A collection of random observations about the use and misuse of our mother tongue...
Well, 'huh?' or 'say what?' or even 'I beg your pardon?' would have worked just as well for a title. I've always liked the lilty 'Eh?' one hears in parts of Canada, so when I was seeking a title for these observations, that's the one that fit best.
This is about words and phrases that bring me to a screeching halt when I read a story, collected over the years from my own reading and from other readers.
I'm still collecting, so if you've got a favorite (or UN-favorite) phrase or word usage or misspelling to share, send it to me at Eh?. Send me the ones that stop you cold, take you out of the story, make you wonder what the dickens the writer was trying to say. Maybe we'll all learn from one another.
A particular problem occurs with homophones. Those are two or more words pronounced alike but different in meaning or spelling-like hear and here, or there and their and they're. How many of you, when you see them used incorrectly, cringe, scream silently, or put the book down?
Here are some that make me crazy:
Peek/peak/pique. Oh, my, talk about totally changing the meaning of a sentence by using the wrong one. "Her eye peaked from tangle strands of black hair." "His interest was peeked." The mountain pique was snow-covered." What wonderful, awful images. A pointy eye stabbing through hair, a guy's interest being caught with its pants down, and snow on a mountain jumping around like a drop of water on a hot skillet.
Hear, hear/here, here. What's the difference? "Here, here" is a scold; "Hear, Hear" is a cheer.
"Here, here!" the teacher said. "Silence, I say! We will have silence in the classroom!"
"Hear, hear," Lancelot cried, at the conclusion of the king's speech. "Way to go, Artie!"
Why does it matter? Well, I don't know about you, but I hear voices in my head. How a word is used, how it is spelled, changes the tone, the inflection, the pitch of those voices. So when I see "Here, here!" I hear anger, irritation, censure, but never, never praise, encouragement or admiration.
What I hear in my head can make a lot of difference to how I perceive a character, a scene, and even an entire story. It can determine whether I'll toss the book aside forever, or refuse to put it down until the last page. Whether I'll say to the author, "Here, here! You could have done better than this." Or "Hear, hear! Write more books!"
They lay on the grassy slope, side by side, he prone, she supine. He had hopes. She had expectations.
His hand tightened on hers. "Look at the stars," he said. "They shine so brightly, just like my love for you."
"Man, you are weird," she told him. "If I were lying on my belly like you are, all I'd see was dirt."
The moral? Make sure you know what the word means before you use it.
I love the English language! There's probably not another so likely to confuse the speaker, the writer, the reader. English is just full of words that change meanings without notice, letter combinations that can be pronounced a half-dozen different ways, and sneaky little verbs with forms determined to make the most erudite among us feel like an unlettered booby.
Some of the sneakiest are those two little three-letter words, 'sit' and 'lie.' They catch me every time, and probably you, too.
It's this way, see: 'sit' and 'lie' are intransitive verbs and 'set' and 'lay' are transitive verbs. Simple, right?
Yeah, right! Who remembers what an intransitive verb is, anyhow? Who cares?
Okay, then. Today I lie on the floor but yesterday I lay there, and if I said I'd be lying there tomorrow, I'd probably be lying, unless I was also planning to be laying tile.
On the other hand, I set my glasses on the coffee table yesterday, set them there today, and will set them there tomorrow, but I sit on the sofa now, whereas yesterday I sat and tomorrow I will be sitting, while the grout in the tile sets up.
So set all that in your memory, which is the proper lay for it.
I also collect wandering body parts (see V, below). When you find a particularly delectable one, send it to me. Tell me about words or phrases that jump off the pages at you and make you wonder why you're reading that book. Like these:
Her eyes flew to the doorway where he stood.
His body spoke his desire.
"My darling," her voice cried, "How perfectly ridiculous you look, just one big, cavernous mouth on legs."
"No more than you, sweetie," he barked, "with your empty eye sockets gaping." His eyes blazed.
The spark ignited her filmy dress and they both disappeared in an eruption of fire and passion.
Which is no more than they deserve for misusing imagery like that....
I'm less hungry than when I sat down, because there are fewer chocolates in the box. Of course, if I ate less chocolate, I'd have fewer pounds to lose. So I'd weigh less and fewer of my clothes would be too tight. Which means (oh, goody!) I'd have to buy fewer new clothes and would spend less money.
I think this all means that fewer chocolates mean less chocolate, and so fewer must refer to the number of the delicious, tempting little confections in the box, and less must be the amount of that dark, rich, ambrosia that I can eat today.
When I get this all figured out, I'll have fewer mistakes in my writing and my editor will have less to do.
My brother called me the other night.
"Whatever happened to Who?" he said.
"Who's on first," I replied, waiting for the punchline.
"No, no, that's not what I meant." He was patently outraged. "I'm serious. The pronoun who is disappearing from our vocabulary. I'm extremely concerned."
"Disappearing? Surely you exaggerate. Why just the other day I encountered it... Or was that whom?"
"Let me illustrate."
I heard the crisp rustle of newsprint.
"'Larson admitted he was the man that...' Here's another: 'Jones is the mother of the girl that...' Or this one: 'The police found the intruder that...'"
I saw what he meant. Were he and I the only ones left that... ahem... who used the indeterminate objective personal pronoun?
Or are there others out there who still care about the English language? Lonely, isolated users of correct grammar who still remember that who is personal and that isn't?
Besides, 'That's on first,' just doesn't work for me.
Somebody asked me about titles and honorifics. When is a mister a Mister? How about the preacher? Is he reverent, reverend or the Reverend? Is Ms. short for missus, or just a fancy way of spelling miz?
I wish I had an easy answer. Since I don't I'll eschew levity and give you some straight dope from the sources I have (complete references provided on request).
Titles are capitalized when used with a name, but not otherwise (Captain Smith is the captain of...). When addressing someone by a title, it's capitalized (But Judge, I'm innocent...) but when you're simply talking about her, it's not (The judge gave me thirty days...). When you're dealing with royalty, you capitalize practically everything (Her Highness, Your Grace, Her Eminence), but not when dealing with mere nobility (my lord, madam) unless you're talking to or about someone (Lord Toplofty, Madam Bleunez). Just remember, there are dukes who are royal and dukes who are only noble.
As for the preacher, I can't tell you how reverent he is. When you talk about him he is Reverend Jones (or the Reverend Mr. Jones), but when you talk to him he's just plain Mister, or Father, or Preacher.
Oh, yeah, the abbreviation for missus is Mrs., but Ms. is a "...title affixed to a woman's name without distinction of married or unmarried status." And MS (or ms) is what a diligent writer should be working on instead of reading this.
Just the other day a new one came along, new to me anyway. When do you capitalize branches of the military? Well, I have it on unimpeachable authority (once a Marine, always a Marine) that a Marine is always initially uppercase. Just ask any Marine. It's only when referring to something related to the sea that you can use the lower case m. so if Marines are always thus honored, shouldn't also the members of the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the Coast Guard be given the same respect, no matter what the grammar and spelling authorities say?
Those darned vowels! They're so slippery!
Further/farther, accept/except, rain/rein/reign, drier/dryer, and die/dye.
Well, those are some of the wandering vowels that give me fits, anyhow. I'm sure you can think of others. We ought to make a list, and then burn them in effigy. Or in the fireplace, at least.
Further is, to a greater extent, more qualitative than farther, which is a much more distant word. Now if you accept that, you take my word, except when you won't, which is when you take exception to everything I say.
This is Oregon, so if you were standing in the rain, you'd get wet, unless you were a queen, in which case you might, as a condition of your reign, rein in the clouds and make them stop wetting your horse's reins. In which case you'd be drier, and wouldn't have to put your clothes in the dryer.
In closing, here's a tidbit from the Department of Useless Facts: Some people used to die from dye, because some of the pigments were toxic. Or maybe it's not so useless. There's a story in there, somewhere...
One thing that nauseates me is incorrect word usage in the books I read. When a character smells something nauseous, it really turns my stomach.
Well, perchance I exaggerate. What I really do is wince. And I seem do it often. Far too often.
When did we forget that to nauseate is a verb meaning to make ill? It's been a while, because I started wincing back when I was in college. I remember looking up the two words, wondering if I'd confused their places in the language.
Nope. The good sisters at St. Theresa's Academy had been correct. Nauseate is the verb, while nauseous is an adjective.
Now I know that the English language is a slippery, treacherous thing, and some words like to slide around among the parts of speech, doing their utmost to bewilder us. I'll also admit that how we speak is not necessarily how we should write.
How we write. There's the point. We are writers. Our tools are words, and the more adeptly we wield them, the better we communicate our ideas. So let's be careful how we nauseate our readers. Or they'll think us nauseous.
Do you remember Tom Swift? He started out in the pulps, way back in 1910. Then in the Fifties, Tom Swift Jr. came along. He was followed by two more generations, right up into the Nineties. I never read anything but the TS Jr. books, but they made an indelible impression on me.
They weren't deathless prose, or gripping stories, although some were pretty exciting, if you like futuristic shoot-em-ups.
What I remember about the series is the Tom Swiftlies.
"Hurry," said Betty swiftly.
"Is it dinnertime?" said Tom hungrily.
"No, it's too late," Betty said tardily.
Those are Tom Swiftlies. Get the picture?
They tell. They tell until you either chuckle laughingly every time Tom speaks, or you off-handedly toss the book aside, determinedly swearing never to read another.
One day my brother and I spent all afternoon adding Tom Swiftlies to every sentence we spoke. It was a linguistic challenge, and perhaps it made me overly sensitive to them. They tend to be prominently obvious when I encounter them in books, I tell you positively.
Are there words that make you flinch? Words that, when you hear them, hit your ear like the screech of fingernails on a blackboard? Or make you wish that we had language police like France does, to keep the language pure and unsullied?
There are, for me. Not always the same ones, because commonly used words, like skirt lengths and seasons, are subject to change.
A year or three ago the word that made me want to scream every time I heard it was 'arguably.' Now it's a perfectly good word, the adverb form of 'arguable', meaning 'subject to debate, dispute, or question'. Trust me, I've checked a bunch of dictionaries, including OED, the final authority, which tells us its meaning hasn't changed since 1611.
So why did I hear on my favorite jazz station that So-and-so is arguably the best musician of his class? Was there an off-mike battle about whether his music was worth playing?
Why is Publishers Weekly quoted on the cover of a book by one of my favorite authors as saying that she is 'arguably today's most skillful writer of intelligent historical romance'? Is there a cadre of readers out there who would protest the statement?
Said author, one we know and love, is an intelligent woman, and I'll bet she flinched, too--not so much at the implication that a lot of people don't believe she's the best, but at the misuse of the language she is inarguably skilled at using.
An editor friend of mine recently asked me to address one of her pet peeves: the correct use of onto instead of on to and into instead of in to (and if you didn't stumble over that sentence, I congratulate you).
Piece of cake, I thought, and pulled out my dictionary. A while later I went to my favorite grammar webpage and looked there. I strongly suggest you do the same, for a far better explanation than I can put in my small space.
Why? Because simple as the question sounds, the answer isn't. If you want to get technical, it's because they are, like so many short English words, slippery, tricky little things. My desk dictionary devotes a good-sized paragraph each to into and onto. The Oxford English Dictionary devotes more than twelve pages to those four words, which has to say something about how sneaky they are.
Some pundits suggest avoiding the use of into and onto entirely, substituting in to and on to. There is, however some danger is doing so. Consider "He went onto [insert a word that can be either noun or verb, one like deck or land] or The hostess took everyone in to [ditto].
Most of you are like probably too young to remember "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should." Well, I never thought they did, but that's like neither here nor there. What's interesting about that little phrase is that it like caused a very large tempest among English purists.
Like, how? Well, like, 'like' was the incorrect word for that particular usage. It should have been like, 'as if.'
So like who cares?
Only we purists...
The sneakiest thing in the English language is the apostrophe. Recently, I've seen signs that said, "Its' Fall," "Bring Your's in Today," and Kelleys' Tavern."
Everywhere you go, you can see these little critters creeping into otherwise intelligible prose and messing it up. I think they are sentient creatures, invaders from an alternate dimension, one where English is a language with rules that always work, spelling that always makes sense, and no tricky little marks that only serve to confuse.
Of course, then we'd not have so many laughs. Consider that delightful little book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Would it ever have made it to the best seller list--and stayed there for weeks and weeks--if apostrophes weren't the stuff of hilarity?
Hilarity, however, is a punctuational trap and must be fought by all whose heart's are true and who's intentions are pure. Take up the apostrophical banner. Fight its', abjure their's and shun ladie's.
Lovers' of clarity, unite! Up the apostrophe!