and now the rules have changed because people can’t get them straight? I still have horrible flashbacks of the time I started out a sentence “Me and my friend…” at the dinner table. What happened that evening in my home was enough to trigger a full scale CPS investigation today. I believe that might have been a THREE hour lecture. I suffered as a child for bad grammar and misuse of the English language and I will not let my suffering be in vain. People, forte has one damn syllable unless you are using it in a musical sense and there is a big difference between infer and imply. I’m not going to be nice about this anymore. And on a personal note…stop using the word ‘disrespect’ as a verb unless you are trying to build up “street cred”. Jesus!

      *Obviously that rant was not for anyone reading here but I feel much better. That whole infer/imply thing was the last straw.

  10. I don’t think blaming Google for this sad turn is fair. Google’s job (at least, regarding their dictionary function) is to accurately describe how words are used by native English speakers, rather than to approve or disapprove.

    Approval or disapproval is the job of pundits and bloggers, not dictionaries.

    • I don’t blame Google for the development, but authorities have an ethical obligation to uphold standards, not roll over because “everybody’s doing it.” And everybody doesn’t misuse “literally.” Authorities have an obligation to distinguish between correct usage and common errors.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.