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Three words that don’t work

We English speakers have around a million words at our disposal, and we should make the most of them. There’s a theory that no two words mean the same, and that each one has its own intensity associated with it.

However, there are some words that just don’t seem to behave as they should, with an ambiguous double-meaning that renders them all but useless. Here are three  words I barely ever use, simply because I don’t think that they help the clarity of what I’m trying to say:

1. Biannual

It’s fine for a word to have a double meaning; for example, the word ‘train’ can either be a verb meaning to prepare for a job or role, or a vehicle that travels on tracks. This rarely causes any confusion, but it’s a different matter if it’s an adjective used to describe time, length or frequency.

Many dictionaries will tell you that ‘biannual’ can mean either occurring twice a year, or every two years. The former is more accepted, but the word is regularly used in both its contexts and you wonder what purpose a word can really serve if it can’t even neatly clarify how often something is happening.

The word ‘biennial’, specifically meaning ‘every two years’ is an attempt to get round this, but it doesn’t help that it’s such a phonetically similar word.

It’s perhaps even more confusing when terms like biweekly and bimonthly are used. If a doctor instructed a patient to take his tablets biweekly, there’s a good chance he would either take them too infrequently for them to have any effect, or overdose on them.

2. Peruse

This is an odd one, because it’s probably used incorrectly on most occasions. Wordsmiths argue that the word should be used to mean ‘to examine closely’, but it’s frequently used in a way that suggests light, leisurely reading.

According to i.word.com, both definitions are valid, but they’re complete opposites. If you hand somebody a book or leaflet and ask them to peruse it, they will probably only skim-read it and would be pretty horrified if you were to give them an exam based on the material that they should have ‘perused’.

3. Ton

This unit of measurement is perhaps used metaphorically more often than it is to accurately describe weight. I suspect that this is mainly because there’s so much confusion over how much a ton really is.

You regularly hear people say “I’ve got a ton of work to do” or “there are tons of things to see here”. If someone said “this machine weighs 10 tons”, however, you’d be well within your rights to ask “which tons?”

A US ton, for example, is 2,000lb. In the typical quirky British style synonymous with imperial measurement, however, there’s no way a UK ton could settle for such a sensible round number. Our tons are 2,240lb.

Ton by ton, this might not be a huge difference, but it soon adds up. Morrissey once sang “if a ten-ton truck kills the both of us”, but he neglected to point out whether he was measuring in UK or US tons. To American listeners, he would’ve been referring to an 11.2-ton truck. Admittedly, such clarification may have come at the detriment of the song’s rhythm and sombreness.

This is before we even get on to the idea of metric tonnes (note the different spelling) and the idea that a ton can be a unit of volume as well as weight. Units of measurement are supposed to be precise, factual and mathematical, but all this confusion seems to suggest that we might be better to have done with tons.

Those are three words that I think have little use, but that still leaves approximately 999,997 other great ones. Which are your favourites?

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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