“Everywhere you go, you’ll indefinitely see people glued to their phone.”

Another phone essay, another bizarre image.

People glued to their phone. I won’t make much of the plural possessive pronoun that refers (properly) to a plural noun doing the possessing but disconcertingly refers to a single object possessed, giving the impression (okay, giving me, picky reader extraordinaire, the impression) of group ownership and thus of glued groups…. Okay, one flight of fancy: I wonder how many people could be glued to a single phone, especially something as small as an iPhone. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? (Go here for an illuminating discussion of that celebrated theological debate; here for a relevant cartoon….)

No, I have to look more closely at the adverb in the sentence: “indefinitely.”

My student did NOT mean that “you” would see “in an undefined way,” or “imprecisely see,” or see “without limits” or “vaguely” or “without certainty,” or “through a glass, darkly”: any reader would recognize immediately that she did not mean any of these. Any reader, including the teacher, knows that she meant “definitely”: exactly the opposite of what she wrote. Or at least, putting ourselves in her place, we would look twice at a group of people before pronouncing them glued to anything; we wouldn’t be satisfied with an indefinite impression of that. We would mean “definitely” or not write anything at all.

I would attribute this error to mere carelessness, or perhaps bad cut-and-pasting (deciding to change “instantly” to “definitely,” for instance, but not erasing all of the first choice), except that this student is not the only one in recent years who has written “indefinitely” instead of the intended “definitely.”

What’s going on? Has “indefinitely” joined the ranks of “inflammable,” meaning either definitely or not definitely just as “inflammable” can mean “capable of bursting into flames” or, colloquially and increasingly, “not capable of bursting into flames”? (Webster’s, or at least my edition, has not caught up with this second usage yet, but all around me (everywhere I go) are people who insist that it is correct…) If we’re on a road that leads to the loss of distinction between words and their negated forms, we’re on the road back to communicating entirely by grunts and gestures.

Is there something more hopeful these students are doing? Something that can be, perhaps, corrected?

I’ve written before about writers who, not extensive readers, rely heavily on the heard language, and sometimes don’t hear it correctly (or hear an incorrect version). Usually this shows up in missing or incorrect prefixes and other unstressed syllables, though, not added ones.

Do those who write “indefinitely” when they mean “definitely” come from families who hesitate or gulp before taking the serious step of feeling “definite” about something—and have my writers heard the gulp as an actual prefix that they interpret as “in” or “un”? Or are they among those writers who try to impart gravitas to their writing by choosing words that are longer than necessary, regardless of meaning?

I don’t know. Theories welcome; more important, REMEDIES welcome!

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

20 responses to ““Everywhere you go, you’ll indefinitely see people glued to their phone.”

  • hallenterprises132

    People today butcher the English language with every word they dare uttering!

    • RAB

      English is a relatively easy language to stagger through, but not easy to speak well or write well. I don’t mind at all when people struggle with it–I just can’t understand why they don’t CARE that they’re struggling.

  • philosophermouseofthehedge

    “..we’re on the road back to communicating entirely by grunts and gestures.”
    We’d better hope for just the grunts as gestures these days can be so misinterpreted they can lead to fists.
    (If only I could draw cartoons to combine with your students’ creations…we’d be wealthy)

  • bumblepuppies

    There’s not always an error there: “Tonight, we will indefinitely see Donald Trump act stupid.”

    But seriously, the student might be thinking that the pattern seen in “valuable” vs. “invaluable” can be carried over to other words.

  • scribblesfreely

    I was not aware of this new form of communication I will listen out for it.

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    Reading is a great corrective. I know that sometimes people mispronounce
    words they have seen only in books. That can get fixed pretty easily, the first time they try to use the word in conversation. What can’t get fixed is limited exposure to great talents at work expressing themselves with precision and beauty.
    I am a broken record.

    • RAB

      I knew a guy in grad school who used the expression “I’ll bite” a lot in his papers. Or so I thought. Why does he think everything is a joke question, I wondered. Then I SAW one of his papers. The expression in question? “Albeit.” I’ll bite!

  • Susan P

    Probably an all nighter. On the phone.

  • Julie Corenzwit

    I think this student’s intent may have been “Everywhere you go, you’ll see people indefinitely glued to their phone,” meaning ‘permanently’. Or not.

    • RAB

      Ah, Julia, you hopeful soul. It’s POSSIBLE she meant “forever,” or “for the foreseeable future,” but I haven’t seen a student use “indefinitely” in that way in a LONG time. Unless this was one time and I didn’t notice! Thanks for the idea!

      • zenterviews

        That was my first impression of reading the sentence too. I’ve used indefinitely in that context loads of times before.

        • RAB

          Note: “You’ll indefinitely see…,” not “people indefinitely glued….” Perhaps she meant “invariably”? But that’s definitely not a word that appears very often in student papers.

  • Kameron

    Perhaps “indefinitely” got confused with “infinitely”, or even autocorrected improperly (happens constantly, and editing your own writing is tough because your brain fills in what it knows should be there). Although, as Julie mentioned, this student may have meant “for unlimited/undetermined amounts of time”. The word itself may not be the issue here–perhaps it’s the sentence’s structure. Maybe the student was adding unnecessary words to meet a word/page count. If this is the title, clear and concise is [personally] preferred: “Everywhere, people are glued to their cellphones.”

    Thus eliminating unnecessary words, roundabout phrasing, and lack of clarity. English can be confusing, even for the native speakers; some may not realize when they’re struggling. Students seem to shut down in “communications” (grammar) classes. I’ve heard excuses ranging from “it’s boring” to “I know this already”, and yet the majority of my English-speaking college classmates came close to failing the course.

    • RAB

      There was no required word count. And from THREE students, unlikely it’s autocorrect. I’ve actually heard this error in speech as well. “I’m indefinitely taking English next semester.” Alas.

  • Murphy

    I thought the same as Julie, above – but “indefinitely” is in the wrong place for that. A variation might be “You’ll endlessly see people glued… ” i.e. there’s no end to the number of people you’ll see…

    (Oops, I think I’m logged in as Murphy. This is really from “the Girl”.)

    • RAB

      I agree: “indefinitely” is in the wrong place to be describing how they’re glued. “Endlessly,” “invariably,” “inevitably”… those would work. I keep trying to make them sound like “indefinitely,” to no avail. I’m afraid she meant “definitely.” Nice to hear from the Girl, by the way! Do you hear from Murphy at all? I do miss him!

  • hollyvote

    This is really interesting. In the UK my students quite happily use ‘indefinitely’ to mean ‘never-ending’, and would never use it synonymously with ‘definitely’. But American grammar usage tends to catch on (as exemplified by my use of ‘usage’ just now) so I will be keeping my eye out for this one in the future!

    • RAB

      We use “indefinitely” to mean “continuing for an unknown amount of time” or “possibly forever.” But where the student placed the word in the sentence makes that interpretation impossible in this case. Thanks for your participation!

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