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Words in Flux
Today we’ll discuss two words whose meanings in casual conversation may vary significantly from their traditional meanings in formal writing.
Not so long ago, despise was more than just another word for detest. “Syme despised him and slightly disliked him,” wrote
George Orwell in his 1949 novel 1984. Orwell knew that, strictly speaking, despise means “to look down on” but not
necessarily “to dislike” (although that’s usually part of the deal).
“Let no one despise your youth” reads a line in the Bible (1 Timothy 4:12). Note that “despise your youth” does
not mean “hate you for being young.” The passage means, “Don’t let anyone disrespect or disregard you for being young.”
Disdain is not the same as downright hostility.
Some seven hundred years ago, affinity meant “relation by marriage.” By extension, the proper use of affinity involves
mutuality. But that sense of mutual attraction is often absent in contemporary uses of affinity. An online search reveals many examples such as
these: “She always had an affinity for growing fruit.” “I have an affinity for vintage chairs.”
“My friend has an affinity for making things out of cardboard.” In these examples, “growing fruit,” “vintage
chairs,” and “making things out of cardboard” are passive elements, not active components in a relationship. Better to say “a talent for growing fruit,” “a fondness for vintage chairs,” “a flair for making things out of cardboard.”
In the examples above, affinity is followed by the preposition for. But in formal English, the phrase affinity for is
despised. The editor Theodore M. Bernstein advised writers to “discard for” and instead “use between, with, or sometimes to.”
Here are three sentences that use affinity correctly: “There is an affinity between the Irish and the Italians that can be
hard to explain.” “Some people have a natural affinity with children.” “Two vaccines containing native proteins with
affinity to porcine transferrin were tested.”
There is no affinity unless it is shared by both parties.
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com’s “Grammar Blog.”
Are these sentences all right? Do any need fixing? Suggested answers are below.
1. She has some affinity for math.
2. This is a politician with an affinity for making headlines.
3. I knew she always despised me, but I didn’t realize she detested me.
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If these newspaper headlines found circulating the Internet are authentic, they surely demonstrate an absence of thoughtful editing.
Pop Quiz Answers
1. She has some talent for math.
2. This is a politician with a gift for making headlines.
3. I knew she always despised me, but I didn’t realize she detested me. CORRECT
Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.