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Bugged

I can live with sloppy grammar—sometimes. Regionalisms and colloquialisms don’t bother me—much. I ain’t got no time to worry over them things.

Here’s what bugs me: imprecise usage, when the words being misused have such distinct meanings. I am particularly annoyed by the following:

  • disinterested, when the speaker or writer means uninterested
  • alternate, when the speaker or writer means alternative

Disinterested means, roughly, “unbiased.” A judge, for example, is supposed to be a disinterested party in a trial, but you wouldn’t want your judge to be uninterested, would you? Well, you might, depending on the circumstances. Don’t tell me, I’m better off not knowing….

Alternate, as a noun, means “every second one of a series” or, very roughly, “substitute”; as a verb, it means “swing back and forth between two states or conditions.” Alternative, as a noun or an adjective, refers to one of two or more options.

  • I take tuba lessons on alternate Tuesdays.
  • Francesco and I alternate as Richard III in Richard III.
  • There are rest rooms on alternate floors [that is, on every other floor].
  • We could drive to Walla Walla, or, as an alternative, we could roller skate.

I get pretty irked, for me, when I read (as I just did, in Nora Roberts’s Ceremony in Death), “Alban—no known alternate name—born 3-22-2020….” Roberts also consistently, tediously, and infuriatingly uses disinterested when she means uninterested. (Ceremony in Death is published under Roberts’s alternative pen name, J. D. Robb. Alternate might be marginally appropriate here because, as far as I know, she has only two pen names and she goes back and forth with them, in a manner of speaking. If she had several pen names to choose among, “J. D. Robb” would be one of the alternatives.)

Strictly speaking, a thing can have only one alternate. Thus if I work at the popcorn counter every three days, taking turns with Betty Sue and Napoleon, we do not (strictly speaking, as I said), alternate. But that usage wouldn’t make me rip out my eyeballs, as I do frequently when reading Nora Roberts, though she does write a fine tale… where was I? Oh. That usage (re Betty Sue, Napoleon, and me) isn’t as troublesome because there’s no good alternative verb. “Take turns” doesn’t quite work; it sounds too playful.

Okay, that’s it. Thank you for allowing me to purge here in print. The only alternative is to rip out my eyeballs, and I’ve exhausted my supply.

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