Let It Go

By Donyale Harrison

We get very attached to the rules in English. Sometimes they help, sometimes they hinder, and sometimes you just need to take a lead from Elsa and Let It Go, says Reader's Digest chief subeditor Donyale Harrison.

Living Language Let It Go

I was walking to work when I heard, then saw them. Two little girls, about six, both dressed as Elsa, singing “Let it Go” very loudly and badly. Behind them trotted what had to be a brother, as he had that eyerolling disgust only a sibling can manage. I was about to grin at him in shared Frozen overload sympathy, when he lost his cool. “You’re doing it WRONG!” he shouted, before launching into a pitch-perfect version.

I sometimes feel we approach language not unlike that little boy, more upset with missed notes than with the joy in the singing. I know it took me years to come to grips with people using “fulsome” to mean “lots”. And our editor-in-chief has a little eye twitch when people say less instead of fewer. But we’re seeking help. The truth of the matter is that some things have changed, some don’t matter, and some were never rules anyway.

Moving With the Times

Often, the meaning of words just changes over time. Enormity is a good example. The word derived from the Latin enormitas, meaning a transgression, and in English it meant the “extreme scale or seriousness of something bad or morally wrong” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. So you would say of a mass murderer that “citizens were shocked by the enormity of his crimes.”

But the word sounds very much like enormous, and so has come to have a second, more common meaning of just “very large”. Some may point to this as a clear sign of Society In Decay, but English speakers have been doing it for over 200 years without civilisation collapsing.

It’s a similar story for fulsome, with “fulsome praise” once meaning “excessively flattering” and now just as often meaning “a lot of praise”. The problem is that both are meanings with lots of history. It started off in Middle English meaning plump and full, morphed into overstuffed by the 17th century, and was used mostly in a negative sense from the late 1600s to the late 1900s. It’s one of those tricky words where you need to be really certain from context what the user meant.

This happens more than you might think. Some of our most common words have flipped meaning altogether: nice once meant silly and silly once meant blessed. And most of us are old enough to remember when cool was hot and hot was really cool.

But I Know What You Mean

There are a lot of words that many people do use “wrongly”. Fewer and less are the classic pair: the rule is that fewer should be used when referring to something that can be counted (“I have fewer shoes than Jack does”) while less is for amounts that can’t be numbered (“I have less interest in shoes.”)

Yet in many shops you’ll see “10 items or less” aisles, and even newsreaders say “Less than 50 people have been found”. Technically, it is wrong, but does it really matter? The meaning is still obvious.

It’s like irregardless, which is the word regardless with an extra “ir”. It’s not an official word – regardless already means what irregardless would – but it is obvious what the person is trying to say. Same with people who use decimate to describe something other than killing one in ten. There are so few Roman legionaries around these days that I suspect we can move on from the original meaning.

Which isn’t to say that it’s not a fine thing to be precise. It’s just that concentrating on a lack of precision rather than whether you understand what’s written can veer into pedantry and may cause premature frown lines.

I sympathise with those who flinch when it comes to literally being used to mean anything other than literally, even if some dictionaries have added “figuratively” to their list of definitions. But it’s usually easy to spot: “I literally exploded!” would have to come through a medium if meant traditionally.

You’re Making That Up

Some “rules” really aren’t. Infinitives (to run, to see, etc.) shouldn’t be split in Latin, but there’s no such rule in English: Star Trek’s “to boldly go” is perfectly fine.

Similarly, aside from the fact it will irritate a handful of teachers, there’s no reason not to end a sentence in a preposition (about, of, for, to, off, on, with). It’s just another holdover from the days when Latin shared schoolrooms with English and people tried to force its rules onto the younger language.

Ending with a preposition is often the only way to construct a sentence in a way that sounds “normal”. “Who’s he with?” sounds like friends talking; “With whom is he fraternising?” sounds like a magistrate interrogating. Many people say “What’s he on about?” while only characters in 19th century novels would ask: “On what topic is he expostulating?”

And it’s fine to start a sentence, or even a paragraph, with a conjunction. But it does create a relaxed tone, so keep it for writing that doesn’t need to be formal.

Worth Fighting For

Despite recommending a more relaxed attitude as a recipe for both lower blood pressure and occasional delight (whenever I read of a politician I dislike receiving “fulsome applause”, I giggle), most of us have words we still fight to protect.

For me, it’s disinterested, meaning not having a stake in a topic and therefore unbiased, and uninterested, meaning not caring about the topic. Their meanings are so usefully distinct that I find it distressing when people blur them. A disinterested jury will guarantee you a fair trial; an uninterested jury might spend all their time daydreaming.

Why fight this battle and not the others? In all the other cases, the shifts in meaning are usually clear. New words have risen up to fill gaps – snarky applause may not be identical to fulsome, but it’s definitely a fraternal twin, just as egregious does a lot of the heavy lifting enormity used to do. For disinterested, though, there is no other single word that does the job.

And if you still want to take a marker pen to “10 items or less” signs, I really can’t blame you. But for the sake of orderly behaviour in supermarkets, I think we need to accept that, like my attempted ban on Frozen references in the magazine this issue, sometimes we just need to let it go …

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