Say What You Mean What You Say

You might have gotten the hint by now that I’m the one of the world’s most obsessive word-geeks. I work hard not to obviously cringe when people misspeak. I’ve learned the hard way that for some reason people don’t like that. ;) I will notice your spelling error, your grammar blunder and, most irritating to me, your misuse of words. I find that I have more respect for people and hold them in higher esteem when they speak correctly, particularly when they observe some obscure rule to which no one pays any heed…like spelling the plural of thesis as theses. Nice.

In my queries, I am pleased to announce that spelling and grammar errors are remarkably few (my nerves thank you). I love that writers these days take the time to use a spelling and grammar checker, to have the piece read by someone else, etc.

But. The misuse and overuse of common words, both in my slush pile and in every day speech is becoming more and more frequent. I’ll admit it: you lose credibility and esteem (in my eyes anyway) when you don’t have a strong enough command of the language on which you’re trying to capitalize. I do it too. I make mistakes in my own speech. The other day someone brought to my attention that I have a slight lisp and I pronounce both “then” and “than” the same way. Now I have a complex. So I’m opening up a forum for word pet-peeves. What gets on your nerves? My own pet-peeves (taken from actual queries) follow…

“She has countless pairs of shoes in her closet…” Well, since she’s able to count the shoes, they’re not countless. Misuse.

“She arrived at Barney’s looking phenomenal and…” So she looked so great it was a phenomenon? This word means that she would need to have been like a phenomenon. When the blind can suddenly see it is phenomenal. It is not phenomenal when someone gets a new hairdo. I know a person who uses this word compulsively all the time to describe food, movies, experiences, everything. She must have a great life, surrounded by all this phenomena! Misuse.

The word “awesome”: Unless your awe has been inspired by something, it is not awesome. If my boss tells me I can leave early today, I should not say, “Awesome!” because it isn’t. Am I in awe of that? Misuse.

“I could care less…” Couldn’t.

“All the sudden…” Don’t even get me started…

“She literally jumped out of her skin…” No she didn’t. That would be really gross. Please be careful with this word. Literally means whatever you say people will need to take literally.

The word “awkward.” Just because a social interaction is uncomfortable doesn’t mean its awkward. For it to be awkward, it would need to not function the way it is supposed to. Like a stool with only two legs.

“Due to the Vietnam War, his entire family was decimated…” The word “decimate” means to reduce to 10% of the original. Exactly 10%. Sometimes it is used informally to mean that something was drastically reduced, but never entirely destroyed. So “he” should have one-in-ten family members, but this author meant “his” family was gone. I see this misuse at least once a week.

“He was taken back by the rudeness…” Aback.

She wanted to dress up as a witch for Halloween but thought it was too original…” This says the opposite of what the author wanted to say. It says that a witch costume would have been a fresh, new take on a Halloween costume, which is not the case.

For all intensive purposes…” Intents and purposes.

“She had myriad of excuses…” You could either say, “She had a myriad of excuses” or “She had myriad excuses…”

What say you, readers?

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Posted on November 23, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. Hmm, some of those are actually wrong, but some are actual slang or idioms, such as “awesome” and “phenomenal”. I’m not sure how I feel about this list. Awkward… ;)

  2. First off, I agree with many of your complaints (and those mentioned by commenters). I grew up in a household of Grammar Nazis, and I’ve been well-trained to cringe at “irregardless” or when people confuse “lay” and “lie”, so I understand where you’re coming from.

    That said, coming at it from a linguistic point of view, I also (contradictorily) believe that common use is what determines a word’s meaning. According the the OED, “awesome” has been used as a positive descriptor since the 1970s, and it’s so widely used now that I really don’t think there’s any chance of ever “correcting” it and forcing people to use the old definition (in much the same way that it would be futile to try to convince people to go back to defining “gay” as “happy”).

    In conclusion, I’m going to politely disagree with you where things like “awesome” and “awkward” are concerned. I’ll admit my bias here: I’m rather fond of saying “awesome” in the way it’s commonly used. Plus, like Shae and Tamara, I think change is a natural part of language. But I agree with you about “literally”, because pointing out all the kooky stuff people say they are “literally” doing (cf. The Oatmeal: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/literally) is just too much fun. :-)

  3. Just wanted to point out that “decimate” actually means to remove 10% OF the original, not reduce TO 10% of the original. An army of 10,000 soldiers is decimated if it reduced to a strength of 9,000, not if it is reduced to 1,000. When this word is misused as a metaphor, it’s usually an inadvertent understatement.

  4. Okay, have to admit, I hate the word “viruses”. It was invented by computer programmers who apparently were unaware that the actual plural for virus is viri, like any other word that ends in -us. Not many universities or colleges have an alumnuses association. An ellipse has two loci, not locuses. Same with focus/foci or octopus/octopi. But it’s gotten so bad I have found Biology texts that use viruses now, where before the mid 90’s you’d never see it. I know it’s a lost cause, but it still irritates me.

  5. I’m a bit late to the game but I found your post through link-surfing and had to comment: your definition of “decimate” is incorrect. In the original usage, decimation involved decreasing BY 10%, not TO 10%. That is, one person in 10 would be killed, rather than 9 in 10 as your description indicates.

  6. I have tweeted about my strong feelings about the word “awesome”. I don’t know why it makes me crazy but it does. I especially hate when writers interview their “awesome” agents and said agents don’t bonk them on the head with a hard object.

  7. Ok, I have one for you. In one breath, a nurse I work with actually managed to fit in the following:

    “I seen that you brung the baby. Was you there when he ate them things?”

    *Shudder*

  8. I make mistakes, this I know. But words are a writer’s tool, so I do believe we should research the tools we use and they should become as comfortable for us to use as a hammer to a carpenter. So I make it my business to understand the verbiage I chose.

    I am *cringe* okay with slang. I say “awesome” and “nice” and overuse “awkward”, but in speaking. And if I was writing a specific genre where that type of vernacular was accepted, some of my characters would use it too.

    But I see a difference in misusing these words in a professional setting and using them in a casual setting. Perhaps that’s just me being too lax, but I don’t think so. As I said, I’m okay with slang, (not “literally” though, some words should not be trifled with).

    Misuse of words stemming from a lack of knowledge, well that does make me cringe. A few examples to satiate your whetted curiosity: “you’re true” ‘instead of “that’s right” or “you’re right” (which every woman wants to hear), “the lawn needs mown” (yes, really) and my favorite, “sooner than later”.

  9. My current pet peeve is when people who should know better (like journalists) use “enormity” when they mean “enormousness.”

    @linda collison, the usage of “gift” as a verb goes back several centuries, but I agree that its current status as a vogue word makes it cringe-worthy.

    I’m guilty of overusing “awesome,” but that’s because I’m easily awed. :)

  10. There are 2 words in the English language that I actually feel my spine shift when I hear them – moist and luscious. I have no idea why but they simply make my blood curdle.

    As far as pet peeves go I can only think of two but it absolutely takes my full control not to virtually smack people when they use them – a whole nother, and possum.

    That’s a whole nother issue… No, it isn’t. It’s another issue entirely.
    Last night on the wet road I hit a possum… No, you didn’t. You hit an opossum.

    Sadly though the use of the shortened version is so common that it has been added to the dictionary. And what’s the first definition for ‘possum’? Opossum.

    I’m so nuts most of the time that I spell out words when texting people and have no clue what half of the text-speak abbreviations floating about out there even mean. Though I’m with Kim Miller Brown up there, as another lifetime Boston Townie the use of awesome in daily speak is considered part of our cultural heritage.

  11. I’m extremely guilty of using the word awesome. But in my defense, I’m a lifelong resident of Massachusetts, and for us in particular, the phrase “wicked awesome” is used to describe just about anything that is out of the ordinary ;)

    I don’t particularly have any grammar or spelling pet peeves, however I do feel there is a time and place for internet shorthand. Using the shortened “thx” in a blog post or in a Facebook update irks me to no end. The only exception to this for me is “lol”.

  12. The English language is alive, an imaginative klepto, stealing from other languages and making up new words as it goes along. If we’re too inflexible we become brittle, we die, or at the very least our work remains unpublished, unread. Poets use words in new ways with sometimes electrifying results, sometimes puzzling.

    That said, my current pet peeve is people who “gift” instead of give. Give is the verb, gift is the noun. It’s all the rage right now to gift something, instead of simply giving. What bothers me isn’t so much forcing a noun to do a verb’s work, its the trendiness of the use, as if “gifting” were somehow superior to plain old “giving.”

    The other phrase a mode (excuse omission of accent grave) that grates on my nerves like chalk on slate (a reference many youngsters don’t understand, having grown up in the era of dry erase boards) is “reaching out” instead of “contacting” “e-mailing” “calling” “connecting” or other verbs. While grammatically correct, It has become a smarmy cliche (forgive ommision of accent over e).

    Freshness and accuracy in language is more important to me than grammatical and spelling mistakes, though I try to correct as many of those as I can.

  13. Like Shae said in the first comment, language isn’t stagnant. Words mean what people understand them to mean, not necessarily what they meant a century ago. I don’t technically use my kitchen “counter” to count bank notes for a transaction. When I say I saw a “broadcast,” I don’t mean I watched someone walk through a field tossing seeds on the ground. I don’t call my SO my “husband” because he has been bound to my house or tell a friend she looks “fabulous” because her hairstyle could be the stuff of legends. So “misused” words don’t bother me as long as the meaning is clear to the audience.

    Your other examples do annoy me, though. And like Kate, “lie” and “lay” drive me up the wall. It wouldn’t be so bad if people chose the wrong one consistently, but they tend to change their minds. There was a popular song a few years back that went, “If I lay here, if I just lay here, will you lie with me and just forget the world?” I felt like smashing the radio every time it came on. Just pick one already!

    I also get my panties in a bunch when people don’t know whether the subjects of their sentences are plural or singular. “Students WERE standing there,” or “A group of students WAS standing there” (ignore the passive voice; I’m making a point here). Another point I’m stuck on right now is putting subjects in each of my clauses. I didn’t realize I was missing them until recently. Now I’m very particular about my commas.

  14. Technically, I don’t believe “awkward” is a misuse, at least not now. Word definitions aren’t stagnant. They change and evolve with society. In fact, several dictionaries now include the definition you scorn.

    Collins English Dictionary defines “awkward” several ways, one of which is “embarrassing”.

    Not that I don’t understand the impulse. I was taught that “nauseous” and “nauseated” meant two very different things (“I am nauseous” = “I make other people feel sick”; “nauseated” = “I feel sick”), but that distinction is not reflected in the common lexicon nor in several dictionaries.

  15. I’m really not a word geek, and make errors all the time, but the thing that gets me is the thoughtlessness with which some people use words.

    I hate, when people describe entire occurrences or events with a single word, like awkward, win, or fail. It’s barbaric, and if you can’t string together enough words to make a sentence that adequately describes your opinion, don’t speak at all.

    I have to say though I am I big fan of bending the meaning and use of a word. The meaning of words are like the landscape they are always changing, sometimes slowly sometimes not.

    For instance if I wanted to build a big gay fire I wouldn’t want to be niggardly with the fagots.

  16. Yeah…I have so many too, but my fav has to be “I seen it!” AHHHHHHHH!

  17. I think at the top of my list is the old “could care less” gem. It makes me think the person speaking/writing has no real understanding of what they’re saying here, therefore, they’re probably not very trustworthy in conveying other messages…which makes me less interested in anything else they have to say. Call me a snob! ;)

    Another one is “could of” rather than “could have”. *shudder*

    “Irregardless” is another classic.

    Then there’s the people who just misunderstand words and no one ever corrects them… and now they’re adults who think the word “definitely” is actually “definably” (I have a friend who says this all the time, and I honestly don’t know if she thinks that’s the word, or if she’s trying to be cute. Either way, it irks me).

    I’m sure I have my own pet mistakes I make regularly, most probably words I misuse (I do say “awesome”, despite knowing exactly what it means…) but when I’m made aware, I at least try to do it less ;)

  18. You’re opening a can of worms here, I tell you!

    There are so many of these… but my number one pet peeve is people who mix up ‘lie’ and ‘lay’.

    It really irks me.

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