Changing usage

A colleague asked me this week about changing usage. I was leading a training session on grammar and usage and emphasizing once again that “enormity” doesn’t mean “huge size,” but rather “great wickedness,” and that “begs the question” doesn’t mean the same thing as “raises the question.” The colleague wanted to know when the disputed usage would come to be accepted. Readers, we surmised, understand what writers who use “enormity” and “begs the question” the wrong way are actually trying to say. Dictionaries, which are descriptive and not prescriptive, give “vast size or scope” as a definition for “enormity.” Most people don’t know that “begs the question” applies to a principle in logical argument.

Because these disputed uses of “enormity” and “begs the question” are so widespread, are we just swimming against a tide that will inevitably sweep us out to sea? Probably. I won’t give up on telling people that these are disputed uses, but I recognize that usage changes and that someday, maybe even before my career is over, the usage that I rail against will be accepted.

For the time being, though, I will change “enormity” and “begs the question” every time I see it used wrong in copy I edit. Even though readers will understand what we are trying to say, those who know the true meanings will be bothered and will find fault with our writing. To them, such usage is flat wrong, and just like any other error, errors in usage undercut our purpose.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.