If you look up the word enormity online, the answers you get may confuse you. Why? Some of the definitions you find may tell you that enormity means something different from what you thought it did. Are these sources right? Or are they yet another example of unreliable info in cyberspace? We’re about to solve the mystery of how to use enormity in a sentence properly.
The traditional way to use enormity
Here’s the key thing to understand: the way people used to use enormity is different from how many of us do now. People used to use enormity only when they wanted to describe extreme evil or immorality. For example, in the past, it would have been correct to use enormity only in sentences like these:
- “The enormity of the crime shocked even the detectives.”
- “Kyla believed that the enormity of Bryan’s sins were unforgivable.”
- “The enormity of their intentions to steal from vulnerable customers was unpalatable.”
At this point in time, people didn’t think it was acceptable to use enormity when they just wanted to say that something was huge (but not necessarily evil). For this reason, sentences like these wouldn’t have been okay to use:
- “The enormity of the pizza was overwhelming.”
- “He grew increasingly anxious as he reflected on the enormity of the task he had agreed to complete by the end of the day.”
- “The enormity of the universe can make you feel small and insignificant.”
Instead, people had to use the word enormousness (even though it sounds incredibly awkward). Here are the examples again with the “correct word”:
- “The enormousness of the pizza was overwhelming.”
- “He grew increasingly anxious as he reflected on the enormousness of the task he had agreed to complete by the end of the day.”
- “The enormousness of the universe can make you feel small and insignificant.”
What dictionaries say about how you can use enormity
Of course, just because a word has an official definition doesn’t mean that everyone uses the word in a way that’s consistent with this definition. Enormity is no exception.
Even though enormity traditionally means extreme evil or immorality, people have been using it to mean extreme size for a long time. That’s why even reputable dictionaries like the Merriam-Webster dictionary and the Oxford Dictionaries say that enormity means both extreme evil and extreme size.
Dictionaries are usually slow to respond to changes in how people use a language. But they’ve recognized that so many people use enormity to mean extreme size that it’s only appropriate to include it as part of the word’s official definitions.
Not everyone agrees
Now, just because many of the major dictionaries agree that enormity can mean extreme size doesn’t mean that everyone agrees with them. As we mentioned in our post on the difference between more than vs. over, some people cling to traditional definitions and uses of a word even when the tide changes. In some cases, people do this just for the sake of upholding tradition.
But some people, such as online grammar queen Grammar Girl, argue that using enormity to mean extreme size can create confusion in some sentences. For example, take a look at this one:
- “The enormity of the attack frightened local residents.”
Were people frightened because the attack was large or because it was an evil thing for someone to do? We don’t know because enormity could be standing in for either definition. This is why Grammar Girl encourages people to avoid using enormity in sentences where it could mean extreme size or extreme evil.
Some people may tell you that you can’t use enormity to describe extreme size. But this isn’t true. Established dictionaries agree that you can use enormity in the same way you would use enormousness. So enormity can mean extreme evil or extreme size.
Would you use more than or over in this sentence: “They hid over 50 eggs on their property for the Easter egg hunt”? Find the answer in our post on the difference between more than vs. over.