Harvard linguist points out the 58 most commonly misused words and phrases

I always enjoy reading Steven Pinker even when I disagree with him. ‘Data’, for instance, has been a mass noun in British English for decades. We generally say ‘the data is’ not ‘the data are’. I do understand that he is an American English speaker so this is an observation not a criticism.

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This is fun (or I’m bored this evening). ‘Disinterested’ does not merely mean ‘unbiased’ it means ‘having no interest’ in the outcome of something. A disinterested judge does not benefit from the decision he or she makes whatever that decision is. That is, the judge can be relied upon to make an unbiased decision because he is disinterested.

For instance, when you take a faulty product back to the shop you bought it from it is perfectly possible that the manager of the store will be unbiased in his decision regarding a refund but he could hardly be said to be disinterested whereas if you take the same complaint to a tribunal you would naturally assume, or at least hope,that the judge would be disinterested.

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It’s not. A US expression, I mean. It’s a popularly used (all over the place) incorrect usage of the expression “I couldn’t care less”

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FWIW, the European Commission style guide accepts data and media as singular or plural nouns. I don’t see why English has to follow the grammar rules of the languages it steals words from.

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He missed another of my pet hates, perhaps because it has become so entrenched in American English and that is ‘careen’ instead of ‘career’. To careen is to tip a boat or ship over so that the bottom can be scraped, repaired, etc.

In what way is he wrong about parameter?

Look, the queen has already asked you not to do that…

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Well my math was a long time ago, but I think a parameter can be a variable or a constant, more often a constant. A boundary value would be a parameter in a differential equation, but I see he’s talking about business.

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One that’s popped up on my radar is “diffused” in place of “defused” in recent coverage and discussion of white cops shooting black people. Ex: “The cops should have diffused the situation instead of letting it escalate out of control.” I first saw this in online reporting, taken up swiftly by the commentariat; I suspect the origin is voice recognition auto-correct compounded by the lack of proof-reading that seems to be New Media’s hallmark.

(Happy to see fulsome and noisome make appearances; nominate “erstwhile” for #59.)

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A number of these are not so much signs of language shift as words that are mistaken for other words. Rather than being overly prescriptive, it is sometimes worth pointing out that there is a difference in order to avoid confusion. Proscribe and prescribe are almost antonyms, so their difference is worth mentioning in a book about clear writing. These errors are particularly important nowadays, as they won’t show up in a spellchecker and many articles are not proofread.

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Honestly, the difference between a variable and an unknown constant isn’t really clear cut. One can think of a variable as being constant as long as it doesn’t depend on the other things you are keeping track of. Which is something you probably did if you solved y’’-omega^2 y=0 for an arbitrary unknown omega.

I didn’t like his example either. “Budgetary parameters” works fine, even if you think of a parameter as a variable. Budgetary constraints might reduce the number of parameters, but there are almost certainly more than one parameter left in most typical situations.

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But a lot of people use word processors which a grammar checker. Many of the errors would be caught simply by turning it on. I try to get my colleagues to do that because most of them are not native English speakers but have to write English for most of the documents they write. It would save us all a lot of time because then they would not need to ask me to proofread so often, or at least I could use my skill as a native speaker to better effect without having to list dozens of obvious misspellings and failure to agree in number.

A few complaints:

“Literally” can be used figuratively to exaggerate, just like any other word can be used figuratively. Really (clearly real + ly), actually, truly, and even “for real” are all used to exaggerate. This is just the fate of any word of phrase that means “in truth” because everything you say is assumed to be said because it is true, and saying something is true is nearly always redundant. “I ate the sandwich” obviously is intended to convey that the sandwich was actually consumed by me in real life barring context that says otherwise. I find the idea that “literally” cannot be used figuratively bizarre, as if it is some kind of meta-word that affects the sentence it appears in. “I literally ate the sandwich” means “(I literally (ate (the sandwich)))” not literally “(I (ate (the sandwich)))”.

His example of an incorrect use of parameter is nonsense. If parameter means variable, then “We must set the budget within the parameters we were given” is totally correct, since the amount of money you can spend is a variable in your budget decisions - a variable that represents an upper limit. That’s the thing about variables, they can mean all kinds of different things. A thing can be a variable and the limit of your spending. He’s got a similar problem with “hone”. If someone said, “We’re honing our solution” and he said, “No, you mean homing in on,” they might reply, “No, I meant what I said, we have a solution and we are improving it - sharpening behind a common metaphor for improvement.”

Generally, he makes himself sound as if he assumes things are mistakes instead of thinking about what people actually mean.

And what is up with his definition of “politically correct”? It doesn’t mean dogmatically left-liberal. Voting for the NDP in the next Canadian federal election isn’t politically correct.

Lastly, I’m unhappy in this effect/effect/affect that he left out the noun "affect.

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Oh gosh. I had no idea that the ignorance of others actually prevented you from using a word. This is terrible.

That would be interesting indeed. My poking fun at the article has more to do with me finding linguists hilariously cloistered and out of touch than anything in the article.

Pugnacious and truculent are two words I would see saved from the death of disuse. Pugnacity used to be a virtue. A pugnacious person should be held in high esteem. Teddy Roosevelt and Rosa Parks are fine examples of the great good a pugnacious person can bring about.

Truculence, on the other hand, indicates a cruel or even bellicose nature. I would place Pol Pot or Stalin among the Truculent. If we are to have enemies or demons, they should be treated with the gravity such placement deserves.

Of course, these days we simply use tough or cruel. Even belligerent can be herd now and again but this is obtuse and betrays a lack of good words. Pugnacious and truculent are going the way of the horse and buggy. The cumbersome things of yesteryear that do seem to survive often do so as fetish. Like the corset and steam power vehicles, these words, having little use today, could survive among the fetishists.

I think I’ll become one of them

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It prevents me using it because I will now be misunderstood.

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It would be interesting to explore what politically correct actually means - it seems to be something of a dog whistle meaning “known to be incorrect, but the only statement you can make on the issue without criticism” or “an attempt to control language in order to render it artificially inoffensive and push certain policies”. It’s often invoked to attack attempts to humanise minorities and not used to challenge politically correct right-wing terms like “War of Northern Aggression”, “economic migrant” and “job creator”.

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Yeah, people certainly mean a variety of things by it, but I don’t think anyone means “dogmatically left-liberal” by it. Many people speak of it as a facet of left wing politics, which is pretty different than it being the same as left wing politics. I mean, I would tend to think that “politically correct” sounds like it ought to mean “the way a politician would phrase something to avoid being criticized for their word choice.” What people often seem to mean when they say it is something more like, “not saying racist things when we all know you are racist and wouldn’t it be better if you were just honest about being racist because I’m racist and I’d like to hear that.” At least that’s what they mean when they say they are glad Donald Trump isn’t politically correct.

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Irregardless, I find the rules the article is comprised of quite apropos,

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Not at all. Variables come much later in the alphabet - I learned it in algebra.

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