Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

There are many words in the English language that don’t mean what you think they do. For example, if flammable means that something can easily catch on fire, how is it that inflammable means exactly the same thing? You would think that it would have the opposite definition, but it doesn’t. And then you encounter a word like nonplussed. Breaking it down, nonplussed looks like it would be easy enough to understand, but it’s not.

Non + Plus + Ed = ???

At first glance, it appears that nonplussed is effectively composed of two parts. Most of us would understand the “non-” prefix to indicate the negation of something. You might have a smoking section of a restaurant and then you have a non-smoking section of a restaurant. You may have a non-refundable deposit on your vacation rental, meaning that the deposit will not be refunded. If you don’t know how to swim, you might call yourself a non-swimmer.

And then we take a look at the “plus” part of the word, which we assume refers to addition. One plus one is two. If you are attending a banquet or event, your guest might be called your “+1” or “plus one.”

Finally, we have the “-ed” suffix, which usually indicates a past tense. I walked. She played. They worked. These are all things that happened in the past.

Given these three components, it almost sounds like nonplussed would mean the negation of adding in the past. We would assume that it perhaps has something to do with subtraction, but that’s not at all what nonplussed means.

The Definition of Nonplussed

“Nonplussed” is an adjective that means to be bewildered, perplexed or surprised.

If you are thrown into a situation, you don’t know what to do, and you have a confused expression on your face, someone might say that you look nonplussed. It means that you are at a loss as to what to think, say or do.

Although far less common in usage, nonplus can also be used as a verb. That would mean to confuse or perplex (someone else). If you are the one throwing the surprise party, you may be “nonplussing” the guest of honor. As a verb, you can conjugate “nonplus” how you would similar verbs, turning it into “nonplussing” or “nonpluses” as needed. That’s how we arrive at “nonplussed.”

Strange English Words

Since English is basically a mish-mash of so many different languages, many of its words can have very confusing meanings, spellings an origins. You might come across words like expatriate and segue, wondering why they aren’t spelled as ex-patriot and segway instead. Yes, all these words can make you “[sic]” and leave you nonplussed, but that’s all the more reason why it is important to continue expanding your vocabulary.

Is there a specific English word or phrase that you’d like explained in a future Grammar 101 post? Let me know through the comments below.