This week we discuss the verb “nonplussed,” which Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines as “to cause to be at a loss as to what to say, think, or do : reduce to a state of total incapacity to act or decide.” The word derives from the Latin non plus, which means “no more, no further.” E.g.,
- For a moment after the judge denied his unopposed motion, the attorney was nonplussed.
- The man simply stared, nonplussed at the news that his wife had joined a convent.
Increasingly, however, the word nonplussed has acquired an informal secondary meaning that is used in the opposite sense of its traditional meaning, as “unperturbed or unfazed,” e.g.,
- Despite the withering criticism, he tried to appear nonplussed.
- Although he lost the election, he seemed nonplussed.
Sadly, the increasingly widespread informal—and incorrect—use of the word nonplussed means that it can create ambiguity in a sentence, e.g., “He was nonplussed by the dreadful news.” So … was he at a momentary loss as to what to do? Or was he unfazed by the news? As you can see, misuse of the word has created a danger that its legitimate use may cause confusion and lead your reader to interpret a sentence to mean the opposite of what you intended.
My advice? Use the word sparingly, so you aren’t nonplussed if your reader misinterprets your sentence.
That is all for now …