Monday, March 10, 2008

The Test

It's very, very hot in Adelaide. Everyone's plants are dying. Everyone's trees are dying. I've spent the weekend being what my friend Leonie calls Not a Well Person, suffering from what I think must have been a three-way collision of heat exhaustion, food poisoning and stress ... and we've got another week of this. No relief from the heat predicted till next weekend.

All of which means I'm grumpier than usual. So when I come across someone saying 'disinterested' (which means 'neutral', 'impartial', 'having no vested interest' or, as Fowler* says, 'free from personal bias') when they mean 'uninterested' (which means 'not interested', 'bored', 'un-engaged') -- when I see that in print, which is to say in a piece of writing that at least one editor has seen and passed, I remind myself of The Test.

I've read four novels a week for review (and often more than that, for pleasure or for other work) since Boxing Day 2007, which adds up to 240 novels since last summer. So I've had some serious recent practice at making quick general judgements about writing skills.

And 'disinterested'/'uninterested' is the ultimate pass/fail test. It means that not only does the writer not know the difference, but the publisher has employed an editor who doesn't know the difference either. And people who haven't yet arrived at this threshold of language skills should not be writing, or editing, books. Any novel in which this usage appears immediately goes on the B-list, and immediately makes me more suspicious of the writer; if s/he has committed to paper this very common and much-talked-about error solecism usage variant, what else can s/he not be trusted to get right?

I apologise in advance to the oft-generous folks at Language Log and all who sail in her for still caring about this at all, much less fighting a Quixotic rearguard action on it, if only as an unvoiced factor in my judgements about fiction. I'm with the also oft-generous Fowler (or possibly Gowers, who was responsible for the revised Second Edition), who in the entry on 'disinterested' reluctantly admits both usages but remarks wistfully at the end: 'A valuable differentiation is thus in need of rescue, if it is not too late.'

*As in Fowler's Modern English Usage. Tried to find a decent informative link and stumbled instead upon an online encyclopedia with an entry by one James Munson on the most recent edition of Fowler; much of said entry is taken up with a scornful rave about that dreaded scourge of our times, Rampant Feminism, and the linguistic Political Correctness that allegedly followed in its wake. All this is, of course, says Munson, "errant nonsense". He means "arrant".


Jonathan Shaw said...

I also have that distinction as a test. Another is 'miniscule' instead of minuscule -- a book has to work very hard to win me back once it's done that.

lucy tartan said...

I have the same feelings about disinterestedness. Interesting that Fowler (or Gowers) thought it was a lost cause. It's not something I'd ever correct a person upon - not worth making yourself look mad. But just the same I think the style guide authors are right to point out it's a disinction worth preserving. You could spin a whole novel out of it and two hundred years ago somebody probably did.

I think while you were writing this post, I was belatedly arguing with another commenter in your 'alot' post. I suppose the lesson for me is that it's not nice to be corrected.

'Reticent' pleonastically used instead of 'reluctant' in constructions like 'I was reticent to join in the conversation' is another one.

lucy tartan said...

On the delightful Mr Munson and his kind - this Language Log post is worth looking over.

BK said...

*brandishes Red Pen of Editing*

I love 'disinterested'. I love using it in front of people who think it means 'uninterested'. It is an interesting exercise.

Kathleen said...

I read something with this mistake just last week - possibly in the ALR, I can't remember. It infuriates me and I can't not comment on it to anyone standing nearby.

M-H said...

The art of editing is so undervalued now, it makes me want to weep.

fifi said...

I can use the dis/un interested well enough, but I am feeling very inadequate in the face of pleonastically....

Anonymous said...

Amazing how we can get worked up about these things. Rightly so, too!

Not condoning it; dis- and un- are actually words.

I'll swap a thousand dis and uns for one pseudo, life-sucking, non-word, semi-spat 'teh'!

Have a splendiforous day nonetheless, Robert.

ocky said...

If I could get just one writer to use "significant" correctly, I'd die a happy editor. (More accurately, I'd rather they stopped using it incorrectly)

I agree heartily with the un/dis problem, and the minuscule distinction. I'd also add "refute" and "deny" as a test: they are not the same thing. Howard might deny the claim that he's a greasy weasel, but he'd have a hard time refuting it.

I hope you get well (and cool) soon, Pav!

Pen said...

Flaunt and flout. Horrors. Although it would be diverting to see someone really flaunting the rules I suppose.

Bernice said...

Oh in NSW they flaunt those rules all the time. Believe me, it's definitely flaunting.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Thanks all, lovely fine tuning.

The novel I'm currently reading not only features 'disinterested' to mean 'uninterested' before the pagination reaches double digits, but follows it up a few pages later with 'cohort' as a synonym for (singular) associate/friend/colleague. Fail. Major fail.

One thing that worries me a bit about these discussions, at least when I'm the person who started them, is that it's often assumed I'm making moral judgements, and of ordinary non-professional-writer folks at that.

But it's so not about that, at least not for me. The Kaths and Kims of the world are very welcome to say whatever they like, and I rejoice in the fact that they will, with or without my or anyone else's blessing.

For me it's about professional writing (or speaking): about language as a craft and the fine tuning of the technique thereof, and yes that was a joke. It's about the people who use language professionally -- journalists, writers, lecturers -- because it's their work that sets the standards. ("I've seen this in print, so it must be right.") Daily usage is one thing, but any writer who uses language badly out of ignorance deserves to be hauled over the coals for it.

Mary Bennet said...

Oh dear, I agree about needing "good" writing to have, you know, "proper" grammar so please keep up the fight for "disinterest" and "reticent", Pav.

Instant fail for me is "I"/ "me" confusion as in "They gave the book to Lisa and I".

Sarah said...

Not to mention the difference between disorganised and unorganised - I am certainly the former, but definitely not the the latter.

Pen said...

I'm uninterested in being organised.

My dream is to have an editor with me every minute, so everything I say is a as good as a polished chapter.

Francis Xavier Holden said...

It's a bit of a late contribution I know but I'm sure you'll know where this is from:

After a pause I shook my head. "You've overplayed your hand. Do you know the meaning of the word disinterested?"

That caught his vanity. "Yeah, I'm disinterested in everything you have to say"

I stood. "You've got it wrong. Look it up. It means uninvolved, having no stake in something. You're not disinterested in this Charley. You're up to your balls in it." I dropped a card on his desk. " I couldn't care less about you or your stash or any reward. I cared about Jerry. Get in touch when you've thought it over."

I walked out, nodded to the secretary and left the building. I thought I'd accomplished something, but I wasn't sure what.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Sounds like Peter Corris to me, FXH, but I couldn't tell you which one.

feral sparrowhawk said...

Disinterested seems to me more important than the other misused words referred to here. The others have value for literary merit, but I don't think the actual concept of flaunting is being lost when the word is used in place of flouting.

On the other hand, I think the abuse of disinterest is part of a social forgetting that such a thing can exist (aside perhaps from football umpires).

Part of the horror of the Howard years was the way that people who were, and were once seen as, disinterested became falsely labeled as partisan, and their contributions dismissed as a result.