Grammar Gremlins: Pesky Pairs Part 4

The other day as I drove up the freeway listening to a discussion in the radio, I heard the gremlin-2host say that something had exasperated the situation. One of the Grammar Gremlins leapt to my shoulder and shouted exacerbated in my ear. It can be really tough, driving with those little critters hanging around. (They perch on the corner of my Kindle and point out typos, too.)


Exacerbate, the word the man on the radio needed, means aggravate, worsen, inflame, or compound. Exasperate, the word he used, means annoy, irritate, infuriate, or any number of similar verbs, depending on one’s level of exasperation. Jane was exasperated when John’s clumsiness exacerbated an already messy situation. (Could be, of course, that the whole story was exaggerated, but that’s another matter.)


Back in Shakespeare’s day, incredulous and incredible were synonyms, but their meanings have diverged, and today’s Grammar Gremlins will protest if they are used interchangeably. Theodore Bernstein (in The Careful Writer) sums up the difference: “Incredible means unbelievable; incredulous means unbelieving, skeptical.” Jane was incredulous when presented with John’s incredible excuse for the disaster.


The difference between another frequently confused pair, nauseous and nauseated, is similar. Nauseous is an adjective describing something toxic or nasty that causes stomach sickness (nausea) in a person. That unlucky person can be described as nauseated. As Bernstein points out, a person is only nauseous if he turns other people’s stomachs. Think of the word as parallel to poisonous—the victim of cyanide in that mystery novel is poisoned, not poisonous.


We all know language changes with time, although as writers we should be doing our best to be precise and correct with our words (our characters not so much: dialogue is an gremlin-3important part of characterization). In The Careful Writer, published in 1965, Bernstein suggests that the distinction between farther and further might disappear in fifty years or so (“it looks as if farther is going to be mowed down by the scythe of Old Father Time”). But the distinction survives among the dictionaries and grammar gurus on line in 2018: farther still refers to physical distance that can be measured, further to everything else. If you can substitute additional or more, go with further. If you can measure the distance, you need farther.


Language may change, but distinctions and precision are always valuable.


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