Word Choice

While they may not be much fun at parties (so has been impressed upon me), English majors are essential for clarity in expression and sense. Lesser beings struggle with farther versus further, college students with half a clue stay up late and challenge each other with infer versus imply, but for English majors these are elementary skirmishes.  Conservatives mock and deride the concept of “political correctness,” but English majors understand that, beyond not wishing to offend or insult already disenfranchised groups, PC is an appeal for precision of speech.

And it’s this imprecision with the language that bleeds over into so many other seemingly unrelated areas. I was shopping recently and purchased five colored glass tea light holders. While I was in line I noticed the store was having a clearance sale on stationery, or “stationary” as they had written it. I pointed out the error of the sign to the clerk who insisted she had nothing to do with it. She did, however, stiff me one dollar—I pointed out the discrepancy between the cash in my hand and what was printed on the receipt—and when I got home I noticed she also charged me for an extra candle holder.

Revenge… or imprecision? I’ll leave that to the philosophers to discuss.

It may be in many cases that the slight differences in syntax are lost on everyone but English majors. That’s a valid argument. A poorly worded sign may still convey its essential message to the masses, even if a couple English majors giggle over its technical expression. Most people seem to think framing a word in quotation marks places emphasis upon it, while we English majors know that at best it denotes verisimilitude, at worst represents the opposite of what is stated. The easiest way to remember this, if still there lingers a doubt in your mind, is to consider which of these you would like to have for dinner:

  • Fresh fish
  • “Fresh” fish
  • Fresh “fish”

If you chose anything but the first, you and your subliterate gastrointestinal tract get what you deserve.

In the first case, there is fish and it is fresh. In the second, it is definitely fish but our conventional understanding of fresh may be too restrictive a description. In the third, there is no question of it being fresh. It is so fresh! As for the rest of it, it may have a couple qualities that remind you of fish. At least that’s what the cook is calling this stuff today.  Personally, I would not eat anywhere fish is merely a slang term.

It may be that the encroaching and undying plague of Living Language renders all of this a moot point: if enough people get something wrong for a long enough time, it becomes “right.”  The dictionary is like a popular magazine, it only represents how people are using words at that time. The more people ask for “expresso” at their coffee shops, the closer we get to seeing it appear in the dictionary, “espresso” being relegated to etymological annotation.

Until then, try to value your local English major. Trust him/her when s/he says there’s a better way to express what you’re trying to say, and don’t take it personally. For the time being, s/he’s right.

If you don’t agree, try on your own to discern the difference between continuous and continual.

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