Mangled meanings: Are you saying what you really want to say?

Some words fall trippingly off the tongue; others, carelessly strewn, provide a tripping hazard for editors and other professional nitpickers.


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The other day, a colleague wrote that something or other would “reap havoc.” I postulated that months before, one must have sown the seeds of discord. The harvest would call for a grim reaper.

That’s the result of simply mishearing “wreak havoc,” of course, but there is a bumper crop of misused (or at least unclear) terms that sprout like weeds in the vernacular. It’s time to root them out. Grab your trowel, and let’s go.

Quality

For some reason, “quality,” a noun, has become widely used as an adjective—a shortening of “high-quality,” it seems. I’d guess the origin of this usage lies with sportscasters. “He’s a quality goaltender,” is not uncommon during hockey games. “Quality start” has become a term of art, even a statistic, when speaking about baseball pitchers. “Quality,” like “luck” or “volume,” is at the mercy of its modifier. It raises the question, “High-quality or low-quality?” To be clear, be specific.

Allow/enable

Frequently I’ll see that some new tech platform will “allow” people to perform one function or another. “The next-generation Grackle 4500 will allow users to download hundreds of birdcalls onto their wristwatches as alarm tones.” It’s really more a matter of new capability that the technology provides, rather than granting permission, so “enable” is a better word choice. (And go with the club-winged manakin call for your watch.)

Select/selected

In ads and commercials, a retailer might tout “20% to 40% off select merchandise.” Wow. Select. “Select” has an upper-tier, high-quality panache to it. Yes. But. Not as it’s used—or misused—in that example. The stuff they’re looking to get off the shelves or out of the showroom is not select, as in upper-echelon goods. It is selected. They selected the crap they couldn’t move at full price and put a red tag on it. Don’t be fooled by intimations.

It depends/it varies

“How long does it take you to write an 800-word article?” one might ask. The response: “It depends.” Well, yes, it may. Better, though, to say, “It varies,” unless you’re going to elaborate about what factors the timeframe depends upon. “That depends upon whether I have to contact several sources, conduct interviews with them, and organize the reporting into a cohesive, informative narrative, or whether I’m just tossing together some seat-of-the-pants rant about word usage.” Well, then. Sorry I asked.

Dilemma“Dilemma” has as its second definition “any difficult or perplexing situation or problem.” The primary definition is “a situation requiring a choice between equally undesirable alternatives.” (Dictionary.com, based on Random House.) So though technically not a misuse, “dilemma” for a generic problem is less precise than you want to be. Reserve it for cases such as this: “Here’s my dilemma, Hobson: If I don’t go to Cousin Victor’s contrabassoon recital, I’ll be stuck shopping for an engagement gift for my Aunt Mavis.”

Satisfy/gratify

There’s a nuanced difference between satisfying and gratifying. A candy bar can satisfy. (Not naming names, of course.) A hard-fought achievement or an overdue apology or compliment would be gratifying; it reaches something within us. (Yes, yes, so does the candy bar.) Gratification, though, reaches the soul, the emotions. The words are virtually interchangeable, but we do like finding the thinnest slivers of differences between terms. It’s so … oh, what is the word? *snicker*

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