Am I being anal? Probably.

(I wrote this a week or two ago and decided to wait a while to publish it.)

Saw a weird argument tonight on a facebook event over whether the word “penultimate” was used incorrectly or not. As an English major, I am biting my tongue right now, but it is 1 AM and I need to rant about something other than the fact that I have a paper due tomorrow.

what is it with people being super-correct all the time? If by “penultimate” I mean “ultimate” what difference does it make, “ultimately”? Will more children in Africa die because I used the wrong adjective? Will the possibility of world peace be precluded (I don’t care if I used “precluded” right or not)? Will global warming be precipitated Just wondering…. If the answer to any of these questions is “yes” please let me know and I will immediately correct my mistake.

Penultimate = second to last. It’s not even being super-correct, it’s being correct with language. I don’t have a problem with people who use big words. I do have a problem who use words INCORRECTLY and PRETENTIOUSLY and then announce that they don’t care whether they used the big word right or not. Words are more important than one would think. As someone who is going to graduate in one year with a degree in English, I feel as though I have not fully mastered a sense of the possibility of words, and that I need to tiptoe around my word-usage in a way that is balanced and fair and conveys the correct idea in a way that is responsible.

Sure, children are not going to die just because you used the wrong adjective to make an event announcement, but there are worlds where people’s lives depend on them. Just because you used the wrong word at the wrong time in the wrong context doesn’t mean that you should continue that. It undermines the effectiveness of the word, and the word loses its power. Your refusal to acknowledge this is a disrespect to the beautiful words that you are using.

So should you care? Yes. Words are pretty, but they are not medallions that you hang around your neck to show off your knowledge.


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