A Word, Please: Decimating the sticklers

The English language is flexible, forgiving and fun. But don't tell that to some people.

There's a large contingent of sticklers who think that every language choice has just one right answer. Many are victims of superstitions that ran rampant in educational circles in the 1950s and '60s — mythical laws like "you can't end a sentence with a preposition" and "it's wrong to split an infinitive."

Most of the prohibitions popular in those days were pure superstition, including the aforementioned. So you and I don't have to pay attention to them if we don't want to.

But that raises the question: Do we want to? Should we choose our words based not on what's right or wrong, but on what people may think is right or wrong? That's a question every English language speaker must answer for himself. But if and when you want to take misinformed folks into consideration, here are some terms to choose carefully.

Enormity: In Sticklerville, enormity is about badness, not bigness. When you're talking about the enormity of something, you're talking about the extent of its evil, not the number of people or the size of the geographic area affected.

The dictionary begs to differ. It does allow enormity to mean "enormous size or extent, vastness," but it tacks on this caveat: "considered a loose usage by some."

Decimate: This word originates from an ancient military practice of killing one in 10 soldiers to punish the lot. So its original meaning was to wipe out a tenth of something. Today, people sometimes use it to describe wiping out a large part of something. That's fine, but don't take this too far. Dictionaries do not allow "decimate" to refer to total devastation. Use is to describe wiping out a large part of something, but not all of something.

Good: To some people, nothing grates more than responding to the question "How are you?" with "I'm good." And while it's true that the adjective "well" is considered more proper here, one of the definitions of good is "healthy." "An old notion that it is wrong to say 'I feel good' in reference to health still occasionally appears in print," notes Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, "both 'good' and 'well' can be predicate adjectives after 'feel.' Both are used to express good health."

Like: A lot of people believe that "like" can't mean "such as." To them, the following sentence would be wrong: "The restaurant serves excellent desserts, like the peach tart and the bread pudding." Their thinking is that "like" is about similarity, so they believe this sentence suggests that the peach tart is not an example a dessert, but that it's similar to a dessert. Not so. "Like" can mean "such as" or "for example."

Gender: I was taught that gender was a language term and sex was a biology term. That is, if you wanted to know whether someone was male or female, it would be wrong to ask, "What is the person's gender?" But I learned wrong. Right under Merriam-Webster's entry for "gender," you'll see its third definition is "sex: 'the female gender.'"

If someone breaks into your home and steals something, yes, you were burglarized. But a lot of people think you couldn't also say you were robbed. In news and law enforcement, these words have some specific, restricted uses. But in general speech and writing, their definitions overlap enough to allow you to say, "Someone broke in and robbed us."

These are just a few of the words that draw criticism even when you use them correctly. So choose them with care and always consider your audience.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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