baltimoresun.com

« The Huffington Post discovers the secret | Main | Down with the czar »

Just the opposite

Many people trying to work their way through the thicket of English try to reason their way clear by analogy. That’s a treacherous path, because English encompasses many contradictions from its mongrel past.

If English were a logical language, it’s doubtful that it would have a collection of words that bear directly opposite meanings.

Cleave, for example: If peanut butter makes your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth, your tongue cleaves to your palate. But if you split firewood with an ax, you cleave it. To sanction something means either to approve of it or forbid it. Oversight is either supervision or negligence. If you trim the Christmas tree, you add things to it; if you trim the hedge, you cut things off.

I suppose it is possible — though I by no means endorse this — that certain blurred meanings that we prescriptivists denounce as misuses may be words in transition from one meaning to a double meaning. Imply, for example, has been taking on the opposite sense of infer for decades. Anxious, in casual speech, can mean either anxiety about something or eagerness for it. People often use literally to mean figuratively. Peruse might mean to skim, or it might mean to read carefully; so might scan. (And please, don’t get started on what I could care less means.)

Even though I recoil in distaste at these blurrings of meaning, and school my students and my copy desk colleagues to avoid them, I have to concede that they are usually clear in context. So if there can be no objection to them on the ground of clarity of meaning, then shunning them becomes a matter of idiosyncratic taste.

Oh Lord, something is happening to me. I must have been looking at Language Log too much. Unclean, unclean!

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:22 AM | | Comments (7)
        

Comments

I feel your pain. I, too, have a hard time biting my tongue when people misuse particular words or phrases. I think one of the biggest lines I draw is between spoken language and written language. If I'm editing something, and someone's misused I could care less, then I'll fix it because it's incorrect. I'm not going to correct my drinking buddies when we're out, though; that's just asinine.

I draw a similar line, JB. Correcting one's drinking buddies on grammar is a good way to end up drinking alone.

Wait. . .I was reading your entry, wondering at first why you are the only blog writer I subscribe to that DIDN'T do an April Fools entry. . .then I saw this:
Even though I recoil in distaste at these blurrings of meaning ... I have to concede that they are usually clear in context. So if there can be no objection to them on the ground of clarity of meaning, then shunning them becomes a matter of idiosyncratic taste.

Ah, there it is. APRIL FOOLS!! :-P

'I could care less' instead of "I couldn't care less" is just one of my many buttons. Others include "another thing coming" instead of "another think coming" and "power for the course" instead of "par for the course." Maybe I just need to get a life.

"intensive purposes" vs. "intents and purposes"?

I hope nobody here pulls any of this crap on a first date. Irregardless.

Usually clear in context, yes, but occasionally one of these usage mutations incurs real amgiguity. I've been watching the replacement of the construction "to substitute x for y" with another, "to substitute y with x"; and sure enough, I have finally encountered instances of a hybrid:"to substitute x with y" -- with the newer preposition, but without the logically necessary reversing of the nouns. The result, obviously, was the opposite of what was intended -- although this was far from immediately obvious in context. Messy.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
Baltimore Sun Facebook page
-- ADVERTISEMENT --

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected