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Thursday, 25 October 2012

Does it Matter if the Words Are Not Right?

This might seem an odd question from a writer. I was prompted to ask by a fit of annoyance over poor language used by a journalist on television. She was reporting on a local news item and used the expression, ‘This problem is, of course, very unique to…’ and went on to ask her interviewee just ‘how unique’ he felt the issue was.

So what? Well, ‘unique’ is an absolute. There are no degrees of uniqueness. Something is either unique or not; it can’t be partially unique, very unique or, indeed, almost unique. We have other words to express such things. ‘Rare’, comes to mind, as do ‘uncommon’ and ‘scarce’. Because rarity is an elastic concept, we can use qualifiers with impunity. It’s fine to discuss degrees of scarcity, that degree dependent on the amount by which the object under discussion veers from the commonplace. 

If we begin to use absolutes in such a way, we diminish their real power in describing an event or quality. If I say that a woman conveys a ‘unique beauty’ I paint a picture of someone who is singular, incomparable. If, on the other hand, I describe her as a ‘rare beauty’, then I put her in a class along with others; the number contained in that class can be defined more or less by using qualifiers such as ‘very rare’, ‘unusually rare’, ‘moderately rare’, etc. So, in the ‘unique’ case, the reader is clear that the person described has no equal. In the ‘rare’ case, we know that there are others, though not a great number, who are comparable. It’s a fine distinction, but one worth retaining, I think.

In another example of poor journalism, one increasingly repeated these days, I heard a reporter talking about how ‘…there are less people involved in…’, when, of course, he should have said, ‘...there are fewer people involved in…’.  This is a slightly different matter, however. The use of less or fewer always provides the information that a smaller number is involved than the comparison. Whilst the use of the correct word is preferable, it doesn’t actually alter the basic idea being communicated. So, whilst I find the usage lazy and inaccurate, I can reluctantly accept its adoption because meaning isn’t changed when the error occurs.

This, then, is my question: If meaning is maintained, does it really matter if the wrong word is used to convey that meaning?

Are we concerned about correct usage simply for the sake of correct usage? Or is our concern, as writers, more to do with style, perhaps? Does wrong usage, whilst acceptable to many non-writers, merely illustrate a lack of care, education, or intelligence to those of us who write?
Language is primarily a means of communicating ideas. So, if those ideas are expressed without confusion in spite of wrong usage, does that incorrect usage really matter?

I pride myself on knowing correct usage, most of the time, but do my readers care, or even notice when such errors occur? As a writer, I feel duty bound to utilise the many fine shades of meaning possible within the English language. I feel that allowing such distinction to be eroded by ignorance, carelessness or expedience is a step along the road toward ultimate confusion and bedlam, as fine discriminations disappear under a carpet of banality. The poet in me abhors such laziness. But, apart from other poets and writers, do my readers care? That’s what I ask you. And I welcome your responses.

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