Peruse This

Over coffee this morning (Raven’s Brew‘s delicious Resurrection Blend, which I highly recommend), Adam, newly graduated from massage school, read me part of a magazine article written by an expert in the field. It may have been chock full of good information, but I couldn’t get past the truly awful writing. Egregiously awful. With poor grammar to boot.

One error the writer did not make, mainly because I doubt that she’s ever heard the word (OK, that was unfair; I’m sure she’s heard the word, even if she’s never uttered it), is the misuse of the word “peruse.”

Peruse does not, as is popularly thought, mean “browse, glance over, skim.” It means “to read through with thoroughness or care; to examine in detail.” It was used as early as 1479 to mean “use up, wear out, go through,” from the Middle English per- “completely” + use. Its meaning of “to read carefully” is first recorded in 1532.

A similar pet peeve of mine is decimate. It does not mean “to wipe out or eliminate a population.” The earliest English sense of decimate is “to select by lot and execute every tenth soldier of (a unit),” a punishment used in the Roman army for mutinous legions.

The extended sense, “destroy a significant number or proportion of,” developed in the 19th century: “Cholera decimated the urban population.” Today, alas, this meaning is erroneously used to include the killing of any large proportion of a group. Sixty-six percent of the American Heritage Dictionary’s Usage Panel accepts this extension in the sentence “The Jewish population of Germany was decimated by the war,” even though it is common knowledge that the number of Jews killed was much greater than a tenth of the original population. However, when the meaning is further extended to include large-scale destruction other than killing, as in “The supply of fresh produce was decimated by the nuclear accident at Chernobyl,” only 26 percent of the Panel accepts the usage.

Personally, while I can accept it being a general percentage rather than a strict ten percent, decimate will always mean “an indiscriminately chosen but relatively small percentage of the population,” specifically when those deaths are shocking to those left alive.

And please don’t get me started on the word hopefully. In this word my lexical curmudgeonliness is revealed. Even my beloved American Heritage says I’m a dinosaur:

Usage Note: Writers who use hopefully as a sentence adverb, as in Hopefully the measures will be adopted, should be aware that the usage is unacceptable to many critics, including a large majority of the Usage Panel. It is not easy to explain why critics dislike this use of hopefully. The use is justified by analogy to similar uses of many other adverbs, as in Mercifully, the play was brief or Frankly, I have no use for your friend. And though this use of hopefully may have been a vogue word when it first gained currency back in the early 1960s, it has long since lost any hint of jargon or pretentiousness for the general reader. The wide acceptance of the usage reflects popular recognition of its usefulness; there is no precise substitute. Someone who says Hopefully, the treaty will be ratified makes a hopeful prediction about the fate of the treaty, whereas someone who says I hope (or We hope or It is hoped) the treaty will be ratified expresses a bald statement about what is desired. Only the latter could be continued with a clause such as but it isn’t likely.

It might have been expected, then, that the initial flurry of objections to hopefully would have subsided once the usage became well established. Instead, critics appear to have become more adamant in their opposition. In the 1969 Usage Panel survey, 44 percent of the Panel approved the usage, but this dropped to 27 percent in our 1986 survey. (By contrast, 60 percent in the latter survey accepted the comparable use of mercifully in the sentence Mercifully, the game ended before the opponents could add another touchdown to the lopsided score.) It is not the use of sentence adverbs per se that bothers the Panel; rather, the specific use of hopefully in this way has become a shibboleth.

Sometimes I think I was born a century too late. But then I wouldn’t have email, so all things considered, perhaps things are fine as they are.

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Categories: Language, Words, Writing | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “Peruse This

  1. indigobunting

    Yeah, but hopefully they’ll get better.

  2. That sound you’re hearing is my teeth being ground into a fine powder.

  3. I used to practice decimation in my classes. Did everything except actually kill the kids.

    Fun.

  4. Linda in East Texas

    My pet peeve (gramatically speaking) is the misuse of the word “badly.” If you feel badly…your sense of touch is not good. I feel bad that this is a boring comment.

  5. One of my pet peeves is the use of the words “reason,” “why,” and “because” in the same sentence. One is enough. Two is useless and redundant. Using all three should be cause for defenestration.

    As for the use of the word “badly” with the word “feel,” the reason why is because feel is used as a verb as well as for an internal state. We are taught to say we feel well. Children are taught not to say they feel good. Thus, for feeling less than well, we cannot say bad, we must say badly.

    It makes sense. Common accepted usage is not always grammatically consistent. Otherwise we’d all be saying “you is.”

  6. I tend to enjoy regional variations. Of course, I subscribe to the notion that “you” is second person singular, “y’all” is second person plural, and “all y’all” is second person plural when addressing an entire group.

    Though I can’t abide “youse,” even though it’s just the Northern version of “y’all.” Don’t ask me why.

  7. I’m a lurker here, but I do love reading your blog, and the comments are almost as good as the blog.

    When I found a similar discussion on another blog, I thought you might enjoy it.
    http://poneke.wordpress.com/2008/08/08/cliches/

  8. Excellent link, Mali, and many thanks. (I’m a lurker on yours, too. Indigo Bunting is as big a fan of you as I am.)

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