There are infinitely better ways to write this

One of my writing-style pet peeves is the incorrect use of the word “infinitely”. As in “OMG, this math test was infinitely harder than the last one!” No, it wasn’t.

Of course, there are a few legitimate uses of the word, and props to people who use it correctly. But for the most part, people use it to mean “a lot”. Even Malcolm Gladwell, in his latest New Yorker article about football players:

At one point, while he was discussing his research, Guskiewicz showed a videotape from a 1997 college football game between Arizona and Oregon. In one sequence, a player from Oregon viciously tackles an Arizona player, bringing his head up onto the opposing player’s chin and sending his helmet flying with the force of the blow. To look at it, you’d think that the Arizona player would be knocked unconscious. Instead, he bounces back up. “This guy does not sustain a concussion,” Guskiewicz said. “He has a lip laceration. Lower lip, that’s it. Now, same game, twenty minutes later.” He showed a clip of an Arizona defensive back making a dramatic tackle. He jumps up, and, as he does so, a teammate of his chest-bumps him in celebration. The defensive back falls and hits his head on the ground. “That’s a Grade 2 concussion,” Guskiewicz said. “It’s the fall to the ground, combined with the bounce off the turf.”

The force of the first hit was infinitely greater than the second.

So either the second hit didn’t happen, or else the first hit was executed with infinite force, which I guess is pretty impressive at the college level. NFL scouts, you watching?

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5 Responses to There are infinitely better ways to write this

  1. Anonymous says:

    hrm

    The dictionary on my Mac has the following as one definition of ‘infinite’:

    very great in amount or degree : he bathed the wound with infinite care.

    And the example use of ‘infinitely’: the pay is infinitely better.

    :-)

    • Anonymous says:

      Re: hrm

      That definition is exponentially worse than the mathematical one.

      • aj says:

        Re: hrm

        Oh man, I forgot how much more I hate the incorrect use of the word “exponentially”. We could write a whole blog just about these things…

        Is it inevitable that people will misuse these elegant terms that have precise meanings? I don’t try to bastardize words from English theory. But perhaps I’m being overly hermeneutical here.

    • aj says:

      double hrm

      This is what dictionary.com says:

      1. 	immeasurably great: an infinite capacity for forgiveness.
      2. 	indefinitely or exceedingly great: infinite sums of money.
      3. 	unlimited or unmeasurable in extent of space, duration of time, etc.: the infinite nature of outer space.
      4. 	unbounded or unlimited; boundless; endless: God's infinite mercy.
      5. 	Mathematics.
        a. 	not finite.
        b. 	(of a set) having elements that can be put into one-to-one correspondence with a subset that is not the given set.

      Which is more in line with the true definition of the word. I guess definition #2 has the greatest amount of leeway, but even under that liberal definition most uses are incorrect.

      For instance, just a few paragraphs earlier in Gladwell’s article, he describes how these head hits can be measured precisely:

      “It was August 9th, 9:55 A.M. He has an 80-g hit to the front of his head. About ten minutes later, he has a 98-g acceleration to the front of his head.” To put those numbers in perspective, Guskiewicz explained, if you drove your car into a wall at twenty-five miles per hour and you weren’t wearing your seat belt, the force of your head hitting the windshield would be around 100 gs: in effect, the player had two car accidents that morning. He survived both without incident. “In the evening session, he experiences this 64-g hit to the same spot, the front of the head. Still not reporting anything. And then this happens.” On his laptop, Guskiewicz ran the video from the practice session. It was a simple drill: the lineman squaring off against an offensive player who wore the number 76. The other player ran toward the lineman and brushed past him, while delivering a glancing blow to the defender’s helmet. “Seventy-six does a little quick elbow. It’s 63 gs, the lowest of the four, but he sustains a concussion.”

      What’s so bad about using “a lot”? Maybe “infinitely” sounds more impressive, in the same way that people seem to prefer saying “is cognizant of” to “knows about”.

      On a side note, I’m not surprised that the Mac dictionary has that loose definition for “infinite”… it must be what Steve Jobs consults when he constructs his hyperbole-laden keynote speeches. =)

  2. wasabisabi says:

    AJ, you would have a seizure if you heard how often the word “synergistic” is used in the medical community. I hate it.