Grammar Gremlins: As the Language Turns

While I was trying to find a topic for the Gremlins this month, up popped an American gremlin-2Heritage publication called 100 Words Almost Everyone Confuses and Misuses on one of the (too) many ebook sales emails I receive every morning. Aha! Ideas!

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Sure enough, I found some problem words I didn’t even realize were problems, along with shifts in opinion over the years, as the editorial folks at American Heritage run their ideas about words past their Usage Panel (a long list of professors, writers, and word lovers). Rarely do 100% of the panelists agree on anything, and the percentages saying yes or no to various usage questions has varied over the years. English is, after all, a living, changing creature, dragging some of us along despite determined resistance.

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Here’s one I’ve probably misused: enormity. I didn’t know that the word traditionally has a strong negative connotation: excessive wickedness, monstrous offense or evil, outrage. In general usage, it is frequently used simply to designate great size or extent, but the editors suggest using enormousness (yes, that is a word) or immensity for for that, saving enormity for that negative moral judgment.

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Factoid has become widely used for short, interesting bits of information, but that was not its original meaning. It started out as a word for unverified or inaccurate information that becomes accepted through repetition. Factoid is to fact as humanoid is to human: similar but not the same. The Usage Panel is still undecided over this one, with slightly over half accepting either meaning.

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Kudos has become a popular term for acclaim or praise in recent years, but did you know that it is a singular noun? Kudos is Greek for “magical glory,” and should really be pronounced to rhyme with “dose” rather than doze.” Since kudos looks and sounds plural to English speakers, it’s often used as such, giving rise to a much less common back-formation, kudo, as a singular noun. I don’t recommend that, and I notice that the spell checkers in Scrivener and Word don’t, either.

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The traditional meaning of peruse is “to read thoroughly, with great care,” but it has come to be used to simply mean “to read” recently; only 30% of the Usage Panel members gremlin-3accepted the latter in 1999, but 60% were willing to accept it in 2011. Key in the definition of peruse is “to read,” or at the very least to examine written or printed material. One might peruse a map, but not an apple or a landscape.

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The Gremlins and I will continue our perusal of dictionaries and grammar books to bring you more short, interesting bits of information (factlets? factettes?) next month. Kudos gratefully accepted (I could sure use some magical glory!)

 

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