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Witty Wordsmith: Tricky Definitions

StarBase 118 Staff

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“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

~The Princess Bride

Our language is full of words that get used incorrectly more than they get used correctly. Maybe they sound similar to another word; sometimes they have an obscure meaning or grammatical pitfalls. This month we will be looking at a few words that are commonly misused both in the mass media and in our own writing. By picking them apart you can give yourselves some mnemonic hooks to use them correctly and even find ways to incorporate them into your character’s vocabulary!


Like the words decimal and decagon, the deci- at the beginning of decimate implies a power of ten. The literal definition of this word is to ‘slaughter one of every ten’ but the more accepted definition is to ‘destroy a portion of the whole.’  This is a noticeable but not overwhelming portion. If you want to say ‘every last thing was destroyed’ opt for a word like massacre or annihilation.


Here’s one for all you doctors out there… which do you diagnose? The disease or the patient? The answer is pretty simple – diagnose means “to determine an identity through medical examination.” So unless you have no clue who or what your patient is, you are always diagnosing the disease. The same goes for prognosis which refers to determining the progress of what you identify in a diagnosis! Then again this is Star Trek, and every once in awhile you might find a patient that is a complete unknown – both in identity and composition. Then you may go ahead and diagnose them, too.


Spock was fond of calling people out when they used double negatives, and he would have a field day with hardly. While it doesn’t sound like it, hardly is a negative. So beware of using it in a double negative. If you say ‘He couldn’t hardly walk’ the ‘could not’ and the ‘hardly’ are negating one another.  (So either he can walk… or he could hardly walk!)


While this sounds like ‘no-fuss,’ nonplussed actually means exactly the opposite: baffled and confused. The non does mean no, but the plussed has its roots in the word ‘more.’ So think of ‘no more’ as in: ‘I am so baffled I can’t do anything.’

Now that we have gone through the rules for a small sampling of words, consider this: in writing rules are meant to be broken (so long as you break them knowingly!) Characters who misuse language might read as slow or stupid – or maybe they are technically skilled, but rustic in their language. Perhaps a slacker character is deliberately lazy in his or her grammar. Or on the flip side, you could write an NPC who misuses language to highlight a pedantic or academic character correcting them.

Check back later as we sample some more frequently misused words and ways your characters can use them to their advantage!


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