Monday, March 28, 2016

More on Misused Words

Donn Taylor

            Recently I've noticed a number of misused words in CBA novels and in associated blogs. In a previous blog post I dealt with the usual suspects like lie/lay and use of the adverb then as if it were a conjunction. Today I'd like to mention several fairly common words that seldom get discussed. Let me confess that I am in no way immune to misuses. The editing process on a recent novel caught a real howler that had (and has) me blushing. I'd written that a character's face was "pail" rather than "pale." The sharp eye of a beta reader caught the error and asked if that character would kick the bucket. So I blushed and we corrected the error.

  Here are some of the words I'm currently seeing misused:

verses/versus: Both words derive from the Latin vertere, to turn, but derive in different directions. Verses are written by poets. Versus is used to express opposition in a contest between two individuals or ideas, as in the court case of Roe versus Wade (abbreviated Roe v. Wade).

jibe/jive: Formally, jibe is a nautical term, but its informal usage means to move in harmony, as in "Your idea doesn't jibe with mine." As a noun, jive once referred to jazz or swing music. As a verb it can mean either "to talk nonsense" or "to dance to jazz music."

diffuse/defuse: Diffuse is an adjective meaning dispersed or scattered, or in rhetoric, wordy. Defuse is a verb meaning to remove the fuse from an explosive charge or, metaphorically, to make something harmless.

disperse/disburse: Disperse means to scatter or spread out. Disburse means to pay out. You can tell soldiers in combat to disperse. If you tell them to disburse, they will refer you to the finance officer.

beholden/beholding: Beholden is an adjective that means owing gratitude or being indebted, as in "I am beholden to my parents for good advice." Beholding is the present participle of behold, meaning to be attentive to or to regard, as in "I am beholding a miracle in progress."

council/counsel: A council is a group of people called together for a particular purpose. As a noun, counsel means advice, especially legal advice or the lawyer giving that advice, as in "The counsel for the defense gave excellent counsel to the accused. As a verb, counsel means to give advice, as in "My lawyer counseled me to remain silent."

capitol/capital: A capitol is a building in which a legislature meets. With an upper-case C, it refers to the domed building in Washington, D.C. With a lower-case c, it refers to the building in which a state legislature meets. As an adjective, capital has a number of specific meanings involving primary importance or excellence (capital punishment, a capital idea, the capital city, etc.). As a noun, capital can refer to the seat of government (Austin is the capital of Texas) or to wealth, either literally or metaphorically: (One must accumulate capital to start a business. Philosophy provides individuals with intellectual capital.)

That is enough pedantry for one day, so I'll close by warning again that we must be careful using the clichéd word incredible because its two meanings are opposite. It can refer to something that cannot be believed (i.e., untrue) or to something that is true, but so rare or wonderful that it can hardly be believed. Our problem as writers is to make sure through our context which of the two meanings we intend. One writer recently wrote that he or she belonged to "an incredible church." Why would one belong to a church that can't be believed?
With that thought I had better close this post before I become incredible (reader's choice as to which meaning applies).


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