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Use a dictionary people

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After a recent presentation someone approached me to tell me how glad she was that I used the word “orient” instead of the word “orientate.” The two are interchangeable but the latter really is unnecessarily clunky.

Akaky of Passing Parade went on a rampage about writers who use “discrete” when they really mean “discreet.” Not the same thing at all.

I remember reading an essay a couple of years ago in which Joseph Epstein lamented writers who substitute “intrigue” for “interest.” I’ve done this–and continue to do this–but not without thinking of Epstein.

I personally can’t stand it when people use “disinterested” when they really mean “doesn’t float my boat,” or just plain “boring.” Have these people never read Jane Austen?

Another trend I’ve noticed: People who use “notoriety” when they mean “fame.” Saddam Hussein is notorious; Britney Spears merely famous. (Actually given her recent exploits–her marriages, her reality TV show and the Madonna kiss–she may be notorious, too. But the fame came first.)

On a related note, Christopher Hitchens bemoans a magazine editor who wanted him to change the word “promethean” on the grounds that most readers wouldn’t know what it means. (Hat tip: Sheila O’Malley)

I said, “Maybe they won’t. I’ll cut it out if you give me another synonym for it. You give the words that would stand in for it and I’ll change it.” “There doesn’t seem to be one,” they said. “No, there isn’t, is there?” You either know what “Promethean” means or you don’t. If you do, it saves you about 50 words. And if you don’t, then you can look it up!


How about you? Spotted any violations of language laws lately?

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About Rachel


    Great post, I agree completely.

  • I have to tell you that when I use words correctly it actually confuses people. When I recently used ‘discrete’ correctly, for example, I got a couple of comments telling me I was using it incorrectly.

    Oh, and is ‘orientate’ even a word?


  • gonzo marx

    Bog knows i confabulate the hell out of folks with my misrenunciation of wyrds,horrendipitous spelling,and esoteric punctuationalizings…

    i blame Slip Mahoney…

    film at 11


  • Bennett

    “and is ‘orientate’ even a word?”

    Daaaave… According to Steven King, it’s a ka-tet between five Japaneese.

    >rim shot<

  • According to dictionary.com, orientate is a word. I looked it up before I made a fool out of myself by claiming that it wasn’t.

  • Discrete examples of proper usage lead to discreet but mistaken corrections.


    The improper use of “affect” and “effect” always bothers me as well.

  • gonzo marx

    oh yes..and if you are nice and behave well..

    i may even defrost the pie first…



  • gonzo marx

    d’oh..my Apologies…wring Thread..

    pay no attention to the man behind the curtain..


  • bhw

    “Irregardless” is another problem word.

  • gonzo marx


    wtf was i thinking..

    my heartfelt apologies for a noisey vowel movement



  • Bennett

    “affect” and “effect” – I think I do okay with those…

    “Discrete examples of proper usage lead to discreet” – I’ll never use either of those words again…

    “Irregardless” – Isn’t that a shrub-ism?

  • gonzo marx

    as in “irregardless of using the nukuler option”?

    bad gonzo..nasty bad, evil gonzo..

    back in your cage..


  • It’s easy, Bennett! Discreet people use discretion. Every person is discrete, with the rare exception of conjoined twins serving to prove the rule.

    Okay, maybe it’s not so easy. That’s why we have dictionaries, bringing the discussion back around to Rachel’s original point.

    When in doubt, dictionariate! Or should that be dictionarize? Hmm, they both look wrong.

    “Verbing weirds language.” — Calvin and Hobbes

  • RJ

    “Garbanzo bean” and “chick pea” have always confused me… ;-P

  • Yeah, my professors are always lecturing the class on proper word usage. I’m assuming most people in the class look in the Thesaurus and randomly pick words that are similar, but don’t bother look at the words’ meanings to make sure they have the right context. Recently, one of my professors told us how wrong the word, concept, is in essays. He said the word is too vague. He gave us a better substitute, but I forgot it. Some student, I am.

  • “Concept” is the wrong word if you’re writing an essay about becoming (or causing someone to become) pregnant.

    It is the exact right word to write if you’re discussing ideas, notions, mental creations – or if your essay describes a scheme or plan.

  • One of my pet peeves: using words of romance and love for unromantic ideas and concepts.

    For example:

    – Stating that one idea is “married” to another
    – Stating that an idea, concept, or application is sexy… (shiver)

  • Shark

    Shark’s CURRENT pet peeves:

    1) The sports analysts and semi-literate ex-basketball players (watch the NBA finals for a few million examples) who pronounce “athletic” as ath-ul-et-ic.

    (4 sylables vs 3; also see: athlete vs ath-ul-eet)


    2) Using “absolutely” as a substitute for “Yes”. How friggin’ pretentious! (I’ve found “absolutely” to be a very accurate guage for spotting pretentious assholes.)

    “Do you think of yourself as a pretentious ass?”


    BTW: I think “absolutely” is one of the few absolutely useless words in the English language.

    Shark has spoke.

  • Shark

    Almost forgot:

    re. the heading of this entry:

    “Use a comma, people!”

  • Interesting article,
    I’d like to read more about these common “language violations”.
    I’m european, i know quite some languages,
    (i have italian and Polish blood, i grew up in belgium (dutch, french and german are the official languages)and i live and work in spain these days.)
    but there isn’t any that i speak or write fluently. Well, maybe dutch (which is the language that surrounded me when i grew up), although there’s recently been yet another official dutch spelling change.

    As i happen to spend a lot of time online and most sites, boards and blogs i frequent are in english, i do a lot of typing in english, as natural as i can, but it’s harder than you can imagine.

    I use the wrong words all the time (then vs. than, quite vs. quiet, assume vs. estimate, may vs. might, through vs. throughout, link vs. associate vs. connect vs. wire, remark vs. notice, tend vs. attempt), most stupid mistakes first.

    I often come across phrases that i do understand literally, but can’t figure out what they actually mean.
    – Someone recently blogged the phrase :”My grandfather took a turn for the worse.”, which took me quite some time to figure out, lol
    – In tv show 24 Jack Bauer sometimes uses : “I’m going dark” when he’s about to shut down all communications with CTU for a while during a difficult mission, to avoid being traced. First time i heard it i figured something like Jack announces he’s depressed or tired and needs to take a break. After which he grabbed his gun, shot down 3 Mexicans and saved the president’s life, lol.
    (another interpretation also crossed my mind. “I’m going dark” meaning i stop working for CTU and i’ll offer my talents to the bad guys (much like the star wars dark force way)

    And I make a lot of logic mistakes,
    like building phrases that are grammatically correct, but that lack a natural flow. Mostly because i think in dutch or spanish and i tend to translate literally. Look at every single phrase in this comment to know how much impact that has on the flow.

    Keep on posting these examples, they teach me a lot.


  • The usage of insure and ensure as if they are interchangeable.

  • Heh – funny thread – Americans debating English usage:)

  • How about spelling? Everyone knows how ‘ghoti’ is pronounced, I guess? (fish), re G B Shaw.

    Do you see many spelling mistakes on the web?

  • I frequently see people use the phrase “another words” online, when they mean to say “in other words”.

  • 100 pompous even on this thread. Wow. LMAO.

  • “Amazing” as a synonym for “fabulous” or “wonderful.”

  • In view of Christopher Hitchens’s battle for word economy, isn’t it ironic that he would string two entirely redundant sentences next to each other?

    I’ll cut it out if you give me another synonym for it. You give the words that would stand in for it and I’ll change it.

    And shouldn’t that simply be “a synonym” rather than “another synonym”?

    Also puzzling is the remark:

    You either know what “Promethean” means or you don’t. If you do, it saves you about 50 words. And if you don’t, then you can look it up!

    On looking it up I find much fewer than 50 words.

  • Oh, and what’s a “hat tip”?

  • bhw

    It’s a doggie dog world.

  • Duane

    For all intensive purposes none of these mistakes should matter to you or I. Getting the message acrossed is the important thing irregardless of grammer.

  • Sunny

    I hate it when people confuse “to, too, and two.” Come on…didn’t we all learn that in grade school? Or ending words with prepositions…”Where’s my coat at?” “Where are you going to?” Arg!

  • Shark

    Duane, good one, but prepare for the corrections from the humor impaired.

    PS: My centiment has always ben that when Blogcritics starts paying me, than I’ll start submitting perfect spelling and grammar.

  • my pet peave, outside of these grammar thingies, is when people drop what i like to call ‘humongo-words’ into a sentence.

    you know the ones…they’re not in anybody’s working vocabulary…and they make it sound like the write has swallowed the thesaurus:

    “The flavor of the pale steamed vegetables was both subtle and pastinaceous.”

  • ClubhouseCancer

    A hick gets into Harvard. On his first day on campus, he sees a guy in a letterman’s sweater and asks, “‘Scuse me, sir, where’s the library at?”
    The gentleman haughtily responds, “At Harvard, sir, we never end a sentence with a preposition.”
    The hick says, “Ohhhhh, I see. Well, then, where’s the library at, asshole?”

    A a copy editor and copy editing teacher, I declare the rule on this:
    The only time it’s OK to end a sentence with a preposition is when there’s no other way to end it you can think of.

  • As Winston Churchill is reported to have said regarding ending sentences ending with a preposition: “That is a rule up with which I will not put.”

  • I’m indifferent to spelling or usage errors, but a friend gets terribly steamed when people say “anxious” when they mean “eager.” The former connotes dread; you are anxious over test results or repair bills, you are not anxious to see the new Revenge of the Sith — although, given the reviews, you might be.

  • RJ

    “The sports analysts and semi-literate ex-basketball players (watch the NBA finals for a few million examples) who pronounce “athletic” as ath-ul-et-ic.”


    Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson would both lose a spelling bee against 9 year olds with trisomy of the 21st chromosome…

  • Uriel, my grammer taught me that “fabulous” means untrue, made up, like unto a fable; in other words, a lie.

    I used to crack up when she would would cooly murmer, “Fabulous!” in response to the bragging of my friends. I never told them why, though – I was anxious how she would handle that, but not eager to learn…

  • dee

    I agree with clubhousecancer.

  • “Conversating.”

  • Greensheep

    You all are a riot. Thanks for my laugh of the day, Clubhousecancer. This one drives me nuts – substituting “your” when one means “you’re” f. ex. Be careful or your going to get hurt. Oh MAN drives me crazy.

    Oh, and my all-time personal favorite:
    “Nuclear” pronounced “Nu-cu-lar”. Especially by journalists.