Object Lesson #1: It's Not An Abject Lesson

I was shocked the other day when Gizmodo editor Luke Hopewell used the phrase 'abject lesson'. He's an excellent writer and a well-educated young man, but he fell victim to an all-too-common mishearing. The correct phrase is 'object lesson'.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock, from GTS Production

Here's the definition of 'object lesson' from our usual resource, the Macquarie Dictionary:

A practical illustration of a principle, especially one serving as a warning.

There is no definition for 'abject lesson', because it's a nonsense phrase. It only pops up because people have misheard the expression and assumed the word 'abject' was used. The Macquarie defines 'abject' as "utterly humiliating or disheartening", which imparts an entirely different meaning.

Here's a recent example of 'abject lesson' being used in a news report about sport:

They produced a display that was an abject lesson in how to capitalise on every opportunity.

That is nonsensical if you consider what 'abject' means. Use the correct phrase 'object lesson' and it makes sense.

Abject failure? No problem. Abject lesson? That is, itself, an abject failure.

Lifehacker's Mind Your Language column offers bossy advice on improving your writing.


    Angus! why you name'n'shame, bro?

      It was either that or string Luke up from the nearest lamp post, this was the less severe option. The Darwinian method of enforcing the correct usage of language is more appropriate for phrases such as "all intensive purposes" though that depends upon the stress/coffee intake levels of the judge.

    I can't tell you how much of an affluence these columns are having on the way I speak.

    "Because it's a nonsense prase"

    Oh, the irony.

      This post needs more attention. Paging Mr. Pot- um, I mean Kidman?

      ^ this

      I would also question whether "abject lesson" demonstrates incorrect usage of the word "abject", or whether the phrase "abject lesson" is valid but frequently applied in an invalid context.

      eg: wetting your pants in the car because you couldn't be bothered pulling over at the last service station you saw and haven't found anywhere else to stop for the last 20km would be an object lesson in going for a slash when need and opportunity co-incide.
      Getting pulled over for a random breath test before you get home and having to explain why your pants are soaked and your car smells like piss... surely makes it an *abject* lesson?

      I regularly suffer from Muphry's Law with this column.

        I see what you did there.


    I wouldn't call it a "nonsense phrase" given the definition presented here. Misused, yes, but not entirely nonsense.

    Consider an example: John had an abject lesson in Chinese-made clothing quality when he bent over and tore open his trousers.

    To me, that makes sense given the "utterly humiliating and disheartening" definition.

      if you look carefully, you'll find he didn't actually call it a 'nonsense phrase', but a 'nonsense prase'.

      No, because the lesson was extremely effective. An abject lesson would be a lesson that was pathetic and/or humiliated. Eg abject poverty or abject cowardice. The best you could do as an example would be something like "John's failed attempt to rip his defective Chinese trousers in front of the audience was an abject lesson in clothing quality demonstration techniques" or similar.

    Another often misued expression is "beggar the question".. which is usually written or said as "beg(s) the question"..

    Affect and Effect are words that get used interchangeably.. but can't be :)

      You're example is retarted.

      "Beg the question" is the correct form. Apologies if that's what you meant.

        "Beggar the question" is never correct but in most cases where "beg the question" is used, it would be more accurate to instead use "raise the question". The term "beg the question" actually means something entirely different, however the number of times it is used incorrectly simply beggars belief!

    "Begs the question" is most often used incorrectly anyway, as people, almost invariably, mean "raises the question".

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