Words, and their misuse

I’m a grammar nazi. There’s a lot of us about these days. If you send me an email with misspellings (not typo’s) and with incorrect usage I’ll judge you. Language is important to me, words count – why else would I have written a couple of hundred thousand of them on this site alone? Still, I wish I was less judgemental. It goes against the general grain, judge not lest ye be judged. Somehow I can’t resist when it comes to language.

What has really come to irritate me is imprecision. I dislike it in any aspect. I think it’s become very common in the last 10 years. When I was growing up the casual short-cuts of today – in language and performance – would be absolutely frowned upon. Certainly it was ingrained in me, and I’m thankful for it.

One of my pet-hates in recent times is the over-use of the word ‘perfect’. Perfection is a very rare thing, if it exists at all. I don’t think I’ve ever scored anything perfectly, and doubt I ever will.

I’m a regular visitor to IMDB where you’ll often find people scoring a perfect 10 for a movie or TV show. I see that and I wonder if people realise what that means. I actually read a review the other day from someone who had scored a movie 10 out of 10. In the review he was naturally laudatory of the movie, but made reference to one aspect that might have made the movie better. You can imagine how I rolled my eyes at that. For fucks sake mate, if it could be better then it’s not perfect!

To me this is a symptom of the hyperbolic nature of the times (which I’ll come to later), married to imprecise use of language.

One of the most common ways perfect is used in everyday language is in response to orders or requests. I’ll have the hamburger with the lot. Perfect! I’ll meet you at 10. Perfect! But what if I went for the cheeseburger instead, is that still perfect? Of course it is. And if I made the appointment at 11 instead? The correct response is not ‘perfect’, it’s good, or fine, or see you then.

The other word usage that really pisses me off is ‘unbelievable’. In fact it’s fucking unbelievable how often unbelievable is invoked. The word unbelievable in a way is not dissimilar to the word perfect in that it infers an absolute, theoretically at least. I’m willing to relax the definition of unbelievable a tad, but not a lot. If it is not be taken literally as something that cannot be comprehended, then at least it should suggest something that is an extreme – somewhere between an 8 and a 10 on the unbelievability scale.

An alien spacecraft landing on the MCG is unbelievable. The force of a massive earthquake is unbelievable. Tony Abbott as a credible prime minister is unbelievable. A great one-handed catch is not unbelievable.

It’s bloody lazy language, and it’s sad for the diversity of language. Generally there a variety of often delicious words to choose between when describing something. Not only are they more apt, they’re more creative. The use of words like perfect and unbelievable make them generalities. They become summaries of expression, rather than expression itself. It’s hyperbole, but hyperbole without context. Language is blunted, and with it meaning.

Look, I might be curmudgeon, but I’m with the Orwell on this, language is a reflection of society. Right now it reflects ill.


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