Tag Archives: how many angels can dance on the head of a pin

“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!