Deluged with a barrage of adverb abuse


    There’s a scene in “Finding Forrester” (a marvelous film starring Sean Connery, inexplicably ignored by Academy Award nominators) where young Jamal chides his pompous English professor for misusing the word farther. Here, here! How many copy editors have let that one slip by — so often that further seems to appear everywhere, even when farther would be the correct choice.

    I was taught that farther is an adverb and as such may modify a verb, an adjective or another adverb, and should be used only to denote distance. Further, on the other hand, was a verb meaning “to promote”: He did that to further his own agenda. To say “He saw a sign further up the road” is clearly incorrect, but is now common in everyday usage and, unfortunately, in much popular writing.

    Incorrect usage has become so common as to appear in newer dictionaries, some of which include further as a second definition (after more distant) for farther. In this way, an editor once changed my use of the word stanch, a verb meaning to stem the flow, to staunch, an adjective meaning solid or strong, as in: “He was a staunch supporter of liberal causes.” Computer spell checks permit both stanch and staunch but grammar programs don’t seem to know the difference.

    Those same computer programs are responsible for probably half of the misused words found in print these days. Hence the confusion over affect (the verb) and effect (the noun), and ensure and insure. Prudential will insure your home if you ensure the premiums are paid on time (oh, please, not in a timely manner). I’ve had computers change aesthetics to anesthetics, the rationale for which escapes me. The computer, of course, is not rational.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for using more colorful speech, even making up new words, as long as their meaning is clear. I have used inumerate as an adjective to describe a person (myself) who is inept at arithmetic (better by far than “mathematically challenged”). But an editor allowed the computer to change it to enumerate (a verb meaning to count), which made the sentence nonsensical.

    We have news readers, politicians, bureaucrats, computer nerds and, yes, educators to thank for most of this. Particularly those who view obfuscation as high art. They think they’ve failed if someone doesn’t say: What does that mean?

    Language in this country also is degraded in direct proportion to the quality of what comes from the White House. If our leader uses fractured syntax, the trickle-down theory affects every bulletin released by his aides and, ultimately, the reporters who cover the administration. If you hear it said wrong enough times, it will begin to sound right.

    Belligerent (which once applied only to nations or states) now replaces hostile or pugnacious for someone picking a fight. Reticent (habitually silent or taciturn) often is misused for someone who is reluctant; liable (legally responsible) routinely replaces likely as a prediction; less modifies plural as well as single nouns instead of fewer. A crossword puzzle even used prone (lying face down) as the answer to recumbent, instead of supine (flat on one’s back). Prostrate can mean either side up, but that didn’t fit either.

    A story in the morning paper used barrage as a verb: Napster has encouraged people to barrage legislators with e-mails. Those folks should bombard legislators with a barrage of e-mail. These days they could also inundate them with a deluge of e-mail — those words once referred exclusively to water but now can mean a barrage of just about anything.

    We have technology to thank for my least-favorite verb, interact, derived from the perfectly ordinary noun interaction, formerly the parlance of scientists. Why do the techies always have to turn good nouns into bad verbs? When a teacher tells me how my grandson interacts with other children, I gag. Whatever happened to “Plays well with others”?

    And when did we all start using adverbs in place of adjectives, the worst cases being shortly and hopefully, which completely distort the meaning of what’s being said.

    When the nurse says to me, “The doctor will see you shortly,” I assume my HMO has decreased the time allowed for office visits from 15 minutes to eight, or maybe just three. “Hopefully, it won’t be too long,” she adds. Who is hoping what here? I’m hoping I’ll get my 15 minutes with the M.D. (instead of the nurse practitioner), and that I won’t have to wait forever. So while I might stare hopefully at my watch or at the door, there’s no way it can be hopefully not too long. With any luck at all, it will just be soon and not too short.