Grammar 101: Decimate and Devastate

Last Update: Jul 2, 2022

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Grammar 101: Decimate and Devastate


A Few Simple Rules Are All You Need

There's no doubt that, in its entirety, English grammar is complex, especially for someone learning English as a second language.But...If you're a native English speaker and just want to avoid common grammatical errors in your writing (such as blog posts on your website) there are only a handful of rules that you need to memorize.So this series of posts is for those who'd like to ditch the Grammarly crutch and just know what's right and what's not.

Here's the eleventh one:

Decimate and Devastate

A lot of people have forgotten (or never knew) the meaning of decimate.

Even newsreaders!

They use it when they mean devastate.

From Wikipedia: Decimation (Latin: decimatio; decem = "ten") was a form of Roman military discipline in which every tenth man in a group was executed by his cohorts.

A cohort (roughly 480 soldiers) selected for punishment by decimation was divided into groups of ten. Each group drew lots (sortition), and the soldier on whom the lot of the shortest straw fell was executed by his nine comrades, often by stoning, clubbing, or stabbing.

True Meaning Lost

You only have to watch the television news or read MSN to realise that the word "decimate" has morphed into "almost annihilate" or "visit widespread destruction upon" and has quite replaced "devastate" as in "fish stocks have been decimated by climate change" or "ethnic cleansing has resulted in the decimation of the population".

When I hear "the koala population was decimated by the bushfire" I always want to respond with "1 in 10 - could've been a lot worse". Sorry, I do understand that animals dying in a bushfire is both sad and serious.

So decimate literally means to destroy 1 in 10 of something and to use it to describe some sort of general devastation is just wrong.

Recent Comments


That was interesting Phil. I never knew that exact meaning and why. Thanks so much.
We are all sad about our koalas, I hope we can save them. We lost many near where we live and haven't seen any since the bushfires.


The bushfires' toll on our wildlife was just awful, Lily. I'm so glad they're are people putting time and money into rehabilitation. Though of course the big underlying problem is habitat loss.

I agree. But the fund created at that time is allowing carers to buy land and protect corridors.

Lily 😁🎶

At least we live in a country that recognizes the problem, cares about it and is willing to put some funds and effort into fixing it.

I was impressed
decimation in Romans!
That's why it remained clear in my mind!

Thank you, Vasile.

Interesting Phil... all I thought decimate is another word for annihilate as thats what is normally conveyed even on movies.

Yet the clue is in the word itself. Decimal, for instance, means based on ten. It's all from the Latin decem, meaning ten.

I've learned a lot from these series of lessons you have done Phil, thanks.

That's good to know, Rowe.

Interesting .thanks for sharing

You're welcome, Kanaiyalal.

Interesting article Phil. Jim

Thanks, Jim. It was common knowledge when I was a kid at school. Now, not so much.

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