ASK JUNE: The Excoriated Ex and the Tragical Uglificationment of Language

Dear June,

I dated Todd for almost three years. During that time nobody (except my family, who lives far away and hardly knows him) ever criticized him in any way. This includes my closest friends, many of whom saw Todd often and knew him well. But since Todd and I broke up, many of my friends have come out and told me that they never could stand him and hated the way he treated me. And, of the friends who didn’t volunteer this information, every single one I’ve asked has given basically the same answer. Now that I know I can never trust anyone, I feel more alone than ever. What do you think of “friends” like this? And what should I do about them?

—Lied To in La Jolla

Dear LT in LJ,

I am concerned by your friends’ references to the way Todd treated you. Did they have reason to suspect that he was physically or psychologically abusive? If so, shame on them for not stepping in. I would put as much distance between them and you as your current circumstances allow, and I would take steps to replace these friends with a whole new set.

But if your friends’ basic problem was that they just didn’t like Todd, I suggest that you go easy on them. They may have thought his treatment of you was less than ideal, but assumed that you were fully aware of this and still got enough out of the relationship to want to stay in it.

You should also ask yourself whether some of what your friends have been saying post-breakup is more a way of supporting, and perhaps parroting back, your current opinions than a totally accurate expression of how they felt the whole time you and Todd were still together. At this point they may just be trying to be loyal and agreeable—especially if you are always the one who initiates the badmouthing, and they just go along with it

There are reasons why people are understandably reluctant to criticize their friends’ significant others. One is that doing so is often futile—and, indeed, tends to backfire. Your friends may have thought, rightly or wrongly, that anything bad they said about Todd would only make you angry at them, and that you might just get defensive and dig yourself in deeper. You may have led them to believe that you would brook no criticism of Todd; but, even if you didn’t, your friends might have been afraid of such a response, given how common it is.

Another reason people keep silent in this situation is that they assume their friend knows what she’s doing, as in: “I don’t see it, but there must be something in it for her or she’d dump him.” Were you happy with Todd, and did you convey that impression? Did you talk him up?

Were you and Todd starting to speak and behave like committed partners? This is another reason your friends may have kept silent; even if they honestly disliked Todd as much, and for as long, as they now claim, they may not have thought it morally right to interfere with another couple’s solid relationship.

I would also think about whether your friends have ever given you grounds to mistrust them beyond this one case. Where friendship is concerned, disparaging other people’s partners really is an area unto itself in which even the closest of confidants probably shouldn’t expect full disclosure. It is good—well, it’s arguably good—for social stability that we honor other people’s primary commitments (again, absent abuse or other serious turpitude). For that reason—and, of course, because it’s so often pointless or counterproductive—many of us assume that seriously disparaging people’s partners, even close friends’ partners, is simply not done. If your friends subscribe to this fairly common and not-unreasonable view of things, you should not think of them as having betrayed our trust, since they were following an unwritten rule they thought you also followed and understood.

Of course, this unwritten rule would not excuse them if they went out of their way to praise Todd without meaning a word of it. It is one thing to keep your own counsel, and another to actively collude in a friend’s self-delusion.

I would also be seriously, and probably permanently, annoyed at any so-called friends who thought Todd was seriously bad news but nevertheless egged you on, or even kept silent, when you were just starting to date him.

Weigh these factors, ask yourself these questions, and decide which friends you will trust, exonerate, forgive, keep, or chuck. If you are on the fence about any of them, you might try actually talking to them about their U-turn on Todd. It could all turn out to be very simple. You: If you thought he was a bastard all along, why didn’t you tell me? Friend One: Would you have listened? Friend Two: You seemed so happy. I didn’t think it was my place to ruin it. Friend Three: I didn’t trust my judgment then, but I am glad we agree now. Friend Four: I never actually had much of an opinion about Todd one way of the other. You talked, and I listened. Let’s get more margaritas–this pitcher’s almost empty.

Dear June,

 You know what makes me mad? People who say “diminishment.” What’s wrong with good old “diminution?” And now I am seeing “abolishment,” too, for God’s sake. What is the matter with people?

I know this seems like a small thing. Okay, it is a small thing. But language can make a big difference: look at that dairy farm that would have saved $10 million dollars if they had used the Oxford comma!

—Cranky (or Crank?) in Christchurch

Dear Crank,

I, too, dislike those “ment” variations, although probably not at your level, which seems to verge on apoplexy. Nevertheless, I feel constrained to begin my answer with an admonition or, as some people are starting to say, an admonishment. Unless people are consciously using language to lie, mislead, or create confusion– a large subset of humanity, I admit, including entire political parties—we should try to focus on the language, not malign the speakers. As the Bible (sort of) tells us in reference to a somewhat broader category of behavior, we must hate the usage but love the user.

Now on to the usage. I totally agree: “diminishment,” “abolishment,” and the like are unnecessary variants of more sonorous and generally accepted words that refer to exactly the same things. No rationale for them springs to mind, except perhaps the idea that uniform rules of noun-formation make it easier to learn and understand a language. And apparently “diminishment” is a variant that has been around for centuries. (My spell-check is also fine with it.) But I have only seen it once or twice; at this point, I would argue that people learning or improving their English would be better served by not having to learn multiple forms of the same word.

And where will it end? This time next month people may be asking when Trump’s plans for the Mexican wall will come to fruitment while debating the theory of evolvement, and priests may ask their penitents to seek perfect contritement.

Hideous, yes. But not all that serious, even as compared to other matters of vocabulary and usage–nothing like the Oxford comma debate, which you raised as an analogy.

I am passionately pro-Oxford-comma, for many reasons. As with most comma-debating peeps, my most basic reasons are probably not reasons at all, but matters of personality and association. (I had fun in Oxford during my youth, and I love commas in general because I favor pauses and subordinate clauses and marking up other people’s work.) But there are also real reasons. As in the recent Maine case you mention, the Oxford comma can be crucial to avoid legal ambiguity. (The Maine worker’s lawyer said “that comma would have sunk our ship” and lost his clients their shot at $10 million.) We also need the O. c. for clarity in general conversation. (The Grammarly site’s perfect example is “I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty-Dumpty.”)

Even poetry can be tarnished. Consider this line: “These woods are lovely, dark and deep,” in Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Put a comma after “dark,” as some editors reportedly once erroneously did, and the emphasis and resonance of the line changes significantly. Without a general rule on using the Oxford comma whenever there is a list, as opposed to simply using it when one’s writing would otherwise be ambiguous, there is no way to make a point by NOT using it, as Frost does when he is refers to the loveliness of the dark, deep woods and not to the loveliness, darkness, and deepness of the woods. Since the woods may represent, among other things, death, the poetic stakes are high here.

Wow. I guess I really am passionate about that one. And perhaps you and I are just cranks, or cranky, about different nitpicky issues. But I do think that, unlike messing with the Oxford comma, using the “ment” forms in question is a venial sin at worst. And that is because we still know what the words mean. In fact, if we are really bad at noun-formation and haven’t read much, we may understand a word like “diminishment” better than “diminution,” since it sounds more like its parent verb and follows a far more common formation rule.

If we want to maintain the health of words like “diminution” and “abolition,” the best thing, maybe the only thing, we can do is keep using them. But even in the unlikely event that they did die off, we would lose only a variant of each word, not the word itself and not our conception of its referent. There would be no diminution in our ability to abolish stuff, nor would the loss entail the abolition of our capacity to diminish stuff. We’d all be fine. But without proper comma placement, who knows what might happen?

ask-june-square-for-facebook-no-border-300pxCleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at Find more columns by June in her attic.


Image credit: “Scholar Sharpening A Quill Pen”, c.1630, Gerrit Dou. On Wikipedia

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