Our Flabby Language I

I’ve come to the conclusion that too many of my younger fellow citizens are reaching adulthood without benefit of the Sisters of Holy Cross—and I fear for their children, and their children’s children.

Noun by tortured verb, we are building our own rhetorical Tower of Babel. Forget Sam Clemens’ aspiration for “the right word in the right place.” At this rate I’d settle for occasionally close.

Following is a compendium of popular conundra expressed orally and in print that rankle, and some helpful suggestions for finding the right path. (Fear not; this being a kinder, gentler age, at no time will rulers and knuckles be involved. There may be penance at the end, however.)

  • 9/11/24/7/365/411. This ordinal coding may be de rigeur for text messaging and chat room postings—along with all those dumb-ass anagrams (e.g., BTW; IMHO; LOL; ROTF)—but otherwise they’re just annoying. (Hint: Suppose, 63 years later, “Pearl Harbor” had been dubbed “12/7.”) I’d like to buy a short, descriptive phrase, Vanna.
  • Age-appropriate. Where did “signage” come from? Or “shirtage”—or her even uglier stepsister, “shirting?”
  • Air it out! With the elimination of consistent fares; full meals; seating for nonscoliacs; and other perquisites, our sky commanders do their level best to make things right by slathering on the oxymorons: “final destination;” “full and complete stop;” “last and final call;” and “terminating flight.” My personal favorite: “preboarding,” in reference to areas and passengers. Is it possible to distinguish thus any part of the waiting area—or any passenger, for that matter? Aren’t we all “preboarders” until we actually troop into the damned thing?
  • Alright. No such word.
  • Anymore. Used only to mean “any longer:” or “from now on;” for adjectival purposes it’s bifurcated. “I’ll not be needing any more flapjacks anymore; I’m too heavy already.” Ditto “anyway/any way;” former is figure of speech, latter refers to direction or method. “Anyway—is there any way I can get you to stop saying that?”
  • “Amount/Number.” That which is measured by unit is numbered; that which is measured by volume is—er—amounted. Individuals collected into people are a “number;” folks don’t come in “amounts.” (“I’d like six cubic yards of people, please.”) Speaking of which, “amount” was misused at least twice in Something’s Gotta Give; didn’t serve Diane Keaton at all well.
  • And/or. Make a decision, Goddamn it!
  • Apostrophilia. Repeat after me: Merely plural, no apostrophe. If you’re abbreviating the verb “is,” use one. “He'[i]s on his way.” And, please—if you’re going to buy one of those bucolic slabs of wood to tastefully label your home, trailer, or vacation property and insist on the apostrophe, spend a little more and add “Hideaway,” House,” or “Place” to “The Hernando’s”—so it’s clear that you own the entire property, not just the sign, or the tree or post to which the damned thing is attached. Or both. Or whatever. Thank you.

  • Awesome. Clubbed to death by literati and ignoranti alike. (The most positive association I have is “Valley girl.” Or maybe Chris Farley’s adolescent celebrity interviewer, born with only one adjective: “Do you remember that time you…?” [Answer] “Man—that was awwwwwsum!”) Reminder: the root word (assuming for the moment that “awesome” is itself legitimate) is “awe,” which also can convey a negative connotation, as in “awful.” I heard on the radio a Peace Corps volunteer who was in an African country when President Kennedy was assassinated. When the news reached them, he asked an English-speaking native what his reaction was. “Wonderful,” was the reply—as in that which overwhelms the senses and the intellect. Do you see what I mean about devaluing, if not debasing, our own intricate and incredible tongue? Buy a thesaurus and a dictionary.
  • Bad/Badly. The first is the antonym of “good.” (For usage purposes, would you say “I feel goodly?”) The second is interchangeable with “poorly.” “I feel bad that I played badminton so badly.” Hint: If you feel badly, what you mean is that you’re either insensitive or not very dextrous. You’re not, really, are you? Well, okay, then; I didn’t think so.
  • Basically. Another adverb reduced to conversational spackle—filling those holes that occur when the velocity of verbal delivery outpaces mental manufacture. We regret to inform you that henceforth the use of the word “basically” will be limited to not more than once per public utterance, regardless of length. We apologize in advance for any inconvenience and thank you for your cooperation. If confronted, feel free to utter “at bottom;” “bottom-line (colloquial only);” briefly;” “fundamentally;” “in essence;” “in brief,” “in sum;” “in summary; “long story short;” or “when” and your choice of “all’s said and done,” “push comes to shove,” or “you get right down to it.” Never say we didn’t try to help.
  • Between/Among. Former: two, maximum. Latter: three or more.
  • Bewitched, Bothered, and Besotted. I read a newspaper feature recently wherein a pupil of the Parelli method of horse training was “besotted” with it. Twice. In the same piece. Near as I remember, this word means “drunk.” (I used to raise horses and I never entertained the idea of schooling them loaded—not even on a dare.) What she meant was “captivated;” “infatuated;” “mesmerized;” “seduced;” “taken;” possibly even “intoxicated by”—but besotted? “I sloppy drunk you, Man!”
  • Can/May. When I asked permission “Can I…?” my sainted Mother would say, “I don’t know; can you?” “May” is used to seek permission; “can” denotes ability. “Officer, may I cross the street now?” “Can I cross the street by myself, Mr. Boy Scout? You bet your friggin’ merit badges I can, Boyo!”
  • Care-less. “I could care less.” What you really mean is, “I couldn’t care less.” If otherwise, may we suggest “I am ambivalent” or the more familiar “I don’t give a [barnyard epithet]?” (For those of you who just started with the head-scratching—meaning you’re at least as old as I—here’s the mnemonic device to unlock the ol’ memory vault: “Li’l Anthony and the Chicago Seven.”)
  • Choice? I have a bone to pick with those who say, “You have two choices,” when they don’t really mean it. What they mean is “You have a choice, between two things.” “Choice” is the act or result, what you have and do, between or among “alternatives” or “options.” Think: three wishes; two possibilities; one choice. (“Preselected?” Let’s not choose that bag o’ maggots, okay?)

Next Week: Criteria through Famously.

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  1. Our Flabby Language VII » E.G. Fabricant | E.G. Fabricant

    […] shade over six years ago, I posted a six-part series on grammar and usage felonies—at least from the point of view of someone who learned such things […]

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