English words with disputed usage
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Some English words are often used in ways that
are contentious among writers on usage and prescriptive
commentators. The contentious usages are especially
common in spoken English. While in some circles, the
usages below may make the speaker sound uneducated
or illiterate, in other circles the more standard
or more traditional usage may make the speaker sound
stilted or pretentious.
[ top ]
Aggravate - Some prescriptivists
have argued that this word should not be used in the
sense of "to annoy" or "to oppress",
but only to mean "to make worse". However,
this proscription against "to annoy" is
not rooted in history. According to AHDI, the "annoy"
usage occurs in English as far back as the 17th century;
furthermore, in Latin, from which the word was borrowed,
both meanings were used. Sixty-eight percent of AHD4's
Usage Panel approves of its use in "It's the
endless wait for luggage that aggravates me the most
about air travel."M-W mentions that while aggravate
in the sense of "to rouse to displeasure or anger
by usually persistent and often petty goading"
has been around since the 17th century, disapproval
of that usage only appeared around 1870. RH states
in its usage note under aggravate that "The
two most common senses of aggravate are 'to
make worse' and 'to annoy or exasperate.' Both senses
first appeared in the early 17th century at almost
the same time; the corresponding two senses of the
noun aggravation also appeared then. Both
senses of aggravate and aggravation
have been standard since then." CHAMBERS cites
this usage as "colloquial" and that it "is
well established, especially in spoken English, although
it is sometimes regarded as incorrect."* Disputed
usage: It's the endless wait for luggage that
aggravates me the most about air travel. Undisputed
usage: Being hit on the head by a falling brick
aggravated my already painful headache.
Ain't - originally a contraction
of "am not", this word is widely used as
a replacement for "aren't", "isn't",
"haven't" and "hasn't" as well.
While ain't has existed in the English language
for a very long time, and it is a common, normal word
in many dialects in both North America and the British
Isles, it is not a part of standard English, and use
in formal writing is not recommended by most usage
commentators. Its unself-conscious use in speech may
tend to mark the speaker as uneducated. Nevertheless,
ain't is used by educated speakers and writers
for deliberate effect, what Oxford American Dictionary
describes as "tongue-in-cheek" or "reverse
snobbery", and what Merriam-Webster Collegiate
calls "emphatic effect" or "a consistently
Alibi - Some prescriptivists argue
this cannot be used in the non-legal sense of "an
explanation or excuse to avoid blame or justify action."
AHD4 notes that this usage was acceptable to "almost
half" of the Usage Panel, while most opposed
the word's use as a verb. M-W mentions no usage problems,
listing the disputed meaning second to its legal sense
without comment. OED cites the non-legal noun and
verb usages as colloquial and "orig[inally] U.S.".
CHAMBERS deems this use "colloquial".
Alright - An alternative to "all
right" that some consider illiterate but others
allow. RH says that it probably arose in analogy with
other similar word, such as altogether and
already; it does concede the use in writing
as "informal", and that all right
"is used in more formal, edited writing."
AHD4 flags alright as "nonstandard",
and comments that this unacceptance (compared to altogether
etc.) is "peculiar", and may be due to its
relative recentness (altogether and already
date back to the Middle Ages, alright only
a little over a century). CHAMBERS refers to varying
levels of formality of all right, deeming
alright to be more casual; it recommends
the use of all right "especially in
writing for readers who are precise about the use
Also - Some prescriptivists contend
this word should not be used to begin a sentence.
AHD4 says "63 percent of the Usage Panel found
acceptable the example The warranty covers all
power-train components. Also, participating dealers
back their work with a free lifetime service guarantee."
See also and & but,
Alternate - In British English this
adjective means, according to OED and other sources,
switching between two options or similar.
It does not mean the same as alternative
(see next), which OED specifically marks as an American
meaning of alternate. In international English
it is therefore thought better to observe the British
distinction: then the meanings of alternative
and alternate will be clear to everyone.
(See meanings given at M-W; the same applies to the
adverbs alternately and alternatively.)
Alternative - Some prescriptivists
argue that alternative should be used only
when the number of choices involved is exactly two.
While AHD4 allows "the word's longstanding use
to mean 'one of a number of things from which only
one can be chosen' and the acceptance of this usage
by many language critics", it goes on to state
that only 49% of its Usage panel approves of its use
as in "Of the three alternatives, the first is
the least distasteful." Neither M-W nor RH mentions
any such restriction to a choice of two. CHAMBERS
qualifies its definition as referring to "strictly
speaking, two, but often used of more than two, possibilities".
a.m./p.m. - These are Latin abbreviations
for ante meridiem ("before noon")
and post meridiem ("after noon"),
adverbial phrases. Some prescriptivists argue that
they therefore should not be used in English as nouns
meaning "morning" and "afternoon",
but this ignores ordinary nominalization features
of English. AHD4 lists adjectival usage with "an
A.M. appointment" and "a P.M. appointment."
RH gives "Shall we meet Saturday a.m.?"
without comment; it gives no corresponding example
at p.m., so that usage can only be extrapolated.
Among/Amongst and Between
- The traditionalist view is that between
should only be used when there are only two objects
for comparison; and among or amongst
should be used for more than two objects. Most style
guides and dictionaries do not support this advice,
saying that between can be used to refer
to something that is in the time, space or interval
that separates more than two items. M-W says that
the idea that between can be used only of
two items is "persistent but unfounded"
and AHD4 calls it a "widely repeated but unjustified
tradition". The OED says "In all senses,
between has been, from its earliest appearance,
extended to more than two". CHAMBERS says "It
is acceptable to use between with reference
to more than two people or things", although
does state that among may be more appropriate
in some circumstances. Undisputed usage:
I parked my car between the two telegraph poles. Undisputed
usage: You'll find my brain between my ears.
Disputed usage: The duck swam between the
reeds. Disputed usage: They searched the
area between the river, the farmhouse, and the woods.
Undisputed usage: We shared the money evenly
amongst the three of us. Disputed usage:
We shared the money between Tom, Dick, and me. Undisputed
usage: My house was built among the gum trees.
Amount - Some prescriptivists argue
amount should not be substituted for number.
They recommend the use of number if the thing
referred to is countable and amount only
if it is uncountable. While RH acknowledges the "traditional
distinction between amount and number,
it mentions that "[a]lthough objected to, the
use of amount instead of number
with countable nouns occurs in both speech and writing,
especially when the noun can be considered as a unit
or group (the amount of people present; the amount
of weapons) or when it refers to money (the
amount of dollars paid; the amount of pennies in the
till). (see also less) Disputed
usage: I was amazed by the amount of people who
visited my website. Undisputed usage: The
number of people in the lift must not exceed 10. Undisputed
usage: I was unimpressed by the amount of water
consumed by the elephant.
And - Some prescriptivists argue
that sentences should not begin with the word and
on the argument that as a conjunction it should only
join clauses within a sentence. AHD4 states that this
stricture "has been ridiculed by grammarians
for decades, and ... ignored by writers from Shakespeare
to Joyce Carol Oates." RH states "Both and
and but, and to a lesser extent or
and so, are common as transitional words
at the beginnings of sentences in all types of speech
and writing'; it goes on to suggest that opposition
to this usage "...probably stems from the overuse
of such sentences by inexperienced writers."
ENCARTA opines that said opposition comes from "too
literal an understanding of the 'joining' function
of conjunctions", and states that any overuse
is a matter of poor style, not grammatical correctness.
COED calls the usage "quite acceptable".
Many verses of the King James Bible begin with and,
as does William Blake's poem And did those feet
in ancient time (a.k.a. Jerusalem).
Fowler's Modern English Usage defends this use of
"and". CHAMBERS states that "Although
it is sometimes regarded as poor style, it is not
ungrammatical to begin a sentence with and."
See also also, above, and but,
Anxious - Some prescriptivists argue
that this word should only be used in the sense of
"worried" or "worrisome" (compare
"anxiety"), but it has been used in the
sense of eager for "over 250 years";
52% of AHD4's Usage Panel accepts its use in the sentence
"We are anxious to see the new show of contemporary
sculpture at the museum." It also suggests that
the use of anxious to mean eager
may be mild hyperbole, as the use of dying
in the sentence "I'm dying to see your new baby."
RH states bluntly that "its use in the sense
of 'eager'...is fully standard." M-W defines
anxious as "3 : ardently or earnestly
wishing <anxious to learn more> / synonym see
EAGER" CHAMBERS gives "3 very eager •
anxious to do well."
[ top ]
Barbaric and barbarous
- Barbaric applies to the culture of barbarians
and can be positive ("barbaric splendor");
barbarous applies to the behavior of barbarians
and is negative ("barbarous cruelty"). This
is standard English usage. However, M-W equates the
third meaning of "barbaric" with the third
of "barbarous", that is, "mercilessly
harsh or cruel"; COD11 and CHAMBERS list "savagely
cruel" and "cruel and brutal; excessively
harsh or vicious", respectively, as the first
meanings for "barbaric". Only AHD4 disallows
this usage, and without comment. Undisputed.
The environment of the venue was barbaric. Undisputed.
Terrorism is barbarous. Disputed. Capital
punishment is a disgusting, barbaric measure.
But - Some prescriptivists argue
that if and should not be used to begin sentences,
then neither should but. These words are
both conjunctions, so they believe that they should
be used only to link clauses within a sentence. AHD4
states that "it may be used to begin a sentence
at all levels of style."
[ top ]
Can and May - Some
prescriptivists argue that can refers to
possibility and may refers to permissions,
and insist on maintaining this distinction, although
usage of can to refer to permission is pervasive
in spoken and very frequent in written English. M-W
notes: "Can and may are most
frequently interchangeable in senses denoting possibility;
because the possibility of one's doing something may
depend on another's acquiescence, they have also become
interchangeable in the sense denoting permission.
The use of can to ask or grant permission
has been common since the 19th century and is well
established, although some commentators feel may
is more appropriate in formal contexts. May
is relatively rare in negative constructions (mayn't
is not common); cannot and can't
are usual in such contexts."AHD4 echoes this
sentiment of formality, noting that only 21% of the
Usage Panel accepted can in the example "Can
I take another week to submit the application?".
For its part, OED labels the use of can for
may as "colloquial".
Comprise - Comprise means
"to consist of" or "to include".
A third meaning, "to compose or constitute"
is sometimes attacked by usage writers. However, it
is supported as sense 3 along with a usage note in
M-W, and although AHD4 notes the usage as a "usage
problem", its usage note says, "Our surveys
show that opposition to this usage is abating. In
the 1960s, 53 percent of the Usage Panel found this
usage unacceptable; in 1996, only 35 percent objected."
Undisputed usage: The English Wikipedia comprises
more than 1 million articles. Disputed usage:
The English Wikipedia is comprised of more than 1
million articles. Disputed usage: More than
1 million articles comprise the English Wikipedia.
Disputed usage: Diatoms comprise more than
70% of all phytoplankton. Undisputed usage:
Diatoms constitute more than 70% of all phytoplankton.
[ top ]
Deprecate - The original meaning
in English is "deplore" or "express
disapproval of" (the Latin from which the word
derives means "pray to avert evil", suggesting
that some event would be a calamity). The word is
now also used to mean "play down", "belittle"
or "devalue", a shift that some prescriptivists
disapprove of, as it suggests the word is being confused
with the similar word depreciate; in fact,
AHD4 states that in this sense deprecate
has almost completely supplanted depreciate,
however a majority of the dictionary's Usage Panel
approved this sense. Its use with the approximate
meaning to declare obsolete in computer jargon
is also sometimes condemned.
Diagnose - Cochrane (2004) states
that to "diagnose [someone] with a disease"
is an incorrect usage of the verb diagnose,
which takes the physician as subject and a disease
as object (e.g. "to diagnose cancer"). In
American English, according to AHD4 and M-W, the sense
of "diagnose [someone] with a disease" is
listed without comment or tag; however, for its part,
RH does not list such a usage, with or without comment.
For British English, COD11 offers "identify the
medical condition of (someone): she was diagnosed
as having epilepsy (2004); this usage, however,
did not appear in editions as recently as the 1990s.
CHAMBERS does not offer this sense at all. Disputed
usage: Mr. Smith was diagnosed with lurgi. Undisputed
usage: The doctor diagnosed lurgi.
Different. Standard usage in both
England and America is "different from"
(on the analogy of "to differ from"). In
England this competes with "different to"
(coined on the analogy of "similar to").
In America it competes with "different than"
(coined on the analogy of "other than").
Undisputed usage: The American pronunciation
of English is different from the British. Disputed
usage: The American pronunciation of English
is different to the British. Disputed usage:
The American pronunciation of English is different
than the British.
Disinterested. Standard usage is
as a word for "unbiased", but some have
also rendered it synonymous with "uninterested"
or "apathetic". Undisputed usage:
As their mutual best friend, I tried to remain disinterested
in their argument so as not to anger either. Disputed
usage: The key to attracting a member of the
opposite sex is to balance between giving attention
to him or her and appearing disinterested.
[ top ]
Enormity - Frequently used as a synonym
for "enormousness" or "immensity",
but traditionally means "extreme wickedness".
According to AHD4, this distinction has not always occurred
historically, but is now supported by 59% of the dictionary's
Usage Panel. COD11 states that enormity as
a synonym for hugeness "is now broadly
accepted as standard English." Although CHAMBERS
lists "immenseness or vastness" as a meaning,
it says it "should not be used" in that sense,
commenting that it is encountered often because the
word enormousness is "awkward"; it
recommends using instead another word, such as hugeness,
greatness, etc. Disputed usage: The enormity
of the elephant astounded me. Traditional usage:
The enormity of Stalin's purges astounds me.
[ top ]
Fortuitously - Used by some interchangeably
with fortunately, strictly speaking fortuitousness
is a reference to an occurrence depending on chance.
M-W notes that use of the word in sense of "fortunate"
has been in standard use for at least 70 years and notes
that the sense of "coming or happening by a lucky
chance" is virtually unnoticed by usage critics.
[ top ]
Gender - Gender is often
used as a euphemism for sex in the sense
of the biological or social quality, male
and female. It is never used to refer to
sexual intercourse. Gender traditionally refers to
grammatical gender, a feature in the grammar of a
number of different languages. Some prescriptivists
argue that its use as a euphemism for sex
is to be avoided as a genteelism; Fowler (p. 211)
refers to it as "either as a jocularity...or
a blunder." Others note that some writers use
sex and gender in different but
related senses, using sex to refer to biological
characteristics and gender to refer to social
roles and expectations based on sex. Those who use
gender in this fashion frequently take an
expansive view of the effects of social expectations
on sex roles, and diminish the role of biology to
purely physical characteristics. Those who use gender
as a euphemism for sex may confuse readers
who draw this distinction, or mislead readers by giving
the impression that the writer has assumed or endorsed
these beliefs. See gender identity, gender role
The distinction is further confused by technical theatre
and computer jargon, which refer to electrical connectors
as having a male plug with pins inserted
into a female socket. This use clearly refers
to physical qualities of the connectors and not their
social identities. See: gender changer
Good - Good is often used
instead of well, as in "I'm doing good".
[ top ]
Hoi polloi - The question surrounding
hoi polloi is whether it is appropriate to
use the article the preceding the phrase;
it arises because hoi is the Greek word for
"the" in the phrase and classical purists
complain that adding the makes the phrase
redundant: "the the common people". Foreign
phrases borrowed into English are often reanalyzed
as single grammatical units, requiring an English
article in appropriate contexts. AHD4 says "The
Arabic element al- means 'the', and appears
in English nouns such as alcohol and alchemy.
Thus, since no one would consider a phrase such as
the alcohol to be redundant, criticizing
the hoi polloi on similar grounds seems pedantic."
Hopefully - Some prescriptivists
argue this word should not be used as an expression
of confidence in an outcome; however, M-W classes
hopefully with other words such as interestingly,
frankly, and unfortunately (which
are unremarkably used in a similar way) as disjuncts,
and describes this usage as "entirely standard".
AHD4, however, notes that opposition to this usage
by their Usage Panels has grown from 56% to 73%, despite
support for similar disjuncts (such as 60% support
for the use of mercifully in "Mercifully,
the game ended before the opponents could add another
touchdown to the lopsided score"). AHD4 opines
that this opposition is not to the use of these adverbs
in general, but that this use of hopefully
has become a "shibboleth". OED lists this
usage without any "colloquial" or other
label, other than to say "Avoided by many writers."See
also the discussion of hopefully as a dangling
modifier. Disputed usage: Hopefully I'll
get that scholarship! Undisputed usage: The
prisoner thought hopefully about the prospect for
escape when he realized the guards accidentally left
his cell unlocked.
[ top ]
Less - Some prescriptivists argue
that less should not be substituted for fewer.
M-W notes "The traditional view is that less
applies to matters of degree, value, or amount and
modifies collective nouns, mass nouns, or nouns denoting
an abstract whole while fewer applies to
matters of number and modifies plural nouns. Less
has been used to modify plural nouns since the days
of King Alfred and the usage, though roundly decried,
appears to be increasing. Less is more likely
than fewer to modify plural nouns when distances,
sums of money, and a few fixed phrases are involved
<less than 100 miles> <an investment
of less than $2000> <in 25 words or
less> and as likely as fewer
to modify periods of time <in less (or
fewer) than four hours>" Disputed
usage: This lane 12 items or less. Undisputed
usage: We had fewer players on the team this
season. Undisputed usage: There is less water
in the tank now.
Like and as - Some
prescriptivists object to the use of like
as a conjunction, stating it is rather a preposition
and that only "as" would be appropriate
in this circumstance. M-W, however, cites like's
use as a conjunction as standard since the 14th century,
and opines that opposition to it is "perhaps
more heated than rational" (see M-W's entry "like
[7, conjunction]"). AHD4 says "Writers since
Chaucer's time have used like as a conjunction, but
19th-century and 20th-century critics have been so
vehement in their condemnations of this usage that
a writer who uses the construction in formal style
risks being accused of illiteracy or worse",
and recommends using as in formal speech
and writing. OED does not tag it as colloquial or
nonstandard, but notes, "Used as conj[unction]:
= 'like as', as. Now generally condemned as vulgar
or slovenly, though examples may be found in many
recent writers of standing." CHAMBERS lists the
conjunctive use as "colloquial". Undisputed
usage. He is an American as am I. Undisputed
usage. He is an American like me. Undisputed
usage. It looks as if this play will be a flop.
Undisputed usage. This play looks like a
flop. Disputed usage. He is an American like
I am. Disputed usage. It looks like this
play will be a flop.
Literally - Some prescriptivists
argue literally should not be used as a mere
emphatic, unless the thing to which it refers is actually
true. It is used to disambiguate a possible metaphorical
interpretation of a phrase. M-W does not condemn the
second use, which means "in effect" or "virtually",
but says "the use is pure hyperbole intended
to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts
where no additional emphasis is necessary". Disputed
usage: The party literally went with a bang.
(No, it did not, unless there was an actual explosion.)
Undisputed usage: I literally ran more than
25 miles today. I ran a marathon.
Loan - The use of loan
as a verb meaning "to give out a loan" is
disputed, with lend being preferred for the
verb form. AHD4 flatly states "[t]he verb loan
is well established in American usage and cannot be
considered incorrect"; M-W states "...loan
is entirely standard as a verb". RH says "Sometimes
mistakenly identified as an Americanism, loan
as a verb meaning "to lend" has been used
in English for nearly 800 years"; it further
states that objections to this use "are comparatively
recent". CHAMBERS defines the verb loan
as "to lend (especially money)". OED merely
states "Now chiefly U.S.", and COD11 includes
the meaning without tag or comment. Undisputed
usage. I lent him some money. Undisputed
usage. Fill out the paperwork for a loan. Disputed
usage. I loaned him some money.
[ top ]
May and Might -
"May" should only be used where the event
in question is still possible, not for something that
was possible at one stage in a historical narrative,
or for a hypothetical possibility contrary to fact.
Undisputed usage: My brother may have gone
to China last week (perhaps he did) Disputed
usage: If he had not been prevented, my brother
may have gone to China last week (but he didn't)
Undisputed usage: If he had not been prevented,
my brother might have gone to China last week. Disputed
usage: He thought it may be true (but it
wasn't) Undisputed usage: He thought
it might be true.
Meet - Some prescriptivists state
that as a transitive verb in the context "to
come together by chance or arrangement", meet
(as in meet (someone)) does not require a
preposition between verb and object; the phrase meet
with (someone) is deemed incorrect. CHAMBERS
flags this usage "US"; RH allows it in the
sense of "to join, as for conference or instruction:
I met with her an hour a day until we solved the
problem."On the other hand, none of M-W,
AHD4, or COD11 entertains this usage. NOTE:
In the sense of fulfilling prerequisites or criteria
(We met with the entry requirements), or
that of encountering (Our suggestions may meet
with opposition; the soldiers met with machine-gun
fire), the verb phrase meet with is
not in dispute. Disputed usage: I will meet
with you tonight. Undisputed usage: I will
meet you tonight.
Momentarily - Traditionally, momentarily
means "for a moment", but its use to mean
"in a moment" is sometimes disputed. M-W
and RH give this latter usage a standard entry without
comment, while OED and CHAMBERStag it "N.Amer."
AHD4 has a usage note indicating that 59% of their
Usage Panel deems this usage "unacceptable".
Disputed usage: Your feature presentation
will begin momentarily. Undisputed usage:
The flash from the atom bomb momentarily lit up the
[ top ]
Nauseous - Traditionally nauseous
means "causing nausea" (synonymous with
"nauseating"); it is commonly used now as
a synonym for "queasy," that is, having
the feeling of nausea. AHD4 notes the traditional
view, stating that 72% of the Usage Panel preferred
nauseated over nauseous to mean
"affected with nausea"; however, 88% of
that same panel preferred nauseating to nauseous
to mean "causing nausea"; in other words,
a maximum of only 28% prefers nauseous in
either case. It also states that in common usage,
nauseous is synonymous with nauseated,
but deems this usage "incorrect". M-W, however,
asserts that "[t]hose who insist that nauseous
... is an error for nauseated are mistaken".
Both M-W and AHD4 accept that nauseous is
supplanting nauseated for "feeling nausea",
and in turn being replaced by nauseating
for "causing nausea" in general usage; they
only differ on the correctness of the change. RH states
"The two literal senses of nauseous [...] appear
in English at almost the same time in the early 17th
century, and both senses are in standard use at the
present time. Nauseous is more common than
nauseated in the sense 'affected with nausea',
despite recent objections by those who imagine the
sense to be new." For their part, CHAMBERS lists
the sense of causing nausea first and affected with
nausea second, while COD11 gives the affliction first
and causation second; both dictionaries list the entries
without comment. OED goes further, tagging its "nauseated"
usage as "Orig[inally] U.S.", but demoted
its "nauseating" usage to "literary".
OED also notes that the original (now obsolete) sense
of the word in English was "inclined to sickness
or nausea; squeamish". Curiously, this oldest
seventeenth-century meaning (inclined to nausea),
while distinct from the disputed twentieth-century
usage (afflicted by nausea), more closely resembles
the latter than it does the prescribed meaning (causing
nausea). Undisputed usage: That smell is
nauseous. Disputed usage: That smell is making
...There are two domains where knowing the distinction
in terms leads to better usage: in medicine as opposed
to the derogatory informal usage. For example, when
a patient feels nausea, the doctor considers this
person nauseated. When someone feels repulsed by someone,
they are apt to characterize the offensive person
as nauseous or nauseating. Said in another way, when
someone has the pain of migraine, they frequently
admit to nausea and are considered nauseated. When
someone makes an unwonted overture of affection, that
person is described as a nauseous person or a nauseating
Not - Some prescriptivists argue
not should not conclude a sentence. Others
note that such usage is old enough and has been utilized
by many of the best writers in the English language.
OED attributes this usage as far back as 1420, and
cites examples by Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë,
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Eliot, John Fletcher,
Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Hardy, Ben Jonson, Benjamin
Jowett, Somerset Maugham, Alexander Pope, Anthony
Trollope, William Tynedale, John Wyclif, and others.Neither
M-W nor AHD4 notes any proscriptions on usage. Disputed
usage: I would think not.
[ top ]
Overly - FOWLER notes that some editors
regard this as an "Americanism". The American
source M-W's Webster's Dictionary of English Usage,
1989, eventually settles on accepting it, but has this
to say: "Bache 1869 and Ayres 1881 succinctly insulted
contemporaries who used this word, calling them vulgar
and unschooled. Times have changed: modern critics merely
insult the word itself. Follett 1966, for example, claims
that overly is useless, superfluous, and unharmonious,
and should be replaced by the prefix over-. Bryson 1984
adds that 'when this becomes overinelegant ... the alternative
is to find another adverb [...]'." The prefix
over- is safer, and accepted by all: "He
seemed over-anxious." M-W, AHD4, and RH include
the word without comment, and OED notes only "After
the Old English period, rare (outside Scotland
and North America) until the 20th cent."
[ top ]
Pleasantry originally means a joke
or witticism. Now often used to mean polite conversation
in general (as in the phrase "exchange of pleasantries").
Presently - Traditionally, presently
is held to mean "after a short period of time"
or "soon". It is also used in the sense
"at the present time" or "now",
a usage which is disapproved of by many prescriptivists.
RH dates the sense of "now" back to the
15th century - noting it is "in standard use
in all varieties of speech and writing in both Great
Britain and the United States" - and dates the
appearance of the sense of "soon" to the
16th century. It considers the modern objection to
the older sense "strange", and comments
that the two senses are "rarely if ever confused
in actual practice. Presently meaning 'now'
is most often used with the present tense (The
professor is presently on sabbatical leave) and
presently meaning 'soon' often with the future
tense (The supervisor will be back presently)."M-W
mentions the same vintage for the sense of "now",
and that "it is not clear why it is objectionable."AHD4
states that despite its use "nowadays in literate
speech and writing" that there is still "
lingering prejudice against this use". In the
late 1980s, only 50% of the dictionary's Usage Panel
approved of the sentence General Walters is …
presently the United States Ambassador to the United
Nations. COD11 lists both usages without comment;
CHAMBERS merely flags the sense of "now"
as "N Amer, especially US". Disputed
usage: I am presently reading Wikipedia. Undisputed
usage: I will be finished with that activity
[ top ]
Refute - The traditional meaning
of refute is "disprove" or "dispel
with reasoned arguments". It is now often used
as a synonym for "deny". The latter sense
is listed without comment by M-W and AHD4, while CHAMBERS
tags it as colloquial.COD11 states that "Traditionalists
object to [the use of refute as deny],
but it is now widely accepted in standard English."
However, RH does not mention this use at all.
Relatively - Literally meaning "compared
to", some now use relatively to mean
"moderately" or "somewhat." AHD4
does not list this usage at all; M-W has apparently
blended the two usages in one. Disputed usage:
That man was relatively annoying. Undisputed usage:
Though relatively harmless when compared to dimethylmercury,
mercury (II) oxide is still quite toxic.
[ top ]
and Scottish. Formerly, English people
used "Scotch" where Scottish people used
"Scottish". The current convention is as
follows: "Scottish" for people "Scotch"
for things (especially whisky) "Scots" for
institutions (Scots law, Scots language)
Seek - This means 'look for', but
is used to mean 'try' or 'want'. Highfalutin, and
criticised by Fowler in the entry "Formal Words".
Disputed usage: '...we did seek to resolve
the Iraq crisis by peaceful means.... those who seek
to emulate his legacy of murder.... the Conservatives
seek to undermine that future...'. Undisputed
usage: 'Seek and ye shall find.'
[ top ]
Than - Than is the subject
of a longstanding dispute as to its status as a preposition
or conjunction; see than.
They - Prescriptivists regard this
as a plural pronoun, but the word is now commonly
used, especially in speech and informal writing, as
a non-gender-specific third-person singular pronoun
(which modern English otherwise lacks). The alternative
"he or she" can sound awkward, and the original
use of "he" to refer to any individual of
unspecified gender is now mostly obsolete.[citation
needed] Another possibility is the use
of "one" in replacement of "they",
which is common but awkward. Disputed usage:
A person is rude if they show no respect for their
hosts. Undisputed usage: One is rude if one
shows no respect for one's hosts. Undisputed usage:
Many people have told me that they are satisfied with
Thusly - Thusly (AHD4 suggests)
was originally coined by educated writers to make
fun of uneducated persons trying to sound genteel.
Thusly, however, diffused into popular usage.
Some people accept it as an adverb in its own right,
while others believe thus should
be used in all cases. The word "thusly"
appears with no associated usage notes in M-W;COD11
tags it as "informal", with the entry thus
tagged as "literary or formal". CHAMBERS
does not list the word at all, and it is unknown in
[ top ]
Unique - Some prescriptivists argue
that unique only means "sole" or
"unequaled", but most dictionaries give a
third meaning: "unusual", which can be qualified
by very or somewhat, as in "The
theme of the party was somewhat unique"; see comparison.
[ top ]
Whilst and While
- Penguin Working Words recommends while
only, and notes that whilst is old-fashioned.
Cambridge Guide to English Usage and M-W's
Webster's Guide to English Usage comment
on its regional character, and note that it is rare
in American usage. It is therefore safer to use only
while, in international English. (See the
article While for further sources deprecating the
use of whilst, and cautioning about uses
Who - Some prescriptivists argue
that "who" should be used only as a subject
pronoun, the corresponding object pronoun being "whom".
Strictly speaking, using who instead of whom
is substituting a subjective pronoun for an objective
pronoun and hence is the same as using she
instead of her (e.g., I talked to she
today.). Most people never use whom
in spoken English and instead use who for
all cases. Some, however, still do use whom
in their everyday speech and might recognize the use
of who in its place as substandard. FOWLER
has an extensive entry on who and whom including
several quotes from major publications where whom
is used incorrectly. Undisputed usage: You
are talking to whom? Disputed usage: You
are talking to who? Undisputed usage: To
whom are you talking? Disputed usage: To
who are you talking? Disputed usage: ...
far more hostile to Diana whom she believes betrayed
the Prince of Wales - Independent Mag., 1993 (FOWLER)
Undisputed usage: ... far more hostile to
Diana who she believes betrayed the Prince of Wales
Whoever - This extension of who
(see above) along with its object form whomever
is attended by the same uncertainties as who
along with whom, and is discussed in the
same sources. (See the relevant section at Who.) Undisputed
usage: Give it to whoever wants it. Undisputed
usage: Give it to whoever you think should have
it. Undisputed usage: Give it to whomever
you choose to give it to. Undisputed usage:
Give it to whoever you choose to give it to. Disputed
usage: Give it to whomever wants it. Disputed
usage: Give it to whomever you think should have
- Cochrane, James (2004). Between You and I: A
Little Book of Bad English. Napierville, Illinois:
Sourcebooks. ISBN 1-4022-0331-4
- Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 11th edition
(2004). Soanes, Catherine et al (eds). Oxford: Oxford
University Press. ISBN 0-19-860864-0
- Fowler, H.W. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.
Oxford University Press. Fourth U.S. Printing, 1950.
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