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Even the most illustrious organs get word usage wrong some of the time
Torturous or Tortuous? Right word, wrong place?
Earlier this month, the Guardian included this quote in a piece on the Cambridge Analytica data enquiry:
Ravi Naik, a human rights lawyer with Irvine Thanvi Natas, the British solicitor who is leading the case, said the decision “totally vindicates David’s long battle to try and reclaim his data”. He added: “The company put him through such a torturous process over what should have been a very simple subject access request … “
A torturous process? Is it really being suggested that Cambridge Analytica tortured David Carroll? Or was it a process full of twists and turns, excessively lengthy and complex?
In fact, a tortuous process?
Lots of writers confuse the two words, possibly because, in speech, it can be difficult to tell them apart. If the Guardian‘s quote was taken over the phone, it could be a mis-transcription. Or maybe it’s not wrong? Maybe the speaker did in fact mean that it was a process involving or causing torture?
Or perhaps — subversive thought — some of the increasingly common misuse of torturous arises because writers don’t know that two different words exist?
Could they be assuming that tortuous is a mis-spelling for torturous?
Pedantique-Ryter Word Pairs Tip #1 : torturous vs tortuous
Best to use torturous (with the extra R of tortuRe) only when you’re implying that the process involves torture or, at least, physical pain: the New Oxford Dictionary of English gives the example “a torturous five days of fitness training”.
Aha! Imply or Infer? Right word, wrong place?
Here’s an example:
You use the word “torturous” to imply that the process involved physical pain.
I infer, from your use of the word “torturous”, that the process involved physical pain.
imply = suggest [but without being explicit]
infer = deduce [by reading between the lines of someone else’s speech or actions]
Clear as day?
Or clear as mud?
This is what the humorist A P Herbert said about the difference between infer and imply in his book What a Word!
If you see a man staggering along the road you may infer that he is drunk, without saying a word; but if you say ‘Had one too many?’ you do not infer but imply that he is drunk.
An extremely common error?
Pedantique-Ryter Word Pairs Tip #2 : imply vs infer
When you’re not sure whether to use imply or infer, ask yourself whether suggest makes sense in your sentence. If it does, use imply; if it doesn’t, use infer.
One way to remember that tip is this Pedantique-Ryter mnemonic:
I’m plying you with my suggested meaning.
Disinterested or Uninterested? Right word, wrong place?
This is one of those often-misused word pairs where the battle has probably been lost. But…
Disinterested does NOT mean not interested. It means impartial. So, “a disinterested observer” means one who is objective or impartial, not an observer who couldn’t care less about what she is seeing.
Back in 1998, Fowler’s Modern English Usage declared that
The community is divided into those who believe that a genuine and useful distinction (disinterested = impartial; uninterested = not interested) is being eroded, and others who, for whatever reason, have simply not heard the word being used to mean ‘impartial’, and just regard it as a routine antonym of interested.
However, more recently, the New Oxford Dictionary of English recorded that:
Today, the ‘incorrect’ use of disinterested is widespread: around a quarter of citations in the Oxford English Corpus for disinterested are for this sense.
In other words, I’m on a loser with this one. Probably…
Nonetheless, as a practising pedant, I entreat you to follow my Tip #3.
Pedantique-Ryter Word Pairs Tip #3 : disinterested vs uninterested
If you want to be sure you’re right (and pedant-proof), use disinterested only when you mean impartial.