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Being Picky with Words [Mar. 17th, 2005|12:11 am]
Beemer
I'm given to understand that English has a bigger vocabulary than most (all?) other languages. This means that English has high descriptive granularity; there are lots of words that differ in meaning by fine shades. I like that, because I like to be able to use precise terminology when it's available. (This is a general trait of geeks, according to The Jargon Files Appendix, which is scarily accurate.)

Anyway, there are a number of words that, in common usage (even in dictionaries), are starting to lose their precise meanings, which would be a shame. Here's the ones I can think of at the moment.

uninterested vs disinterested
"Uninterested" means that I don't care; "disinterested" means that I don't have any stake in the question and am a neutral party.

jealousy vs envy
"Envy" means that you have something that I wish I had; "jealousy" means that you've got something that I think rightly belongs to me, or that I'm intolerant of rivalry with regard to that thing.

nausea vs nauseous
"Nausea" (noun) is a feeling of queasiness; "nauseous" (adjective) is something nausea-inducing.

So the question is: are these important distinctions of meaning that it's valuable to preserve? Are there others we should work on maintaining?

Or is it just obnoxious hypercorrectness and linguistic snobbery?
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: melted_snowball
2005-03-17 06:24 am (UTC)
The "nauseated"/"nauseous"/"nausea" thing is the only one of these that I don't find myself at all caring about. I think that's because "nauseous" [adj] as you're defining it here means the same thing as "nauseating" [adjective participle of "nauseate"], which I think is unlikely to change meaning.

Forcing people to use either a noun ("I feel nausea") or an adjective past participle ("I feel nauseated") to describe how they feel runs counter to typical English practice ("I feel sad" is the common usage, not "I feel saddened" or "I feel sadness"), and has always seemed pedantic to me.
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[User Picture]From: dcseain
2005-03-17 09:30 am (UTC)
Actually, the use of the past participle as an adjective has a long history in most European languages. E.G. "It is colored." and "The area was flattened." This concept has always been very hard for my English-speaking Spanish students to grasp, as we don't really learn formal grammar in schools in most Anglophonic nations.

In some cases, as you point out, either the noun or the past particle-as-adjective is correct, or at least accepted, as in the case of "nausea" and "nauseated" in your example. In other cases, meanings differ, as in "It is color." vs. "It is colored."

"I feel sad" is the common usage, not "I feel saddened" or "I feel sadness"

I would argue that 'feel' is an unusual verb choice for 'saddened', at least without a subjunctive clause following; 'am' would generally make more sense. On the other hand, none if them is strictly speaking incorrect, just some are more common and/or less awkward than others.
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[User Picture]From: melted_snowball
2005-03-17 09:40 am (UTC)
Sure--of course, it's true that there are cases where the past participle is standard (a parallel example to the one I gave: "I feel troubled" has a different meaning from "I feel trouble."). But it's clear that the source of confusion is because the form feels somehow wrong: people expect that to feel nauseous is the correct usage, and I don't know why.

I guess that any time that such a linguistic "error" is common speech, we need to ask why it's happening, and if the "correct" meaning can be conveyed in another perfectly reasonable way. The example of "nauseous," to me, seems like one where there's not much worth worrying about, because "nauseating" is unambiguous.

[By contrast, I'll fight forever before I stop using was/were subjunctive, where the distinction does seem important to me.]
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[User Picture]From: dcseain
2005-03-17 10:08 am (UTC)
[By contrast, I'll fight forever before I stop using was/were subjunctive, where the distinction does seem important to me.]

I concur. Ah, the joys of an unregulated, living, language. :)
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[User Picture]From: dpolicar
2005-03-17 11:38 am (UTC)
Related to past participles... I recently discovered that "nake" was once a verb, meaning "to remove the clothes of", but has dropped out of usage in all forms except "naked". I'd like to revive it.
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[User Picture]From: dcseain
2005-03-17 12:19 pm (UTC)
Cool. So one can nake oneself, or another. Could one nake a peach or an orange?
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[User Picture]From: dpolicar
2005-03-17 12:43 pm (UTC)
Presumably only if it was clothed to begin with.
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[User Picture]From: melted_snowball
2005-03-17 12:55 pm (UTC)
I don't see why not...

yes, dan? >> oed nake
... To make naked, in various lit. and fig. senses; to bare, lay
bare, strip, unsheathe, etc. ...
...
1607 TOURNEUR Rev. Trag. V. i, Come, be ready: nake
your swords; thinke of your wrongs
...

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[User Picture]From: madbodger
2005-03-18 06:42 pm (UTC)
This came up with me and amyntas the a while back when one of us misspelled "make me". Heh.
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2005-03-17 09:37 am (UTC)
Good point! The nauesa(ted)/nauseous one may be unsalvageable for that very reason.

There are far too many stupidities of prescriptive grammar (like "don't split infinitives", or "don't end in a preposition", both of which are perfectly fine in most cases). It's tricky to find the fine line between that nonsense and encouraging precise use of words with subtle distinctions...
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[User Picture]From: 0nce_and_future
2005-03-17 10:39 am (UTC)
That's what happens when you combine/merge/evolve three separate and extant vocasbulary families, but have the grammar rules imposed from yet another (dead) language. Seriously.

English grammer is teh sux.
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2005-03-17 01:08 pm (UTC)
English grammar is actually very simple, in comparison to lots of other languages. I actually like having lots of little grammar-particle words instead of case-markers!

It's English orthography that's completely heinous. I mean, I kinda like it the way it is, honestly, but it's apparently a real bear to learn as a second language.
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[User Picture]From: dcseain
2005-03-17 01:46 pm (UTC)
Il n'est pas plus difficile d'orthographier que le Français.

Though i'm all for spelling reform. Representing the 40-41 sounds of North American English with 90+ different spellings for various phonemes is tedious at best, even for native speakers. Spelling competitions, to my knowledge, are known only in the English and French speaking parts of the world.
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2005-03-17 02:09 pm (UTC)
Spelling reform always sounds like good idea, but then I look at the results and it just feels wrong to me.

One of the neat features of our current spelling system is that it records etymology (and meaning) in addition to pronunciation.

(And I should probably confess that I won a number of spelling bees in elementary school, so the tediosity is lost on me...)
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[User Picture]From: melted_snowball
2005-03-17 02:42 pm (UTC)
I think there's some other kind of spelling bee that's common in Francophone Canada, which is about sounding out homophones, or something like that.

[I won spelling bees when I was a kid, too...]
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