KAREN MARTIN: What is it you're trying to say?

A headline in a late-1980s edition of the Arkansas Gazette--it might have been a restaurant review--proclaimed in large type that an item mentioned was the "penultimate" of its class. The writer wanted to convey that the tidbit in question was the absolute best.

That effort failed--plenty of readers let the editors know--because "penultimate" means second to the last in a series of things.

Despite the prevalence of helpful spellcheckers and grammar scolds on modern word processors, the misuse of words hasn't let up. People may be mindful of proper spelling, but still don't always know what they're talking about.

Although it's not a summer read in the usual sense, there's plenty of breezy entertainment available in newly published That Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means by Kathryn Petras and Ross Petras. Along with chronicling the 150 most commonly mistreated words and how they got that way, this slender book will hopefully (yes, we know "hopefully" originally meant in "in a hopeful manner," not "I hope," and although it acquired the additional meaning about 60 years ago, using it that way still annoys some people) cause those who tend to decorate their writing and conversations with what they consider erudite adverbs and other flourishes to think twice.

And in this era of surreptitious audio and video recording, such errors won't fade away; they have the capacity to haunt the perpetrator forever.

Speaking of which ... "perpetrate" (to carry out a usually bad action; to commit a crime or deception) is often mixed up with "perpetuate" (to prolong something, to sustain). Don't ponder this too long, though, or the words will become hopelessly entangled in your brain and you'll soon abandon using either of them for fear of getting it wrong.

Another newspaper, The Washington Post, also suffered a headline bust in 2014 by proclaiming "Cat Has an Averse Reaction to Liquid in Commercial Food." Not true. The cat suffered an adverse reaction. The definitions of these words are perilously close, but there's a right way and a wrong way to use them. Adverse means not favorable, harmful. Averse means opposed to or strongly disliking. Maybe the cat disliked the liquid, but the article--a Q & A between an anxious feline owner and a veterinarian--made it clear that the liquid made the critter sick to its kitty stomach.

Phrases can be worrisome as well. A May 20, 2017 headline on foxnews.com reads, "Mueller's special counsel appointment begs the question--are our civil liberties now at risk?" The problem here is "begs the question," which is often mistakenly considered to mean "raises the question." The phrase really means trying to prove something based on an unproved premise. In the case of political opining, it's probably best to write around this.

Readers who have been around for a while may remember when a story in the Arkansas Democrat, dictated by a reporter in the field to a colleague in the newsroom and printed in the next day's edition, informed that "there was not a chinchilla of evidence" to support a court case. The word desired by the reporter was scintilla, a tiny trace or spark of a specified quality or feeling. He didn't intend to indicate a cute furry rodent.

That reporter could take a lesson from Alex, the famously conversational African Grey parrot trained by Harvard scientist Irene Pepperberg, who often told other less-talented African Greys, "Say better."

And if you really want to wander into the weeds, consider farther/further. They were used interchangeably for centuries, the authors say; farther entered the language in the 15th century as a variation of the older further. There's no humiliating penalty for choosing one over the other, but purists can rest easy in knowing that further is preferred. Farther means greater physical distance; further means greater figurative distance.

For those who have wrestled with choices between amiable/amicable, bemused/amused, dichotomy/discrepancy/disparity, home in/hone in, literally/figuratively (an ongoing source of difficulty), nauseous/nauseated, presumptive/presumptuous, principal/principle (a true troublemaker), regime/regimen (likewise) and tow the line/toe the line: Forget about spending the rest of August reading smarty-pants chick-lit like When Life Gives You Lululemons. This is the book for you--funny, imaginative, informative.

The authors, who are siblings, previously published the likes of You're Saying It Wrong, Very Bad Poetry, and Wretched Writing. While acknowledging that words and meanings change, their concern is that sometimes words are misused in a way that hinders communication, confuses issues, and makes language less clear than it should be. They define themselves as word nuts, quote connoisseurs, and sometimes annoying grammar pedants.

Hey, somebody's got to do it. And we should be grateful it's not us.

Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.


Editorial on 08/26/2018