Grammar Moses: When does a word become a word?

Updated 1/6/2018 5:14 PM

"All my life," Ernest Hemingway said, "I've looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time."

I'm sure the king of the simple declarative sentence and the punchy active verb meant something very different from this interpretation: Many people simply don't think enough about the words they use.


They hear something and repeat it. That's where homonym problems come into play.

To truly do right by English, one must analyze it. And I'm sure that on this Mr. Hemingway and I would have agreed.

To wit:

• "I'm taking a different tact this year in my approach to my job."

Well, goody for you if you're going to be more tactful toward your co-workers and customers.

But what I think you meant is: "I'm taking a different tack this year."

"Tack" is a nautical term meaning a change of a boat's course relative to the direction of the wind. So, if you take a different tack, you're changing direction. And that definition extends well beyond the open water.

• "Try to hone in on the source of your anxiety."

To "hone" is to sharpen.

To "home" is to move toward a target.

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For instance, a self-guided missile homes in on something it's been programmed to blow up.

One hones a knife with a stone and elbow grease.

• "I am disinterested in your explanation for why your souffle fell."

"Disinterested" and "uninterested" are not synonyms.

To be uninterested is to be indifferent to something, to be unconcerned. That clearly is the message here.

To be disinterested, one must not have any skin in the game, no bias.

"The agreement must be notarized by a disinterested third party."

The notary or witness must not have a stake in the deal that's being forged. He must be impartial.


I once wrote in this space that "irregardless" is not a word; that the ir- prefix is unnecessary and "regardless" serves the purpose well.


That was a long time ago.

Recently, Mary Davis wrote and email to me with the subject line: "Check out 'Irregardless' Is a Real Word."

"Aha, I thought so!!!," she wrote. "Been saying this for 80 years; it must be."

Slow your roll, Mary.

For the record, I'll give you that "irregardless" is a word, but a nonstandard one.

Back during the Pleistocene age when I attended college, one of my friends made up the word "schwouldja."

It's basically a grandiose way of inquiring "Would you?"

It's a word, because six or eight of us use it, albeit almost exclusively with one another.

But until now, you'd never heard of the word and you likely would eschew it as being nonsense. And after arguing with you, I'd probably soften you up to the point you'd begrudgingly agree that it's a word, but a nonstandard one.

At what point does a nonsense word become a nonstandard standard word and a nonstandard word become a word and a word become a preferred word?

I don't know the answer to that.

I can tell you that 80 years ago "regardless" was used 1,040 times as often as "irregardless" in literature, while in 2000 "irregardless" had made some headway. By then it was used once every 620 times "regardless" was used.

So, I told Mary, let's just agree that "schwouldja" and "irregardless" are nonstandard words that have much better cousins who can do the job more capably.

Write carefully, schwouldja?

• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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