Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 45: Reading Between the Lines

This week, we're looking at another common confusion: the word peruse. Alex from Los Angeles, California writes this to us:
"For a long time now, I've watched the word peruse drift farther and farther away from its intended usage. Maybe Grammar Grater can address this."
The word peruse is often used as a way of indicating that someone glance through a document, as in:
Would you like to peruse this electric guitar catalog while you wait for your haircut?
It turns out the word peruse means something different than "browse." According to the Oxford Dictionary of Current English, peruse is a formal word meaning "to read or examine thoroughly or carefully."

The word peruse dates back to the 15th century from a word in Middle English, "perusen," which means "to use up" or "go through." Middle English refers to English as it existed between 1066 and the 15th century. Middle English is the language of Chaucer and scarcely resembles modern English.

The word peruse developed into its modern-day definition of "read carefully" in the early 1500s, according to the Random House Unabridged Dictionary.

Here's an example of a correct use of the word peruse:
I won the case because my lawyer had perused the entire case history of auto repair claims.
Fowler's Modern English Usage gives further clarification on the use of formal words. When talking about using the word "peruse" instead of simply "read," it says that "the suitability ...is a matter of discreet (and often delicate) contextual choice."

In other words, when using the word peruse or other formal words, it's important that the person or people being addressed understand exactly what is meant.

Sources: Oxford Dictionary of Current English Fowler's Modern English Usage by R.W. Burchfield; and the Random House Unabridged Dictionary.

Music from this Episode: "Barretta" by Brownout; "Charm School" by Bishop Allen.

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