Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

In many of the Grammar 101 entries on this blog, we discuss pairs of words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings. The homophones copyright and copywrite are a good example of that. And then you’ve got words that almost sound the same but are quite obviously different from one another. That’s what we’ll be approaching today as we look into the words “decent” and “descent.”

Decent, which rhymes with recent, is an adjective with two main definitions. First, it could refer to something (or someone) that conforms to conventional morality and respectability. A person who is generally polite, kind and well-mannered might be called a “decent’ human being.

Second, “decent” could describe something that is simply satisfactory and acceptable. It is neither horrible nor great. The precise connotations are up to individual interpretation, but you might say that if something is “decent,” it is likely just a little bit better than if it were “mediocre.” It’s just fine or okay.

Descent, which rhymes with percent, is an entirely different word. As a noun, it can be used a few different ways, but the most common is to refer to the action of moving downward. You might talk about a person’s descent down a flight of stairs. If a submarine dives quickly, it goes into a rapid descent. The equivalent verb is “descend.”

The downward movement does not need to be literal, as “descent” can also be used in a figurative sense. After getting stranded on a tropical island, the boys in Lord of the Flies experience a descent into disastrous self-governance and primitive behavior.

Alternatively, you could also use the word “descent” to refer to a person’s ancestry. The majority of the people in my neighborhood are of either Italian or Chinese descent. The word “descendant” is also derived the same way and you could say it is related to “moving down the family tree.”

While there is only one letter separating the words decent and descent, they have dramatically different definitions and they are not pronounced the same way. And then there’s dissent, another word that may also sound similar to decent and descent. Used as either a verb or a noun, it describes holding an opinion that differs from the majority or the official stance. A significant level of dissent among the populace could lead to a coup d’etat.

Do you have a “decent” suggestion for a future Grammar 101 post? Let’s try to avoid a descent into immature toilet humor, shall we?