Monday, February 16, 2015

Grammar Ninja: Close, but no cigar.

There are many words that are close, oh, so very close, but not quite the word we mean. Today, I saw this line:
Then on a more tactile [sic] level, whether it’s locking yourself to something or blockading a building, it’s around doing things that really wake people up—that are jarring and make people pay attention to how people have been oppressed for generations. (From Meet the Badass Activist Collective Bringing Direct Action Back to Black Communities)
So close.

Tactile comes from the Latin word tactilis, which in turn is from tangere ‘to touch. It is an adjective referring to the sense of touch. If they wanted to discuss whether to wear silk underwear versus wool, then they would be discussing tactile issues. (Silk is the right answer. Wool underwear is usually a bad idea.)

Tactical, on the other hand, has Greek roots and has military connotations -- which is what they wanted in this case. It comes from the Ancient Greek τακτική taktike meaning "art of arrangement". It does not care what kind of underwear you choose, unless said underwear has an effect on the steps you will take to achieve your objectives.

This is just one example, and it is the kind of thing one finds frequently when reading text written by someone who uses English as a second (or third or fourth) language. It also sometimes happens when our brains misfire -- as in a stroke, a migraine, or dementia -- and substitute a similar word for the one we intended.

Very often, the two words are homophones (words that are pronounced the same as each other but differ in meaning, and may differ in spelling). I can forgive these a little more easily.

Other common examples are:

  • allowed (permitted) vs. aloud (out loud)
  • mish-mash (a random mix of things) vs. mismatch (things that are intended to go together, but don't) 
  • allot (portion out a certain amount) vs. a lot (a large quantity)

GAH! Why can't I come up with any better examples than that? Help me out here, folks.

1 comment:

  1. I find the improper use of "affect" and "effect" adversely affect my demeanor, though I try to effect a stiff upper lip.


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