If you need to explain why it’s wrong…

Do you know what the word ambivalent means?

A student of mine was very pleased to be able to catch me out with this word. I had assumed it meant “not particularly bothered”, but apparently it doesn’t. I had a hunch about this word so I asked four of the native speakers sitting with us what they thought. Three said they had no idea and one said she thought it meant something similar to what I had thought. 

This student got me thinking; when no one knows the so-called ‘correct’ meaning, how can it still be considered correct? Likewise, if a language rules exists but no one follows it, is it still a rule? If an ‘h’ is dropped in a forest and no pedant is around to hear it, is it still wrong? Unfortunately language and language usage holds a kind of power over people and it’s very easy, if you’re that way inclined, to cow others into thinking they’re getting it wrong when it’s really rather questionable that they are. 

For example, everyone knows that “Two negatives make a positive“. So saying “I aint got nothing” must mean that you have something. Another example is ‘literally‘ used to mean ‘not literally’. “literally” means something actually happened, so if you say “I literally died” what you’re saying is that you really died!  That’s impossible, because how could a dead person say that? so when someone says “the cross to Rooney was literally on a plate“, listeners wonders how tableware has found it’s way on to the pitch.

Or rather they don’t. In  fact no one ever gets confused about literally, and no one ever gets confused by double negatives; annoyed, yes, confused, no. What actually happens is some smart arse informs everyone that it is ‘wrong’ and then explains why. The redundancy of this would beggar believe if it wasn’t for the fact it happens daily.

Is there any other area of human endeavour where we so readily assent to be told that we are ‘wrong’? If you baked a cake which tasted delicious and someone told you the way you made it was wrong or, when eating soup, someone sneered at you for lacking an oyster fork or cutting the bread too thickly you would (rightly) think they were either insane or an intolerable bore. Make this kind of ridiculous comment with regards to language and everyone will nod approving and consider you to be a very sophisticated sort.

People get by using double negatives in English all the time. As with all these silly rules, they are of course countless exceptions that the pedants oddly let slide such as “not impossible” or “it’s not that I don’t…”, “it’s not like I don’t want to”. In AAVE double negatives can strengthen a statement such as “I didn’t do nothing”. They also exist in a huge number of the world’s languages and no one gets confused. I have no problem criticizing language that is clearly illogical but this is just pedantry.

If we allow people to dictate language use to us, we end up with the bizarre situation such as the one I heard the other day on “In Our Time“. The situation arose because the speaker used the word ‘decimate’ which has the prefix “dec” meaning “ten” as in December, the 10th month (blame Numa Pompilius for this) and means “destroy one in ten. Most people use it to mean “destroy” because having a word for “destroy one in ten” isn’t that useful. On the show the speaker said, something like “the Romans decimated the enemy, -they literally killed one in ten of the enemy soldiers.” Call me an old cynic but if you need to explain a word after you use it maybe it’s time to admit that the meaning has changed and get on with your life and if you need to explain why something is wrong you probably need to think carefully about your definition of ‘wrong’.


10 thoughts on “If you need to explain why it’s wrong…

  1. 'Not particularly bothered' does, sort of, mean 'having mixed feelings' about something. You don't care whether or not something occurs, but you're a bit apprehensive. I'm a bit surprised at three of four people having no idea, but it's not a word one hears every day. I've actually detected a resurgence of the original meaning of 'decimate'- although I used it for years to mean destroyed completely or almost completely. Perhaps people are using things like the interweb to look up older meanings of words to enhance their vocabularies. And maybe the next Pope will be a woman. I agree that double negatives are common in American and British English, and don't really confuse too many people because of the context they are used in. And won't nobody make me change my mind.


  2. \”Wrong\” is connected to \”culture\” and \”tradition\”. It´s the subjective feeling of an individual feed by the social expierience of that individual; i would not say that all of us have the same ideas about right and wrong.So, to be so \”rude\” and say: \”Listen, thats wrong!\” you need to decide if you want to copy your ancesters or rely on the modern usage. It´s a personal decision.Given the fact, that we rarely read books compared to our precessedors (the guys before us) i think, especially in an age of loosing orientation because of relativism, relying partwise on the old seems to be a good idea, eventhough that does not mean to repeat there mistakes.For this reason, i am personally one of those who thinks, its charming to think about the historical use and meaning of words and phrases and to use long, detailed, but strikingly correct terms in daily life to describe emotions, dreams and situations.That enriches the dialog of the individuals and their expierinces, as also their deeper understanding and their abstraction level.Of course, normal life often does not give me the chance to do so, and i just say stupid things like : \”I am done.\”


  3. An inspired line, I wish I'd come up with it myself!! –>If an 'h' is dropped in a forest and no pedant is around to hear it, is it still wrong? You're missing the chief joy of English usage rules, the pleasure of being superior. It doesn't confuse anyone if I say \”It's like he wasn't aware of his mistake and inferior wisdom\” when the grammar rules dictate \”It's as if he wasn't aware of his mistake and inferior wisdom\” but that little tingle of Being Right when I use the latter..oooh!


  4. One of the interesting things about language (to me at any rate) is that it doesn't just develop (or degenerate, depending on your p.o.v), but it also cycles. Disinterested is a good example. It 'should' mean impartial, but these days many/most people use it to mean uninterested. (Personally, I don't because we already have uninterested, and it's good to have a different meaning to play with, but anyway…). BUT, in Jane Austen's day, it was also used to mean uninterested, so, in fact, we are now returning to the 'original' meaning.I guess that I'm trying to say is that language evolves, changes, cycles, and that judging someone's use of it is pretty much a waste of time. Doesn't stop me doing it sometimes though- for example, I hate 'would of' instead of 'would have', but I know that makes me petty and judgmental 😉


  5. hi Rachael! Yes it is intersting, especially when you can look at it in a detached way, without getting upset. A good thing to do is to find these \”dinks\” in other languages and then you kinda think \”wow, do they really get upset about that\” and it gives you a sense of perspective.As for \”could of\” I hate that too, mostly because it doesn't make any sense. I don't think \”anthing goes\” haha


  6. I think of Being Right as a title much like Emperor or President. Have been a bit lacking on Twitter as had a lot of other online stuff eating up my time and have not got my lists on Twitter sorted out enough to see the interesting stuff quickly enough. Will be having a spring clean!


  7. Reminds me of my favourite song title, James Brown's \”I Don't Want Nobody to do Nothing for me (Open the Door, I'll Get it Myself).\” If it's a triple negative, does that make it right again?


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