Unleashing the Primal Word Guy

Rob Kyff on

Anyone who regularly reads this column knows that I'm an easygoing guy who customarily accepts and even welcomes changes in language usage. Henry Higgins' self-description from "My Fair Lady" comes to mind: "I'm a very gentle man ... who you never hear complain,/ who has the milk of human kindness/ by the quart in every vein." (Well, OK, the first "who" should be "whom," but poetic license, right?)

But, for some reason, certain usage errors turn me into Jack Nicholson in "The Shining." I want to start axing down doors. Heeeere's Robbie!

-- To graduate college: The verb "graduate" originally meant "to divide into grades or intervals" (like a graduated measuring cup) and, by extension, "to mark the end of an academic interval by awarding a diploma." The school graduated the students, so an alum would say, "I was graduated from the Jack Nicholson School of Mindfulness."

People found this cumbersome, so they started saying, "I graduated from college." But during the past 40 years, the phrase has been truncated even further to "I graduated college."

The usage completely reverses the original meaning of "graduate." Now the student is graduating the college!

-- Enormity/enormousness: The primary meaning of "enormity" is "a vicious, immoral or outrageous act," as in "the enormity of the hurricane's devastation" or "the enormity of the dictator's purges." So when people use it to refer to something that's simply large, they risk being misunderstood.

If you were to write, for instance, "I came to understand the enormity of Facebook's power," your reader might assume you regarded its vast influence as evil. Heeeere's Zuckie!


-- That/who: I don't care what the loosey-goosey permissivists say; never use the relative pronoun "that" to refer to people, e.g., "The people that do this are wrong." True, my favorite usage guru, Bryan Garner, says it's a silly fetish to forbid using "that" to refer to humans, but I say, to heck with "that"!

-- Comprise/compose: Traditionally, the whole comprises the parts and the parts compose the whole. So, the backbone comprises 33 vertebrae; 33 vertebrae compose the backbone.

But more and more people are using "comprise" to mean "compose," e.g., "The vertebrae comprise the backbone," and "comprised of" to mean "composed of," e.g., "The backbone is comprised of vertebrae."

My simple message to the invertebrates who use these verbs interchangeability: "Grow a spine!"


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2019 Creators Syndicate Inc.


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