Thursday, June 9, 2011

Pedantry Does Not Make You an Authority

First of all, I’m going to get this out of the way up front. I fully understand the irony in me complaining about other people being pedantic. It’s as absurd as William Shatner complaining about hammy acting.

Earlier today I read a blog post someone linked on Facebook regarding someone’s top ten list of misused words. If you know me at all, you probably think this is something I could get behind. Up until this morning, I would have agreed with you. The author of this piece seems to think of “misused words” as any word used outside of its original definition. The problem with this view is that it completely ignores one of the beautiful things about language: it evolves.

Words do, in fact, change meaning over time. A word is defined by its common usage amongst the majority of the population. The purpose of language is to clearly communicate some meaning. Stephen Fry said it best: “There is no doubt what ‘five items or less’ means…”  The fight for clarity becomes moot when ideas conveyed are readily understood.

I’m not saying that there should be no standards in word usage. A person can’t say “I literally dropped water in my diaper” and expect to have people understand that what the person means is “I was completely scared.” There’s no reasonable correlation there. However, this is because most people would still agree that “literally” does not mean “figuratively”; also, nobody is going to understand what the phrase “dropped water in my diaper” is even supposed to mean. I wrote the damn sentence and I’m not even sure exactly what it means.

All I’m saying is that it strikes me as pompous and priggish to claim a word can only ever maintain its root usage. Claiming that words are being used wrong simply because they are not being used in their original sense robs the English language of something beautiful. Of course, I could always stop overanalyzing what someone on the internet posted on his blog.

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While I get over my pot-kettle-black problem above, why don’t you tell me what words you think are getting misused and abused.

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