Definitions and Word Pairs
by David Wright (UK)
There are many disagreements between even well educated people about the meanings and usages of certain words. Some distinctions are claimed to be modern ‘errors’ when, in fact, they may go back centuries, even to the earliest extant writings in English. Some we have come across before:
Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction;
Don’t end a sentence with a preposition;
Don’t split an infinitive;
Two negatives make a positive;
None is singular; etc.
These instructions derive from Latin grammar which was used as a model for early English grammarians. They are now recognised to be matters of style.
Taking the example of the double negative (which probably arose from early studies of algebra), in olden days, the repetition merely emphasised the negation. Today the colloquial ‘I didn’t see nothing’ means ‘I didn’t see anything’ in standard English. Mick Jagger can sing: “I can’t get no satisfaction” without ambiguity; whilst Tom Jones can sing: “It’s not unusual” and the meaning is clear there too1.
Similarly with the meanings of words – purists quoting the roots from which the words are derived may insist:
Aggravate can mean only to make worse;
Fulsome can mean only abundant, full, good;
Disinterested can mean only impartial, unbiased; whereas uninterested can mean only bored or lacking interest
In fact, ‘fulsome’ gradually acquired a negative connotation, meaning ‘excessive, over-abundant’ and is now reverting to its former positive meaning. Again, conflicting usage of ‘disinterested’ and ‘uninterested’ go back at least as far as the mid-17th century and show no signs of resolution to this day. So, beware of dictionaries, especially those published more than a few years ago.
Having said that, I would not wish to leave you with the impression that ‘anything goes’ and there are no definite rules at all. Whilst there are disagreements about some issues, the vast majority of instances do not admit such private interpretation: they are either right or wrong!
It is popular at the current time, to favour diversity. “Dialects are good; standard English is bad” is the mantra reiterated by liberal-socialists such as the present government and the BBC. Of course, making people who speak with a particular accent or use a local dialect feel like second-class citizens cannot be defended. On the other hand, if you wish to communicate with a broad range of English-speaking people, it is as well to use a form of the language which they will understand and use back to you without confusion, at least on the more formal occasions. Naturally, hand-written personal letters, email, text messages, etc, are often rushed – using dashes as punctuation – not full stops – written in snatches – not complete sentences – in a conversational tone. There is more elision nowadays even in formal situations:
There’s rather than there is.
Many pairs of words with differing meanings from the same roots which are often confused are:
and even a triple:
Other pairs of words are confused because they sound or look similar in some way, eg:
Using the incorrect word in these cases is not a matter of opinion – it is just plain wrong!
However some words really are ambiguous and need explanation unless the context makes their meaning clear. Examples include:
peruse = read carefully or just read
quaff = drink in large draughts or just drink
article = thing or part of speech like ‘a’ or ‘the’ or piece of writing like the one you are now reading
indicate = signal or point out or suggest or imply or state
Yet more word pairs can be called mirror words:
They describe the same action from two opposite points of view. Thus:
if I imply something, you infer it;
if I teach you something, you learn it
if I am your ancestor, you are my descendant
if I lend you a book, you borrow the book
These words are frequently misused and that is not dialect - it is incorrect speech.
Other pairs of words are homonyms and homophones.
A homonym is a word pronounced and spelt the same as another, but with an entirely different meaning, eg
cleave which can mean either split or join.
Homophones, the more common, are words pronounced in the same way but different in spelling and meaning (and a computer spell checker will not help here!) such as:
Still another kind of word pair is that where the spelling is identical, but the stress is different when it is spoken aloud, eg: defect
deґfect = fault
defectґ = go over to the other side.
Some words differ according to their origin, typically US v. British English; thus we write:
disc and programme in non-technical senses, but
disk and program when referring to computers
In general it is preferable to spell borrowed foreign words as in the original language at least until they are thoroughly assimilated when such things as accents are often dropped from imported words, eg:
cafe rather than café
role rather than rôle
Sometimes accents are required to distinguish one word from another, eg
résumé for a summary, CV
resume for continue
but it is pretentious to spell château with a circumflex accent.
If you do accent a word to aid pronunciation, then all its accents should be used, thus:
emigré should be émigré
paté should be pâté
The word ‘achilles’2 has long since lost its capital ‘A’ and its apostrophe when it refers to the heel or the tendon.
It is now common practice to omit the full stops in all cases.
It used to be the case that abbreviations were marked by full stops when they were truncations, as:
Prof. for Professor
or when they are single letters:
but not for contractions when the first and last letters are written:
rd for road
st for saint or street
Nowadays, the full stops are generally omitted in all such cases, so we write:
Prof, BBC, USA, USSR, EU, rd, st, etc
Sometimes the abbreviations are written and pronounced as words (acronyms) eg
I have mentioned before the error of repeating a word (usually the last one) when it is included in the abbreviation, eg
1 Steven Pinker deplores the double negative, but his own writing includes: “I have never met a person who is not interested in language” and again, “ …… it was thought that no corner of the earth fit for human habitation had remained unexplored. New Guinea, the world’s second largest island was no exception.” How many negatives in that?
2 From the Greek god of that name whose immunity was compromised by his not having his heel dipped in the protective water when his mother held him by that part of his foot – or was it both feet, I’m not sure?
3 Even earlier, a space was inserted between what are separate words in the original Latin.
4 In this case etc gets a full stop, not because it is an abbreviation, but because it is the end of the sentence and the end of the article – ‘Thank goodness’ did you say?
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