Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: unkempt (2).

unkempt (2). Today: And “unkept.” Beginning in the mid-20th century, some writers and speakers began using “unkept” for “unkempt.” Most commonly, “unkept” appears (quite appropriately) in phrases such as “unkept promises,” “unkept commitments,” and “unkept vows” — e.g.: “The unkept vow involves the company’s stated intent to make its wildly popular AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) software work with other instant-messaging programs.” Steven Levy, “Time for an Instant Fix,” Newsweek, 30 Sept. 2002, at 38. But the erroneous usage has become fairly common — e.g.: o “The Utah fan was depicted with a scraggly beard, unkept [read ‘unkempt’] and ‘a bit scruffy-looking.'” Shinika Sykes, “Utah-BYU Humor Hits Nerve in Sensitive Time,” Salt Lake Trib., 25 Nov. 2001, at A2. o “‘These raids have made people angry,’ said deputy provincial intelligence chief Hassan, whose long, unkept [read ‘unkempt’] red beard is reminiscent of those the Taliban required of all Afghan males.” Kathy Gannon, “Residents of Afghan Province Oppose U.S. Military Presence,” San Diego Union-Trib., 9 Sept. 2002, at A2. These sentences, however, don’t reflect prevailing usage. In identical contexts — those involving beards, hair, appearance, and hygiene generally — “unkempt” remains about 50 times as common as “unkept.” Apart from the sonic similarity, it’s perfectly possible to retrace how the confusion arose. You “keep house”; you “keep up your yard.” If you don’t do these things, your house looks “unkept” (that’s where the extension started) — e.g.: “Officer Jerry Fogt . . . said that the inside of the house was dirty and ‘unkept.'” Lisa Perry, “Murder Victim’s Relative Asks Why,” Dayton Daily News, 19 Dec. 2000, at A1. Notice that the journalist used quotation marks around what she probably took to be poor usage. It’s a short leap to say not that a person’s surroundings are “unkept,” but that the person is “unkept.” But this remains a minority usage and doesn’t yet seriously threaten the traditional usage of “unkempt.” Careful writers and editors should continue resisting “unkept” in these senses; it looks unkempt. Language-Change Index — “unkept” misused for “unkempt”: Stage 1. For information about the Language-Change Index click here. ——————– Quotation of the Day: “If you wish to find horrible examples of fustian, empty rhetoric, and sentimentality, read a few issues of the Congressional Record.” Gorham Munson, The Written Word 159 (rev. ed. 1949).
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