Ihear the voice of Inigo Montoya in my head a lot. Not just one of my all-time favorite lines from a movie: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” It’s that other one from The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
In correcting Vizzini’s constant use of “Inconceivable!” when he really means “improbable,” Montoya launched a million memes and gave us a line destined to be repeated by word nerds the world over.
Zeffrey Zodis of Kentucky’s Centre College wrote on Odyssey Online of three possible reasons for Vizzini’s mistake: catachresis, lethologica, and sophomania.
Catachresis is the misapplication of a word to something it doesn’t properly denote, such as using “literally” when you mean “figuratively.” And now “literally” is so over(mis)used that it has come to mean “figuratively” to some. Is it any wonder people sometimes have trouble learning English when even native speakers can’t get it right?
Lethologica is the inability to remember the correct word (but it’s right on the tip of your tongue!), something I had trouble with long before I suffered my stroke two years ago. It’s also the reason I prefer written communication; no one is too impressed when you think of the right word three days later.
Sophomania is the unrealistic belief in one’s own intelligence. Zodis writes: “Vizzini has surrounded himself with a less-than-intelligent muscleman and a Spaniard whose English is considered sub-par. This option presents Vizzini as a mastermind who is not really a master of his mind. Sure, he managed a few tricks and understands dialectics as if he were Hegel himself. However, delusions being delusions, Vizzini thinks he can simply say whatever he wants and assume it is correct because his surroundings propagate that behavior.”
Zodis said his money was on catachresis, but I tend to fall on the side of sophomania in Vizzini’s case. He did have a dizzying intellect, after all. For most of us, though, the reasons for misuse of words likely are either catachresis or lethologica.
Of course, on Twitter, you can always blame your thumbs or voice-to-text programs. Well, for some of it. “Her Renda stench” comes to mind from one of my recent dictations. Not sure what “Renda stench” is, but apparently it is absolutely horrendous (the company iPad didn’t understand “horrendous,” but “cryptogamic” was no problem … go figure).
What trips up most people isn’t anything like “cryptogamic,” but far more common words. Go to just about any public online comment board, and you’re likely to see something like this: “Take my advise or you will loose you’re mine. Im so mad I cant breath!”
It’s hard for people like me to continue reading something so full of errors, and what’s sadder is that even polite attempts to correct the errors are usually met with hostility. To be fair, part of that is because grammar grouches do tend to be more condescending than helpful, so any correction is likely to irritate the perpetually ticked-off.
Stick with the word nerds. We’re nicer.
Just in case you have plans to do any writing online or elsewhere, here are a few of the more common misused words to remember so you don’t look like a complete dolt.
Imply/infer: To imply is to insinuate without saying something outright. To infer is to deduce something that hasn’t been said directly. If I say that you’ll like what’s happening later today, you, ya crazy cat person, might infer that your office is instituting an afternoon “kitten break.” (Hey, I’d like that!)
Farther/further: Farther is physical distance, while further is metaphorical. Clark might have gone farther for that story, but Lois progressed further in her career than he did … maybe because she wasn’t flying around saving people on the down-low.
Complement/compliment: A complement completes something, such as an ensemble, while a compliment just makes you feel good. You like my purple scarf? Aw, shucks.
Assure/ensure/insure: To assure is to tell someone that something is true. To ensure is to make sure of something. To insure is to take out an insurance policy. And Ensure is a not-so-delightful “nutrition” drink. I’ll stick with my Special K, thank you very much.
Who’s/whose: Who’s is a contraction meaning “who is.” Whose is a possessive pronoun. If you’re confused, use the non-contracted version of who’s, and if the sentence doesn’t make sense, you’ve probably got it wrong, and the rest of us are laughing at you.
And one of my all-time pet peeves—It’s/its/its’: It’s is a contraction that means “it is.” Its is a possessive meaning “belonging to it.” And its’—one I’ve been seeing lately, and which is not a word—is apparently someone’s bid to drive me completely nuts. Stop it.
Just about everybody has that one word that grates whenever someone misuses it. Maybe it’s “verses” (as in a song) instead of “versus” (against). Or perhaps it’s “then” (implying time) instead of “than” (comparison). Hearing or seeing it can make your blood boil.
You might want to lash out, but don’t. It’s just not worth going to jail. OK, maybe for “literally” …