If we told you that The Pink Flamingo Co. decimated its arch rival by launching a new product, what would you think we meant? Would you think that The Pink Flamingo Co. absolutely crushed its competitor like the awesome boss it is? Or would you think the company shaved some years off its competitor’s life but still left it standing? If you’re like a lot of people, you’d say that The Pink Flamingo Co. destroyed its competitor. After all, isn’t this what decimate means?
Well, it depends on who you ask. Why? We’re about to tell you.
What most people think decimate means
When you hear or see people use the word decimate, what do they mean? In most cases, they use it in place of the word destroy. And this would be a completely acceptable way to use the word. After all, the Merriam-Webster dictionary says that decimate means to cause great harm or destruction.
How do you use decimate like this in a sentence? Just like this:
- “They decimated their competitor by launching a new product.”
- “The civilian population was decimated by the war.”
- “Daniel decimated the mailbox when he crashed into it with his car.”
Seems simple enough, right? If only it was.
What grammar sticklers think decimate means
If you use the word decimate to mean destroy, watch out for the grammar sticklers. Why? Because they may not agree with how you’ve used the word.
Grammar sticklers are attached to the traditional definition of decimate, which means to kill or destroy every tenth person. (Notice how decimate starts with dec-, which is the prefix for 10.) You use it in sentences like these:
- “The size of the military unit was substantially smaller after it was decimated by the attack.”
- “Fire Company No. 89 lost two of its own yesterday when a fire decimated its crew.”
- “Staff members had to pick up extra shifts at the grocery store after 10% of their colleagues were decimated by the flu.”
Although any loss of life is terrible, killing 10% of an army is very different from completely obliterating it. So grammar sticklers think it’s wrong to use decimate to describe the act of destroying something altogether.
Why the grammar sticklers are wrong
Although the traditional definition of decimate means to destroy every tenth person, it isn’t the only correct definition now. Why? Because language changes over time, and the definition of decimate is no exception.
And it isn’t just slang dictionaries that include broader definitions of decimate. As we mentioned earlier, the Merriam-Webster dictionary includes to cause great destruction or harm as one of the definitions of decimate.
It’s true that some people aren’t open to change even when the grammar and style authorities agree with it. That’s why you may still see or hear people argue that decimate doesn’t mean to destroy. But you know better now. In fact, we’ve armed you with the information you need to decimate their argument (completely!).
Grammar sticklers may tell you that it’s wrong to believe that decimate means to destroy. But there’s actually nothing wrong about it at all. Although decimate traditionally meant to destroy every tenth person, it now also means to destroy or harm more generally.
Sometimes a grammar stickler’s pet peeve really is just a pet peeve.
Is overexaggerate a real word? We answer your question in this post.