Language Peeves
Language Peeves

Language Peeves

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The TV newsperson was commenting about a story concerning the Boston Marathon bombing when she said, “The story just doesn’t jive with the facts.” I tried very hard to picture a story dancing with some facts, but I just couldn’t. The problem was not just with jiving or jitterbugging—I couldn’t even picture them doing the foxtrot.

The newsperson had confused the verb jive, which concerns dancing, with the verb gibe (soft “g”). The latter has several meanings, one of which is “to correspond or fit.” The newscaster had probably never seen gibe in print but had only heard it and mistook it for a word she was more familiar with.

Some readers may say of this, “What’s the big deal?” The answer is that language errors reveal ignorance, carelessness, or in some cases both. They therefore annoy knowledgeable people and cast doubt on the speaker’s credibility. They are inclined to think, “If this person can’t get simple things right, how can I trust her with more difficult ones.” I know, I know, it’s neither fair nor completely logical, but real and unfortunate nonetheless.

Two words commonly used, and almost as commonly misused, even by educated people, are phenomena and criteria. Both are Greek in origin and both are plural forms. The singular forms are phenomenon and criterion. So whenever you hear someone say, “this phenomena is” or “my main criteria is,” the appropriate response is to wince.

Many people who want to avoid stating a long and boring list of things use the convenient shortcut et cetera, which has been popular since the days of ancient Rome. It means “and others” or, more colloquially, “and so on and so forth.” The problem is that a growing number of people who use this expression pronounce it ECK cetera, which rhymes perfectly with a word that describes my reaction to hearing it—Yecch!

A special language peeve of mine is hearing the name of the place known as Long Island pronounced either Long G-island or Lon G-island. The proper pronunciation leaves the “g” at the end of “long” where it belongs and then and only then proceeds to “island.”  The reason this bothers me is no doubt that I was born and spent some of my childhood on that very island in a place known as “Queens.” (Actually, it’s a very big place, many places actually, a composite known as a borough. So if someone tells you “I’m from Queens,” the correct response is “Where in Queens?“ For me, it was Jackson Heights.)

Am I bothered with people who sustain the “g” in Long Island only because I grew up there? No. It’s because having grown up there, I know that the sustained “g” originated in the language patterns of Hebrew (or possibly Yiddish). I feel that Jews have a right to keep that pattern alive, and so I guess do those Irish, Italians, and Poles that grew up in Jewish neighborhoods. What annoys me is Protestant transients from the Midwest using it.

A WASP from the Midwest saying “Long G-island” is similar to someone from England or Ireland pronouncing my name “Bincent.” That pronunciation is fine for Spanish-speaking people because the “v” sound doesn’t exist in their language, so “b” is substituted. But for non-Spanish speakers to say “Bincent” is jarringly silly.

The expression “I could care less,” is annoying because it says the opposite of what the person means. For example, when someone says “I could care less what people say behind my back,” he or she really means, “I don’t care at all.” But what the words are saying is “There is some room for me to care less.” Therefore, the right expression to convey the intended meaning is, “I couldn’t care less.”

Yet another of my language peeves is the widespread confusion of the words number and amount and their first cousins many/much and fewer/less. Hardly a day goes by without a news report about a large “amount” of people whose flights were delayed or who attended a concert or protested a piece of legislation. I want to shout at my TV set, “There are no amounts of people, never have been, never will be.” There are, of course, numbers of people—small numbers, middling numbers, large numbers. Similarly, it is appropriate to speak of many or few people but never, ever much or less people.

The difference is really quite simple. When the things in question can be individually counted, it is correct to speak of numbers of them and to regard those numbers as many or few. Numbers of cars, people, dogs, computers, and baked potatoes. On the other hand, if the things cannot easily be counted individually, they should be referred to in amounts and regarded as much or less. Amounts of sand, sugar, and mashed potatoes.

Many people see nothing wrong in sentences such as, “The display was very unique” and “He is the most unique athlete in the world.” But there is definitely something wrong. The word unique means “one of a kind, beyond comparison.” Yet the words very and most are terms of comparison. If something is unique, that is it, period. To add the other words is to contradict oneself.

Speaking of contradiction, here is a word that should never be used because it contradicts itself: irregardless. The prefix ir and the suffix less both mean “without.” Therefore, when the intended meaning is “without regard,” the correct word is regardless, as when a brat says, “I’m going to do as I wish regardless of my parents’ rules.”

The word usage is more widely employed than ever. A supervisor may say to his subordinates, “Improper usage of equipment can get you fired.” A finishing school instructor may tell her class, “You can tell a lot about a person’s knowledge of etiquette by his usage of a fork.” A chef may sum up the art of cooking by claiming, “The quality of cooking depends largely on one’s usage of spices.” In all three cases the word usage is the wrong word. The right word is use. The rule is simple: Usage is a special word that should only be employed in matters of language, as in the sentence, “Contemporary English usage frowns on slang in formal writing.”

The errors listed here are becoming increasingly common. As one who taught English for many years, I see this as a sad state of affairs that leaves me feeling nauseated. Some would say nauseous instead of nauseated, but that usage is nonstandard and therefore qualifies as yet another language peeve.

Copyright © 2013 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero