Why do some people seem to think that language can be treated like art . . . always? Language, of course, frequently finds its expression in art; witness poetry, musical lyrics, etc., but it is not – by itself – a pure art form. Language exists, surely in the context of business and economics, philosophy and religion, as an endeavor of some precision in communication and, dare I use the word, collaboration. People can’t share what they know, or work together on a project for which the outcome they seek is collectively desirous, without having the ability to communicate absent misunderstanding or, at the very least, with a minimum of misunderstanding.
Mathematics is a form of language. Imagine if someone argued that an expression might be used sort of willy-nilly, depending on how one was feeling at the moment. Imagine someone saying, when confronted with the misuse of a mathematical expression, “well, you know what I meant.” Yet, people do this with language all the time. As for my real peeve here, it seems I am often accused of being too “lawyer-like” when I insist on the accurate use of words. I just don’t understand this. Why do people think dictionaries or thesauri exist? For entertainment purposes?
I am not here talking about the incorrect use of “to”, “too”, and “two” or “your” and “you’re”, maddening as those may be. I am more interested in the misuse of synonyms, especially when there are crucial differences – subtle as they may be – between one word and another. There’s a reason those words exists and it is directly related to those differences. For instance, let’s look at the differences between the words “lucky”, “privileged”, and “promising” – all three synonymous according to Merriam-Webster online. “Lucky” means “having good luck”. It could easily refer to one instance, however small the result, or an entire lifetime. “Privileged” means having or enjoying a special capability or position based either on happenstance (which would be lucky) or through hard work and successful endeavors. “Promising” means one might become privileged at some point, or successful, but there is no guarantee and it looks to the future, not some result of the past. Both “privileged” and “promising” may contain elements of luck, but they aren’t proper substitutes for the word “lucky”. They are somewhat imprecise synonyms for it.
Now, lest I be accused of a level of curmudgeonliness far exceeding that I am actually guilty of, I am merely attempting to point out how cavalier some can be with language and, when they’re called on it, how adamant I have found some to be in defending what is, in my opinion, an indefensible position. Call me a member of the language police if you will, but I like as much precision in my discussions as possible.
PS – This post was “incited” by a conversation with my wife; a conversation that recurs every now and again 🙂 Do you think I’m too sensitive? Do you think I used the word “incited” improperly; that I should have used “instigated” or “stimulated” or maybe even “inspired”? Just wondering.