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A sentence in last week’s article included the phrase “disrespect or disregard you.” In short order we received mail questioning whether
this use of disrespect was appropriate on a website promoting proper grammar. “Are you sure that you are okay with using
‘disrespect’ as a verb?” asked one reader.
Most of the angst over disrespect stems from the word’s popularity with putative thugs. In the words of English scholar Paul Brians in Common Errors in English Usage, “The hip-hop subculture revived the use of ‘disrespect’ as a verb.” Say no more. To many
language watchdogs, hip-hop is a worst-case scenario for where English is headed.
An online search seems to confirm this. “My vote? That is not a word,” states one armchair linguist. “No one should use it.” An
iffy Internet dictionary called Wiktionary (compiled by anonymous contributors with undocumented credentials) has this to say:
“ ‘Disrespect’ is not a verb. ‘Respect’ can be used as a noun or a verb, however ‘disrespect’ should only be used as a
But note that Brians said “revived.” We consulted our brand-new 2014 Webster’s New World (Fifth Edition) and found disrespect listed as a transitive verb meaning “to have or show lack of respect for.”
Hold it, you say. Webster’s is notoriously permissive. Perhaps its editors’ inclusion of disrespect as a verb merely reflects the
company’s longtime policy of publishing a nonjudgmental, up-to-date record of how people communicate.
So we turned to Random House’s 1968 American College Dictionary, and sure enough, there it was: “to regard or treat without
respect.” We also found disrespect listed as a verb in the oldest dictionary in our office, a 1941 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary.
Our last stop was the Oxford English Dictionary (which has been called “the ultimate authority on the English language”). Here we
discovered that disrespect as a verb first appeared in print around 1614—four centuries ago.
We believe that those who are serious about language matters should have at least two dictionaries within easy reach: a contemporary one—many are
available online—but also one that is at least thirty years old. (You can get one if you really want it.) Although having your own Oxford English Dictionary would also be nice, its twenty gargantuan volumes take up a lot of space … and cost a lot of money. However, the Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com) is a terrific alternative.
This episode proves once again that what people feel to be indisputable about proper English all too often says more about them and their biases than about
the issue at hand.
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com’s “Grammar Blog.”
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If these newspaper headlines found circulating the Internet are authentic, they surely demonstrate an absence of thoughtful editing.
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.