October 9, 2008

Weekly Language Usage Tips: task, peruse

Posted in peruse, task at 12:00 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: A-tisket a-tasket

A reader writes:

How about taking to task the use of task as a verb in WLUT? Would it be ok if I tasked you to do this?

Gee, I thought, this will be easy. Isn’t ‘task,’ like ‘impact,’ a case of taking a noun and turning it into a verb? All I have to do is say, “Don’t do it,” and we’ll be done with it.

But wait, not so fast. It turns out that ‘task’ is indeed a verb in its own right. Every dictionary that I consulted confirmed this. Think of the word ‘multitasking’ and you will realize how frequently this verb is used today. By the way, ‘multitasking’ was coined in 1966 and originally referred to a computer performing multiple tasks simultaneously.

But getting back to ‘task,’ [ASIDE: I was going to write ‘getting back to the task at hand,’ but then I thought that was way too corny] although ‘task’ is used as a noun much more frequently than as a verb (and apparently tasks are often laborious or arduous), I was able to discover that ‘task’ was used as a verb even in Shakespeare’s time.

Here is Shakespeare’s Sonnet LXXII (1609):

O! LEST the world should task you to recite
What merit lived in me, that you should love
After my death,-dear love, forget me quite,
For you in me can nothing worthy prove;
Unless you would devise some virtuous lie,
To do more for me than mine own desert,
And hang more praise upon deceased I
Than niggard truth would willingly impart:
O! lest your true love may seem false in this,
That you for love speak well of me untrue,
My name be buried where my body is,
And live no more to shame nor me nor you.
For I am sham’d by that which I bring forth,
And so should you, to love things nothing worth.

Not particularly uplifting. And more recently, in 1854, Henry David Thoreau wrote:

To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object.

Yes, reading, my kind of exercise. And, noble, too.

Tip 2: Peruse

The original, and correct, meaning of ‘peruse’ has been slowly slipping away and is being replaced by exactly the opposite (and incorrect) meaning. The purpose of this tip is try to restore to ‘peruse’ its true and honorable definition. Although sometimes erroneously used to mean ‘skim,’ glance over,’ or ‘scan,’ ‘peruse’ actually means ‘to read over thoroughly’ or ‘to review in great detail.’

He quickly perused the journal. INCORRECT

He perused the report until he fully understood its content. CORRECT

The way in which to use this word poses a conundrum (another rather wonderful word). Since both meanings are used, how can you be sure your readers are interpreting what you write the way you intend them to? If you are using it correctly and mean ‘to read carefully’ or ‘to scrutinize,’ what are the implications if your audience is using it to mean ‘glance over’ or ‘skim’? When precision in meaning is crucial, the best approach would be to avoid the use of ‘peruse’ altogether, and choose a word or words that clearly express the meaning you are trying to convey.

She pored over the document, paying attention to every detail.

She skimmed the report, looking for bullet points and major topics.

And when you do use ‘peruse,’ remember its true meaning and use it well.



  1. felicia said,

    Deb, instead of “poured” in your 3rd-to-last sentence, didn’t you mean “pored”? J

    Love your WLUT tips!


  2. dlseltzer said,

    Yikes, Felicia caught this mistake. Thanks Felicia. Maybe next week, I’ll talk about pour vs. pore. Thanks!

  3. curt said,

    If you write like I do, I often pour things over the entire document. Battery acid seems to work well.

  4. alan said,

    The hell with Shakespeare. Task should not be used as a verb. It makes the speaker sound as if he/she/it just walked out of the Pentagon.

  5. dlseltzer said,

    Alan, I really do agree with you on this. It sounds very contrived. But sending Shakespeare to hell? Isn’t that a little tough?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: