Mona Charen

Ben, 13, was actually given an extra credit project in English: Find an example of incorrect grammar or usage in your daily life. He wanted to snap a photo of the checkout line at the supermarket that reads "15 items or less." It should be "fewer," of course. I suggested one that grates like fingernails on a blackboard every time I hear it. When you renew your prescriptions at our pharmacy, a recorded voice asks for the prescription number. After you enter it you hear: "The prescription you entered is associated with the name C-H-A-R. If this is the first four letters of your last name, press 1." AGGGGHH! I respond with only marginally less anguish when I hear "enormity" misused. Enormity is a fine word meaning (according to the American Heritage Dictionary) "The quality of passing all moral bounds; excessive wickedness … 2. A monstrous offense or evil …" It just happens to sound like "enormous." And so you will hear members of Congress, TV pundits and others use phrases like "the enormity of the crisis we face." No.

I don't want to discourage my kids' fastidiousness about language. But the truth is that language is always changing, and that sometimes the sheer weight and momentum of error crash through the ramparts of proper usage and the unacceptable is accepted. This openness has another side as well -- receptiveness to all enhancements. English has taken liberally from dozens of other tongues. It has always been this way. The French, Italians, and Germans established learned societies to maintain the purity of their languages. The French to this day are subject to seizures when English words like "weekend" insinuate themselves into la belle langue. But English just keeps expanding. According to The Economist, the number of words in the English language will pass 1 million at the end of this month, far more than any other language.

By all means, let's celebrate the flexibility and versatility of English. But please, enormity doesn't refer to size.


Mona Charen

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist, political analyst and author of Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim to Help .
 
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