Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Count to Ten

If you listen to You Bet Your Garden on WHYY on Saturday mornings, you probably realize that Mike McGrath, while very knowledgable about all things horticultural, is not a model for grammar and usage. Therefore, I was not surprised when he used the phrase "totally decimated" this week.

The practice of decimation has its roots in Roman history as recorded by Livy. It was a form of punishment for mutinous or cowardly soldiers. Soldiers were divided into groups of ten, and within each group, one soldier would be chosen by lot and killed, either by clubbing or stoning. In other words, decimation is the destruction of one in ten. If you look at the word, you can even see the prefix "deci" that comes from the Latin for ten.

"Total decimation" is an oxymoron. If one tenth is destroyed, nine tenths survive. If you want to show that every member of a group was killed, "total destruction" is a more accurate way to express your meaning.

And when you hear someone else say "total decimation," join me in counting to ten before venting your frustration.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

One of a kind

Summer in Chester County has been a scorcher with record temperatures and consistently high humidity. I've heard meteorologists describe the number days in the 90-degree range "very unique," and I cringe.

"Unique" is a word that should not take any qualifiers (words like very, a little, somewhat, etc.). "Unique" means "one of a kind." Something either is or is not one of a kind. If there are two of an object, then the object is not unique. Copies of the Declaration of Independence printed in 1776 might be rare, but they are not "unique." More than one exists. Ergo, any copy is not unique.

Years ago, I had a student argue for an entire term that she was "very unique." While she certainly worked very hard at being different, and while every student is unique in his or her own way, neither she nor anyone else is "very unique." The logic is all wrong! How can you be "very" one of a kind? While we immediately see the problem when we hear someone talk about a "dead corpse" (is there such a thing as a living corpse?), many speakers and writers don't recognize the incongruity of amplifying "unique." When we add the adverb we are in fact weakening the language--and the value we place on originality.

If I had my druthers, I would argue that writers cull the word "very" from their vocabularies entirely. Find the right shade of meaning and you don't need to amplify. Visit the Visual Thesaurus website (a wonderful tool for writers) to find the word with exactly the right nuance, and you can eliminate the pesky little word while making a greater impact on your reader. In that way, you can be unique (no modifier required).