Tuesday, October 27, 2009

on the enormity of grammatical abuses

Must I declare a national grammatical emergency? As with Elijah in the wilderness, it seems Jezebel has whacked all of the nation's copyeditors and I alone am left. At least once a week, my browsing eyes are violated by the misuse of the word "enormity" where the word "enormous", or some form of it, is thought to belong.

The issue here is that "enormous" is an adjective, and in those all-too-frequent cases in which a noun is called for, lazy writers cheaply noun-ify the adjective. This practice is even odiouser than lazily adverbifying an adjective. (See what I mean?)

The problem is that "enormity" already has a well-established definition. An "enormity" is a monstrous injustice, a grave moral wickedness, an ugly sort of travesty. Think of it this way:
  • Hurricane Katrina was enormous.
  • The aftermath of Katrina was widely regarded as an enormity.
The natural noun form of "enormous" should rightly be "enormousness", but "enormousness" sounds too unwieldy and low-class; our aforementioned lazy writers substitute "enormity" as a pretentious shortcut to bolster their weak style. But what of "immensity"? Is that inadequate? How utterly ironic, in my ever-so-humble opinion.

Be not deceived, dear reader: the definition matters. These two possible choices of definition for "enormity" are nearly impossible to differentiate based on context alone. Consider the following: "She was stunned by the sheer enormity of the thing." Two quite different meanings arise, do they not?

(For the inevitable exception to the rule, I suggest the following: The healthcailoutulus bill was an enormity. Works on multiple levels, that.)


Stan said...

Oh, man, good one! I have a decent vocabulary, but never caught that "enormity" meant "atrocity", not "enormousness". And it actually becomes somewhat humorous when you consider the enormity of the problem from the media, et al.

Thanks for the new understanding.

Lexicon said...

Excellent blog, sir. Instant fan!


Peter Kaminsky said...

Gosh! I too never knew that "enromity" meant "atrocity" and not "enormous". Thanks for the clarification. I am a college sophomore with a dual major in Physics and Mathematics @ University of California, Santa Barbara. By the way, i came across these excellent physics flash cards. Its also a great initiative by the FunnelBrain team. Amazing!!!