Thursday, 28 July 2011

Confusing couples (5)

Today we look at a few more words that are sometimes confused and consequently sometimes misused.

Aggravated and irritated
An old song (a very old one!) contains the words: "Ring, telephone, ring … this waiting and waiting is so aggravating …" To aggravate means to make worse, i.e. the meaning is similar to that of exacerbate. One may aggravate an ailment by not staying in bed, for example, or aggravate an already difficult situation by some undesirable course of action. Aggravate does not mean the same as irritate.

Paramount and tantamount
In the past few months I have heard two people say something like "In our company the tantamount consideration is …" What they clearly meant to say was that a particular consideration was paramount, meaning "of the greatest importance". Tantamount should be used only in contexts like "Standing a purchasing clerk to lunch so that he might be more likely to buy your product is tantamount to (i.e. amounts to) bribery."

No one is infallible, and mistakes will creep in, especially in the spoken language. But we should be able to have different expectations when it comes to the written word, and here the press sometimes lets us down. (It is occasionally difficult not to have one’s irritation aggravated by wrong usage that is tantamount to linguistic murder in articles where correct usage should be paramount!) Some months ago a financial writer of one of our regional newspapers wrote something like: "It’s not that I am disinterested when it comes to X’s shares …", when the context clearly indicated that he should have written uninterested. Disinterestedness is often precisely what one would hope for in a financial adviser, since disinterested, as I wrote two few weeks ago, means "neutral", i.e. unbiased, objective, not having an axe to grind or a special cause (or company, in this case) to promote.

The media should lead the way in ensuring (and hence promoting) elegant and correct usage. But sadly, they often do not – and is it my imagination, or are carelessness and impreciseness on the part of the media becoming worse?

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