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He was mis-'informed'

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April November 27, 2009 05:58 PM

"The gloomy side is perennially popular," writes Stan Carey in a comment on the previous post concerning concerning. So it is, and there's ample proof this month at the New York Times website, which has been diligently wooing the language gloomsters. Stanley Fish drew hundreds* of comments after he complained about some of his least favorite utterances. And Philip Corbett's After Deadline blog, which recaps the printed Times's infelicities, regularly prompts further language complaints.

It can be depressing to read these repetitive and familiar peeves, but often you're rewarded with a surprise -- a language bugaboo that you've never heard of. This month's prize, among the comments on the Nov. 10 After Deadline, was a demonstration of what Arnold Zwicky has labeled the Recency Illusion:

I may be a bit late with this complaint … but since when has it been acceptable to use the word "inform" as a substitute for what used to be "influenced"? As in, "Kandinsky’s early work is INFORMED by Fauvism …" It’s annoying as hell.

Yes, the complaint is a bit late. The usage is recorded since about 1400, says the OED (while the earliest citation for influence is dated 1658). This inform, it says, means "To give ‘form’, formative principle, or determinative character to; hence, to stamp, impress, imbue, or impregnate with some specific quality or attribute; esp. to impart some pervading, active, or vital quality to; … to inspire, animate. But since the earliest quotes are not absolutely clear examples, let's ignore them and start circa 1600:

1605 CHAPMAN Al Fooles I. i, Without loue...All vertues borne in men lye buried, For loue informes them as the Sunne dothe colours.
1607 SHAKES. Cor. V. iii. 71 The God of Souldiers... informe Thy thoughts with Noblenesse.
1758 BLACKSTONE Study of Law in Comm. (1765) I. 37 [To] inform them with a desire to be still better acquainted with the laws and constitution of their country.
1842 TENNYSON Day-Dream, Sleeping Beauty ii, Her constant beauty doth inform Stillness with love, and day with light.
1968 Listener 1 Aug. 153/2 Britten's exuberant cantata … is informed by a Stravinskian economy of gesture and dramatic style.

Is this informed by more common than it used to be? Perhaps, but so is influenced by, a Google News search suggests; inform is not replacing influence, which after all is not quite the same thing. So this is another non-peeve; do not add it to your hate list. We can hope (though we probably shouldn't expect) that the complainant, should someone inform him, will think that's good news.


*Fish refers to his 377 comments as "many hundreds of comments." In my idiolect, 377 would be "several hundred" or "nearly 400"; I'm not sure I would ever use "many hundreds," given that the groups of hundreds only go up to nine (at which point I'd say "nearly 1,000"). Anyone else have a figure in mind that would qualify as "many hundreds"?

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column “The Word” since 1997. E-mail her at freeman@globe.com.
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