Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Pleasant Pedantry

I have the reputation of being a bit of a pedant. I get annoyed by the misuse of English. Here are my top ten errors.

1 Pronouncing 'aitch' as if it began with one. 'Haitch' comes, I think, from Ireland where they have several idiosyncrasies in pronunciation - 't' for 'th' is a common one. 'Haitch' is now common among young people in the UK. Youngsters seem astonished when told it is a wrong pronunciation. Is school no longer compulsory in Britain?

2 The misuse of 'fulsome'. Praise is always fulsome. If only people knew what this really meant they would cringe with embarrassment. It is not a strong form of 'full'. In fact the word is derived from 'foul'. Fulsome praise is cloying, insincere, exaggerated, Uriah-Heap-like, praise. Sometimes when I hear the phrase I am not sure whether the user is being ironic.

3 Foetus. We English like our ligatures (not diphthongs, that's something else) in words like haematology, anaemia, oesophagus etc, but there are good etymological reasons for this. Take a word like 'aetiology' which Americans spell as 'etiology'. It sounds like it ought to be something to do with 'etiolate' but this has a quite different meaning and is 'etiolate' in British English too. But 'foetus' is a false etymology. It should be 'fetus' in British English also.

4 Apostrophes. In "Fish 'n' chip's" one of the apostrophe's is wrong. An apostrophe indicates that something has been left out. The 'n' is an abbreviated form of 'and' and therefore the apostrophes are correctly placed, but they have no place in a simple plural. In possessives, 'Archilbald's book' really stands for 'Archibald his book' though how that works for 'Mary's pencil' I'm not quite sure. The most irritating misuse is for the plural of a date. The 1970's is wrong and the 1970s is right. Please don't confuse 'its' with 'it's'.

5 Between you and I. Would you say 'between we'? Of course not! Perhaps this is a reaction against the equally incorrect "Me and my mate went to the pictures together." If so it is worse being not just ignorance but a misplaced elegant gentility.

6 Split infinitives. Silly rule! To boldly go and split them is my definite ambition.

7 'Anticipate' meaning 'expect'. This is what Fowler called 'slipshod extension'. If you anticipate something you do something about it beforehand. If you anticipate an attack by the Taliban, you forestall it, you don't just wait for it to happen. CS Lewis called this misuse of words 'verbicide'. Our vocabularies become impoverished unless we maintain distinctions.

8 Here is a battle already lost. 'Meticulous' is really a synonym of 'pernickety' rather than 'scrupulous'. It means more than taking a lot of care, it means doing so in a fussy and annoying way. Verbicide!

9 'Decimate' means to reduce by one tenth not reduce to one tenth. Not too bad if you win a war with 90% of your army intact, but to win with 90% dead would be something of a Pyrrhic victory.

10 'To claim' means to demand recognition of a right. Hence we have a claim that Humphrey Bogart, Walter Houston and Tim Holt fought over in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre". It does not simply mean 'to assert'. Words are tools and like all tools it pays to keep their edges sharp.


Randy Shannon said...

It pleases me to read your post. It indicates a focus on those things less life threatnening.

God Bless,

Anonymous said...

I cannot speak for the British as I'm not sure if/how it is misused by them in speech , writing and thought, but my pet peeve in the US is the misuse of the word "myself" which is most often either redundantly employed (as in "I , myself...") or incorrectly in place of the word "me".


Stubborn . said...

Please make this a repeating post! I share your frustration and enjoy learning more distinctions of which I was not previously aware.

And for my contribution:

It's "lose" not "loose" when you misplace your keys. For the love of St. Peter, this one has taken over America!

Terry Hamblin said...

I am surprised that no-one has picked up on my deliberate mistake!

Anonymous said...

In "Fish 'n' chip's" one of the apostrophe's is wrong. This is your deliberate mistake, isn't it? It should be 'In "Fish 'n' chip's" one of the apostrophes is wrong'. This correction comes from a Russian woman who studied English (British English) in Russia since she was 10 years old all the way to Masters Degree or the equivalent of it in the western system. I now live in the US.. you will not believe what Americans do to the poor old English language in their everyday life :)
As for 'Mary's pencil'.. It shows that the pencil is hers or it is a pencil of hers, which belongs to her (posessive pronoun). The English language used to have cases (I studied the history of English too) and pronouns, being the most archaic part of speech, kept those traces.
I would like to add one more example of mispronounciation. Here in the United States I noticed even some very educated people pronounce [eksetera] when they mean to say etc. Very annoying!
Thanks for your interesting post, Dr. Hamblin!