The War on Words March 2017


A monthly column in which we attempt, however futilely, to defend the English language against misuse and abuse

Media Watch

• From a Wilmington News Journal story quoting Ashley Biden: “DCJ uses a whole-listic approach . . .” Hard to believe someone would misspell holistic in such a literal manner.
• From comes this report about a hiker who came across a bear in the woods: “The bear went on to attack the hiker, killing them.” Meaning the hiker and the bear were both killed?
• Dan Patrick, on his radio show, reported that Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger told him he had “taken less hits this year.” Dan apparently is one of the many who never use fewer. Once again: it’s less for amount and fewer for numbers or plurals.
• Similarly, from a list of Super Bowl bets in USA Today: “Tiebreaker: total amount of costume changes by Lady Gaga.” When referring to a plural, use number.
• A News Journal editorial stated that Joe Biden was not going to let his deep knowledge “whither on the vine.” That should be “wither.” With the h, it’s archaic and means “to what place,” e.g., “whither thou goest.”

Literallys of the Month

A reader caught this deluge of our favorite word during just 15 minutes of a CNN report on 9/11:
Rudy Giuliani: “I literally bolted out of the room.”
Laura Bush: “I literally called the President.”
Dick Cheney: “He literally propelled me out of the room.” (Referring to a Secret Service agent.)
Joe Lhota: “I literally put my head down on the floor.” (In the back seat of a police car.)
Joe Lhota: “We were literally looking at people jumping out of the window.”
Joe Lhota: “I had thoughts of a nuclear attack. I literally did.”
Debora Loewer: “He literally put his arm in front of me.” (Referring to President Bush on Air Force One.)
Rudy Washington: “I literally jogged to the site.”
Ann Compton: “Literally a small Dodge Caravan pulled up next to the plane.”

Department of Redundancies Dept.

Mike Breen, in The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Schmidt, 67, has become a regular fixture at spring training.” A fixture is “fixed in position.”
Roy Blunt, chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inauguration Ceremonies, at Donald Trump’s inauguration: “George Washington took the exact same oath.” Wait. It wasn’t the exact different oath?


Sen. Tom Carper’s response to my request regarding his vote on certain political appointments: “I appreciate you taking the time to share your concerns.” The possessive your should be used in this case since the reference is to the act—taking the time (a gerund) —not to me.
Anti-climatic, which I’ve seen in several places in the media, is not a word. It’s anti-climactic (note the second c).
Facebookers, please note: cannot is one word; it’s not can not.
And finally, we must address the bastardization of ask in such examples as “I have a big ask of you” and “March organizers have one ask of you . . .” This random, off-hand changing of our language is a growing, and lamentable, trend. In this case, a verb has been transformed into a noun. “I have a big favor to ask” and “March organizers have one request” are much more palatable—and correct.


Since that’s what this column is ultimately about, here’s an old Hollywood anecdote that demonstrates how language can be manipulated when it’s not sufficiently precise:
A journalist faced a tight deadline for his story on Cary Grant, and, needing to know Grant’s age, fired off this telegram to the movie legend’s agent: “How old Cary Grant?”
Unfortunately for the reporter, Grant intercepted the telegram. He thought a moment, then sent this response: “Old Cary Grant fine. How you?”

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Word of the Month

Pronounced i-FLOO-vee-uhm, it’s a noun meaning an unpleasant discharge; for example, fumes, vapors, or gases from waste or decaying matter.

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