A monthly column in which we attempt, however futilely, to defend the English language against misuse and abuse
Department of Redundancies Dept.
• Associate Editor Krista Connor came across this gem in the Wilmington News Journal: “The predictions are ‘certainly far from a lock,’ Shafer said, stressing how unpredictable this storm has been to predict.”
• From a synopsis on Fandango for the film Slamma Jamma: “A recently released ex-inmate (Chris Staples) with a gift for basketball negotiates life on the outside . . .” Being released definitely qualifies him as an ex-inmate.
• “There will be less coaches at Indian River High School [because of budget cuts].” —WDEL’s Sean Greene. Repeat after me, everyone: Less for quantity, fewer for number (and plurals).
• Comedian Kathleen Madigan, quoted in TNJ: “And the fact that you said that makes me certain you have never drank a box of wine and took an Ambien.” Using drank where drunk is correct – common mistake. But took? Unforgivable. It’s taken. Am assuming her wit is superior to her grammar skills.
• From TNJ, courtesy of contributing writer Larry Nagengast: “Everything about downstate Delaware’s trout fishing experience is manmade, from the fish that are brought in every year to the ponds where they are released.” Never mind the danger of the “everything from to” construction, how does one make a fish?
• During the March snowstorm, DelDot spokespeople referred to “snow and ice laying on trees and power lines.” Lying (resting, reclining) is correct. To lay is to place or put.
Literally of the Month:
ESPN commentator describing Clemson football fans after the Tigers beat Alabama for the national championship: “They were literally living and dying with each play.”
Joe Huston, of West Marlborough Twp., Chester County, Pa., notes what he calls “a perennial irritant”:
“. . . to hear someone say that one is ‘chomping at the bit’ (to take a big bite out of) rather than properly ‘champing’ (to work nervously in anticipation).”
So noted, Joe.
Problems, we’ve got problems
English is chockablock with words and terms that are problematic, confusing, hard to understand (see “begs the question” from last month’s column). Cases in point:
Podium/lectern. Many people use the term podium when they mean lectern. A podium is a platform upon which a speaker stands while speaking. Think of it as a stage. It often is a stage. In fact, you can have a lectern on a podium on a stage.
Ironic (or not). Irony is a word and concept that’s often misunderstood. It’s a figure of speech that has several definitions, but for our purposes this will suffice: the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning. Also, irony is often (usually?) unintentional.
For instance, Facebook is rife with comments like this: “Your an idiot.” Now, that’s ironic. Another: the sign announcing, “The Procrastinators meeting has been postponed.”
A statement that conveys an unusual circumstance is not necessarily ironic. One online example: An employer provides free lunch for employees the day after Thanksgiving. Unusual, maybe. Not ironic.
The definition is a bit subjective, as evidenced by the fact that there is a website where you can vote on whether a statement is ironic: IsItIronic.com.
Until/till/’til. Until, as we all know, indicates when something will happen, begin, or end. Till means the same thing as until. It is not an abbreviation, and indeed precedes until in the history of our language. Do not use an apostrophe with it, and avoid ‘til, which top dictionaries and style guides consider an error.
And finally . . .
Sad news for the literate world: We lost a champion in March when Washington Post Copy Editor Bill Walsh, just 55, passed away. He was the ultimate language authority.
Need a speaker for your organization?
Contact me for a fun PowerPoint presentation on grammar: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Word of the Month:
Pronounced dik’ tät, it’s a noun meaning an order or decree imposed by someone in power without popular consent.
Quotation of the month
“Unnecessary words waste space and the reader’s time, and they make strong writing weak.”
—Gary Blake & Robert W. Bly,
The Elements of Technical Writing (1993)