In September I took the UK Independent to task for publishing a misleading set of ‘words you’re using wrong’. These listicles usually mix legitimate facts with myths, misinformation and pet peeves without much basis in the evidence of how people use English. Instead they rely on fallacy, fancy, bogus rules and dogma to tell people they’re using certain words wrong. This sort of thing is very common and generally unhelpful.
The same website has since supplied a similar listicle – but with an interesting difference. This one offers not the usual nitpicking pedantry but the opinions of a linguist who in previous articles and books has deplored petty prescriptivism: Steven Pinker. The Independent’s list of 58 ‘commonly misused words and phrases’ is adapted from Pinker’s recent book The Sense of Style and appeared earlier in Business Insider.
Pinker’s list is more constructive than most. Many of the items he highlights are genuine errors and less well known than typical examples. He flags tricky pairs like adverse and averse, flaunt and flout, mitigate and militate, and tortuous and torturous – all of which I see confused in unedited (and sometimes edited) writing. He also gives solid guidance on foreign plurals like phenomena and criteria.
In other respects, Pinker’s advice seems unnecessarily strict. The article describes irregardless as ‘not a word but a portmanteau of regardless and irrespective’, which makes no sense. If it’s a portmanteau then by definition it is a word. This might not be Pinker’s precise position, but his tweet (‘in which I take a rare stance of language purism’) suggests that he stands over it.
The article insists that begs the question ‘does not mean raises the question’. But outside of philosophical contexts, it nearly always does – whether you like it or not. And it says literally ‘does not mean figuratively’ – but people seldom if ever use it that way: the disputed use is when literally intensifies something that may be figurative.
The article says fulsome ‘does not mean full or copious’ – but it can. It says refute ‘does not mean to allege to be false’ and ‘must be used only in factual cases’ – but this is a preference, not an accurate description of how refute is used. Disinterested, we’re told, ‘means unbiased and does not mean uninterested’, but in fact the word commonly has both meanings – and despite claims of ambiguity, these multiple senses don’t generally interfere with clear communication.
So while Pinker’s prescriptions contain more sensible and factual material than is usually the case in lists like this, he – or the journalist on his behalf – still strays into inaccuracy and wish-fulfilment. As ever, lists of ‘words you’re using wrong’ should be approached with considerable caution and a few good usage dictionaries for fact-checking.Email this Post