Saturday 5 October 2013

Weekend Bleat: Illiteracy @ The Guardian

I credit the Grauniad with being the home of some very good writing.  But their editorials and op-eds are frequently penned by people with a truly deficient grasp of the English language.

The following is a case in point: a piece of outright ignorance which is pretty shameful for a broadsheet newspaper with liberal and literary pretensions.
"The last paragraphs of the Mail's editorial manage to elide Karl Marx and the 'hammer and sickle' with Ed Miliband's stance"
'Elide' is a perfectly good English word, and it does not mean what this idiot thinks.  For fun, I searched their website for other uses of  'elide', and at least 95% are equally wrong (and more than one writer is involved in this stupidity).  I say 'at least': it could be more, but there are just a couple of instances where you can't be certain what they intend and they might just actually mean what the sentence says.  Here are some more, all from the same bunch, all in the last few months.
"The narrative voice can elide with the young narrator..."
"The conversation tend (sic) not to simply be about governmental matters but frequently elide into discussions about ..."
"Grayling manages not only to elide criminality with stupidity, but also ..."
"Different periods elide to consistently potent and surprising effect"
"The rhetoric of public interest tends to become elided with the self-interest of ..."
(Hats off to Nicholas Lezard for a rare instance of correct usage.)

The malady is not difficult to diagnose.  They are looking for a clever word for 'slide', or 'slide together', and 'elide' is just so tempting ... Pathetic, really.  The best they could plead in defence is that they are using it as a kind of shorthand for 'elide the distinction between' - and that's pretty thin.

It's a nice example of its kind but by no means alone; and there's no defence in calling me an inflexible pedant who is unable to accept the evolution of language.  Of course language evolves, and words subtly change their nuances over time, there are no end of examples.  I might fairly have employed the word 'grotesque' in several of the sentences above, but its use today is quite different to that of 150 years ago.   

A current case in point might be 'kudos'.  Americans throw kudos around all over the place, clearly under the impression that it is a plural noun, where 'a kudo' is presumably thought to be what we might call a plaudit, or a brownie-point.  Of course they are wrong (with a small 'w') about this but it's clear enough what is intended, it's pretty harmless, and a few decades from now it will be the new de facto meaning of the word.

But when clearly based on ignorance, Outright Wrong is Outright Wrong; and it can even be serious.  Take 'failsafe'.  This is a very important concept in engineering design, with handy metaphorical or analogical uses in other contexts.  But it is clear that many idiot writers and broadcasters think it means 'foolproof' or 'impossible to fail'.  Young engineers nowadays must presumably be carefully told of the real, rigorous meaning in their training, to ensure they aren't blithely misunderstanding it based on the careless usage they were brought up on.

Well-educated folk that C@W readers are, you will definitely have some favourites of your own, in all these categories:  annoying, harmless and dangerous.   Care to share them ..?



Sackerson said...

"Lion's share"

Anonymous said...

"Fulsome" used to mean wholehearted instead of offensively excessive

Nick Drew said...

yup, Sackers - refute is annoying, verging on dangerous

now you mention it, anon, noisome is often wrongly used (but that's only slightly, errr, annoying)

lilith said...


Timbo614 said...

How are people using "refute" I must be missing something.

Even in The Times I sometimes find sentences unreadable because of missing words. It's usually fairly obvious that there has been an edit and someone didn't read it through properly again. Even so, It's jarring.

But he worst offender must be the word "more" even on the BBC it seems to be put in front of all and sundry making for a stupid or "more stupid" sentence.

Timbo614 said...

Damn, missing question mark and missing t alert :( (There's another one - dam and damn.)

Sackerson said...

"Refute" is commonly used to mean "deny, reject, repudiate" instead of "prove incorrect."

Electro-Kevin said...

Brought instead of bought. I even hear educated people making this mistake nowadays - I think they do it to align themselves with the football fans who started using it this way.

I'm no expert on diction so I can't really criticise.

dearieme said...

The mindless use of positive/negative to mean good/bad has led to various dimwits pontificating about "negative feedback" in financial affairs, when what they are describing is "positive feedback".

Blue Eyes said...

Kudos is one of mine, so - err - thank you for mentioning it *already*.

Another American wrongism is "momentarily". They use it to to mean "shortly".

Everyone on here has to write well in their professions and, while it is true that occasionally mistakes slip out (more often in an email than in a hardcopy letter), the amount of typos and badly-drafted and badly-edited stuff I see written by journalists never ceases to shock. You might think that a career that requires top-notch written English might be taken up only by those with top-notch written English.

The BBC news site is especially bad, which is frustrating because the BBC always tell us that everything is checked, rechecked and triple-checked and that we should be glad to pay the price for that.

Anyway, I stand shoulder to shoulder with you, ND, for shaming those who use words which they clearly don't fully understand.

"Per say" is one I have seen a few times recently.

Blue Eyes said...

Ugh. Apologies for the poor editing ;-)

Electro-Kevin said...

I don't like the use of the word 'pace' on its own by sports pundits.

"This footballer has pace."

"He ran up the field with pace"

WHAT pace exactly ?

dearieme said...

"Pace" is a bit like "quality": you feel like shouting "good, bad, or indifferent?"

Another peeve: the use of words whose true meaning is so-so to mean lousy. Thus: average, ordinary, mediocre.

Anonymous said...

The American use of "momentarily" can be hilarious as in the stewardess announcing that your plane will be in the air momentarily.

dearieme said...

And another one: I take issue with "issues".

Anonymous said...

"Gender" to mean "sex" i.e. biological sex.

Of course, to a feminist sex roles are just a cultural construct - and in the case of the gender of French or German nouns they're right. So slowly "gender" took over from "sex" as the 70s and 80s sociology grads moved up the BBC, and also as "sex" was more openly used to describe the way of a man with a maid.

We're now at the stage where that South African athlete who didn't go to the Olympics is said to have been asked to "take a gender test".

No one actually wants to know what society considers her to be, and there's no test for it - AFAIK she's spoken of and treated as female. They want a sex test - a biological sex test.

Scan said...

"Momentarily" and the Americanism "often times" (pronounced "offentimes").

Sackerson said...

@ Scan: Queen Elizabeth I is said to have prounced "often" as "offen".

Extra grumble: "Skeptic" to mean "denier" as opposed to "someone to suspends judgment". And it used to be spelt with a k not a c.

P.S. Could someone please come up with a program to read Google's word verification, it's getting so that only computers will be able to decipher it.

Scan said...

Sackerson, I wasn't so much complaining about the pronunciation of the English language. As a northerner I can't really.

And agree with the point about the word verification.

Si thi.

Nick Drew said...

when I last looked at the Big Oxford Dictionary, offen was the correct pronunciation

Y Ddraig Goch said...

"Sour grapes" - now almost always used to mean something like envious or bitter rather than the meaning from the fable.

Ryan said...

"hubris" "sarcasm" and "concerning" all very commonly misused and provided with meanings beyond their dictionary definition.

Scan said...

The Big Oxford Dictionary. Is that like The Big Book of Dinosaurs? :)

The Cambridge Dictionary - unlike the ne'er do wells across the river - give both pronunciations as correct.

But, as I said, I wasn't really complaining about the pronunciation.

...even though it should have a "t" in it. ;)