Questions of Usage

Would you consider use of the word “references” in the following sentence to be acceptable or unacceptable?

The paper references several articles on global warming.

How would you vote on the use of “referenced” in the sentence below? Yea or nay?

During the press conference, the mayor referenced the recent floods.

These two examples were among the dozens recently presented to a panel of about 200 writers, scholars, and critics. The editors of the American HeritageDictionary of the English Language poll the panel members annually on a broad range of usage questions.

The effort is a reflection of the fact that language evolves. Meanings shift; grammatical constructions change; words accrete alternative uses. In such an environment, a dictionary can offer not only definitions but also guidance on contentious usage issues.

In the case of the American Heritage dictionaries, panel responses, which can be sharply divided, are often incorporated as “usage notes” accompanying dictionary entries. See, for example, the lengthy note about use of the word “impact” as either a noun or verb, and how the judgment on acceptability has shifted over the years.

Indeed, it’s not unusual to find instances of usage that were deemed unacceptable a few decades ago (the panel has been active since 1964, though its membership has changed over the years), and are now accepted by most, if not all, panel members. Curiously, it’s rather rare to find the reverse—acceptable usage that drifts into disrepute.

Panel judgments also find their way into the 100 Words series of books, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Examples include 100 Words Almost Everyone Confuses and Misuses and 100 Words Almost Everyone Mixes Up or Mangles.

Additional commentary on usage questions is available via the American Heritage Dictionary blog. A recent post tackled the question of “they” as a singular pronoun.

The Language Log blog is another provocative, though unrelated, source of commentary on current usage issues.

Here are some additional examples from recent usage ballots. How would you vote?

altercation

The men argued and insulted each other, but the altercation never became violent.

One of the men sustained a broken nose during the altercation.

The altercation began with an exchange of gunfire across the courtyard.

astronomical

The chances of winning the Powerball lottery are astronomically small.

couple

A couple friends came over to watch the game.

disinterested/uninterested

Since the judge stands to profit from the sale of the company, she cannot be considered a disinterested party in the dispute.

Since she started skiing, she’s become disinterested in ice skating.

It is difficult to imagine an approach better designed to prevent disinterested students from developing any intellectual maturity.

factoid

Each issue of the magazine begins with a list of factoids, like how many pounds of hamburger were consumed in Texas last month.

The editorial writer relied on numerous factoids that have long been discredited.

grieve

It grieves me to see so many homeless in the city.

She took a week off to attend her father’s funeral and grieve his loss.

I have found that pondering such examples has helped me focus on the precise meaning of words, where once I might have had only a vague notion of exactly what a particular term means.—Ivars Peterson

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