A Storytelling Serial
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Have you ever found yourself in a group of grammar experts who enjoy sharing their pet language peeves? Me too.
I usually feel uncomfortable in those discussions, whether online or in person. The more I learn about word usage, the more I realize how many things I’ve been getting wrong most of my life. I used to think I had a good handle on my native tongue. Now I’m often embarrassed by my illiteracy.
My chagrin started when classmates in copyediting courses provided photos and links to hah-hah language and grammar errors they saw on their travels around the world or the web. I next noticed wrong-word humor frequently highlighted in Twitter posts, Facebook threads, LinkedIn discussions, and conference workshops. Sometimes the errors were just glaring typos (yes! funny!), but occasionally I didn’t get the joke until I paged through my dictionary (really? yikes!).
Then, with the misguided self-confidence of an educated and voracious reader, I posted what I thought was an informative response to a question asked in a copyediting e-mail discussion group. Almost immediately, a list mate sent me a private reply to inform I had misused a certain word, which could have led to misinterpretation—and, worse, irritation—for people who knew better (a group that obviously excluded me). Ouch. I sent back an e-note of apology, with a vow to reform my careless verbiage. I’ve kept my promise by eliminating the offending word from my vocabulary.
I finally decided to face my ignorance and bought a copy of the well-respected Garner’s Modern English Usage. It contains nearly one thousand pages of word choices that—because incorrect usage is widespread and language is always changing—tend to confuse. English is not and never has been static.
Possessing this invaluable resource does not grant me a pass to linguistic superiority. Even if I had time to read every entry, all that wisdom would never stick in my brain. But it’s a reference I enjoy using along with dictionaries and style guides. And when I stumble into a peevish quagmire, I appreciate Garner’s reassurance that either the grumblings are warranted—or they’re not. Thanks to this authority, I’ve even learned to accept hopefully with good grace. When it comes to language, sometimes what I believed eternally wrong is no longer at issue. Who knew? Bryan Garner, thankfully.
Having set the stage, I’ll now reveal six pet peeves that haunt me and that Garner supports as usages of concern. I’ll even admit the word I no longer use.
1. Myself is a reflexive or intensive pronoun, which means it refers back to (reflects) or
emphasizes (intensifies) a specific previous noun or pronoun. And without that preceding
noun or pronoun to reflect or intensify, it can’t substitute for “me” or “I.”
“I edit myself.” Fine. “I myself edit my writing.” Also fine.
“My editor and myself agreed to delete that word.” Peeve. And pretentious.
Right: “My editor and I agreed to delete that word.”
“Explain the changes to my editor and myself.” Just wrong.
Correct: “Explain the changes to my editor and me.”
I confess, though: misusing myself is one of two grammatical crimes for which I have
briefly joined the social-media mob of haters. I had heard a nonreflexive myself one time
too many on a local newscast, and I lost all sense of proper humility. I myself do regret
that temporary lapse into holier-than-thou judgment.
2. Ironic is one of my favorite words, but I betrayed it for years. I still have to stop and give
it conscious thought, so it no longer lovingly trips over my tongue as it once did. Life is
full of interesting and sometimes funny coincidences. Isn’t it ironic? Probably not. It’s
only ironic when an unforeseen twist produces a result quite different than the expected
outcome. And yes, the incongruity often seems humorous.
When you ordered fish tacos for lunch and later that afternoon learned it was National
Taco Day, you experienced a coincidence. Plain and simple.
When your fish tacos made you ill and you complained to the manager, who apologized
and gave you a coupon for a free meal, but the day you returned for your makeup lunch
you discovered the restaurant had just become part of the national chain Fish Tacos “R”
Us, that’s irony for you. And a good fish story.
3. Plethora is the word I no longer use because of my e-mail faux pas. I wrongly assumed it’s
an erudite, unpretentious substitute for lots. I now know it refers to excess. And there is
a difference between having plenty of something and having too much.
So what I considered a compliment (praising a horn of plenty) can be an insult (implying
an overdone collection). Because I don’t want to intentionally give offense, I intentionally
avoid plethora and use a lot. I’m also becoming fond of the way Australians use a whole
heap, which sounds delightful when said with an Australian accent. I’m working on that.
4. Hone is the other grammatical crime I have publicly decried. I offer no apology for that
arrogance. The rampant societal misuse of hone makes me cranky. After a week without
a single day in which I didn’t run across at least one blog, podcast, news anchor, or sales
pitch trying to hone in, I snapped. And my tweet of outrage, in which I quoted Garner’s
Modern American Usage, received a “like” from Bryan Garner himself, rendering my brief
rant totally worth the lapse of empathy.
In case you’re wondering, here’s why hone in brings out the intolerant Mr. Hyde in my
Dr. Jekyll of fallibility and flexibility: the correct phrase is home in. You can hone your
skills or your knives; but as does a pigeon or a missile, you home in on your target. Garner
cautions that although hone in is “widespread,” it’s still wrong. If you get confused, just
5. Prodigal comes as a shock. I grew up in a religious tradition that treasures the biblical
story of the Prodigal Son. In that tale, the son leaves, makes a mess of his life, and returns
home (homing in on a decent meal, which I myself don’t think means a plethora of fish
tacos). Since childhood, I’ve known the meaning of prodigal: someone who returns after
Merriam-Webster confirms that’s one definition of prodigal as a noun, so I’m not
completely lost. But it’s a secondary meaning. The primary usage for prodigal points to the
Prodigal Son having left home with a whole heap of money that he blew through quickly.
More than anything, a prodigal is a person who unwisely and freely makes assets
disappear. Yes, that fits the biblical story. It fits many stories. And that’s not the way I’ve
ever used the word. I’m still grappling with this startling new concept.
6. Fortuitous is fun to say, and I’ve said it with relish for many years. Usually incorrectly, it
turns out. Fortuitous does not mean fortunate. Instead, an event is fortuitous when it
occurs by chance, and that chance happening can be good—or very, very bad.
Bonus: As a verb, peeve is a back-formation: a linguistic creation produced from a longer
existing word. Back-formations (such as liaise from liaison) have been known to annoy and
irritate some language purists. The verb peeve derived from the original adjective peevish,
which describes a feeling of annoyance or irritation. No doubt, someone feels quite peevish
because I have verbed peeve; but because that back-formation dates to 1910, I’m going to
risk the wrath of the peeved. I’ll try to not make an annoying habit of it, though.
Do you have any pet language peeves? If so, pile on by leaving a comment below. I’d love to know I’m not the only one with a (mostly) secret feeling of annoyance at word disrespect—even when I’m the disrespecter.