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Home > Publications > Quill > 10 common usage problems


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Monday, April 2, 2007
10 common usage problems

By Paula LaRocque

What’s wrong with this paragraph?

I was enthused about my community award until I learned I was to speak at the awards banquet. Then my hopes were decimated, to say the least. I’d received plenty of satisfying notoriety and was so reticent about appearing onstage that I was actually nauseous by the time I stood behind the podium. Fortuitously, I had to speak only a few seconds, and my remarks were comprised of thanks to others. But the committee had said I wouldn’t have to speak, which begs the question of whether it shouldn’t honor such verbal agreements.

William Safire once remarked regarding word use: “When enough of us are wrong, we’re right.” That’s because definitions are not set in stone; words finally must mean what most educated readers think they mean.

That’s no defense of the willy-nilly school of usage, however. Professional writers and editors should avoid words whose meanings are in transition, because those words can confuse the message or alienate knowledgeable readers. Happily, there’s always a better choice; the huge lexicon of English is rich in synonym and near-synonym.

The passage in italics above contains 10 common usage errors. Can you find all 10?

Below are the problem words and explanations.

* Enthuse is not an adjective, but a verb, a back formation of the noun “enthusiasm.” Incorrect: “I’m enthused about this opportunity.” Correct: “I’m enthusiastic about this opportunity,” she enthused.

* Decimate does not mean widespread destruction. It means to destroy a small part — a 10th, actually, but there’s no need to be that exacting. (Like many words beginning with the prefix “dec” — decade, decimal — “decimate” pertains to 10.)

* Notoriety does not mean fame. It’s a pejorative word related to “notorious”: A prima donna might be noted for stage skill but notorious for temper tantrums.

* Reticent does not mean reluctant. It means quiet, silent or hesitant to speak.

* Nauseous does not mean nauseated. It means sickening or disgusting.

* Podium does not mean lectern. We stand on the podium, but speak at or behind the lectern. Lectern is related to “lecture,” while podium is related to the Greek and Latin roots for foot: “pod” and “ped.”

* Fortuitous does not mean fortunate. It means accidental, happening by chance.

* Comprise does not mean “consist of.” It means “include” or “contain”: The whole comprises the parts. This nation comprises 50 states. (Also, don’t use the preposition “of” with “comprise,” as in “comprised of.”)

* Beg the question doesn’t mean “raise the question.” It means to offer as evidence the very thing you’re trying to prove. Examples: I am begging the question if I argue that the Holy Bible is inspired and offer biblical scripture as evidence; or I argue that two parallel lines will never meet because they are parallel.

* Verbal agreement does not mean oral or spoken agreement; it means words, both written and spoken.

Useful resource

A good reference work on usage is a better defense against problem words than a dictionary, and Garner’s Modern American Usage is superlative.

Dictionaries include as many usage notes as they can, but dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive.

When enough people misuse a word, the dictionary will include that definition as a possible meaning — that’s its job.

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