The Grumpy Grammarian > June 2008

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The Grumpy Grammarian

Confused Words.  I rant repeatedly about my students' confusion of common words, but a number of somewhat less common words are frequently misused by even educated people.  Indeed, I admit that I may have misused some of them myself until someone set me straight.  Remember, I'm a man who was in his thirties before he learned that anchovies are fish; I thought they were something that grew in the forest, like mushrooms.  Anyway, here's a partial list.

► To begin with a very common error, presently does not mean "at the present time"; it means "soon" or "very soon."  Anyone who uses presently in the sense of "now" is living in the past.  According to the American Heritage Dictionary (2000 edition), use of presently in that sense went out in the 17th century, though it persists today among those who fail to make the important distinction between presently and currently.  Only half of this dictionary's panel of usage experts accept use of presently in this very old sense, and 50% is a rather low level of acceptance for this panel.

When the weather people say that the temperature "is presently 65 degrees," their usage is about as correct as their long-range weather predictions are accurate.  Since presently is the only one-word adverb we have to denote "very soon," there's no good reason to use it to mean "currently," when we already have that word as well as now and at present for that purpose.

► It is time that people stopped using wait on when they mean "wait in" or "wait for," as in, "I was waiting on line for an hour" and "We are waiting on a decision from the referee."  Unless you are a waiter serving meals to people who are standing in line, you are not "waiting on" any line, and how one "waits on" a decision is hard to figure out.  Regarding the latter especially, please don't pattern your usage after sports announcers, for whom English is a foreign language.

Verbal does not mean "oral"; it means "of, relating to, or associated with words."  An individual who says "I understand verbal explanations better than written ones" is making a ridiculous statement because writing is verbal (it consists of words).  Although verbal has been widely used for a long time to refer to spoken communication only, such usage is imprecise.  Verbal communication consists of both oral and written use of language.

Simplistic does not mean "simple"; it means "excessively simple" or "oversimplified."  Do not ask for a simplistic explanation or answer when what you want is something that is simple and straightforward.  A simplistic answer or explanation is likely to be inadequate or misleading because it oversimplifies, ignoring important details.

► The word comprise means "to consist of" or "to include."  The whole comprises the parts, and the parts compose the whole.  The US comprises 50 states; 50 states compose (or make up or constitute) the US.  Furthermore, if comprise means "to consist of" or "to include," nothing can be "comprised of" anything.

I am on controversial ground here because a majority of usage experts are apparently beginning to accept "comprised of" (the US is comprised of 50 states).  Nevertheless, I believe that it's important to distinguish between comprise on one hand and compose or constitute on the other.

► Despite its widespread misuse, actionable should not be used to mean "giving cause for or forming a basis for any sort of action."  The proper and only definition of actionable is "giving cause for legal action."  Illegal activities such as false advertising, for example, may be considered actionable.

When I worked in business, many of the company's proposals said that we would provide the client with "actionable results."  When I corrected this error, saying that our clients would prefer not to be dragged into court, proposal writers balked – until I dragged out a dictionary.  Nevertheless, these fun-loving folks enjoyed annoying me, so some of them persisted in using actionable inappropriately whenever they could.  Unfortunately, irritating the editor is not an actionable offense.

► Please don't call an individual who is merely ignorant "stupid."  Stupid and ignorant have different meanings.  If someone doesn't know how to use a computer or to change a flat tire, that person isn't stupid but ignorant.  An ignorant person simply lacks knowledge; a stupid person has or should have the knowledge but acts foolishly anyway.  As someone has remarked (the saying has many attributions), ignorance is curable (by acquiring knowledge), but stupidity is not.

Of course, nobody likes to be called either ignorant or stupid because both labels represent some sort of deficiency.  However, if you want to insult people, call them stupid, not ignorant.  We are all ignorant of (don't know) something.  The distinction is especially important for teachers.  Ignorant students are teachable; stupid students are not because they prefer to remain ignorant.

► Don't confuse infer and imply.  If you infer something, you are on the receiving end; for example, you deduce (infer) something based on what someone has said.  If you imply something, you are sending a message indirectly; for example, you suggest (imply) a meaning without stating it outright.

When someone, for instance, makes a remark suggesting that we are incapable of understanding something, that person is implying (not inferring) that we are stupid.  Conversely, we may infer (not imply) that the person making the remark thinks that we are stupid.

► Technically, fortuitous does not mean "fortunate"; its primary meaning is "happening by chance or accident."  Although most dictionaries give "fortunate" or "lucky" as a second meaning – it has been widely used in that sense, even by respected writers – we should note that a "fortuitous" event (one that occurs accidentally) could be either fortunate or unfortunate.  It is better to be precise, to use fortunate (or felicitous) to describe happy events or experiences and to let fortuitous apply only to things that happen by chance.

English has a word for virtually everything and is rich with subtle shades of meaning.  The more we observe these distinctions, the more effective we will be at expressing ourselves.  Correctness is only the beginning; precision is the ultimate goal.