The decimation of the English language

Many English-speaking people have little appreciation of what a wonderful gift their language is.  Partly because it incorporates so many other languages, and partly because of the rich traditions of Western culture, English is the most expressive, most useful, and most powerful language in the world.  We should treasure it.

That is why it irks me to see so many professional communicators misuse it.  The abusers in the news media are the people whose errors are most widely exposed to the public, but I have also seen written communications by professionals that cause me to cringe.

The final straw (for me) came when several instances of the misuse of the word "decimate" were aired on television.  The term has so commonly been misused that its colloquial definition has become closer to the word "devastate" than to its actual definition.  Decimation was a punitive practice of the ancient Roman army, in which every tenth man in the unit was put to death, and the execution was carried out by the other nine, which made "decimation" into a "devastating" experience, even for the survivors.

Many people today think decimation means a loss of ninety percent, not ten.

Another word commonly misused is "systemic," which is often replaced with the related word "systematic."  Systemic more appropriately refers to an embedded problem or defect than to a systematic solution to that problem.  A systemic property need not be a problem, but systematic problems should never exist.

Very commonly, the words "affect" and "effect" are improperly interchanged, as are "dual" and "duel." 

Some words are commonly mispronounced – for example, "politization" instead of politicization and "undoubtably" instead of undoubtedly.

Perhaps the most irksome abuse of words is the use of the term "tragedy" when, in fact, the correct word is "atrocity."  Tragedies tend to be accidental; atrocities are inflicted with deliberate and evil intent.

I am by no means immune to making linguistic errors myself, as my former teachers and editors will readily attest.  The purpose of this commentary is not to unduly criticize the honest mistakes of well meaning people, but rather to point to a need for all of us to take seriously the need to safeguard our language, not to consign that duty to "spell-check," which often produces these errors.

I challenge each of you to review the following list and see whether you might be able to distinguish all of the following words from the others in the same line.

If you can't, don't be decimated.

Affect

Effect

 

Exacerbate

Exasperate

 

Access

Excess

 

Dual

Duel

 

Futile

Feudal

 

Politicization

Politization

 

Undoubtedly

Undoubtably

 

Capitol

Capital

 

Principle

Principal

 

Pled

Pleaded

 

Lead

Led

 

Medal

Metal

Mettle

Sight

Site

Cite

Where

Wear

Ware

There

Their

They're

Fair

Fare

 

Who

Whom

 

Disperse

Disburse

 

Discriminate

Disseminate

 

Systematic

Systemic

 

Conscious

Conscience

 

Role

Roll

 

Untold

Untolled

 

Decimate

Devastate

 

Many English-speaking people have little appreciation of what a wonderful gift their language is.  Partly because it incorporates so many other languages, and partly because of the rich traditions of Western culture, English is the most expressive, most useful, and most powerful language in the world.  We should treasure it.

That is why it irks me to see so many professional communicators misuse it.  The abusers in the news media are the people whose errors are most widely exposed to the public, but I have also seen written communications by professionals that cause me to cringe.

The final straw (for me) came when several instances of the misuse of the word "decimate" were aired on television.  The term has so commonly been misused that its colloquial definition has become closer to the word "devastate" than to its actual definition.  Decimation was a punitive practice of the ancient Roman army, in which every tenth man in the unit was put to death, and the execution was carried out by the other nine, which made "decimation" into a "devastating" experience, even for the survivors.

Many people today think decimation means a loss of ninety percent, not ten.

Another word commonly misused is "systemic," which is often replaced with the related word "systematic."  Systemic more appropriately refers to an embedded problem or defect than to a systematic solution to that problem.  A systemic property need not be a problem, but systematic problems should never exist.

Very commonly, the words "affect" and "effect" are improperly interchanged, as are "dual" and "duel." 

Some words are commonly mispronounced – for example, "politization" instead of politicization and "undoubtably" instead of undoubtedly.

Perhaps the most irksome abuse of words is the use of the term "tragedy" when, in fact, the correct word is "atrocity."  Tragedies tend to be accidental; atrocities are inflicted with deliberate and evil intent.

I am by no means immune to making linguistic errors myself, as my former teachers and editors will readily attest.  The purpose of this commentary is not to unduly criticize the honest mistakes of well meaning people, but rather to point to a need for all of us to take seriously the need to safeguard our language, not to consign that duty to "spell-check," which often produces these errors.

I challenge each of you to review the following list and see whether you might be able to distinguish all of the following words from the others in the same line.

If you can't, don't be decimated.

Affect

Effect

 

Exacerbate

Exasperate

 

Access

Excess

 

Dual

Duel

 

Futile

Feudal

 

Politicization

Politization

 

Undoubtedly

Undoubtably

 

Capitol

Capital

 

Principle

Principal

 

Pled

Pleaded

 

Lead

Led

 

Medal

Metal

Mettle

Sight

Site

Cite

Where

Wear

Ware

There

Their

They're

Fair

Fare

 

Who

Whom

 

Disperse

Disburse

 

Discriminate

Disseminate

 

Systematic

Systemic

 

Conscious

Conscience

 

Role

Roll

 

Untold

Untolled

 

Decimate

Devastate