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Holten: Improper use of the English language

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opinion Dickinson,North Dakota 58602
The Dickinson Press
Holten: Improper use of the English language
Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

How well do you use the English language? Not well? That’s too bad, because communicating in an effective manner is the most important thing that you can do.


No marriage, job, venture, adventure, event or project will succeed without proper communication.

That’s a fact.

Still, none of us is an expert at it, especially former White House press secretary Jay Carney, who might have been better at saying nothing with more words than anyone else in the galaxy.

That reminds me that we sometimes not only communicate poorly, but we often give out false information and misuse words that we think have one meaning but in reality have another.

For example, take the word “peruse.”

We think the word “peruse” means to skim over or browse something when it actually means almost the opposite. Because, you see, peruse actually means “to read with thoroughness or care.” In other words, if you “peruse” a book, you leave no page unturned.

Or take the word “bemused.”

We think that it means to be mildly amused when, in fact, in reality it means to be bewildered or confused.

If you were to say to someone from Montana: “I was bemused by your North Dakota joke,” you wouldn’t be saying that the joke was funny. You’d be saying that you completely failed to understand it.

Then there’s the word “nonplussed.”

We think that “nonplussed” means to be unperturbed or not worried when in reality it means to be utterly perplexed or confused.

“Honey,” you say, “I was nonplussed by your actions at the company party.”

She mistakenly thinks that you were totally unperturbed when in fact you were appalled; such is the ironic result of miscommunication.

And that brings us to the word “ironic,” whose meaning has been diluted because many people use it to mean “coincidental,” when its traditional definition is “counter to expectations or what is appropriate.”

Finally there is the word fortuitous. This word means “occurring by chance,” but its resemblance to fortune has given it an adopted sense of “lucky.”

Thus miscommunication can complicate our lives. But fortunately there are things we can do to help eliminate miscommunication.

For example, we can think before we speak. If we think about what we say before we speak, we have the chance to organize our thoughts, rehearse our words, evaluate the situation, and not say stupid things.

In addition, we can speak up, because if we don’t voice our needs, we won’t get what we want. So say what you want clearly and loudly enough to hear.

Then, be sure to be clear, keep the message as simple as possible and don’t ramble or go on with a lot of extra details. And avoid “um,” “err,” and “you know what I’m saying.” Sure, we all stammer sometimes while looking for the right words, but if we slow down and be careful about our speech, we’ll be clearer.

Most importantly, we must be polite. If we are interrupting other people, being rude, and disrespectful, we will not communicate effectively anything but that we’re a jerk.

And, of course, we must get the attention of the person we are talking to. If we don’t have the other person’s attention, we won’t get the message across. So get eye contact to make sure the other person is listening.

But mostly importantly, we have to listen. If we don’t listen to the other person, we are likely to end up miscommunicating because good listening is often more important than whatever we say.

And we can’t assume things. This is the most common presumption people tend to make and the most disastrous. If we don’t address an issue, we cannot understand another person’s level of knowledge.

Or as actor Henry Winkler, the Fonze on the television show Happy Days once said, “Assumptions are the termites of relationships.”

Finally we must try to read body language. Much of communication is non-verbal so pay attention because it can be very important.

But above all, try to remember something that Albert Schweitzer, the German theologian, organist, philosopher, physician, and medical missionary in Africa once said: “Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate.”

Holten is the manager of The Drill and the

executive director of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame. Email him at