The enormous issue with 'enormity'

“While on the glacier, it was impossible not to feel humbled and awe-struck by its enormity.”

“I stood outside the arena amazed by its enormity.”

“When I look up at the night sky I am just overwhelmed by its enormity.”

If you were a student of William Strunk in the early 20th century carefully following the instructions laid out in his classroom guide “The Elements of Style,” you would have had no problem using the word “enormity” to refer to size — as the writers of the passages above did.

But if you read a copy of Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” in the late-1950s or later, you would think that it’s a mistake to use “enormity” to mean bigness.

Yet if you open a dictionary today, you’ll see it’s not a mistake at all. What gives?

Well, like a lot of words, “enormity” has gone through significant changes over the years, some stickler-approved, some not.

Team Stickler is best represented by E.B. White, a onetime student of William J. Strunk, who in the late 1950s added about 50 pages to his former professor’s short classroom guide, transforming it into the bestseller that still rakes in the bucks today.

Among the many bits of information White inserted to make Strunk’s classroom instructions sound like universal rules for every English speaker was this: “Enormity. Use only in the sense of ‘monstrous wickedness.’ Misleading, if not wrong, when used to express bigness.”

If you’re looking for the safest, most buttoned-down way to use “enormity,” you can stop reading here. Just stick to the meaning about badness, not bigness, and no one can say you’re wrong. If you want a more thorough understanding of the issue, you can read about it in my recent column.

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