Posted by: Jodi | September 6, 2010

Simon Heffer at UK’s Telegraph “Strictly English”

In light of today being a National holiday I will let Simon Heffer over at the Telegraph do my post for me.  A hat tip goes to my dear aunt who emails me interesting tidbits from around the world whenever she finds them.

Strictly English: Part one

The first of four exclusive extracts from ‘Strictly English: the Correct Way to Write… and Why It Matters’ points out some common mistakes

Even when armed with fine intentions, one can still fall into traps: for many words do not mean what one thinks they mean. In the interests of accuracy and precision, what follows is a reminder of the true meaning of some commonly misused words.

One occasionally reads in newspapers about people who have died or been injured in a car that has collided with a tree. This is remarkable, because a collision requires both parties to it to be in motion. The Latin verb collidere means to strike or clash together, and the etymology is strict. So two moving vehicles may collide, as may a car and a cyclist or even a car and a pedestrian, but not a car and a tree. Like so much of our language this is a question of logic based on the etymology; there is no perversity about it.

One should take care in using the verb contradict. For there to be a contradiction there has to be a statement, for a contradiction is a categorical statement in opposition to another. If one person says “the dog is black” when it is obvious that the beast is white, then to affirm its whiteness is a contradiction; and one may say: “I contradicted his assertion that the dog was black.” However, if what one is taking issue with is not a statement, but a suggestion, or advice, or a conjecture, then one does not strictly contradict it: one rejects it, disputes it, contests it, ignores it, doubts it.

Another word that people insist on wrenching from its correct etymology is decimate. As every schoolboy knows, this was a punishment meted out to Roman legions, in which every 10th man was killed. Its correct sense in English, therefore, is the reduction of the strength of a body of people by 10 per cent. It does not mean more or less than that, though it is often used to describe the near elimination of a contingent, and has been wrongly used now for more than 100 years. The greatest absurdity of all is a statement such as “the workforce was decimated by 20 per cent”, followed closely by “the town was decimated completely”.

In his speech in Chicago in 2008 on the night he won the United States presidential election, Barack Obama spoke of the enormity of the task ahead of him.

I am unclear whether this is now accepted American usage to describe something that is enormous. The word is used in such a fashion here, and appears to be one of those whose wrong usage has been accepted by some dictionaries (though not by the OED). An enormity, in its first current usage given by the dictionary, is a “deviation from moral or legal rectitude”: though it does concede that, influenced by enormous, it can mean “extreme or monstrous wickedness”. So an enormity is something bad, a transgression: it is not simply something big. One should speak not of the enormity of the task, but of its enormousness: even if one is President of the United States.

Educated writers will use the phrase “a fraction of the cost went towards overheads” without thinking of its logic.

What such writers inevitably mean is a small fraction, which although still vague is a perfectly acceptable statement. However, they forget that nine tenths is also a fraction, and so to use the noun without qualifying it with an adjective is almost meaningless.

Part of the problem with the interference of the state in our lives, and the apparent ubiquity of its bureaucrats, is that many of us find ourselves using – or misusing – the jargon of officials in our everyday language.

We use the word inquiry when we mean question or query. An inquiry is really a formal investigation, usually conducted by a judge or senior official into some aspect of government activity or something for which the state has ultimate responsibility.

Individuals should not say that they have an inquiry; they have a question, or a query.

Literally is one of the more abused words in our tongue. Should you find yourself about to write it, pause and consider whether it is really necessary; it almost never is. One hears people say “he literally jumped out of his skin”, when we all know full well he did nothing of the sort. Yet literally, according to the dictionary in this sense, means “with exact fidelity of representation”. One cannot say “he literally died” unless he is dead, and died as a result of the event being described; but people do say it when “he” still lives and breathes.

To make matters worse, circumstances in which one could use the adverb accurately would almost always render its use tautological. If one has fallen down the stairs, nothing is added to the statement “I fell down the stairs” by extending it to “I literally fell down the stairs”.

So avoid this usually pointless, and often silly, word.

*Next week: Why jargon is ruining the language

Strictly English: the Correct Way to Write… and Why It Matters

by Simon Heffer (Random House, £12.99 T £11.99) is published on September 9

To view the original article, click here

For the next article in Heffer’s series of four, click here.



  1. Great stuff–thanks.

  2. Excellent post. While I agree with (most of) what is written, I do take issue with the stringency of his position. Language should be flexible, fluid and ever-evolving. – maybe if everybody is using ‘collide’ to mean a stationary OR a moving impact, then maybe that’s what the word now means. Interesting stuff though!

    • I thought of you when I read this post. Rather, I thought perhaps you wrote it.

    • I had a feeling that you might mention that… Of course now I know the difference I wince every time I hear either collide or decimate used “incorrectly” even if it sounds alright.

      • I like the old definition of ‘collide’–then it can be humorous (if you want it to be) when you use it. I tried to be funny in one of my posts by saying that a bird ‘collided’ with a neighbor’s window, but I guess, now that the rules have changed, it would go unnoticed.

        Enormous and ‘enormity’ was news to me, though–don’t know if I can recall not seeing it used wrongly.

        I LIKE not changing the rules, to be honest. Stability is a good thing. Then, those of us nearing fifty wouldn’t feel like we have to learn a whole new language to be able to communicate with upcoming generations.

    • It’s good that words evolve. It happens all the time.
      If you think about it, ‘terrible’ and ‘terrific’ have the same meaning, but now we use them as opposites. (Shakespeare, for example, used them as synonyms).
      Similarly: ‘awesome’ and ‘awful’. Both mean ‘full of awe’, but we use them as (more or less) antonyms now.

  3. I agree with Tomcat.

    The M-W Dictionary on my desk defines collide in a more expansive way:

    “to come together with solid impact.”

    Change is good. Fluidity in language essential.

    • One could argue either side, that words are flexible or that they shouldn’t change. Since the world is in a constant state of change then I would have to side with flexible meanings. However, it makes it a whole lot more difficult to figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word when the meaning has shifted.

  4. I had no idea about the decimated meaning. Of course, looking at the word now makes me realise that of course, it relates to number 10 (decem = 10)

    • I have heard decimated used in place of obliterated forever and never thought to research the origins. But now that he’s pointed it out it makes perfect sense.

  5. you do have a wonderful aunt.


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