As a student of language, there are certain things that just sort of get under my skin about language is used. When I become a teacher, my students may be made aware of this if for no other reason than avoiding angrily scribbled notes on their assignments. Here are a few:
- Do not say or write anything like the following:
To whom am I speaking to?
The preposition here (“to”) is entirely redundant. Generally, constructions like this are made in a misguided attempt to avoid ending sentences with a preposition. This practice should not be encouraged because it often destroys the flow of a good sentence by demanding adherence to an arbitrary rule that is a holdover from Latin. (There is a quotation often attributed to Winston Churchill that shows the absurdity of the rule: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”) The above sentence would be perfectly fine as “Who am I speaking to?” – we use this construction all the time, so it’s pretty standard usage – or, if you really strongly about the “no terminating preposition” rule, you can make it “To whom am I speaking?” But never both! Just don’t do this, please.
- It is very important to understand etymology in some cases to understand things like spelling. For instance, children are often taught that the difference between “desert” and “dessert” is the syllabic emphasis (the former on the first syllable, the latter on the second). This mnemonic is so common that it has perpetuated the misspelling of “desert,” meaning “that which is owed or merited.” We see this word commonly in our idiom “just deserts,” and you are very likely to see individuals who spell it “just desserts” based on the aforementioned mnemonic; I even had an English professor with a Ph.D who corrected my spelling when I used it properly in a paper about the concepts of justice and grace in The Merchant of Venice. (It doesn’t help that there is a commonly used pun on the phrase that actually does refers to the treats one consumes after dinner, which I’m sure many individuals have seen and connected to the spelling of the idiom itself.) Even though “desert” here has the emphasis on the second syllable, it is spelled like the arid region, and this is likely due to the fact that it is similar in meaning to our word “deserve.” This, in my opinion, would be a helpful addition to the mnemonic, if there are any teachers or parents out there reading this.
- Some other misused phrases of personal hatred:
- “acronysm” for “acronym” (another non-word a professor of mine used that could be corrected with an etymological lesson on the suffix “-nym”)
- “for all intensive purposes” for “for all intents and purposes”
- “elicit” for “illicit” (and vice-versa) – the former is a verb, the latter an adjective
- misuse of “a”/”an” – the rule is to follow the sound, not the initial letter. This is especially important for initials that are sounded out by the letter, since many consonants start with vowel sounds when spoken individually, e.g. “John just got an RBI!” [said “arr-bee-eye”], “I saw a TV on the side of the road yesterday” [“tee-vee”]. By following the sound, spoken use of the articles should be intuitive, but written use will be a little trickier.
- “begs the question” to mean “raise the question” – this is strictly a logical idiom
- attempting to add “-en” to irregularly conjugated past tense verbs, e.g. “tooken,” “broughten”
If you have any others, E-mail them to me at gcbroaddus712 AT gmail DOT com or leave me a comment below; I would love to hear what things get under other peoples’ skin so that I can have more things to tell my future students not to do.