A public service announcement for writers

February 6, 2008

Dear Writers,

Once upon a time, I thought the word “enormity” was a variant of “enormous” and was related to the size of something. I was wrong, and I was corrected by a caring professor who did not want me to look stupid to other writers.

Of late, I have noticed a distressing tendency toward misuse of “enormity” by writers who should know better. I’ll cut a person some slack on his/her blog, but in a published article or story or poem, that’s another matter. In a story I read in a recent issue of Tin House, a literary magazine of note by all measures, the author misused “enormity” three times.

So, for the record, because I will agree that it’s not obvious, this is what enormity means according to Merriam Webster. Note that they have made a slight concession to misusage, but still note that this is not a real meaning of the word:


1. The quality of being outrageous.

2. (informal) vastness of size or extent; “in careful usage the noun enormity is not used to express the idea of great size”; “universities recognized the enormity of their task”.

3. The quality of extreme wickedness.

4. An act of extreme wickedness.

And here is the example of correct usage that prompted me to this post, wanting to share the feeling of joy that floods through one’s grammatical being when the English language is used meticulously.

“It is by no means necessary to aggravate the enormity of this woman’s conduct, by placing it in opposition to that of the Countess of Hertford: no one can fail to observe how much more amiable it is to relieve than to oppress, and to rescue innocence from destruction than to destroy without an injury.”

Samuel Johnson, from The Life of Savage

That’s all.


3 Responses to “A public service announcement for writers”

  1. I’m afraid that Humpty Dumpty will win this battle, and that enormity will soon mean exactly what the users want it to mean. That’s the beauty of a living language, and the pain of it as well.

  2. SJ Says:

    The users can do what they want, but I will always expect more from writers!

  3. Look at it this way–in ten years, you can use it in the right way, and it’ll seem kinky as a result, like when people use vulgar to mean common today.

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