Friday, January 17, 2014

Words, Words, Words

I understand that English is not a dead language, that it is growing and evolving; but language is also meant to convey thoughts and ideas, which should entail some sense of precision.  If your language is sloppy, this will impede your ability to convey information accurately.  Sloppy language may reflect poorly on how you are perceived intellectually.  Choice of words is one area where this is apparent.

Why do people say anxious instead of eager?  Anxious implies, or should imply, a sense of anxiety – worry, nervousness, or unease.  Are the kids anxious to go to the swimming pool because they are afraid of drowning or bacteria?  They are probably eager to go to the pool to see their friends and get some relief from the heat, or they just love to swim.

Why do people say less instead of fewer?  Less is a quantity word, like much.  Fewer is a counting word like many.  How many (counting) cars are driving by? – Fewer (counting) than yesterday.  How much (quantity) gas is in the tank? – Less (quantity) than when we started driving.  “Fewer” means not as many; “less” means not as much.

On a related subject, to say the amount of people is incorrect.  People are countable.  The number (not the amount) of people voting or buying new cars is greater than last year.  Describing the amount of people would require a scale or tape measure.

Why do people describe so many people, things and experiences as awesome?  Awe is a reverential respect mixed with fear and wonder.  Few things are truly awesome.  When people say awesome, it comes from habit and lack of imagination, not as an attempt to express fear and wonder.  Awesome has gone from a description of profound feeling to a knee-jerk, silly, near-meaningless adjective.  So many other, more suitable words more precisely convey feelings of the team’s play, the paintings in a museum, the concert, etc.  Possibilities include:  wonderful, fabulous, sensational, terrific, great, colorful, enjoyable, unbelievable, magnificent, formidable, striking, glorious, or superb (but probably not amazing, another overused word).  Let’s save awesome for gods and tornados.  Of course, awesome and amazing are what cool and groovy were in the 60s so they will probably die out eventually.

What do you say instead of literally when you mean literally?  Recently, “the informal use of the word ‘literally’ – as a term for emphasis when a statement isn't true – has been included as a definition in the Oxford English Dictionary.”  Literally once meant that something really happened or existed, but people misused it so often to emphasize figurative comparisons that it now can mean either literally or figuratively, that is, metaphorically.  His head was literally so big that he could just barely get in the door –I don’t think so.  It’s literally the chance of a lifetime – perhaps, but probably not.  What do you say to make it clear that you are not exaggerating?  How do we distinguish between a big ego and some weird health condition that causes heads to expand?

Words have meanings.  Thoughtful people use the right word.

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