Five Words You Should Stop Worrying About

In a recent Huffington Post blog, Rob Reneilda (writer/editor; 28 years in newspapers, as he tells us) is good enough to inform his readers of ‘5 Words You’re Probably Misusing’. They are momentarily, during, constantly, continuously, continually, exponentially and concerted. (That’s seven, I know, but never mind.) I don’t think he’s right. I’ll try to explain why.

Firstly, he seems to want Americans to use momentarily in the way it’s used in British English, meaning ‘for a short time’, but in American English, it seems, it has meant ‘soon’ for around 150 years.

Secondly, he suggests that during the meeting can refer only to the period of the entire meeting. Oxford Dictionaries defines during both as ‘throughout the course or duration of (a period of time)’ and ‘at a particular point in the course of’. Merriam-Webster gives ‘at a point in the course of’ as well as ‘throughout the duration of’.

Thirdly, he makes the traditional distinction between continuously and continually, saying that the first means ‘incessantly’, the second,done in frequent and usually regular intervals’. But ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’, drawing on corpus evidence, reports that ‘the line of demarcation between continual and continuous is no longer so sharp. Dictionary definitions in North America, Britain and Australia show that both are now used in the sense of “nonstop”, the meaning which used to belong to continuous . . .  As adverbs, continually and continuously also have much in common . . . Again there are examples of continually meaning “nonstop,” as well as “happening regularly” . . . And there’s continuously meaning “happening regularly” as well as “nonstop” . . . the meaning of both continuous(ly) and continual(ly) now depends to a large extent on the phenomena to which they are applied. As ‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’ concludes, ‘you can observe the distinctions . . . if you want to; quite a few writers, however, seem to make no distinction at all.’

Fourthly, exponentially, Mr Reinalda tells us, ‘refers to numbers being squared or cubed or taken to the nth power’. What he has against it is that it is ‘a tad hyperbolic’ when used figuratively. He suggests using dramatically or drastically instead, but it is not clear how either of those is any less hyperbolic. The first definition of exponential given in Oxford Dictionaries is ‘(Of an increase) becoming more and more rapid’. Merriam-Webster has ‘expressible or approximately expressible by an exponential function; especially:  characterized by or being an extremely rapid increase (as in size or extent)’

Fifthly, he claims that ‘one person . . . cannot put forth a concerted effort’. Merriam-Webster, it is true, defines ‘concerted as  ‘done in a planned and deliberate way usually by several or many people’ (note that ‘usually’). But Oxford Dictionaries goes further in giving as its second definition ‘done with great effort or determination’.

If Mr Reinalda did any research before writing his post, he doesn’t cite any sources. As a result, he appears to be patronising his readers. He can, of course, dislike the way these words are sometimes used as much as he wants, and he doesn’t have to use them in that way himself, but if he is going to start laying down the law, he should at least have taken the trouble to find out what others more authoritative have said about them.

There’s a lot of this sort of thing on the web and elsewhere, and I see Mr Reinalda himself has form. Previous posts include The Grammar Mistake You Just Might Be Making, Are You Botching These Smart-Sounding Words? and Linguistic Mistakes Everyone Has to Stop Making in 2014. The danger is that many readers will unthinkingly accept what he and others like him say, and will thus perpetuate the kind of myths and superstitions about English that began with the eighteenth century grammarians. Lists, like these, of usages and constructions to be avoided come across as quick fixes, when there really is no short cut to understanding how language works and how to use it.

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