Sixteen Linguistic Atrocities That Should Be Classified As Criminal

I’m  not exactly saying that the people guilty of these mother-tongue malfeasances should be sentenced to seven years on Devil’s island with caterpillars as the mainstay of their diets,  but maybe three days of public pillory with nothing to eat but kale and cauliflower puree would serve a higher justice.

What are these ugly, irrational trespasses into the no-longer gated community of decent English, the violations that are making me see my dentist about ordering me a teeth-grinding guard?


Let’s start locally, shall we?  When I was a wee lad, the simple coinage “Chicagoland” came into play, sufficing to define a region that included the city and the area roughly surrounding it. Then, in the last few years, I began to hear the designation “Chicagoland Area” spreading exponentially across the airwaves. (Why,occasionally my ears have even suffered the indignation of the abominable “The Greater Chicagoland Area’)   At one point, I reckoned, one hangover-dulled radio-station ad copywriter from out of town planted the linguistic weed   that today it has emerged as a ubiquitous contamination. I suppose trying to identify that progenitorial twerp is about as futile as finding the first guy to spread AIDS.  But I sure would relish unearthing the culprit, drag him by the ear to a map of the area, plonk a Magic Marker in his fist and defy him to  draw–in succession– the boundaries of (a) Chicagoland, (b) the Chicagoland Area,  (c) the Greater Chicagoland Area, and, for good measure, (d) the Chicago Area  After he finds himself at a loss in trying to draw any defined geographical distinction between the four, and his limp paw drops the Magic Marker in surrender, I will explain to him that he is the originator of a reckless redundancy gone viral.  And that  none of this would have started if his then boss would have recognized the wrong-headed vacuity and rendered his feckless copywriter–to use the Brits’ term for it–redundant.

A close cousin to redundancy is superfluidity.  The example that  most most clenches my jowls is one that I am all too often astonished to read in the text of otherwise accomplished writers, and to hear  issuing from the larynxes of otherwise articulate speakers.  I refer to the superfluous “think to myself.”  Who else, I  ask the violators, could you possibly be thinking to but yourself?  In prospecting for the derivation of “think to myself,” the only nugget I could dig up  is that  “say to myself” somehow. somewhere had decayed into “think to myself.”   A plea to one and all: Just plain “think” does the job. Similarly, the widely prevalent  “their own self interest” needs to  be jettisoned in favor of the more concise “their self-interest.” After all, it is impossible to serve anybody’s self-interest  but one’s own. In all cases of such excesses, to get to the meat of meaning, it is advisable to trim the fat.

Next, I’d like to sound a verbal spanking to two  laconic personality types who are doomed to repeat a single mistake each–until the day they depart the planet.  The first:  The person who answers the phone to take  pizza delivery orders. Over and over, she chants, “Within the hour.” When I explain to her that the time 6:53 pm and she has just assured me that the pizza will be in my hands at 7 pm, she is struck dumb.  When I plod on to explain to her that she should correctly put it, “Within an hour.” I then feel the inevitable soundless dismissal; but I am not deterred. “Look,” I contend, “As long as you are doing this every day of your working life, probably two dozen times a day, isn’t it just as easy to utter the word “an” instead of “the,” especially in the interests of those famished souls who are on friendly terms with correct usage,  and who call you at, say, 6:24 pm and fully expect to be chomping on their pizzas  just after 7 pm when you slur though your Juicy Fruit gum–what to them is unambiguous–“With the hour?”  Dullard number two is the person in the physician’s waiting room who , through injunctive grin, orders you to “Lay down.” With as much patience as I can gather, I explain that the correct usage is “Lie down,” going so far as an explication of the reason for the rule. And, naturally, I add, “As long as you’re doing this every day of your working life, several times  a day, isn’t it just as easy to use the correct “lie” rather than the incorrect “lay.” I’m rewarded with the benign smirk, the kind usually aimed at the insane. And so, these two sleepyheads, the indifferent phone-order taker and the patronizingly officious doctor’s assistant–both anesthetized by their assembly-line mentalities–continue their  blithe, blind, eternal  repetitions.

Here in the 21st century, the misuse of quotation marks has swelled to epidemic magnitude. For the most part,  the errant quotation marks are being used as a written jab-in-the-ribs just in case the reader might not realize that the writer was kidding, joking or otherwise trying to be  coyly funny. Think, though. Has even one of  of literary history’s eminent humorists–from  Twain to Wilde to Shaw to Mencken to Allen to Dave Barry–ever resorted to  quotation marks in their discursive outputs—unless they were actually quoting words somebody else had written or uttered. .  So please refrain from delinquent uses of quotation marks ; they stand perpetually as patronizing insults to the readers’ powers of cognizance, to say nothing of their  senses of humor. And you can quote me on that.

Opposites detract.  This aphorism turned inside out applies to words often mistakenly used to express the reverse of their intended meaning. How often have you heard the word peruse to mean to lightly scan a text, when it actually means to read something in a thorough and careful manner? Ditto hoi polloi, commonly thought to mean the privileged denizens of society’s upper crust, when in fact it means the antithesis, i.e. the society’s lower orders.   Origins of this misunderstanding? Probably emanated from those muddled minds who  confused hoi polloi with hoity toity, which  is close to the opposite of hoi polloi.

Then there are the words that are marginally acceptable, but shouldn’t be. The word normalcy  was fumbled into the lexicon by Warren Harding, the first in a cavalcade of unlettered Republican presidents. At the time Harding pronounced his historic slogan “A Return to Normalcy” the word normalcy had all but disappeared into antiquity, in favor of the word normality.  But since the leader of the free world had orated it, it was instantly folded into the file of acceptable language; acceptable, that is, save for  America’s educated classes, who couldn’t stop sniggering. Then there is the word disinterested, now taken by far too many to mean uninterested.  Somehow, disinterested–meaning impartial– lost its way and took a bumpy road to a second meaning: uninterested.  Trouble is, a large percentage of our population is  heedless of the first meaning, thus often rendering  disinterested as ambiguous in certain contexts.  Example:  “As far as the political situation is concerned, I’m disinterested.”  In this context does disinterested mean unbiased or does sit mean apathetic? In the interests of clarity, better to use “impartial” or “indifferent”  depending on which one you intend to convey.Barring that brand of clarity –thanks to the language manglers of history–we’ll never know for sure unless we ask. Such a fix has made us come, it seems,  to a pretty pass (which, as far as I can tell, means un-pretty pass).

I stopped counting the times my ears were assaulted by plurals distorted into singulars. Countlessly, I have heard  public figures who are presumed to know better say “media is,” or ” that criteria ,” or “data tells us.”  Now consider how likely it is that the rest of us  unsuspecting non-public-figures–aping TV personalities as we are wont to do–engage in the same solecisms.  I suspect that number is more than a plurality.

Now let’s examine the new catch-phrase that seems to have invaded the American sports universe through the back door.  Coachspeak seems to reiterate it without relief. “Were going to improve our defense going forward,” growls coach Biff Blowhard.  The contagion of Going Forward is now beginning to spread into the general population.  Not that there’s anything wrong with Going Forward per se.  It’s just that it’s most frequently employed to accompany future-tense declarations.  As we all should know, when speaking in the future tense, there exists but one direction, that being Forward.  And so our beloved language slogs on in its seemingly inexorable direction:  Backwards.

To finish off my massive gripe orgy, I’ve chosen to pick on the a couple of words that get under the skins of most thinking Americans.  I reference first, the word couplewhen what is meant is few or several. Couple mean two and only two. After all, you wouldn’t think of describing a “married few”, unless you found yourself in Saudi Arabia. Let’s start a movement, shall we?  Next time, someone says to you “Wait. I’ll just be  just a couple of minutes,”  leave after two minutes and send the offender a text that includes the definition of the word couple. Finally, there’s the old bugbear Literally, commonly a bedfellow of figurative constructions or idioms.  I need not point out the inherent contradiction here, only that what is usually meant is the word virtually.

So there you have then, the finalists in my Sour Sixteen tourney.  To ignore them would be, well, criminal.








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