Taking all the arrant pedants to task

It takes a lot of nerve to correct other people’s grammar, if only because of number 13 on the following list of 12.

It takes gall to the nth power (an expression which, I fear, may not make sense grammatically) to correct those who correct others.

So it is with admiration that I point to the following list (brought to my attention by Stanley Dubinsky), from a blog with the wonderful name “Arrant Pedantry.” You know, the thing up with which Churchill allegedly would not put.

This list won’t make a lot of sense without the explanations of each item, so I urge you to go to the original. But here’s a taste:

12 Mistakes Nearly Everyone Who Writes About Grammar Mistakes Makes

1. Confusing grammar with spelling, punctuation, and usage….

2. Treating style choices as rules….

3. Ignoring register….

4. Saying that a disliked word isn’t a word….

5. Turning proposals into ironclad laws….

6. Failing to discuss exceptions to rules….

7. Overestimating the frequency of errors….

8. Believing that etymology is destiny….

9. Simply bungling the rules….

10. Saying that good grammar leads to good communication….

11. Using grammar to put people down….

12. Forgetting that correct usage ultimately comes from users….

13. Making mistakes themselves. It happens to the best of us. The act of making grammar or spelling mistakes in the course of pointing out someone else’s mistakes even has a name, Muphry’s law. This post probably has its fair share of typos. (If you spot one, feel free to point it out—politely!—in the comments.)

I’m not saying I agree with all those assertions. For instance, I disagree with No. 8. Contrary to the writer’s belief, “decimate” does have a definite meaning, one that is obvious from its Latin root, and the fact that many people use it to mean something worse, something more devastating, simply proves that they are wrong. And I don’t bloody care that the OED blog disagrees with me.

But this writer is right to say that most pedants need to chill on the absolutes. After all, there’s only one absolute rule that a true wordsmith will never violate: Don’t ever use “impact” as a verb.

Follow that one, and you’re OK in my book.

12 thoughts on “Taking all the arrant pedants to task

  1. Bryan Caskey

    I get where you are coming from on the word “decimate”, but I guess I’m a little more forgiving. The Latin root “deci’ certainly does mean one-tenth. Decimeter, deciliter, decimal points, it’s all one-tenth.

    To that end, I think the origin about killing one-tenth of a Roman Legion that was mutinous is a pretty cool etymology for decimate. However, that meaning has been lost over time and the meaning of the word has changed to mean a more general destruction. I agree that it has been lost over time due to sloppy usage, but I can’t change that, and I kind of agree that it NOW means the more general destruction, rather than the specific one-tenth. So I guess I agree that the meaning of words can change over time.

    Is it your position that the meaning of words cannot change over time?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Note that the OED blog objection is based in the fact that the word didn’t always mean “destroy a tenth of.” It was also used centuries ago to mean “tithe.”

      Fine. I consider either of those uses legitimate, because they both relate logically to the idea of a tenth.

      But it’s wrong to use “decimate” to mean something like “wipe out.” Which is the way a lot of people use it.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        That is not to say that a military unit that has lost a tenth of its personnel hasn’t been devastated, in modern terms.

        About one-fourth of one percent (.264 percent) of the 2.5 million Americans who have served in the military in Iraq and Afghanistan have been killed. Imagine our reaction if that 6,600 number were more like 250,000 — between four and five times the number killed in Vietnam.

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        Nah, I’m just kidding around. I’m being very impressed with myself for knowing what “decimate” means. I only learned that a couple of years back, and I immediately thought, “of course”! Once you know it, if you have any background in Latin (two years, in my case, plus those years speaking Spanish), it’s so obvious that you sort of want to kick yourself. If you’re into words and their origins the way I sort of am.

        But one shouldn’t stand absolutely on origins. For instance, the word “vicious” has taken on a snarling, savage sort of meaning that has little to do with the root, “vice.” “Vice” is going to Vegas and playing blackjack, or drinking too much coffee. “Vicious” is, to cite Arlo Guthrie, “blood and gore and guts and veins in my teeth…

        And I think we have to accept that, for communication to be possible. And communication is the point of a language.

        This doesn’t stop me from lamenting the way common words have changed, to the great detriment of society. For instance, “liberal” and “conservative” have strayed too far to be meaningful anymore, in my book.

        OK, I’ll amend that. They have strayed to mean things that I would never want to be associated with, even though both words have honorable histories.

      3. Brad Warthen Post author

        By the way, we need to be careful in showing off the breadth of our knowledge.

        That Churchill item I linked to above tsk-tsked about “One poor soul, unfamiliar with the word ‘arrant’..:

        Well, until today, I didn’t know that he had said “arrant.” Like that poor soul, I thought it was “errant.” I didn’t know there was such a word as “arrant.”

        Now watch me. I’ll probably start using it a lot, just to show off.

  2. Karen Pearson

    The word I most often hear misused is “unique.” Stemming from the Latin for “one” it is supposed to designate something that is singular in some way. Thus, something can’t be “a little unique” or even “very unique” any more than one can be “a little bit pregnant” or even “somewhat dead.” I had that ground so thoroughly into my head by Mrs. Helms, my 4th grade teacher, that I still wince when I hear it being used improperly.

  3. Vanzell

    So, if i use ‘impact’ in this sentence this way, “The asteroid will impact the Earth in 24 days.”, then have i failed to properly use ‘impact’?

    I have purposefully stayed away from grammatical rules in recent years because of the ambiguity that has slowly rendered the rules ineffectual. But, i am open for correction and learning…

  4. susanincola

    “Don’t ever use “impact” as a verb.”
    I hate when people use it in an adjectival form: “impactful”.
    Makes me wince every time.

  5. Jim McLaurin

    Shrink, I wanna kill.
    Meteors also “hit” the earth, you know.
    But if I should empact someone, it doesn’t mean I don’t want to hit them. I’ll just know how it feels.

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