Words easily confused (that have become synonyms) #9

And then there are the words that I think are different but turn out to be acceptable variants of each other.

For example, I always thought loath was the correct spelling of the adjective ("She was loath to admit it"), and that loathe could only be used as a verb. Not so; MW10 lists loathe as a variant on loath. (Though loath can't be used as a verb, so the two aren't entirely interchangeable.)

See my entry on forgo for another example of me being pickier than the dictionary considers necessary.

Another example: I always used to be in the camp that believed that enormity should be reserved for monstrous evil, rather than referring simply to great size (enormousness or, better, immensity). Sadly, MW10 doesn't back me up on this; my prescriptivist tendencies are once again hung out to dry.

And really, that's probably the eventual fate of all of these words-easily-confused. Dictionaries are intended to be descriptivist; they serve a prescriptivist role, but y'know, if everyone starts to spell lightning as lightening, the dictionary should start to list that as an alternative.

But I do still note, when editing, that a certain class of intellectual snobs like me will wince at what they believe to be misuses of words, even if they/we are just behind the times. So if you're loath to see prescriptivists sneering at you, forgo the traditionally frowned-upon uses of enormity and other such words.

(Entry edited shortly after posting to correct misspelling of prescriptivists. Life is all ironical 'n' stuff.)

12 Responses to “Words easily confused (that have become synonyms) #9”

  1. Karen

    I use “loathe” because I think of it as akin to “breath” and “breathe”. If I don’t put that silent e on the end, it seems as though the “th” should be hard, so the word doesn’t sound right in my head. I know it doesn’t really work that way, but since the way I want to spell it is okay, I go ahead and use the e.

  2. Jed

    Well, the preferred pronunciation of loath (the adjective) is with a soft “th” rather than a hard one. But both pronunciations are listed at MW10 for both spellings of the adjective, so you’re not wrong. And the soft “th” pronuciation isn’t listed for the verb.

  3. John Borneman

    I love the subtlety of the English language. I also find that much of that subtlety is diminishing. This may be where your impressions of “enormity” versus “immensity” come from. And to your credit, The American Heritage Dictionary agrees with you (http://www.bartleby.com/61/27/E0152700.html). Basically, it says “The quality of passing all moral bounds; excessive wickedness or outrageousness”. So you are justified.

    I have always wanted to write a small paper on the subtle differences between “possible”, “probable”, “potential”, and “practicable”. These words are often interchanged, especially in the engineering world where I reside.

  4. Jay Lake

    I dunno, this is a terrific language. I mean, you can verb anything. Plus English allows sentences like this one I once heard a graduate student in linguistics say in normal conversation:

    “It must be back vowels that /w/ drops out after /s/ before.”

    At which point they all stared at each other, then made a mad scramble for blackboard for an intense session of diagramming, etc.

    English: the Play-Doh of languages.

  5. Jed

    Thanks for the AHD reference, John. But see the usage note at the end of that entry (and the usage note at the end of the entry in MW10)—the majority of the AHD usage panel didn’t like the “large size” meaning of enormity, but it sounds like a substantial minority were fine with it, and AHD notes that the distinction hasn’t always existed (so in this case it’s a case of a finer distinction being drawn over time). As with other shibboleths of this sort, a certain kind of educated reader (including some editors) will deride the “mis-“usage, so it’s always worth thinking carefully about whether you want to use the word that way, but as long as the author makes an intentional choice, aware of the pros and cons, it seems reasonable to me to use the word’s full range of meanings.

  6. Otavia

    Bah to descriptivists. One of my pet peeves is “I’m doing good” instead of “I’m doing well.” Unless, of course, one is in fact doing good works and helping little old ladies cross the street and whatnot.

  7. David Moles

    I’m trying very hard just to resign myself to the idea that the language — the written language, particularly — is going to evolve whether I like it or not, and that by the time my hypothetical grandchildren are applying to college, the consensus plural of tomato will be tomato’s. Set against that, the inability of people to tell loath from loathe will be a small thing.

  8. Rachel Heslin

    One of my peeves is that “ensure” is now considered synonymous with “insure.” I like the differentiation of ensure meaning “to take care that something does or does not occur;” whereas insure should mean “to make arrangements for contingencies if something goes wrong.”

  9. Jay Lake

    dispatch – despatch
    effluent – affluent
    capital – capitol
    principle – principal

  10. David Moles

    And, of course, affect and effect.

  11. Shmuel

    I agree that English is a language with ever-changing subtleties, but that’s no less true now than it was ten years ago, twenty years ago, or five hundred years ago. Today’s subtleties may be different than yesterday’s subtleties, but they’re just as subtle.

    To move to the enormity/enormouness case, this is not actually a case of an established subtle distinction getting lost; it’s a case of an attempt by critics to impose a subtle distinction being swept away by the tide.

    I should say at this point that I support such distinctions and use them myself. I think it’s good to be aware of the peculiar rules of the Pretentious Pedant dialect of English, which has a privileged place in contemporary American culture, especially in academia. With that said, it’s also clear that that dialect is no more important (or complex, or valid) than any other dialect, and it’s certainly not synonymous with mainstream English.

    So, yes, in the Pretentious Pedant dialect, the enormousness/enormity distinction is alive and fiercely defended. If you speak or write in that dialect, and you use one term in place of the other, you will be laughed at, and you will deserve to be laughed at. (My review of Bee Season — a pretentious literary work if ever there was one — points out just such a howler, in fact.) But this in no way alters the fact that, in mainstream English, the two terms have been interchangeable from the start. (See Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, 1994 ed., p. 396-8.)

    As for “I’m doing good,” the adverbial “good” is perfectly legitimate in spoken English, but less so in written English. This is a case of subtlety working the other way, if anything; to quote Bollinger (cited in MWDEU) “He treats me good expresses more appreciation than He treats me well, and She scolded him, but good can hardly be expressed with well at all.” If you insist that the the adverbial “good” is always illegal, you lose a useful distinction.

    (I’m gonna quote one paragraph from MWDEU, because it’s relevant, and right on the money: “And one should not assume that well is avoided out of ignorance — a professional basketball coach interviewed on television after a game began by saying that the team played good but in mentioning the contributing factors said that they shot well and they rebounded well. The nuances here are plain to sports fans but are overlooked by usage writers.”)

    As for “ensure” vs. “insure,” writing of American usage in 1957, prescriptivists Evans and Evans claimed that “In the sense to make sure, to secure, to make sure or certain to come, ensure and insure are interchangeable; in the sense to guarantee against risk of loss or harm, insure is now the only word and its increasing use in this sense is tending to fix it so that its use in other senses seems improper.” Prescriptivist Kilpatrick, writing in 1993, follows this trend further: “In a technical sense not much of anything, except for the Atlantic Ocean, separates ensure from insure. An insurance company in England ensures against loss; American companies insure against loss…. Few writers will have trouble with ensure and insure in real-world application. The uses of ensure are many; beyond the pages of an insurance policy, the uses of insure are few. My impression is that insure requires the elements of risk and financial compensation. These are not required for to ensure.” The MWDEU (which starts by noting that prescriptivist Bernstein, writing in 1977, said there were no distinctions between ensure, insure, and assure, while others claim that all three are different) notes that “A few commentators, such as Trimble 1975 and Sellers 1975, suggest assure for people, ensure for things, and insure for money and guarantees (insurance). There are nice distinctions, and you can follow them if you want to. Assure is almost always used of people, in fact…. The rest of the recommendation rests on using ensure for general senses and insure for financial senses. This distinction has been usged at least since Fowler 1926, especially by British commentators. It is in general true that insure is used for the financial uses (it must vex British commentators to find assure still occasionally used in this sense by British technical writers). However, both insure and ensure are used in general senses…. Our most recent evidence shows that the distinction between ensure and insure is made more often in British written English than in American written English, and a few commentators hold that insure is more common than ensure in American English.”

    (Someday, I’ll write my essay about usage guides. In the meantime, this needs to be said about the MWDEU: If you’re into English usage, you need this book. You will take issue with it on countless occasions — as with any usage guide — but it’s really well put together, and offers a fascinating perspective, applying a descriptivist methodology both to the language and to all the leading prescriptivists.)

  12. Benjamin Rosenbaum

    Amen Shmuel! I love the idea of the Pretentious Pedant dialect of English! This post has opened a new world to me, for I have always been torn between descriptivist and prescriptivist tendencies. My new plan is to be a descriptivist with regard to the English language in general, in all its unknowable complexity of thousands of dialects and millions of idiolects, but a prescriptivist with regard to certain dialects which I am a proud speaker of — including Pretentious Pedant.

    And as a prescriptivist Pedant, I also love the idea that our job is not to defend distinctions from erosion, but to introduce new distinctions in order to enrich! Let us seek out other synonyms such as assure/ensure/insure and suggest new distinctions, in whose esoteric subtlety fellow speakers of Pretentious Pedant may rejoice! How about starting with “sordid” and its Palo Alto variant “sorrid”, which we can import into our beloved PP and assign a subtly different meaning to! Any suggestions? What should distinguish “sordid” and “sorrid”?


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