Grammar Moses: Misinformation or disinformation? It's all about intent

 
 
Posted12/2/2018 5:00 AM
hello

Just as Time's person of the year isn't necessarily going to be the kind of person you'd want to watch a ballgame or share a beer with, dictionary.com's word of the year will be more topical than, well, cuddly.

This year, the website chose to shine a light on "misinformation."

I spend a lot of time on the job and away from work fighting the battle against misinformation, so I heartily agree with dictionary.com's selection.

There is a wide range of definitions for "fake news," and it has widened considerably since 2017, but there is a very specific one for "misinformation."

And specificity brings clarity to a conversation.

But no discussion of "misinformation" should be had without considering its first cousin, "disinformation."

While the Oxford English Dictionary, the Cambridge English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster and the American Heritage Dictionary all define "misinformation" as wrong or incorrect information, they don't quite see eye to eye on the issue of whether "misinformation" requires intent to deceive.

However, all four define "disinformation" specifically as false information spread to deceive, notably propaganda.

And it's easy to see why.

"Misinformation" was first used in 1605, according to Merriam-Webster, but "disinformation" arose during the Cold War. It was formed on the pattern of the Russian dezinformatsiya.

Disbelief/misbelief

You'll see some parallels between the passivity of "misinformation" and "misbelief" when you consider the relationship of "misbelief" and "disbelief."

"Disbelief" is shocked incredulity. One rejects something after considering its plausibility.

A "misbelief" is a false belief.

But things go very differently with "misuse" and "disuse."

"Misuse" is a verb meaning to use something incorrectly or treat something or someone unfairly. And I concede because it's a verb it has a leg up on "disuse" in being an active word.

Meanwhile, "disuse" is defined as the state of not being used.

No wonder English is one of the more difficult languages to master!

Mea culpa iterum

In April 2017, Jan Gollberg wrote to gently chastise me for using the eggcorn "one in the same" instead of the real phrase, "one and the same," in this space.

I haven't made that mistake since. But Jan was quick to point out that someone did so in this headline: "Black Friday and Cyber Monday becoming one in the same."

Thanks also to Kathi Bernett and Jane Charmelo for bringing it to my attention.

And thanks to Cynthia Cwynar for pointing out the same problem in a September headline for our obituary story on Naperville Mayor George Pradel.

Clearly, this should be a talking point in a staff meeting.

Write carefully!

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

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