Judging from the number of clicks at different times, my most popular posts are the language rants. So let’s play to the gallery a little, for lack of a better idea right now. There are lots of other people writing about important things much better than I. Check my Recent News Links page for that.
In case you’re new here, this is a series. Here are the previous entries:
Beginning with the most obvious errors:
“I don’t have a clue what this word means, but I’ll use it anyway, and even make up a nonexistent word that sorta sounds like it.”
“on tenderhooks” or “on tinderhooks”
I actually heard a paid talking head on tv say “…they were waiting on tinderhooks…” and
get away with it recently. Lets’ start at the beginning.
“Tenterhooks” were part of the apparatus for stretching out cloth to dry after being fulled. (“Tent” is related to several old words for “pull” or “stretch”, part of what you do when you pitch a tent, right?)
To my knowledge, there is no such thing as a “tinderhook” or “tenderhook”, but that doesn’t keep people from pretending.
Textile production isn’t very close to most people’s experience these days, and that’s a good thing,
“I’m pretending I know how to pronounce this, without ever bothering to look it up.”
“layzay fair” or (shudder) “lahzay fair”
(1) The original phrase includes sounds that don’t exist in your own language, so you just try to approximate it with your own language’s sounds. This would apply to using an American “r” rather than a French “r” in “faire“.
(2) You don’t know how the original phrase is pronounced, so you make a guess according to the spelling conventions of your own language. Again, “faire” is quite well approximated in English by pronouncing it like our own word “fair”.
Neither of these circumstances applies to the way many people choose to pronounce “laissez“. Clearly, they know that “ez” on the end of the word is sorta like “ay”, but their brains turn to mush at the sight of “ai” and the double “s”.
This is the age of Google, folks. Just search for “laissez pronounce”, and the computer will say it for you. Sheesh.
(Notice that there are individual differences among Frenchmen in whether “ai” is pronounced more like “eh” or more like “ay”.)
While we’re at it, try “coup de grâce“ too. Hint: it doesn’t mean “stroke of greasy”, though I’ve heard some people consistently say it like “coup de gras“.
“I’ll do anything to avoid keeping it short and simple”
“in terms of”
Obama at a fundraiser:
“…this administration has done more in terms of the security of the state of Israel than any previous administration.”
Some people try very hard not to use short, simple, common words that everyone understands. “About”, “for”, and “regarding” are among them, as I observed earlier with “as far as”. At the time, I had forgotten about this use of “in terms of”, but heard it recently. Let’s spell it out for the noobs.
An engineer is likely to explain a bridge in terms of engineering, using the jargon of that specialty. An artist might explain it in terms of aesthetics, using different jargon. That’s what “in terms of” means. They are both talking about the bridge, regarding the bridge,
and might be saying something for the bridge. “In terms of” is not interchangeable with any of these three words. It means something different.
“at this point in time”
If “now” doesn’t quite say what you want, there are plenty of time expressions to choose from: “right now”, “for the time being”, “today”, “for the next few minutes (days,weeks, etc.)”, “as long as (something else goes on)”…
They all say something a little or a lot different from “now”. “At this point” makes your time expression analogous with something spatial. That can be useful, if you want to invoke an image of a “progression” of some kind, but the the analogy is ruined by
over-explanation if you add “in time”.
SAYING WITHOUT SAYING
“not that much”
“Just sayin'” is one of our more useless phrases, the way it circulates these days, but there is something worse than saying: pretending to say without saying. “Not much” doesn’t say much, but it doesn’t pretend to say much. “Not that much”, on the other hand, pretends to specify something. If the context makes it clear what is specified, fine. Without any such context, it simply prompts the question:
SOUNDS FUNNY, BUT REALLY HARD TO SAY WHY
A phrase I never heard in my youth, which seems to be gaining users, but adds nothing to our vocabulary:
“serves to reason”
It can be easily replaced with shorter things like “follows” or “makes sense”. We make up different phrases for the same thing when we want to put just the slightest difference of
meaning on it. So what is the slight difference of meaning conveyed by “serves to reason”? It seems to treat Reason as something tangible, even animate, as illustrated above. An authority of some kind. So does the older phrase “stands to reason”. The latter is a very old use of “stand to” to mean “obey”. Yes, it’s obsolete and should be replaced, but why “serves to”? WHAT is being served to reason? Food and drink?
One of my high school English teachers did this, and I never forgot it. I spent far too much time trying to correct teachers, and had to let this one pass. Many people seem to have picked it up from Hemingway’s apocryphal misquote of Fitzgerald: “The rich are different than you and me.”
“Than” is a word I really like. It’s used in some of our best phrases like “colder than a banker’s heart” or “more useless than a congressman”. Let’s not ruin it, ok?
The difference is very clear. Each of these four phrases has served Margaritas, anchovy pizza, and crème brûlée to Reason, and She has smiled upon them. “Different than”, on the other hand, thinks he’s really an actor, and doesn’t take the serving job seriously. That’s what we’d say in LA, anyway.
TRYING TO BE LOFTY, WITTY, OR WHAT?
“we the people”
Go back to the most basic elementary school grammar. “We” is for subjects, “us” is for direct objects and objects of prepositions. So why do I hear things like “This is an outrage to we the people!”? Okay, you’re referring to the Preamble in some kind of political discourse. Fine. Put it in quotes.
Maybe, without the quotes, you think the ungrammatical nature of it lends a little
dissonance that one might think is expressive or playful, but there’s a thing about playful dissonance: It only works the first time. The Lord Chancellor in Iolanthe can say:
One for him and one for he,
and one for you and one for ye,
and one for thou and one for thee…
..and that’s it. That’s the joke. It’s over. Nothing to warrant the frequency with which I’ve been seeing this “we the people” thing.
In writing, you can put “We the People…” in quotes, and it works grammatically, but quoting such familiar things gets old fast even when there’s no grammatical dissonance.