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I'm studying for the GRE and came across the following question:

"Recent years have witnessed the posthumous inflation of the role of the hobbyist Alice Austen into that of a pioneering documentarian, while ..."

The word "inflation" in this context most nearly means - A. exaggeration, B. distortion [there were other answer choices, but these are the two relevant ones]. Answer A is the correct one according to the key.

While "exaggeration" fits the meaning most closely, I have never heard/seen anyone use "exaggeration of X into" or related variants such as "exaggeration into." I was wondering if this usage is considered grammatically nonstandard, because a quick Google search turned up only one result that used "exaggeration" in this manner.

Technically, I suppose that this grammatical concern is not relevant to the GRE question, so I should have picked "exaggeration" regardless, but I'm curious whether "exaggeration" would actually fit in place of "inflation" in the above sentence.

  • You ever blown up a balloon? It gets bigger. That's inflation. – Hot Licks Jun 1 '15 at 0:41
  • Erm, that wasn't really the point of my question. Of course, I know what all these words mean, but I was wondering whether "exaggeration into" is standard usage. Updated my question to make that slightly more clear. – user2258552 Jun 2 '15 at 2:37
  • Keep in mind a synonym is a word that means almost the same thing as the original word. – Hot Licks Jun 2 '15 at 11:45
  • Um, I know what synonym means too, and that exaggeration is a synonym for inflation; I'm asking about the grammar of "exaggeration" in particular - since even though they are synonyms, if a word fits the meaning but makes the sentence grammatically incorrect, I don't think it "fits the meaning most closely," or am I wrong? Not saying that this is such an instance, but I'm sure there are such cases. – user2258552 Jun 2 '15 at 18:28
  • There is absolutely nothing wrong, grammar-wise, with substituting "exaggeration" in place of "inflation". – Hot Licks Jun 2 '15 at 22:18
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The visible part of the sentence

Recent years have witnessed the posthumous inflation of the role of the hobbyist Alice Austen into that of a pioneering documentarian, while ...

is not well written. In the first place, "posthumous inflation" suggests a bloating corpse, which—unless the author has a deep disgust for Alice Austin and her work—is a rather harsh (not to say grotesque) image to invoke if all you really mean to say is that the late Ms. Austen's reputation today as an important documentarian is greater than it deserves to be.

Describing Austen's role in the history of documentaries as something that, like a football, can be inflated seems a bit odd. But the notion of inflating a role into a different role seems stranger still. Inflating a balloon doesn't inflate it into a different balloon; it simply fills the deflated balloon with air. Nor would I say that inflating the balloon's role transforms that role. It's the same balloon, but now it has air in it. "To inflate X into Y" does not sound to me like normal U.S. English phrasing, and neither does "to exaggerate X into Y." Moreover the original wording doesn't specify what Austin's role was before it transformed into the pioneering documentarian role; the transformation is presented as being from an unspecified role into a specific and grand role.

Perhaps one underlying problem here is that a role refers to something historically factual, and therefore not itself inflatable (unlike, for example, a claimed role); in contrast, a reputation—which seems to be the author's main concern here—is a mere bubble and can be inflated or deflated to suit the public mood. Applying this line of thought to the sentence fragment that we started with, we might reasonably (albeit off-gassingly) say something like this:

Recent years have witnessed the posthumous inflation of hobbyist Alice Austen's reputation as a documentarian, from that of a minor figure to that of an important pioneer, while ...

Or perhaps this:

Recent years have witnessed the posthumous inflation of Alice Austen's reputation as a documentarian, from that of a hobbyist to that of an important pioneer, while ...

The original wording is an instance of distractingly poor writing in a GRE question—writing that makes the sense of the sentence murkier than it need be, and harder for the test taker to analyze.

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Your hunch is correct; exaggeration is the closest synonym. And it would be perfectly fine to use it as

exaggeration of the role

meaning that the author is clearly of the opinion that the importance of Alice Austen's work has been enhanced by many since her death.

  • "Enhanced" actually feels wrong there; may I suggest "overstated"? – Hellion Jun 1 '15 at 3:06
  • You may! The word Enhanced was not the answer, just used in the explanation of the statement. – DJ Far Jun 1 '15 at 18:35
  • Hm, I know exaggeration clearly fits and "exaggeration of the role" is standard, but "exaggeration of the role into X" is what I was asking about. I haven't heard "exaggeration into" used before - is it standard? – user2258552 Jun 2 '15 at 2:38

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