The coronavirus-infected Diamond Princess cruise ship — which spent weeks in quarantine and confirmed more than 400 cases of the disease — had plenty of problems, but it was not the “poop cruise.” Given the malapropisms that followed the virus coverage, however, you’d never know it.

As article after article stated, officials intended to “evacuate” the ship’s passengers in an effort to keep the deadly virus under control. Only problem: This transitive form of the verb evacuate has traditionally meant “to discharge from the body as waste.” Ew.

I suspect that after two weeks in quarantine, the ship’s passengers wouldn’t have especially enjoyed an enema. But when you talk about “evacuating people,” the result is way more scatological than you probably intend.

Part of the problem lies with the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs, which are confusingly named and therefore difficult to keep straight. Transitive verbs need a direct or indirect object to complete their meaning — she threw the ball; he made dinner; they love each other. Intransitive verbs can stand alone — she died; he arrived; they differ — and they can’t be passive. And plenty of words, evacuate included, can be either transitive or intransitive, and their meaning can change accordingly.

But that’s boring.

Bog grammar down in too many labels and distinctions, and all but the nerdiest will tune out, especially if those rules don’t quickly lead to a clearer understanding. Grammar rules need to be concise and relevant — otherwise no one will care, and you end up with poor coronavirus-plagued seafarers being de-boweled before they hit land. And that’s not fun for anyone.

So we need clear, precise definitions.

What about when those definitions change, though, as is the case with evacuate? Historically that transitive use of the verb was used to talk about butts (who doesn’t love genteel ways to discuss poop?). But, word scholars will argue, sometime in the middle of the last century, an additional definition emerged — possibly as a result of all the evacuation that occurred across Europe in World War II? They’d say that continuing to get hung up about misuse of evacuate is doctrinaire.

One Merriam-Webster editor said as much in 2008, when the fifth season of The Wire made a joke of a cub reporter using the wrong sense of evacuate. The M-W editor, in response to a New York magazine article criticizing the TV show’s dialogue, posited that the updated usage of the word — which allows evacuating people — had been in use for more than a half-century, and therefore discussions over its accuracy were outmoded.

But why create confusion in the first place? Just because the fourth dictionary definition of a word (in Merriam-Webster’s, at least) makes its usage technically correct doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t reword the sentence, evacuate the ship instead of the passengers, and sit pretty with the first definition. When your language is more precise, your sentences are far more comfortable.

To say nothing of your ship passengers.

The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions and ditransitive verbs to jeff@theangrygrammarian.com.

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