Words (should) matter

I’m a stickler for using the “right” words for things. I’m sure I get it wrong myself, especially when speaking, but I try. There are a few things that I find particularly bothersome (perhaps because of their widespread use). Students I mentor have to deal with my routine correction of them, and they often pick the “incorrect” usage just to tease me, which is fun, but the poor usage bothers me when it’s not an attempt at humor. This is, admittedly, pedantic in some respects, but I think it matters, and I’ll explain why, after describing some of these nuisances.

“I based it off something I read.” No, no, no, no! Things are not based off of anything. If you try to build a Jenga tower off a table, it will fall to the ground and you won’t get to play. Build it on the table, and you’ve got a game. Try to build your house off its foundation, and you’ve got a homeowners nightmare. Build it on the foundation instead. We base things on a foundation, not off the foundation.

“The room was comprised of tables and chairs and chalkboards.” This one is so misused that I get strange looks (and sometimes even have editors “correct” me) when I stick with the earlier usage. The issue here seems to be that people like fancy sounding words, more than ordinary words. The room is actually composed of tables and chairs and chalkboards (and walls and a floor). Comprise, in this usage, means to contain, but it’s often used as a fancy alternative to compose. In correct usage, we would say, “the room comprises tables and chairs and chalkboards,” because in it’s “correct” usage, the whole comprises the parts, the whole contains the parts. Comprise and contain are interchangeable, except that comprise is intended to have the added sense of bringing some degree of wholeness to the scenario. Yet, in newspaper article after newspaper article, and in book after book, and time after time, we see people talk about things being comprised of other things. That’s simply incorrect usage, in the same way that saying things are contained of other things would be incorrect usage. Nothing can be comprised of anything, in the same way that nothing can be contained of anything.

As a scientist, the one I get often is how to use the word “data.” In the unadulterated world, we have two words to describe data points, we have data and datum.  Data is what we use when talking about all the points, and datum is what we use when talking about one of them. Thus, when we use “data,” we treat it as a plural, and we treat datum as the singular. We, therefore, should never say, “the data supports the hypothesis” in the same way we would never say, “the findings supports the hypothesis.” It is more correct to say, “the data support the hypothesis,” because there should be more than one datum when we use the word data. The finding (singular) supports, the findings (plural) support. Thus, the datum (singular) supports, the data (plural) support. Yet, it’s rare to hear anybody except scientists, and even among us it’s not universal, use data as a plural. That’s unfortunate.

These may seem silly, but words have to have meaning, and when we start changing the meaning of words on our own, or even as a society, without some formal announcement that from now on the word has this new meaning, it makes it harder to communicate. And now we get to what got me started on this, a recent poll found a decline in support for the view of the FBI by republicans. The part that got me the most was an 18-point increase in the percent of Americans who believe that the FBI is biased against Trump. In these data, we find that 56% of republicans believe that the FBI is biased against President Trump. Bias is an important word. Bias is responsible for many decisions we make, and I’ve spent a bit of time here writing about bias and racism (see here and here and here). But it’s very hard to point to bias as being part of anything the FBI is doing. The LAPD may have some systemic problems with bias against African Americans, but that’s not why they suspected OJ Simpson killed his wife. It may be why a person is more likely to imagine a gun that isn’t really there in the hands of a black man than in the hands of a white man, but probable cause and suspicion themselves are not bias. The FBI clearly suspects that there is wrongdoing surrounding Trump. Trump and his associates are clearly the focus of at least two federal investigations that we know of (including the one directed by Robert Mueller and the one in the hands of the Southern District of New York (SDNY). Trump was also investigated by the State of New York over illegal practices of Trump University, which was settled for $25 million. So, it’s possible to say that Trump’s behavior with Trump University created a bias that made his more suspicious to investigators, but I don’t think that’s what people are saying. People on the right, at least based on the time I spend watching FoxNews and listening to AM radio, think that they have been out to get Trump for no good reason, or because they all wanted Clinton to become president. They use the words “bloodless coup” to talk about the investigation of Trump. It’s especially odd because the people on TV and on the radio who are calling the FBI “biased” and saying that the FBI is just out to get Trump for no good reason, are the same people who often said that fears of too much power in the hands of Homeland Security, for instance, wasn’t a problem. Wiretapping of phones wasn’t a problem for them because they had nothing to hide. They seemed to think, before, that the FBI only came for you if you did something wrong. But now, they think that Trump didn’t do anything wrong, yet the FBI is spending all this time looking into him. It’s internally inconsistent, which happens, but let’s at least stop using the word “bias” so we can use it where it actually means something. Let’s build our language on a strong foundation so we can comprise all we learn into the meaningful basis of communication. Please. Can we at least do that?

[Yes, I haven’t had much to say lately, and I’ve been busy, so it was good to get this out. Thanks for reading.]


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