Retire Definitely

Let’s have a little spelling lesson in the form of a math equation. The word “definitely,” by far the most frequently misspelled word I see in my students’ writing, can be easily broken down by simple math. Let’s start with the word’s root, “FIN.” Fin means final, or if you’re into French films, “the end.” Adding a suffix, “-ITE,” results in the word “FINITE,” meaning “a limited number of something.” Adding the prefix “DE-” results in “DEFINITE,” a simple adjective, followed again by another suffix that turns the adjective into an adverb, “-LY.” No silly “drop the E before you add a suffix” rule or anything. Simple! DE +FIN + ITE + LY. DEFINITELY.

Why then, do so many people spell this word with an A? We don’t pronounce it with an A like, “DefinATly.” Misspelling it with an A is not just wrong, but the further problem is that many people type it with an A, then use their spellchecker to fix it. The computer thinks all that’s wrong is that an N and A are transposed, so it offers the simplest correction: “DEFIANTLY.” Defiantly is an adverb that means “to act with rebelliousness.” I’m sure my students don’t mean to be defiant when they write, “I defiantly agree.” I’ve never heard anyone talk that way, so it must be the result of a spelling issue. It is one that drives me crazy and begs me to call the grammar police.

The other problem with this word is the lack of proofreading. I often see this word misspelled as “DEFINANTLY.” That’s not a word, but even now my spell checker didn’t underline it with a squiggly red line, so somebody must have added that non-word to my dictionary somewhere in the life of this computer. I wonder how often that happens with other computers. Maybe people type that non-word so often that when they right-click and choose “add to dictionary” they think they’re teaching the computer a word it doesn’t know. The trouble with this thinking is, now the computer will offer this non-word every time, even auto-correcting “definitely” to “definantly.”

The word “definitely” came into being in the 1580s, but it became a “colloquial emphatic word” around 1931, as listed in the Online Etymology Dictionary, found at www.etymonline.com, one of my very favorite websites. This means that “definitely” came into being when Shakespeare had just started writing. Maybe he added it to our lexicon; there’s no way of knowing. But somewhere before World War II the word became used to emphasize everyday things. Modern users of this word choose it so often they don’t even realize how much they drown their own voices with it.

It would be so nice if we could “retire” words like “definitely” that no longer function as originally intended, are so overused, and are so often misspelled that they would be struck from the English language, never to be used again. I definitely (and defiantly!) think we should consider it.