May 9, 1997
Fred Ridder writes:
I am wondering whether I am alone in thinking that one of the most misused words in English is "peruse." I am continually astonished at how pervasive is its incorrect use to mean a casual or cursory reading rather than its defined meaning of a detailed, in-depth examination.
Let's look first at the question of whether others have commented on the use of peruse in the sense 'to read casually'. You are definitely not alone; many usage books make some (usually negative) comment on this meaning. The Evans and Evans Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, for example, says that "Peruse is often used loosely for read but such use is ostentatious and improper." The more recent Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (second ed.) doesn't even bother to send the question to its usage panel, but merely notes that "Too often peruse is used loosely as a synonym for 'read.' Its precise meaning is 'to read very carefully...'" And American Heritage, which did bother to send the question to its usage panel, reports that 66% of it find the 'read casually' sense unacceptable.
In fact, when examining the history of peruse in English, what becomes clear is that there has never been a meaning that could be considered "precise." Most of the time, it means simply 'to read'--which is how Johnson defined it in his great dictionary in 1755--and any additional discrimination of the sense is provided by context.
There are many uses that do suggest a 'read carefully' meaning. A few examples: "Hold, take this book, peruse it thoroughly" (Marlowe, Dr. Faustus); "He that will carefully peruse the history of mankind..." (Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding); "I have carefully perused them three times: the style is very plain and simple..." (Swift, Gulliver's Travels); "Which we hope will be very attentively perused by young people of both sexes..." (Fielding, Tom Jones); "...the evening paper, which she perused daily from the first line to the last" (Henry James, Washington Square).
We should observe that in most of these examples, the 'careful' connotation is provided by the context; we could substitute 'read' (rather than 'read carefully') without changing anything. For peruse to have a core meaning, rather than just a suggestion, of 'read carefully', there would have to be examples such as "He didn't have time to peruse the paper, so he read it hastily," and we don't really have many of these.
Here are a few uses that suggest a 'read cursorily' meaning: "Those quotations which to careless or unskilful perusers appear only to repeat the same sense, will often exhibit, to a more accurate examiner, diversities of signification" (Samuel Johnson, preface to the Dictionary); "Advertisements are now so numerous that they are very negligently perused" (Samuel Johnson, The Idler); "The paper was right easy to peruse" (Byron, Don Juan); "He then perused the letter in haste" (Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe); "...leisurely perused the next document..." (Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit); "the unlearned peruser of their opinions" (Hawthorne, House of the Seven Gables). Again, the nature of the 'reading' is made clear by a modifier overtly present in the context.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, however, it is impossible to derive a meaning other than 'to read; read through or over'; there's nothing more one can conclude from looking at the citations. Some examples from a very long list: "Madam, please you peruse this Letter" (Shakespeare, Two Gentlemen of Verona); "I confess I have perused them all, and can discover nothing" (Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici); "I have perused several books of travels with great delight in my younger days" (Swift, Gulliver's Travels); "And yet, when in calm retirement we peruse the combats described by Homer or Tasso..." (Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire); "And now I looked upon the living scene;/ Familiarly perused it" (Wordsworth, Prelude); "While she broke the seal and perused the document, I went on taking my coffee" (Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre); "Mr. Ruskin, of whose writings he has perused, I suspect, an infinitesimally small number of pages" (Henry James, American Writers); "some illustrated paper, which he perused till, raising his eyes, he saw that her face was troubled" (Hardy, Jude the Obscure).
Conclusion: peruse is very often used in the sense 'to read carefully', but this is not and has never been the "precise" or "only" use of the word. The usual sense is 'to read; to read through or over', and this sense cannot be regarded as an error, despite the comments of Evans and Evans and Harper quoted above. The sense 'to read casually; glance over' is less common--though you yourself call it "pervasive"--but also should not be regarded as an error. However, considering the fact that many people object to this sense, and that peruse is primarily a literary word, it would be prudent to avoid this sense in one's own writing.
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