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Issue #24 August 29, 2013 Aug 29, 2013 Aug 29
Issue #9 January 31, 2013 Jan 31, 2013 Jan 31
Issue #1 October 11, 2012 Oct 11, 2012 Oct 11
From Issue #8 January 17, 2013

Fighting Words

I didn’t come here for an ungument.

By Erin McKean Twitter icon 

Whether you’ve written a thousand-word blog entry or just a tweet, once you hit publish, you know to brace yourself: Where there’s writing on the Internet, word nitpickery is sure to follow. You already know how to handle general word snobbery (“I hate impact as a verb”) and generic grammar trolling (“I can ignore all your points because you split that infinitive!”), but what about more existential arguments?

It’s easy to get drawn into arguments kicked off by two main word criticisms: that the wrong word was chosen and that a given word is not a word at all. There’s some overlap. For instance, some of the outcry around Sarah Palin’s use of the word “refudiate” was that she intended either refute or repudiate; some was that the word refudiate isn’t “real.” There are strategies you can use for both cases.

Mot juste-ified?

The argument that a chosen word is “wrong” is usually one of context and interpretation. Cue the scene in The Princess Bride where Inigo Montoya says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means” — that’s an argument of interpretation.

When a “wrong word” argument is made, check two elements before entering the fray. First, did your reader or listener truly understand what you meant to convey? If they didn’t understand and they’re not being willfully obtuse, there’s no argument: You just have to decide if you like your original wording better than being widely understood.1 (Lots of writers do.)

If they did understand you, it’s still worth checking to see if you did make a mistake in usage. Were you confusing stalactites and stalagmites?2 Did you write hermeneutic and mean heuristic? Or did you use homogenous when you meant homogeneous?3 If you made this kind of minor error, a quick “you’re right, thanks!” is both necessary and sufficient.

Bryan Garner, the author of Garner’s Modern American Usage, calls one class of such words “skunked terms”: There’s been a change in meaning, but it has not been accepted by all speakers. An example: decimate being used to mean “destroy completely” instead of its Latin sense of “killing one in ten.”4 A skunked term can be argued either way. If you prefer the modern meaning, then imply that your questioner is a behind-the-times fuddy-duddy; if you prefer the stricter sense, set yourself up as a defender of linguistic tradition.

If you were both understood and not in error, the “wrong word” argument is usually one of collocation: The words don’t sound correct when placed together in that order. Did you hear a standard or typical collocation in your head (one like “steeped in history”) and choose to write “macerated in history” instead, because you were talking about traditions in cocktail-making? One person’s clever phrasing is another person’s wonky collocation. The best argument is no argument: De gustibus non est disputandum (“There’s no arguing over taste”). (But if you want to argue that your particular combination is at least precedented, the Corpus of Contemporary American English has a collocation search tool.)

Instead of the wrong word, someone may argue you’ve picked the wrong affix.5 You prefer untweetable, they prefer nontweetable; what to do? Some people like to head to Google for a ruling, but using the search engine’s results as linguistic evidence is notoriously shaky.6 If you must have an answer, a better way to settle the question is to choose a source you both admire (the New York Times or a favorite writer or blogger) and check to see which usage is preferred by that source.7 (If you can’t find a natural usage, bribing said blogger to use your favorite term is acceptable.)

Perfectly cromulent

The most frustrating argument, however, is when the other interlocutor claims, “That’s not a word.” The accuser is not saying that they were reading merrily along and encountered a vegetable or a winch or a small Brazilian reptile (or even a photograph or a number). Their argument is that it was not a sufficiently wordish word. The question of wordishness, for a lot of people, is answered by whether a word is dictionaried or not.

For the dictionary snobs, your next logical move is to head for the biggest word compendium you can find, online or off. I’m partial to, which I founded, but if you’re dealing with a real traditionalist, you may have to resort to the subscription-only Oxford English Dictionary. (Many people can access the OED via their public libraries.)

If your word isn’t in any dictionary, or if the dictionary you chose didn’t carry weight with your opponent, you may have to do a little bit of transitive arguing. Get them to admit that dictionaries are based on usage — that dictionary editors look at how words are used by writers and speakers and create definitions based on that evidence. (If they won’t admit to that, there’s no use arguing with them, since they obviously believe that new words are left under cabbage leaves by the Word Stork, to be gathered by lexicographers in the dewy mornings.)

Then find two examples from the same writer: one of a word that is in the dictionary, and one that isn’t. I like mokus and pedalferrous,8 both used by David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest. DFW is a great writer to use for this argument, given his well-known language-snoot proclivities. So the same writer, the same book, different words: Is one all that much less wordish than the other? (Pedalferrous is arguably morphologically more wordish.)

A variation of this argument can be made by searching on Google Books for the word in question: Finding examples that are more than 100 years old (be sure to double-check that they aren’t OCR errors!) or that occur in works by more than one “classic” writer can usually overcome most strongly held objections to a word’s status. If they still won’t budge, you might shove the 2010 Science article “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books” under their noses.9 The authors include former American Heritage Dictionary editor Joe Pickett and AHD Usage Panel language expert Steven Pinker. They estimate that in a sample constituting about four percent of all books ever printed, “52 percent of the English lexicon — the majority of the words used in English books — consists of lexical ‘dark matter’ undocumented in standard references.”10

The “not a word” argument is less frequent in word games since most are now played electronically, and moves are checked against rigid dictionary files. If you are playing the old-fashioned way, without robot ruleskeepers, and can’t decide based on the published rules of your particular game, the above arguments should also work. But it’s more fun to resort to trial by combat: Arm- or thumb-wrestle for a word’s acceptability. (If the word is true, your strength be that of 10.) Trials by chance are fun, too: Put the contested word on a piece of paper and see if your cat will deign to recognize it by playing with it.

If your opponent is so lacking in sportsmanship as to complain about a legitimate word you have played, the proper response is to win the game and then take your taunting to Twitter, preferably in the form of a link to a Letterpress replay or board screenshot.

If anytihng can go rong

If all else fails and your opponent will accept neither your arguments nor your refusal to argue, the only thing left to do is check whether your opponent has fallen victim to Muphry’s Law: “If you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written.”

If they have, the next course of action is to point out their error, remark that everyone makes mistakes (you can bring up “Homer nodding,” if you like), and then change the subject: “Hey, are you looking forward to Game of Thrones starting up again?” That should do the trick.

Illustration by Shannon Wheeler.

  1. The example of someone saying “I don’t know, can you?” when students ask if they “can” go to the bathroom is what I mean by “willfully obtuse.” 

  2. Quick mnemonic: StalacTites hang from the Top; stalaGmites grow up from the Ground. 

  3. Homogeneous means, Garner writes, “of uniform characteristics”; homogenous is an archaic term “used to describe genetically related tissue or organs.” 

  4. Lest you think the use of decimate in its loose sense is purely modern, the Oxford English Dictionary tracks back the non-decimal version to 1663. 

  5. An element added to a word, typically the front (prefix), back (suffix), or middle (infix). 

  6. For more on why Google results aren’t sufficient as an arbiter of usage, see Climategate, Tiger, and Google hit counts: dropping the other shoe and Reliability Verification of Search Engines’ Hit Counts

  7. Editor’s note: Most publications have or adopt a style guide. Some use The Chicago Manual of Style as their bible on when to hyphenate adjectival phrases and spell out numbers; others create their own; others still make lists of exceptions to standard sources. The Magazine uses CMoS with our own unique stylings. —gf 

  8. Mokus means “drunk” and is in the OED. Pedalferrous denotes “‘of or pertaining to foot metal,’ i.e., fast driving” — at least according to David Foster Wallace

  9. Requires registering a free account to download in full. 

  10. By “majority of the words” the authors mean word types, not word tokens. Obviously the word the, for example, both is in dictionaries and makes up a huge percentage of the words found in books. 

Erin McKean is the founder of Wordnik, a blogger at, and the author of four books about words (including Totally Weird and Wonderful Words), one novel (The Secret Lives of Dresses), and a fashion field guide (The Hundred Dresses, coming in June 2013).

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