A monthly column in which we attempt, however futilely, to defend the English language against misuse and abuse
The Continental, a dive bar in New York City’s East Village, has banned the word literally, which, as readers of this column know, is the most misused word in the English language. Anyone uttering the offending word is given five minutes to finish his or her drink before being shown the door.
• “Philadelphia, established in 1682, is a city scattered with hundreds of historical markers”—Samantha Melamed, Philadelphia Inquirer. Scattered means “to occur or be found at intervals,” so it doesn’t work here. The markers are scattered, not the city.
• “Mitchell sunk into trouble on June 17, 1972” —Ray Locker, in a book review in USA Today. We don’t care that Merriam-Webster changed the rule (See February War on Words), the past tense of sink is sank. Sunk may be acceptable in conversation, but a literate writer such as Locker should never give in to this hinge-heeled revisionism.
• Four readers, led by Luann Haney, whose subject line was “Send the NJ to the rear of the class,” emailed me about this one from the Wilmington News Journal: “Delaware’s top five toll violators currently owe nearly $407,000 in unpaid tolls and fines, with the top violator in the rears for $174,384.25.” The term, of course, is “in arrears.” Also, the term is not really appropriate in this context, since it refers to those already making payments on a debt. Sounds like these people haven’t made any payments.
• Reader Bruce Hudson spied this in Maureen Dowd’s column in The New York Times: “We don’t want a president who believes that vile behavior is justified by a Vesuvial stock market.” Says Bruce: “I think the correct adjective is Vesuvian, which means ‘marked by sudden or violent outbursts.’”
• From Reader’s Digest, courtesy of Judy Tribbey, a reader in Morton Grove, Ill.: “A kid with autism named Sam is a barista at Starbucks.” Says Judy: “I guess the autism’s name is Sam.”
Department of Redundancies Dept.
• Jeff Neiburg, in the News Journal: “McKee and his two twin sons . . .”
• After the Eagles’ victory in the Super Bowl, we heard innumerable Philadelphia fans say they had waited for it their “whole entire life.” One of our least favorite phrases.
A few words that are different in meaning but similar in spelling, and are therefore sometimes confused:
• Pour means to flow continuously. Pore as noun is a tiny hole in a surface. As a verb, it means to be absorbed in something, or reading something intently, and must be followed by over or through.
• Load means a quantity that can be carried at one time or, by extension, a burden. Lode means a deposit of ore, as well as the figurative sense of a rich source or supply.
• Gamut refers to the entire range or scope of something. Gambit is a risky opening action or comment designed to put the originator at an advantage.
Here and There
• The Winter Olympics reminded us that an axel (a jump during which a skater does two-and-a-half turns) is far different from the axle on a car.
• Rand Paul, Republican Senator from Kentucky, recently tweeted this: “The National Science Foundation helped fund a study to figure out whether Neil Armstrong used the preposition ‘a’ on the moon.” Uh, Senator, a is an article. And this guy graduated from medical school.
• Why do some people say “all of the sudden” instead of the standard “all of a sudden”? Just askin’.
Close, but no cigar
• A reader sends this online post: “You are asking me a question so far outside of my wheelhouse, that I must demure.” The intended word is demur, meaning to show reluctance. Demure, applied to women only, means reserved, modest or shy. And there’s no need for a comma.
• Remember: the t in often is silent.
• And then there’s “wherefore,” as in “wherefore art thou Romeo?” The common misconception is that wherefore means where, when it actually means why. So that famous line from Romeo and Juliet means “why are you Romeo”—i.e., why did you have to be a Montague? It was asked by Juliet, who was a Capulet. Her family was feuding with his.
Word of the Month:
Pronounced yoo-ZHOOR-ee-uhs, it’s an adjective meaning charging excessive rates, especially for lending money. Usury is the noun.
dary meaning in clothing and fashion: a strip of whalebone, wood, steel, etc., inserted into the front of a corset to stiffen it. Sometimes, the corset itself.
Follow me on Twitter: @thewaronwords
Need a speaker for your organization? Contact me for a fun PowerPoint presentation on grammar: email@example.com.
Seen a good (bad) one lately?
Send your candidates to firstname.lastname@example.org