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You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

In a word: peruse

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun’s John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word:

PERUSE

By now, if you have been perusing these dispatches, you know, or know more clearly, that English, an unruly child, just does what it wants. And sometimes it wants contradictory things, as we see with peruse.

The word (pronounced (puh-ROOZ) means either “to examine or consider with attention and detail” or “to look over or through in a casual or cursory manner.” (Thank you, Merriam-Webster.) To peruse, then, means to study or to scan, and you have to divine the intended meaning through context.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage traces the various senses. Most broadly, peruse has simply meant “to read.” MWDEU also identifies a medium sense, “to read through or over” and a narrow sense, “to read thoroughly or carefully.”

Bryan Garner favors the narrow sense in the interest of precision, and Garner’s Modern English Usage insists that the narrow sense is the traditional sense to uphold. The American Heritage Dictionary’s usage panel also rejects the “skim” sense by 58 percent (but that number, from 1999, is down from 66 percent in the 1988 survey). Etymology, for what it’s worth, suggests the narrow sense: the word is from Middle English perusen, “to use up.”

Happily, MWDEU and Garner’s have a point of agreement, the former calling it “a literary word” and the latter scorning it as “pompous and stilted in business correspondence.” So if you don’t shy away from peruse because of the potential for confusion, there’s another reason to drop it from your register.

Top complicate matters further, there is an increasing frequency of use of the word in the sense of “to examine” or “to look at,” without necessarily bringing reading in at all. Be careful out there.

Examples: “If these walls could talk of papal history: Vatican Secret Archives hold tales both mundane and fascinating,” USA Today, 2010: “There, visiting historians peruse the indices to the archive records in a balconied study lined with computers, which has a modern appearance except for its namesake's portrait, looking down from the back wall.” (The namesake is Pope Leo XIII.)

From Bill Keller, “It’s the Golden Age of News,” The New York Times, 2013: “I'll listen to NPR at the gym, then look at The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times, peruse the websites of The Guardian and the BBC, check my AP mobile app.”

From “The challenges and rewards of dating as a Boomer,” Charlotte Observer, 2017: “Peruse the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market as a fun daytime date.”

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