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A caution for prescriptivists

James Harbeck, writing about the shifting meaning of enormity at Sesquiotica, offers this useful guideline for those of us—and the prescriptivist tribe is still my tribe—trying to establish where to draw the line one day to the next:

“[T]here’s a difference between trying to keep the sense of a word from being bleached beyond usefulness and militating against an established sense of a word mainly with the effect of trumping others. I’m all for maximizing the expressive potential of the language – and not using it as some status-focused gotcha game.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:24 AM | | Comments (3)


I just left a comment there pointing out that "enormousness" is a rare word: 118,000 Google hits versus three and a half million for "enormity". Correcting "enormity" to "enormousness", then, is probably the Wrong Thing, as it will tend to startle the reader. Reword instead.

I'm afraid the jury's out on a lot of these words, and part of the problem for the uninitiated, is that they sound close to the words people think they are. A partial list: noisome, fulsome, enormity, costive, restive. The confusion is an enormity that makes me costive, but remember; a bigoted linguist is often fulsomely described as anti-semantic.

In any case, "enormity" when "correctly" used still bears a semantic tinge of enormousness: nobody speaks of the enormity of trivial sins nowadays, though they are just as much outside the norm, or moral law, as any others.

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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
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