Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Fundamentals of Appropriate Word Choice, Chapter One

I've ranted here before about the abuse of apostrophes and about some of the other atrocities of grammar and usage so common on the Internet these days. There are other errors that I notice almost as much, but I generally keep them to myself because a) no one cares, and b) even when faced with clear and convincing evidence, offenders don't think (or won't admit) that they're wrong. I attribute this attitude to the laissez faire use of language so common today, which I, in turn, blame upon the descriptivist editors who are going to be the first bastards up against the wall when the revolution comes. These people think that if a few people misuse a word, we all have to accept the new usage of the word as appropriate.

I maintain, however, that poor word choice is an error and one that must be decried as often and forcibly as possible. I don't mind so much when someone intentionally tries to stretch the meaning of a word, but when people do so mindlessly, it gets to me.

Let's consider some examples.

The otherwise excellent Typo Hunt Across America is, I maintain, founded on a fundamentally incorrect notion of what a typo is. Consider this definition:

Main Entry: ty·po
Pronunciation: \tī-(,)pō\
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural typos
Etymology: short for typographical (error)
Date: 1878

For years, the common usage of "typo" has been an inadvertent error due to an error in typesetting or typing. Something, in other words, that the person responsible for putting the words into type didn't mean to do and didn't realize that he'd done. Most of the errors on Typo Hunt Across America, however, are due to grammatical ignorance or error rather than a slip of the fingers. This may seem like a fine point (and, truly, I am a huge fan of anyone who's willing to drive across our fine country and tell people that their signs are wrong), but if your blog is all about pointing out errors, shouldn't you get your basic word choice right?

In some cases, the blog points out handwritten or hand-lettered signs. How can a sign written in magic marker have a typo? There's no type!

[I redacted a number of examples of word choice errors from blogs that I like and regularly or occasionally comment on. A lot of these guys are fine people and writers, and nothing is to be gained by saying that so-and-so doesn't know what such-and-such really means. Rest assured, reader, that if you're also a blogger, I'm not talking about you: I'm talking about all the other bloggers.]

You will not, I'm sure, be surprised to find that word choice is a particular issue on craigslist. The problem with the ads I'm about to quote is not the choice of words in the ads themselves: it's a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of the category. For no apparent reason, I decided to read the "strictly platonic" section of the local craigslist postings. I found this:
Tired of nsa sex/one-night stands, but not ready for LTR yet - m4m - 46 (Alexandria/Park Center)

Reply to: pers-659321490@craigslist.org
Date: 2008-04-28, 11:39AM EDT

I'm a w/m, 46, 5'11.5", 215# medium to stocky build (working out so getting better), crewcut (usually) thinning s/p hair, clean-shaven every third or so day, average looks, casual smoker (yeah, yikes!), casual drinker, and open-minded to most things. I'm looking for some, I hate to admit, because I should be better than what I'm about to say, but I'm not, good-looking guys, with nice bodies, to start something up with. Not a full-blown relationship, and not even anything monogamous, but something that leans toward a date (a movie now and then, dinner maybe), and something that includes sex, even if it's just the veritable "booty call" late one night every week or so. So, that's it, I guess. The pic attached is recent (last week), and if you're interested, shoot me a response, and your pic, too. Thanks. Peace out.

[This, by the way, is not the picture that went with the ad, so don't get all excited. Or, get excited if you like, but don't jump to the wrong conclusion.]

Perhaps, I thought, I have an entirely incorrect notion of what "platonic" means. But I checked, and I was exactly right:

Main Entry: pla·ton·ic
Pronunciation: \plə-tä-nik, plā-\
Function: adjective
Etymology: Latin platonicus, from Greek platōnikos, from Platōn Plato
Date: 1533
1capitalized : of, relating to, or characteristic of Plato or Platonism
2 a: relating to or based on platonic love; also : experiencing or professing platonic love b: of, relating to, or being a relationship marked by the absence of romance or sex

And then I thought that this one person had misunderstood, but that it was surely an isolated error. But then, a mere two listings above, I found this:

athletic asian surfer seeks dates/potential relationship... - m4m - 32 (va/dc/md)

Reply to: pers-659526501@craigslist.org
Date: 2008-04-28, 1:50PM EDT


i'm an artist as well who takes hikes, goes to the beach, or visits the gallery on the weekends...looking for cute guys usually w/in 8 yrs of age range and w/ similar interest to talk to and get to know...would like to chat thr email first and exchange pics then meet up for coffee/drinks later.

i'm 5'10", 31w, 175, lean and built


[Here again, the picture below is not associated with the ad above. As you might have guessed, the ass below does not belong to an Asian surfer: it's just an ass that I would really love to get to know on a (much) deeper level.]

These people are clearly looking for sex and/or romance. I suppose it's possible that each of them is looking for a man who comports strictly to the Platonic ideal of a man and a partner, and, in that case, one could argue that their ads were properly classified. This interpretation seems overly charitable to me because a) "platonic" is not capitalized in the section list (but nothing is on craigslist), and b) clearly, neither of these guys would know Plato if he bit him (I realize the pronoun reference is vague here, but, truly, the statement is equally true whether the poster's biting Plato's ass or Plato's biting the poster's ass.) in the ass, but maybe I could be persuaded to give them the benefit of the doubt. Which, of course, raises (but does not beg) the question of whether it's worse not to know what a word means or to be so unreasonable as to only want the ideal man. I leave each of you to answer that question for yourself. I, fortunately, don't have to choose: I figure these guys don't know what the word means, and they're holding out for Mr. Just So. We may live in a world where oil and grain are scarce resources, but there's no shortage of error.


Anonymous said...

mhhh... I was wondering if "compliments" in the post from Apr 22 is really a typo or not?

The Neighbors Will Hear said...

I have no idea what you're talking about, anon. I think you should check that entry again: it clearly says "complements." Perhaps you had a bad dream?

[It's a good question, though. If memory serves, I didn't go back and proofread that entry, so it probably was a typo. I can't, however, be absolutely certain that it wasn't simply a horrible, horrible mistake. I (used to, until today, that is) smirk condescendingly when I see that other people have made the same error, so I'd like to think it was a slip of the fingers and a lack of proofreading, but I'm not perfect.]

John said...


I believe you made another typo in your comment directly above. You inadvertently typed "I'm not perfect," when what you clearly intended to type was "I'm now perfect." I'm sure most of us regular readers understood what you meant, anyway.