Book Review: That Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

That Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means:  The 150 Most Commonly Misused Words And Their Tangled Histories, by Ross Petras And Kathryn Petras

There are some languages that have official language academies that officially tell what is and what is not permissible in a language.  English is not one of those languages, but rather is a language where individual creators of dictionaries, your OEDs and Websters and Johnsons, have attempted without official sanction to set the usage of the English language and also to describe the way the language has been used in the past as well as the present.  As a result of that lack of official sanction for prescriptivism, those who attempt to prescribe the use of certain words and expressions in English has tended to make writers seem as if they are cranky old people telling young ruffians to get off of their lawns while menacingly waving the books that they have written on the subject.  This book fits in with that general trend, as the authors themselves inveigh against the way that certain words are used, seeking to use history as a source of authority in defining what is and what is not an acceptable way to use a word.

In this book of about 200 pages 150 words or pairs of words (and at times even more words in a set) are set in context by the brother and sister authors, who use this as the opportunity to wag their finger at those who would misuse words largely because of mistaking similar-sounding ones or seeking to sound smarter than they really are and use words that are really out of their knowledge base.  In between the alphabetically organized word lists, which begins with a priori and goes to wet/whet your appetite, there are occasionally discussions of other issues, such as the e.g. and i.e. problem, the problem of strong verbs, problematic plurals from Latin and Greek words, the pronoun problem of I/me, etc., the who/whom problem, and the problem between lie and lay.  At times the authors even note that some words, like bimonthly, appear to have wildly inconsistent and even contradictory official uses that hinder understanding.  At other times, the author gets to clip the wings of those who are pretentious in using words that they do not fully understand and that have histories that provide reasons why such words came into the English language, mostly from French, Latin, and Greek.

In general my own thoughts about this book and others like it is somewhat ambivalent.  On the one hand, I tend to use a lot of fairly elevated (and even pretentious) words but I strive to use them correctly, according to their history and meanings.  At the very least, I do not want to contribute to the lamentable tendency by which words are used more and more often and yet simultaneously less exactly and rigorously.  Yet at the same time this is a personal choice of my own, and it is difficult to wholeheartedly recommend a work that is written in a spirit like this one that strikes this reader as highly elitist.  Admittedly, this book is probably written for other linguistic elites who have chosen to use elevated language in its proper form and that might look down a little bit (or more than a little bit) on those whose language use is less accurate and informed.  In that sense, this book is likely preaching to the choir, because it is hard to imagine those whom this book twits as being interested in reading a book where someone else tells them how they should be using certain words that they mangle and misuse.  This book is written for those who likely already use most of these words correctly and wish to be thought of as better for doing so.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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