improper-but-no-longer-incorrect word usage alert!

IMPROPER-BUT-NO-LONGER-INCORRECT word usage alert: according to Merriam-Webster Online, the word decimal as an adjective means (in order) “numbered or proceeding by tens; or based on the number 10; especially expressed in or utilizing a decimal system especially with a decimal point; or subdivided into 10th or 100th units.”

As a noun, decimal means almost the same: “any real number expressed in base 10.”

Did you know that ‘nonetheless’ and ‘nevertheless’ and ‘notwithstanding’ are all synonyms?

Now, the Word Alert here ain’t for decimal—it’s for decimate, which means “to select by lot and kill every tenth man of.” A secondary definition is far less likely to be found in modern usage: “to exact a tax of 10 percent from.”

So, used properly, “to decimate something/anything” (Todd Rundgren connection there) means to remove or eliminate every tenth item or thing in that something/anything. More loosely, but still properly, it means to eliminate or remove any one-tenth of that something/anything.

The improper and once incorrect meaning—“to reduce drastically, especially in number”—is now correct: the definition I just used is the third listed by Merriam-Webster. So, once again, ignorance and misuse of the language triumphs over knowledge awareness correctness.

For those of us “sticklers” who still believe in prescriptive dictionaries, it remains nonetheless quite improper when used thusly!

I bring this to your attention because I see decimate used so frequently these days. It has become quite popular with the past few generations of writers. I mean, like, man, I see it everywhere—and always used improperly. In fact, I’m not certain that I have seen it used properly in decades (another word with dec. (Oh, damn! Now I’m making the argument for its incorrect usage as the ‘new’ correct usage!).

PS: Did you know that nonetheless (a word that I positively use almost to excess) and nevertheless (a word that I almost never use) and notwithstanding (does anyone use that word in actual conversation anymore?) are all synonyms?

I didn’t! Hell’s Belles!! I didn’t even know that notwithstanding was a word!!!


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William Strunk Jr’s original edition of The Elements Of Style (1919) was all of fifty-three pages long. In 1959, it was revised and expanded by one of his students, the famous children’s book author E.B. White. It is one of the best selling and most influential grammar and punctuation books ever published. I have used the authors’ names for one of the categories of this site: Strunkandwhiten It! For more information, refer to “On William Strunk and Elements of Style.”


Comments, suggestions, additions, and arguments welcome!