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The Word Guy: Are you a Hairsplitter or a Hogwasher?

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By Rob Kyff
Friday, Aug. 2, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

It's another classic battle between the Hairsplitters and the Hogwashers!

First, see whether you can detect why hairsplitters object to the use of the capitalized words in sentences 1, 2 and 3. Then read the hairsplitters' reasons, the hogwashers' refutations and the advice of the humble handholder: me.

1. The stronger economy will IMPACT our hiring plans.

Hairsplitters: The use of “impact” as a verb should be restricted to physical collisions or to the wedging of physical objects or material, as in, “The meteor will impact (strike) the moon's surface,” or “The narrow space will impact (wedge) the tooth.” “Impact” should never be used in a more abstract sense to mean, “to influence, affect.”

Hogwashers: “Impact” has been used to mean, “to influence” since the 1930s. True, the term may be overused by hyperbolic politicians and bureaucrats, but it's no more objectionable than the verb “contact,” which many people scorned during the early 20th century but is now fully accepted.

Handholder: Many people still detest the use of “impact” to mean, “affect,” which they consider jargon. Avoid this usage.

2. The ENORMITY of his generous donation was astounding.

Hairsplitters: “Enormity” should be used only for something of great wickedness, viciousness or evil, as in “the enormity of the dictator's crimes.” It should never be used to refer to anything that is good or even neutral. The correct word for those meanings is “enormousness.”

Hogwashers: “Enormity” comes from the Latin “e, ex” (out) and “norma” (rule), so it can refer to anything that is much larger than the norm, whether it's evil or not. As the late William Safire wrote, “The time has come to abandon the ramparts on enormity's connotation of wickedness.”

Handholder: I agree with Bill.

3. HOPEFULLY, they will reach an agreement.

Hairsplitters: “Hopefully” should not be used as a sentence-modifying adverb to mean “it is to be hoped.” Technically, “Hopefully, they will reach an agreement” means that they will reach an agreement in a hopeful manner.

Hogwashers: We use adverbs such as “mercifully,” “frankly” and “thankfully” this way all the time, e.g., “Mercifully, the package arrived on time.” So the condemnation of “hopefully” as a sentence-modifying adverb is outmoded and silly.

Handholder: I'm with the hog-washers. Hopefully, you'll agree with me.

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 Third St., Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

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