Or 10 Language Mistakes and Choices I Hate*
Noah Webster wrote his famous dictionary because he felt that language use and spelling should be standardized and that American English should be distinct from British English. Many linguists argue that because language is an ever-evolving thing, dictionaries should adjust to changes in language. Noah Webster might somewhat disagree, though the dictionary that still bears his name has made such changes. Which is correct?
I think that, to some degree, both are correct. Precise language and precise definitions are important—just ask any person or country who’s ever been pressured by the U.N. to make changes based on the loose interpretation of some bureaucratic (activist) committee that lacks anything resembling oversight. Furthermore, there are very definitely times when common use is objectively incorrect, no matter how common (see #3 below). Hats off to Noah Webster.
On the other hand, language truly is constantly evolving. This is an objective observation. And such evolution can so drastically change the connotations of words and the way in which they are spoken that what we say or mean now may be completely incomprehensible a thousand years from now. Compare the English of 1014 to the English of 2014 if you don’t believe me! Words have a tendency to take on new connotations (often as a result of changing social politics) distinct from their literal definitions. If the dictionary fails to take these new connotations into account, you (or someone learning and speaking English as a second language) would not be able to figure out solely from the dictionary what it means when someone calls you an “ass” (and you might consequently use it in the wrong context without understanding what it means to others) and you would think the word “condescension” or “condescend” described a good thing. So hats off to modern linguists.
In other words, a good dictionary not only sets standards to which people may return in order to ensure correct use of language in such a way that writing is not taken to mean what it ought not, but also records new connotations in common use. Honestly, I think that’s two sides of the same coin. Nevertheless, my point is that there are still some changes which should not be accepted as correct use of the English language. A few of my (personal opinion) deepest-felt word use and grammar pet peeves are listed below.
Side Note: Some people are much more creative than I. While I write a blog on the topic, which has only been done a million times or so, Weird Al Yankovic wrote a song!
1) “awe” in place of “aw” or “aww”
“Awe” means “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.” (“The sight filled me with awe.” “God is awesome.” “He spoke in an awed whisper.”) “Aw” or “aww,” on the other hand, is an interjection someone makes when protesting injustice (“Aw, do I have to?”), exclaiming over something (“Aw, what a cute baby!”), etc. Too often, I see people respond to a photo of a friend’s pet or child with, “Awe, how cute!” It makes me grind my teeth every time.
2) “myriad of” in place of “myriad”
“Myriad” means many things—literally! It describes something as “numerous” or “countless” or “great in number.” Originally, the correct use of “myriad” was to say “myriad seashells” (as either noun or adjective), not “myriad of seashells,” in the same way that you would say “numerous seashells,” not “numerous of seashells.” However, “myriad of X” has become so common a usage that it is now even written in Webster’s dictionary as a correct use of the word as a noun. Nevertheless, it still makes me groan.
3) “I could care less” in place of “I couldn’t care less”
I mentioned this one above as an example of a situation in which common use is objectively incorrect and will always be objectively incorrect, no matter how commonly used. “I couldn’t care less” means that you care so little, it is impossible for you to care less. That is, on a “caring scale” of 0 to 100, you care 0—in other words, it means “I don’t care at all.” If you say “I could care less,” it means you are capable of caring less than you currently do, so you care somewhere between 1 and 100—in other words, it means “I care, but to an undefined degree that is anywhere from hardly at all to more than anyone else on the planet.”
4) omitting the Oxford comma
The Oxford comma is the comma between the last item in a list and the next-to-last item in a list. For example: “I bought apples, pears, and grapes.” It is widely acknowledged as personal choice whether to use the Oxford comma—in other words, there’s technically no right or wrong use, grammatically speaking, so it would be just as correct to write, “I bought apples, pears and grapes.” Generally speaking, it’s simply recommended that you be consistent—that is, always omit it or always use it, rather than going back and forth in the same written piece. However, there are a great many times when omitting the Oxford comma results in ambiguity or even changes the meaning altogether. For example: “I dedicate this work to my parents, Marie Smith and God.” If you should either always omit it or always use it, always using it makes more sense so as to avoid those times when omitting it would result in ambiguity or misunderstanding. I know people are going to hate on me for this one, but I personally don’t like ambiguity—hence, I prefer to use the Oxford comma and it irritates me a little bit when it’s omitted and TO NO END when it’s omitted in one of those ambiguous cases that makes it difficult for me to know what the writer actually meant.
5) incorrect use of apostrophes
Seriously. Third grade grammar. It’s one thing if you have ADD, but something else if you have no learning disabilities and just never bothered to remember which is which.
You’re = you are; your = possessive form of you
It’s = it is; its = possessive form of it
They’re = they are; their = possessive form of they
Almost any other use of “X’s” is possessive, but for “you” or “it” or “they,” the possessive form does not utilize an apostrophe.
Miscellany: I once wrote a short lesson on correct use of the apostrophe for a writer’s group of which I was a member. After sending it out, another member wrote back to inform me I had misspelled “apostrophe” throughout the entire lesson. I never quite lived that one down.
6) “to not” in place of “not to”
Contrary to what seems popular opinion, “to not” is not the correct way to make a verb negative. Interestingly, even Weird Al got this one wrong in his song, where he says, “Try your best to not drool.” Basically, because of Latin grammar rules being adopted into English, “to” is considered part of the verb—in this case, “to drool”—in which case, it is called an “infinitive.” In the same way that you would say, “I will not drool” (“drool” being the verb), you would say “I will try not to drool” (“to drool” being the verb or infinitive). When you place “not” in the middle of the verb/infinitive—“to not drool”—that’s called a split infinitive, which, in classical grammar, is an error. However, largely because common use has made some split infinitives sound natural and, by extension, made non-split infinitives sound unnatural (and also because English is much more Germanic-based than Latin-based), many grammarians accept use of split infinitives. After all, today, it is considered correct use of the language to split the infinitive when we say “I will work to swiftly resolve the matter” even though technically, a few hundred years ago, it would have been considered correct to say “I will work to resolve the matter swiftly,” moving the adverb to the end of the sentence. Nonetheless, I still hate most split infinitives. When explaining why he considers “not to learn” cleaner than “to not learn,” a grammarian wrote, “Split infinitives are dirty, grubby beasts that we employ when we don’t have too many other options. Every time I split an infinitive, I feel like I need a hot shower afterwards.” My feeling exactly.
7) misusing “two,” “too,” and “to”
Again, this is elementary level spelling, and if you don’t have a learning disability but you have graduated from high school, you should know better. “Two” is the number. “Too” means “an excessive amount” (“This is too much. I’m too tired!”) or “also” (“I’m tired, too.”). “To” is directional (“go to bed”), or identifies whatever/whomever is affected (“I was rude to her”), or indicates an infinitive (“They told me to give him my toy but I didn’t want to.”). I die a little inside every time someone writes, “That’s to hard!” GAH!!! It’s “too”!
8) misplaced quotation marks
My husband strongly disagrees with me on this one. And I have to say, he has a point. Originally, the comma and the period were placed within the quotation marks because, in typesetting, the comma and period were fragile little keys that needed to be protected and placing them at the end of a line ran the risk of damaging them. Allegedly. There are actually problems with this story. For example, typesetting started in the 1500s but quotation marks weren’t used for direct speech in English writing until the 1700s; periods and commas went inside quotation marks in other languages before then, which may have had some influence on English writing; and 95% of sentences do not end with quotation marks, so, if this theory is correct, the comma or period would have been unprotected 95% of the time. At any rate, the American style requires that commas and periods go inside quotation marks, that colons and semicolons go outside quotation marks, and that exclamation marks and question marks go inside or outside the quotation marks based on how it was used (She said, “Try it—it’s great!” But I couldn’t believe that about Super China Buffet’s “Grilled Alley Cat Special”!). All American institutions, with the exception of a few hoity-toity literary institutions, require American style. British style, also known as logical punctuation style, requires that the punctuation go wherever it makes sense for it to go—if it’s part of the original quotation, it goes inside, and if not, it goes outside. However, British institutions require American style in several areas and even many news sources, such as The Guardian, generally or frequently use American style. Furthermore, it’s not as “logical” as it appears at first glance; or, as a British columnist writes, “The Economist style guide, which has a substantial and generally helpful section on American and British English, claims: ‘The British convention is to place such punctuation according to sense.’ Which makes sense, until you think about it, and realise it is meaningless.” He goes on to say, “The debate about ‘logical punctuation’ suggests… there is nothing very logical about it. As with so many aspects of language, what you use tends to be the result of a battle between what you were taught, and what you like the look of.” In sum, British or “logical” punctuation style isn’t all that logical, but American style is very straightforward; and the form almost exclusively used in America and taught and accepted as the correct form of American writing is American style (similarly to how we use “realize” instead of “realise”). If you write/publish in Britain (or Australia), the correct form to use is the British style. If you write/publish in America (or usually Canada as well), the correct form to use is American style.
9) “towards” and “forwards” and “backwards”
Generally, the “s” tacked on to the end of “toward” makes it the British form; omitting the “s” makes it the American form; there is no difference in the definition or connotation. (To be fair, some people in America use the British form and some people in Britain use the American form; and, in fact, the American form has recently been gaining ground in Britain. But generally speaking, “towards” is still accepted as British and “toward” is accepted as American.) As to “forward” vs. “forwards,” “forward” is by far the preferred form in both American and British English. In other words, “forwards” is basically the uneducated form of the word in any type of English. Finally, “backwards” is considered the British style (for adverbs) and “backward” the American style (and also the British style for adjectives).
At any rate, it irritates me when American writings use British style. Anyone knows that “color” is American and “colour” British. The degree to which people don’t know that “towards” is British and “toward” is American suggests rampant misinformation or poor education or simply a lack of care regarding writing (though certainly a few may knowingly prefer to use British style in just these one or two words while using American style in every other word, though why I can’t imagine).
10) affect vs. effect
One is an action (affect) and the other is the result (effect). For example, “English language mistakes affect me quite severely. The effect on me is profound.” It drives me absolutely nuts when people misuse these two.
Don’t hate me!
*In Japanese, there are two basic styles of writing: the kana (hiragana and katakana, which are sound-based symbols) and kanji (symbols which, alone or in combination, stand for a word or concept and where the pronunciation is not clear and therefore must be memorized). Therefore, to say “I” or “me,” you could technically write わたし (hiragana) or 私 (kanji), both of which mean the same thing. Derek told me once that between the two, わたし is generally preferred. When I commented about that in a Japanese language thread, someone who had been studying Japanese for 25 years and was married to a Japanese linguist argued that the correct form is the kanji (私), not the hiragana (わたし). Realizing I didn’t actually know anything about it except what Derek had told me, I looked it up. Lo and behold, the only reputable Japanese source I found, a guidebook for use of kana vs. kanji in published writings produced by a Japanese publishing company, stated that わたし is preferred over 私. When I provided the reference, he refused to admit that that standard, written by a Japanese company specializing in Japanese linguistics, might be true. I try not to be like that—refusing to admit I’m wrong when something comes out to objectively prove I’m wrong—but I know several of the things I wrote on my list of “Language Mistakes I Hate” are really just personal preference. I should probably have called it “Language Mistakes and Choices I Hate,” because some of the ones I hate technically fall within the realm of acceptable use, but the title “Language Mistakes I Hate” sounded better. 🙂