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Arcane Words and the “Intuitive” Reader
Serious readers, when they are reading literature they consider important, routinely look up any words they do not know.
But there are also “intuitive” readers, who consider themselves of sufficient wisdom to figure out a word just by reading the sentence and
trusting their life experience and common sense to grasp the writer’s meaning. Today we will try to expose this policy as wishful thinking.
The three examples below are sentences you might find in print or online. Each contains a possibly unfamiliar word which, if misinterpreted, sabotages the
meaning of the sentence.
• On a blistering August morning we came upon a 1960 Buick coruscating in the sun.
Understanding coruscating is the key to understanding the sentence. The Intuitive Reader ponders the word, with its echoes of corrosion
and rust, and concludes that the car was falling apart. A reader’s first impressions matter, and this reader now is picturing a broken-down
old wreck. But coruscating means “sparkling.” In fact, the car in the tale has been lovingly maintained by its owner. The reader now
has a distorted view of the author’s main character, and may well go on to misread the intent of the story.
• What we heard on the demo sounded like a bashful lad with a limpid voice.
The Intuitive Reader doesn’t have to look up limpid to know that the kid on the demo can forget about a singing career. You can’t make
it in the music business with a “limpid” singing voice, for what else could limpid mean but “weak” or
“lifeless”? But the reader has it wrong: a limpid voice is pure and crystal clear. The kid’s future looks bright. If he can sing in tune,
and his material is strong, he could go places.
• The man was in a parlous condition, and a lot of his friends headed for the exit.
Intuitive Readers know what parlez-vous français means, and they know that parlance is a style or manner of speaking. So to them,
this sentence appears to tell a cautionary tale about a “parlous” fellow who gets a proper comeuppance for hogging the conversation one time
too many. But in reality the situation is far darker: parlous means “dire” or “precarious.” This man is in trouble. He
deserves our compassion, and his fair-weather friends deserve our scorn.
Thanks to the internet, it has never been easier or less time-consuming to look words up. Those who refuse to do so are in constant danger of missing the
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com’s “Grammar Blog.”
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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.