Updated: Aug 12, 2020
Far be it from me ever to correct anybody on their use of language – perish the thought! In days gone by when I possibly may have done, the most usual response would be: ‘So what does it matter? You know perfectly well what I mean…’
A valid point and one which holds water, just as long as a) the person concerned is immediately available to clear up any misunderstanding or b) what was said was so trivial as not to matter one way or the other.
What I do find interesting is that, often, the people who most loudly declaim the irrelevance of precision in language are the self-same ones who misuse words under the illusion that it makes them sound ‘posh’.
The most widespread occurrence is the use of ‘I’ when it should be ‘me’. Masterchef presenter John Torode is one of the worst for this … ‘Cook something fantastic for Gregg and I,’ he will command, obviously feeling that ‘… Gregg and me’ would be far too common for his exalted status on TV.
Of course, you and I remember what we were taught in school, do we not? That the way to know which is which is to remove the other person from the sentence and see what is left… Say in your head: ‘Cook something fantastic for [Gregg and] I’ and straight away you know it’s not right. Replace it with: ‘Cook something fantastic for [Gregg and] me’ and there it is – perfect.
Two other commonly misused words spring to mind, both of which I’ve heard very recently from people I thought would know better.
‘It’s really not difficult; the basic concept is quite simplistic,’ claimed an acquaintance, obviously feeling that the simple word ‘simple’ was simply far too simple (sorry, couldn’t resist that!) and something with more emphasis was needed. But of course ‘simplistic’ is not just an emphatic form of ‘simple’. It has a different meaning entirely. You can look it up in your favourite … oh OK then, here it is from the Oxford English Dictionary:
Easily understood or done; presenting no difficulty.
‘a simple solution’
Treating complex issues and problems as if they were much simpler than they really are.
You see what I mean? Not the same thing at all.
Two other words which are often wrongly used interchangeably are ‘uninterested’ and ‘disinterested’, presumably under the impression that ‘dis’ sounds marginally posher than ‘un’… Here, however, the difference in meaning is even more distinct than above. Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary again…
Not interested in or concerned about something or someone.
‘I was totally uninterested in boys’
Not influenced by considerations of personal advantage.
‘a banker is under an obligation to give disinterested advice’
To be fair, the OED does go on to say: ‘Nowhere are the battle lines more deeply drawn… According to traditional guidelines, ‘disinterested’ should never be used to mean ‘not interested’ (i.e. it is not a synonym for ‘uninterested’) but only to mean ‘impartial’. Fair enough. It then adds: ‘Ironically, the earliest recorded sense of disinterested is for the disputed sense…’
So you pays your money and takes your choice… But, since the usual argument for allowing ‘incorrect’ language usage to creep in is that, ‘times change and things move on’, I would argue that this is exactly what has happened here. Over time we have developed two perfectly good words for two distinct concepts – why on earth start to confuse them again?