Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 92: Dazed and Nonplussed

This week, we're going to talk about a tricky little word that sounds as if it could mean one thing, but it really means another. That word is nonplussed.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Modern English, nonplussed is an adjective meaning "surprised and confused as to how to act." It comes from Latin words meaning "not more," as in not having any idea what to do next. Webster's New World College Dictionary sheds additional light, defining nonplus as 1) a noun, meaning a condition of perplexity in which one is unable to go, speak, or act further; 2) a verb, meaning to put in a nonplus; bewilder.

Here are a couple of examples of the word in action:
When everyone jumped out and yelled "surprise" when it wasn't even my birthday, I was completely nonplussed.
I hadn't prepared properly for the exam, so the very first question was nonplussing.

Informally, nonplussed can simply mean confused. The confusion with the word nonplussed is that it's often misconstrued as meaning "unimpressed."

That confusion may come from the word's appearance. The first part of the compound is non, meaning not, and the second part is plus, a word we use to mean a positive (whether an electrical charge or an integer), to mean addition or to mean something being an advantage. So it may be that the word nonplus can look like it means, "not positive," "not additive" or "not advantageous" and therefore some people conclude it could mean "unimpressed"-but that's just not what nonplussed means. It means confused.

Fortunately, when it comes to other ways of saying one is unimpressed or that something is unimpressive, the English language provides a number of alternatives. Here are just a few:
I was unimpressed.
I was unmoved.
I was unsatisfied.
The film was uninteresting.
It was uninspired.
It was unremarkable.
It was jejune.

Of course, bonus points go to those who say something is jejune.

Sources: Oxford Modern English Dictionary; Webster's New World College Dictionary.

Music: "We're Both Confused" by Luna; "You Can't Always Get What You Want" by The Rolling Stones; "License to Confuse" by Sebadoh.

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