Magazine March 8, 2021, Issue

Our Changing Words: Part I of a Two-Part Series

(AndreyPopov/Getty Images)

The only constant in language, as in life, is change. That’s an unsettling reality for many people, since language consists of stipulated meanings — rules agreed on by society at large. When some start flouting those rules for what seems like no good reason, others will be confused and annoyed. That, too, is constant because almost all change brings some discomfort.

When it comes to word meanings, there are four major types of change: functional shift (changing a word’s usual part of speech), broadening the sense, narrowing the sense, and overthrowing the traditional sense altogether.

Functional Shift
When Americans started using contact as

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Bryan A. Garner — Mr. Garner is the author of The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation, Garner’s Modern English Usage, and The HBR Guide to Better Business Writing.

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