Public Editor

November 19, 2013

Journalists should resist commonly-confused words

There are some words — one in particular, “infamous” — that people misuse constantly. That doesn’t mean The Star should always follow suit.

I almost never write about one of the most common types of reader complaint I hear about The Kansas City Star: word choice. Longtime readers, bear with me here, as I know I’ve written variations on this in the past.

The reason I don’t is twofold: First, sorry to say, readers’ accuracy rating here is quite poor. Many of us remember hard and fast “rules” about language that we may have learned in school. But in my experience, most of these dictates really boil down to individuals’ personal preferences.

Some of us were taught by educators who swore by Strunk and White, while others pointed to their own sets of rules. However, (usually self-pronounced) grammarians are often at odds with linguists, who generally take a more permissive approach to how people use language. And after all, it’s not as though there’s an official English law book. There are some instances where splitting an infinitive can make a piece of writing more comprehensible or accurate. And regardless of what anyone may have been told, “inarguable” is an exact synonym for “unarguable.”

That being said, there are indeed times when The Star follows along with the general population in making an actual error. On rare occasion, these mistakes can rise to the level of requiring a correction. Usually, they’re just annoying.

For example, a reader pointed out a recent sub-headline from the print edition: “The film surrounding the already infamous lesbian sex scene is sometimes frustrating.” The problem is that “infamous” is completely inaccurate here.

Regardless of how common the confusion may be (and a quick check of The Star’s internal library shows it happens often), “infamous” isn’t a synonym for “famous.” And it does not mean “notorious,” as in someone or something famous for questionable reasons. Instead, as Merriam-Webster puts it, it means

“having a reputation of the worst kind : notoriously evil.”

So, no, there’s no such thing as “the infamous ‘Price is Right’ wheel” or the Lake of the Ozarks’ “ infamous Party Cove,” to name two examples from the past few months.

But the “infamous Auschwitz death camp in Poland” or the “infamous Cleveland house” where Ariel Castro held three women and raped them for a decade? Those are appropriate.

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