Right word : wrong place? Pedantique-Ryter rants

stars with text Even Illustrious Organs can get words wrong

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 … “

question mark : which of a word pair to use?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.

open a window onto clarity about word pairsIn other words 😉

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?

drinking may imply you are drunkThis 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.

The New Oxford Dictionary of English says:pen in razor shape, text critic
Use of infer to mean imply, as in are you inferring that I’m a liar?
(instead of are you implying that I’m a liar?), is an extremely common error.

An extremely common error?

Oh dear.

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?

chatting about authors and books : disinterested?

Interested, yes, but are the observers disinterested too?

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.

exclamation mark in fireOuch!
Fowler might as well have said that some people use disinterested because it sounds more high-falutin’ than uninterested and, poor souls, they don’t know any better.

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.

And more?

There are lots more confusing word pairs around,
but I think three is enough for one rant, don’t you?Dedicating Thank You

Is this Dame Isadora under that huge hat?Thank you for reading this far…

I. Pedantique-Ryter

20 thoughts on “Right word : wrong place? Pedantique-Ryter rants

  1. Gail Mallin

    I wonder if disinterested to mean uninterested is considered correct usage in the USA. I see it used that way all the time in American novels. It irritates the hell out of me and makes me mutter to myself about wishing people wouldn’t do it!

    1. Dame Isadora Post author

      An interesting observation about the USA, Gail, m’dear. You may be right.

      And you are also right to mutter when it’s wrongly used. Pedants of the world unite 😉

      1. Dame Isadora Post author

        On further checking, I see that the Oxford Thesaurus (the American version only — does that tell us something?) contains an opposite-leaning rant on “disinterested” from someone with the initials SW. It’s worth a read. It ends as follows:

          …So forget the argument. Get over it. Though disinterested certainly and uniquely does have the sense of “unbiased,” it happens that in general use these days—and back in the beginning of the seventeenth century also, it seems—it means “uninterested” too.
    1. Dame Isadora Post author

      As I said to Gail, Liz, Pedants of the World Unite! You never know, we might stamp it out.

  2. Sophie

    I think disinterested must come from the specific use of “interest” as having a sort of personal investment in something. Still used (in the City at least) in the sense of having a financial interest in a business or transaction. So if you are disinterested, you are a third party to the deal and gain no benefit, irrespective of the outcome.

    A useful word. I would be sad to see it lose that meaning. “Neutral” or “indifferent” don’t really hack it as substitutes.

    1. Dame Isadora Post author

      I think you are right about where disinterested comes from, Sophie. Indeed, the Oxford Dictionary gives an example similar to yours:

        adjective 1 not influenced by considerations of personal advantage: a banker is under an obligation to give disinterested advice.

      I agree on “neutral” and “indifferent” though “impartial” isn’t bad.

  3. Elizabeth Bailey

    Glad to have torturous/tortuous sorted out, thanks. The others I think I usually get right, so no rapping over knuckles for them, I hope.

    1. Dame Isadora Post author

      Glad to have helped on the tortuous question of torturous/tortuous and well done on the others 😉

  4. Susie Vereker

    You might be losing the battle about disinterested. I hear it used wrong all the time. My own current pet peeve is ‘I was stood there’!

    1. Jill Barry

      I only wish BBC presenters would follow this blog! And, yes, Susie, I too cringe when hearing yet another example of your pet peeve. Sadly, I’ve even heard The Duke of Cambridge say it on TV.

    2. Dame Isadora Post author

      Yes, Susie, I admitted as much in my blog. Agree on “I was stood there” which has its partner in “I was sat there”.

  5. gilliallan

    I’d not noticed the tortuous /tourturous confusion, but imply and infer is a very common mistake. As for disinterested /uninterested……..! This drives me nuts. As Susie V says – it’s probably a lost battle. The disinterested judge is NOT uninterested in the proceedings he’s ajudicating! I hope he’s very interested. Forgetting ‘Judge John Dee’ (what a hoot that was!) he should have no “interest” of a financial, familial, friendship or business nature. Objective is a word I often use if I want to find a substitute.

    1. Dame Isadora Post author

      Yes, Gilli, “objective” is a good substitute. So is “impartial”. Pity about losing the battle, but I probably have…

  6. Evonne Wareham

    The tortuous thing was a new one on me I didn’t know there were two words, so I have learned something today – always a justification for having got out of bed. Not guilty on the other two and I’m one of those who shout and throw things at disinterested.

    1. Dame Isadora Post author

      Pleased to learn the blog has been of use, Evonne. I’m actually surprised, and gratified, to learn how many visitors to the blog share my aversion to “disinterested = not interested”. You are, of course, all absolutely correct to do so 😉

  7. lesley2cats

    Reading late – only just got wifi! As a fairly well known and reviled pedant in my own circles I applaud Dame Isadora’s stance on this thorny subject.

      1. Dame Isadora Post author

        My dear gel, you are being reviled — as pedants like us always are — in a worthy cause. I always try to remember that when the unpedantic allow themselves to make comments and I tell myself to pity them. Poor things, they don’t know any better.

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