Grammar police

July 29, 2010 • 12:26 pm

Two solecisms have recently appeared on this site, one of them in the Hitchens interview highlighted today:

“Just desserts”: This is wrong.  The phrase does not refer to getting a sweet reward.  The correct phrase is just deserts, meaning “something that is deserved” or, as the OED says, “the becoming worthy of recompense, i.e., of reward or punishment, according to the good or ill of character of conduct.”

“Tow the line”:  Oy gewalt! I see this all the time, and it’s dead wrong. The phrase is not meant to evoke tugging on a rope.  The correct usage is toe the line, and refers to keeping your toes up against a mark but not going over it, as in the start of a race.

Feel free to contribute those mistakes that most irk you, making sure that—for our mutual edification—you give the correct usage as well.

405 thoughts on “Grammar police

    1. But that can be used correctly, though it often is not. Please add the correct and incorrect usages!

      1. > But that can be used correctly,
        > though it often is not. Please
        > add the correct and incorrect
        > usages!

        I didn’t know that was a prerequisite. You only added the ‘correct usage’ precondition after I posted – unless I somehow missed that – making me look a bit of a dick. Fortunately, I am a bit of a dick, so no harm done.

        The ‘correct’ use of the phrase is to describe a logical fallacy where a proposition is assumed in the premise. It’s a type of circular reasoning.

        It is often – incorrectly – used to mean that other questions are raised by some proposed argument. It’s most enraging (and common) use is in ‘no smoke without fire’ arguments.

        “he said he didn’t do the murders, which begs the question of why [CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE A]”

          1. Isn’t “precondition” an example of what Jack Lynch calls *longwordifcation*, as when someone chooses “utilize” over “use” (which is usually the more apt choice anyway)?

            “Condition” and “precondition” mean the same thing.

            1. Just that the prefix is an unnecessary addition to the intended expression. Somewhat akin to the common instruction, “Report back to me.”

            2. In law, precondition is not necessarily the same thing as condition. Many laws have “conditions subsequent” — that is, the occurence or non-occurence of a later event can retroactively change the legal characterization of a prior event.

            3. OK, if you like. In my field of computer science, however, a precondition is more or less the same thing as a predicate (sometimes under some circumstances). It’s jargon. Sorry if your jargon is slightly different.

            4. So, Jeanne, in law, can you explain what would distinguish a “condition subsequent” from a “precondition”? Wouldn’t it merely be a “condition preceding”?

    2. On “begging the question” from professional linguists:

      Basically the phrase is the result of a telephone game of translations from Greek to Latin to English. It’s really sort of ludicrous to expect anyone to use it “correctly”, since it is completely unintuitive. There are much more clear ways to express that idea.

      1. It is not unintuitive: it is the fallacy of petitio principii—assuming what was to be proved (i.e., the issue in question).

      2. > Basically the phrase is the
        > result of a telephone game of
        > translations from Greek to
        > Latin to English. It’s really
        > sort of ludicrous to expect
        > anyone to use it “correctly”,
        > since it is completely
        > unintuitive. There are much
        > more clear ways to express that
        > idea.

        Nonsense. It is perfectly reasonable to expect people to learn the meanings of phrases, especially in this day and age when it’s so easy to look them up. Shouldn’t we be *better* able to know what phrases mean than worse?

  1. “could care less”

    The correct phrase is “couldn’t care less” i.e. you already care so little for ‘it’ that you could not care less even if asked to.

      1. If I really, really tried, I could care less.
        Meaning ofcourse that I find it even worse than I couldn’t care less

        1. I always assumed it was a shortened version of ‘I could care less, but not much’! It is silly though.

    1. Ah yes! One of my pet hates. This one does seem to be peculiarly American, along with “pick up your room”. Ugh.

    2. My academic background is linguistics, and this phrase is a topic of some debate in linguistic circles. Steven Pinker makes a fair argument that “I could care less” is being used sarcastically, in which case it’s perfectly logical. (See for discussion, although the author sides against the theory.)

      A perhaps more widely accepted idea is John Lawler’s assessment that the phrase is a negative polarity item (similar to “I could give a damn”). See for discussion.

      1. It’s interesting to compare with “head over heels,” which also got reversed for emphasis and thus lost its manifest logic, but which is completely unchallenged. But the literalists tend to focus on the usages that are still variable in their own lifetimes and accept the weirdnesses that got codified before they came on the scene :-). (Same thing tends to happen with metatheses.)

  2. Here’s another one: “He laughed all the way to the bank.” If you think about it, it doesn’t make any sense, at least how it’s usually used—as someone who’s denigrated but gets rich in the process.

    It’s much more appropriate to say “He cried all the way to the bank.”

      1. I think this phrase means that someone won. They took advantage of someone. They laughed at that person while they took their ill-gotten gains to the bank. I don’t understand the denigration bit. That isn’t how the phrase is used in the UK.

        Laughing all the way to the bank means that you’ve won all the way – at someone else’s expense – and you don’t care.

        1. Well, it’s not flatly incorrect to say “laughing all the way to the bank,” but it’s much better, I think, to encapsulate the irony of the situation by saying “he cried all the way to the bank.”

          For example: “Tony Hayward was criticized for his behavior during the BP oil spill and let go with millions of dollars in severance pay.”

          What’s the appropriate response here? “He laughed all the way to the bank” or “he cried all the way to the bank”? I claim that the latter is much better.

          I’ll bet that if you could find the origin of this phrase, it would involve crying rather than laughing.

          1. I heard this first in relation to Liberace; after getting a bad review, apparently he cried and cried – all the way to the bank.

          2. “I’ll bet that if you could find the origin of this phrase, it would involve crying rather than laughing.”

            Do you really?

  3. Exception proves the rule.

    It means that an exception shows that there is a rule in operation. If a police person pulled me over for speeding, my speeding would be an exception that proves there is a speeding rule in operation.

      1. In this case, prove = test.

        Consider also this: “The proof [test of success] is in the pudding” [i.e., You can’t claim to have succeeded in an undertaking until you have completed the end, or the most challenging part.]

    1. Exceptions prove the rule when you see that they are in fact unusual — thus illustrating that in general the rule holds.

      “Hume claimed that all ideas come from experience, except perhaps some very rare instances – – such as getting the idea of a particular shade of blue from seeing other similar shades. Such exceptions, however, prove the rule.”

    2. In this case, prove = test.

      Consider also this: “The proof [test of success] is in the pudding” [i.e., can’t claim success until the end, or most challenging part, of an undertaking]

      1. I suspect this is also a mistranslation from the latin or French. In French “preuver” means “test”, not “prove”, so the equivalent phrase does not seem nonsensical.

  4. Toe the line, as in “I won’t toe your line today, I can’t see it anyway.” (G. Nash)
    The line being the border in the song
    Immigration Man.

    Arizona’s denuded law goes into effect today.

    1. Presumably, then, you also object to the use of “shave ice” for the Hawaiian snow cone.

    2. Bah. I can’t see why there should be anything wrong with ice tea as in tea with ice or tea that is [cold] like ice. You see, in German, it actually is Eistee, not *geeister Tee (the asterisk is a linguists’ convention for “not attested”).

      1. …though I think German is an outlier: it is thé glacé in French, ledený čaj in Czech, and so on…

        1. That is ‘iste’ in Norwegian, which caused me some confusion as I put the emphasis at the beginning, which makes it into one unintelligible word, rather than is’te.
          Languages are fun!

        2. It’s not iced cream. Then again, some Americans seem to like to get hot tea and then to put ice cubes in it. To that extent it’s iced in the most literal sense, though when I drink iced tea it would be described better by calling it chilled tea or cold tea.

          But anyway, I see nothing wrong with ice tea meaning something along the lines of (nearly) as cold as ice. In regular conversation, the difference between iced tea and ice tea is usually absent since the d is devoiced regardless.

    3. As a landscape designer, I very often see the term “screen porch” as a label on plans for existing screened porches.

      I don’t think they mean it as a command.

    4. OK then, let me raise you “ice cold” as in a drink that should be served that way. If it were ice cold, shouldn’t it be on a stick?

      1. Only if the drink in question is water. If the freezing point of the liquid is below 32F, then it can be served literally ice cold while still in liquid form.

        1. No…if the liquid in question – whatever it is – is ice cold, then it is frozen. It doesn’t say “water frozen at a reasonable pressure”, does it?

          1. Let me put this another way. Various beers and sodas say on the can or bottle “best served ice cold”. What temperature is ice? Does it mean the temperature of water at sea level? Or what? What can “ice cold” possibly mean?

  5. The “carrot and stick approach”

    It is incorrectly used to mean getting someone to do something through reward (carrot) and punishment (stick? as in beating with?)
    In the original usage, the carrot is tied to a stick and dangled, by the rider, in front of a donkey to make it walk forward.

    1. This one always bothered me, too. I could never make sense of it when talking heads on TV used it clumsily when discussing diplomacy.

        1. I’ve never heard “carrot on a stick”, though I’ve seen the humor figure. Why would one (want to) confuse the two?

          Moreover, granting that one can introduce a new figure of speech (which is allowed since it’s language, but slightly confusing), why would one claim “original usage”? Urban legend seems about right.

          [Hmm. If not “figure of speach” has been mentioned in the thread, I’ll do that. 54 000 google hits…]

  6. How about “that’s a moot point”. The word moot means arguable, the exact opposite of what the phrase implies. A moot point is one that’s very much in contention, and declaring it so should not end argument, but sustain it.

    My biggest peeve lately is “enormity”, when someone uses it as a synonym for “enormousness” or “immensity”. It means depraved abnormality, not largeness. So the enormity of a serial killer’s crimes would not be concerned with the size of his body count, but the quality of his actions.

    There are plenty of others, but I don’t want to get off on a rant.

      1. Except that your ref says:

        ” 1 : a deliberative assembly primarily for the administration of justice; especially : one held by the freemen of an Anglo-Saxon community
        2 obsolete : argument, discussion” ?!

          1. You’re looking at the wrong definition – moot in this case is an adjective modifying ‘point’, not a noun (which is what the link defaults to).

      1. Kevin:
        “Even worse are folks who say or write “mute” instead of moot.”

        Yeah, I’ve seen that quite a lot lately. This deserves another thread though. For example, I’ve seen (woesomely often) “wallah” instead of “voila”.

        1. reminds me of pasta fagioli, pronounced “Fah-Gee-Oh-Lee”

          or “paninis” for the plural of “panini,” which IS plural. “panino” is singular.

          stupid americans.

    1. The word moot means arguable….

      Wow. I’ve never heard that before.

      Here in the legal world, “moot”–as established in (what I presume are) hundreds of years’ worth of judicial decisions and other forms of legal analysis–means something like the “deprived of practical significance” definition Physicalist cited. Courts dismiss things–lawsuits, motions–“as moot” all of the time.

      This renders “moot = open to discussion or debate” absolutely backwards. Call it occupational bias, but I think that meaning is dead.

      1. I don’t know what the actual provenance of the phrase is, but moot meaning “open to debate” isn’t incompatible with moot meaning irrelevant. The usage could be, “you’re free to argue it all you want but it doesn’t change the outcome.” E.g.- Schroedinger’s cat may be in a superposition of dead and alive due to quantum entanglement but it’s a moot point because I just ran over the box.”

        1. You’re getting confused because “moot point” has a different meaning in British English than in American English. In American English it does indeed mean “irrelevant, minor, not worth arguing over”. In British English, however, it means “open to debate”.

  7. ‘Loose’ for ‘lose’ drives me mad. They’re pronounced differently! They mean different things! Aaaaaargh! My reaction to this in student presentations resulted in them doing deliberately for comedy value – sigh.

    1. ‘Loose’ for ‘lose’ drives me mad. They’re pronounced differently!


      How do you pronounce them, and where do you come from?

      1. [lus] vs [luz]. Apparently you speak a dialect of english that doesn’t differentiate them. Some do. Not a big deal.

          1. My dialect, for one. I speak Standard American English, with some regional idiosyncrasies thrown in (I live in the southeastern United States.)

            Out of curiosity, how do you pronounce them both, since you don’t differentiate them?

            1. I believe the question was which dialect doesn’t differentiate them, something I’d like to know as well…

              Relatedly, though by appearance only, I see a lot of confusion between ‘choose’ & ‘chose’ lately, as well.

            2. The standard pronunciations of “lose” and “loose” are distinctly different right across the board. The word “loose” rhymes with “moose,” and “lose” rhymes with “fuse.”

              In which dialects are both pronounced the same way?

            3. Erin, I didn’t comment to just to call you out–no need to apologize! Was just hoping to elicit an answer from David or someone else who could enlighten us…

    1. Congratulations! This is the first example on this entire page that actually is about grammar. In spite of the title “Grammar police”, all others so far are about etymology and the spelling of homophones. Now that, the use of “grammar” to mean “anything to do with a language or its writing system”, is a pet peeve of mine.

  8. Okay, this isn’t really a solecism, but it’s the one thing about my students’ speech that I’d most like to correct.

      1. I hate when people talk and either start or end a statement with, “You know what I’m sayin?”

        This bothers me to no end.

        1. …or when people finish a statement with “I’m just saying”. Which I always infer to mean “I just said something ridiculous and perhaps offensive and I don’t want to be held responsible”.

        2. “This bothers me to no end.”

          It should be “this bothers me no end”.

          God this thread is full of cranks! Jerry, what have you unleashed? It’s by far the longest thread of the blog!

          1. I can’t help it. It was an offhand post, and I had no idea it would elicit such response!

    1. My favourite theory about the infamous Miss South Carolina clip ( ) is that she was once told that saying “such as” instead of “like” would make her sound better – but didn’t realise that even people who use “like” as punctuation wouldn’t substitute “such as”. It’s the only way it can possibly make sense, assuming she is actually a native speaker of English.

  9. By-in-large. That one drives me nuts! It’s actually ‘by and large’, meaning overall/on the whole/generally speaking.

    Another is ‘alienate’ in place of ‘alleviate’, I kid you not! A co-worker said to me one day, “…that should alienate the problem”.

  10. “If you think that, you’ve got another thing coming” — aargh! It’s so obviously “another think coming”, with a witty and unusual use of “think” echoing the first use, rather than the nothing-word “thing”.

      1. Huh, I never thought of that. I figured it was a case of expecting one thing (light praise) and getting the opposite far more severely (fired on the spot).

        I may adopt your usage in writing (it’s rather nice), but follow the metal gods in speech.

        FWIW “Judas rockin’ Priest!” makes an awesome replacement exclamation for “Jesus H. Christ!”.

  11. One I’ve come across a lot recently is “the tenants of religion” instead of “the tenets of religion”.

      1. Right. Many such errors derive from a person’s not reading closely. Or at all.

        Like, “I hate him. He’s so bias.”

  12. Use of “literally” when it isn’t meant.

    Use of “refute” to mean “disagree” rather than “disprove”.

    Use of “incredibly” as a miscellaneous hype word when the thing is actually quite believable.

    1. “Use of ‘literally’ when it isn’t meant.”

      I find this annoying as well.

      Sean Hannity: “He [Obama] is literally tearing up the constitution.”

      Some anti-choice guy: “when a fetus is aborted, the pain is such that it is literally sticking it’s hand into a bee’s nest.”

      1. > “Use of ‘literally’

        Yeah, this is really bad in the UK. No television ‘personality’ can go 20 seconds without using the word to mean ‘not literally’. Fucking hell.

    2. Another butchering of refute that we see here in New Zealand all the time is when a politician claims to refute a misdeed when in fact they are merely denying it.

    3. So you guys are like hyperbole Nazis or something? Just because you said “literally” doesn’t mean you intended for someone to take it that way 😉

  13. Because I work with people in the health policy field, I constantly get annoyed by actionable used to mean “capable of being acted on,” rather than the original meaning of “being the cause of a lawsuit.” Unfortunately, some dictionaries have recently added the former as a second meaning.

    1. If that goes into dictionaries, you are facing an uphill battle. This means the new addition is a new, accepted meaning.

      Language evolves. I would let it go.

      1. Yes, I’ve given up on that battle. But it still annoys me. (The first thing that came to mind is “it still grinds my gears,” which is an accurate description of how it feels, like someone throwing sand in the works.)

  14. I’ve got two: “The proof is in the pudding”, which suggests a very odd place to hide anything, let alone ‘proof’. Usually means to put an idea to the test. Correct usage: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating”.

    Second one: “For all intensive purposes…” should actually be “For all intents and purposes…”

    1. “The proof of the recipe’s worth is in the pudding”: i.e., the validity of an procedure is being judged by its results. Makes just as much sense as “the proof of the pudding[‘s quality] is in the eating”.

  15. The use of “jive” instead of “jibe” in

    “That doesn’t jibe with the facts”

    and, not in the same category, but I’m increasingly hearing people (mainly young people) pronounce “especially” as “Xpecially”. That one really grates on me.

    1. Yeah, you beat me to “jibe”/”jive”. That’s mine.

      There is also a “home”/”hone” problem, but I don’t know which one is correct anymore!

      1. “Home” is the target, what one aims for, what one strives to connect with. “Hone” refers to the sharpening of an implement.

      1. It’s interesting to note that poor pronunciation (especially of unusual words) may actually be a positive sign. Very well read people, especially young adults, will often mispronounce words that they have read and written, but may never have heard spoken. I would not want to put to much emphasis on correct pronunciation if it would deter a person constructing a sentence with just the perfect word because they are not sure how it should be correctly pronounced.

      2. Ree-luh-tur is a pet peeve of mine, along the same lines as nuc-u-lur.

        I hear most people pronounce asterisk, ass-tur-iks. I sometimes get strange looks when I pronounce it correctly, and admittedly it sometimes feels forced.

  16. Once, when someone said, “I could care less,” I couldn’t help but reply, “Well, then, do so!”

    (I guess that’s “help” as in unable to help myself. I.e., unable to give myself any aid in resisting the temptation to reply.)

    Also, “flammable” versus “inflammable,” which reflects the ambiguity imposed by two different meanings of the prefix “in” – “in” and “not.” Inflammatory words inflame passions, but supposedly it is a good thing for a fluid to be inflammable? Perhaps it should be UNflammable.

    I’m also noticing in the media the substitution of the relative pronoun, “that,” for the subjective (if that’s the correct nomenclature?) pronouns, “which,” and especially “who,” in dependent clauses. For example, “We are looking for employees that can innovate.”

    Could that be the result of corporate capitalism’s depersonalization of “human beings”? Nowadays one is much more often referred to as a “human resource” and “human capital”? (ugh) Is that how you think of yourself? Does a school teacher say, “Good morning, units of human capital!” Who is not “human capital”? A corporate investor? Bill Gates? Just wondering, in the spirit of the “grammar police” proper use of language.

    1. Flammable/inflammable is just a case where I think English itself is sort of broke, sort of like the opposite meanings of “cleave”.

      The “that vs. whom” mistake seems common everywhere (not just business). It’s probably just a case of language slowly changing, because we don’t particularly value the distinction between pronoun types.

    2. As Nero Wolfe points out, “flammable” is just a neologism designed to protect children and illiterates. The original and preferable word for “flammable” is “inflammable”.

        1. Sure. And the stakes on that one happen to be high, so the neologism was important.

          As a German student, I always worried about similar high-stakes problems with false cognates–things like “Gift” (the German word for “poison”). If you’re an English speaker in Germany, you know that “Ausgang” means “exit,” and the building you’re in catches fire, how exactly are you going to deal with a sign reading “NOTAUSGANG“?

    3. On the question of nomenclature, ‘who’ and ‘which’ are both relative pronouns. ‘That’ is not a relative pronoun, but rather a complementizer.

    4. Not all style systems differentiate between “who” and “that,” though; it’s also interesting that formal British English tends not to differentiate between the relative and non-relative pronoun in nonrestrictive clauses (in other words, they use “which” in nonrestrictive clauses), an error in American English.

      And then there’s the issue of syntactic parallel, which even pedants seem to have given up on.

  17. One thing that grates is the American habit of putting punctuation inside quotes “like this,” when it is not part of the quote and logically belongs outside, where we Brits quite properly put it.

    1. Different style guides treat that differently.

      The Associated Press Style guide — for years the standard for just about every journalist everywhere, says the punctuation goes inside.

      Others disagree. So, it’s not necessarily an Americanism.

      1. Most standard American college writing and grammar texts, like Diana Hacker’s unimpeachable “Bedford Handbook,” recommend that commas and periods always be placed INSIDE quotation marks.

        1. Well then it is wrong. Any thing inside the quote marks belongs to the quote.
          Have you read “Why Evolution is True?”
          is a different meaning to
          Have you read “Why Evoluition is True”?

            1. Right. The rule–and in standard American English it IS a rule (for what that’s worth)–applies to commas and periods.

              Semi-colons, colons, and so forth may be placed outside the quotation marks.

            2. He said, “Is it true that she asked, ‘Did you read “Why Evolution Is True”?’?”

              (I gather that the title should be in italics, without quotation marks, to simplify the above mess?)

            1. Longer works should be italicized, unless you’re referring to the blog and not the book. If you are referring to the blog, then what’s up with the past tense (“have you read”)?

              I think underlining is allowed in place of italicization.

              So, it actually should be:

              He said, “Have you read Why evolution is true?”

              (book titles = sentence style capitalization.)

    2. It’s not just you Brits, it’s everyone except most Americans; and it’s only “small punctuation”, not question or exclamation marks.

    3. See, I don’t get this. It isn’t that the punctuation “logically belongs outside” (what logic is that?) but that it confuses the quote.

      [Perhaps the above use of “punctuation” or question mark borders on whether it is logical there though?]

      You would have to get to the original quote, which can be in a book, to be able to understand original context, quote again, and so on.

      Further, today this drags in a lot of baggage. You can’t simply cut-and-paste. And even if it doesn’t stop google search it still perverts the outcome (i.e. reorders the result).

      So, given that it is a style, what good is it?

      1. Ahem, yes, “quote again” is of course not good practice. The original source should be used.

        But doable.

  18. Idiot in ancient Greece used to mean “reclusive person; person without profession; someone who does not participate in public affairs; does not vote”.

    Now we have states that bar “idiots” from voting.

    It’s poetic justice I suppose, though quite idiotic.

    1. At the turn of the last century, the word “idiot” had a specific meaning in a medical context of defining a specific level of mental retardation/developmental disability.

      Same with imbecile and moron. I forget the progression, but I think imbecile was worst, followed by moron, and then idiot. The words fell out of favor for their specific meanings when they became pejoratives.

      Interestingly, the word “dumbbell” as an insult for a stupid person also dates from this time, and was related to the fact that the large institutions which housed the developmentally disabled organized their residents into teams that would use dumb bells (the exercise equipment) in a kind of rhythmic gymnastics. They literally had dumbbell teams.

      1. Re dumbbell:
        That smells like a folk etymology to me. The use of dumb (ie can’t talk) as a word that indicates of lack of intelligence is obvious. I would expect the use of dumbbell (like dumbo, dummy, etc) just to follow, without needing the exercise team connection.

        1. Just thinking out loud on this one & haven’t tried looking it up, but there’s dummkopf (dumb head) in German. How about dumb, with usual connotation + bell from belfry as in bats in the belfry?

  19. Also not a solecism, but the gratuitous use of “per se”. I think the term “per se” should be banned from all usage.

    1. Almost all use of Latin – the primary exceptions being a few very brief and highly standardized uses in academic writing, such as ‘i.e.’, ‘e.g.’, and ‘et al’ – is gratuitous and pompous. For all uses of ‘per se’ that aren’t simply incorrect, the ordinary English phrase ‘as such’ will do.

      And there is never any legitimate time or place to substitute ‘utilize’ for ‘use.’ Never. There is absolutely no difference in meaning or implication between the two words.

      Of course, neither of these peeves is a solecism.

      1. I’m no fan of “utilize,” either, but otherwise I strongly disagree. “Per se,” “i.e.,” and “e.g.” are all clean and compact expressions that are vastly superior to clunky phrases such as “for example,” “in other words,” “by which I mean,” and “which is to say.” You like “as such”? Ugh.

        Of course, confusing one of these terms with another–most often “i.e.” for “e.g.”–is the kind of silly mistake that belongs on this thread. But there’s nothing about them that’s any more “gratuitous and pompous” than any of the points being justifiably made here.

        1. Yup, that website does indeed give one proper use of ‘as such,’ and points out a common mistaken use. But the use I was referring to was a sub-set of the proper use of the phrase – one consonant with the proper use of ‘per se,’ as opposed to the many nonsense uses to which ‘per se’ is often put.

          1. I’m not aware of the sub-set you refer to — in which the proper use of the phrase ‘as such’ is consonant with the proper use of ‘per se’.

            Perhaps you could give us some examples?

      2. I have to disagree with you — “per se” is not quite the same as (and often can’t be replaced by) “as such”.
        ‘Per se’ means ‘in itself / of itself’, suggesting something intrinsic. e.g. I am a Caucasian male but that doesn’t, per se, make me a racist.
        ‘As such’ suggests more of a result or a consequence. e.g. My car is a boy car and, as such, he loves perving at all the cute little girl cars.

        At least, that’s how it works where I come from.

        Anyway, I would normally prefer to use English ‘in/of/by itself’, and avoid Latin so as not to sound pretentious.

  20. “Basically” is frequently misused. It means either “in a basic manner” or “primarily”/”mostly,” but, today, it’s often also used as a “filler word” (in the same way that “like” and “you know” are).

    1. Ugh, yeah “basically” is one of my biggest peeves. I ranted once to a group of friends and suggested a half dozen alternatives, but they just reacted like I was being a pedant.

      I wasn’t! The word has a meaning; it’s not filler.

    2. Yes. I have a paradigm of that one from decades ago – hearing a graduate student ordering a pizza over the phone and giving the location – “Basically, it’s at the corner of Hope and” etc.


  21. “As it were” as if it wasn’t so.
    “So to speak” rather than just speak it.

    Filler phrases that convey pseudo-sophistication. Even very prominent contemporary philosophers are guilty of these.

    1. “So to speak” can intelligibly be used to indicate that the object phrase is to be taken metaphorically rather than literally, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with clearly indicating when one is speaking metaphorically. But I will agree that it’s a trite, pompous, overused turn of phrase.

    2. I have noticed that the newspeople employed by the 24-hour news networks routinely use “as it were”, “if you will” and “so to speak” as meaningless time-fillers. God (and I use the word metaphically) forbid there be any “dead air,” as they say in the biz. One usually hears those phrases from young women clearly not hired for their minds.

    3. You have wandered into deep water here, probably deeper than you know. These phrases are used as means of disquotation in speech where quotation marks (and their lack) are not available. As such they have fundamental importance–cf Tarski, Quine et al.

      More generally the reply of “thephilosophicalprimate” is just the tip of the iceberg with respect to the use of these phrases for distinguishing figurative word uses from literal uses.

      Let the commentator beware!

      1. PostScript. Being new to this blog (or whatever it is i am reading) i omitted to notice the check boxes below the window i am typing this comment into. This post is to rectify that with the specific purpose of communicating the fact that i would be interested to know if this post gets any follow-up comments.

  22. Use of “off of” when “off” is fine. One can take it off the table without having to take it off of the table.

  23. “A hard road to hoe”
    – then hoe the row. Doh!

    “on tender hooks” Awwwwwww, such cute soft hooks, quite unlike tenterhooks

    Plus the usuals like, “literally’ when they mean figuratively, a ‘mute’ point instead of moot point, and “socialist, commie, Nazi, Kenyan”, when they mean “middle of the road conservative accommodationist.”

  24. “Try and” drives me nuts; the conjunction makes no sense if one allows for the ‘try’ to stand alone. What is needed is “try to” implying an attempted action.

    ‘Farther’ (distance) and ‘further’ (greater extent) is a grammar correction pointed out in Battlestar Galactica by the Cylon Athena! (You know with that kind of dialogue the show has GOT to be a sophisticated sci-fi!)

    1. I’m not sure there isn’t a Brit/American thing with ‘farther’ and ‘further’. I would never say ‘farther’.

    1. I’ve heard a linguist on NPR before implying that this portmanteau of irrespective and regardless is actually becoming pretty fixed, even among folks who should know better (the Associate Dean for Research & Graduate Studies at my institution, a person with 30 years of of NIH funding, uses it all the damn time).

    2. It is fun to use, irregardless.

      It may not survive, but it attest to that language is evolvable.

  25. There are two excellent Web sites where many of the common errors in English usage are listed and explained. I always include them in the Webliography attached to my syllabi for online college writing.

    The first is “A Guide to Grammar and Style,” maintained by Jack Lynch, who teaches at Rutgers, and the second is “Common Errors in English Usage,” by Paul Brians, a prof at Washington State.

  26. The expression -reason why- is redundant.

    for example:

    –The reason why I bought the car …–


    –The reason I bought the car …–

    There is no difference between the two sentences.

  27. OK, again not a solecism, but it bugs me EVERY TIME I hear it…

    For the record, the words to the song are:

    “Take me out to the ball game.
    Take me out WITH the crowd.”

    Not “to” the crowd. “With” the crowd.

    Thank you for your attention to this crucial matter.

    1. Yeah, totally, and “buy me some peanuts and crackerjack,” not “crackerjacks,” and “I don’t care if I never get back,” not “ever.”

  28. Ditto on “would of”, “should of”, “could of”, etc.

    My very favorite was a colleague who used to say, “We’ve just tipped the iceberg on this” rather than the correct “just the tip of the iceberg”. It also caused wondrous visions in my head.

  29. Oh boy, there’s a lot of misinformation about language in this thread…

    @simonallaway and Filippo:
    “Could care less” is not wrong given that the majority of people use it.

    If you object to this, you would also have to object to popcorn, skim milk, ice cream, and more.

    @Charles Evo: See “drink” on page 371:

    There are no hard and fast rules on the drank/drunk issue that are based on actual data – only rules that people have tried to enforce as being hard and fast.

    It’s so obviously either one, because both have a long history in the English language.

    @Filippo: Regarding “that” versus “who” – page 895 where it has the bold “2” in the middle of the second column:

    Using “that” in this way instead of “who” is not new, nor restricted to the media.

    @tildeb: See “try and” on pg. 919

    And also “farther, further” on pg. 430
    The distinction you reference is made up.

    The basic principles underlying all of these are that: 1) Lots of “rules” we are taught about language have been made up, 2) Language is arbitrary and doesn’t follow the logic you’d like it to, and 3) Most stuff you think is new is actually very old.

      1. The majority of people may use it, but that fact (if indeed it IS a fact) does not confer correctness on the usage, it only denotes a form of popular currency. It’s not an idiom; it’s a vulgarism, like “ain’t,” and “she laid in the sun all day.”

          1. How do any words gain meaning, other than from people using them?

            For example: it is interesting to note that “grammar”, as folks generally use the word, appears completely debased from its technical meaning as a term of the linguistic art. If it concerns language, and if somebody proclaimed a rule about it, why then it’s grammar, even when it might be better called a matter of style or formality.

            1. Quite true. But I think that this discussion is more about descriptive vs. prescriptive linguistics than the evolution of language (although the topics are certainly related). I interpreted the “is not wrong given that the majority of people use it” assertion as an endorsement of pure descriptivism, a position that is completely untenable.

            2. But what about the moderate descriptivist position, that whatever prescriptions we advance for defining “proper” language should be informed by empirical observation of how language is actually used? (I’d bet this probably comes closer to describing the views held by many “descriptivist” linguists than the “anything goes” idea does.)

          2. I’d be happy to explain.

            To put it simply, correctness is defined by usage. I know what you’re thinking – most people who hear this for the first time are vehemently against it. But there is no other way to define correct, and this fact is well established among linguists. Appeals to history, etymology, or “what you think is logical” always fail. To take “couldn’t care less” as an example:

            Some will say that because this was the original phrase, “could care less” is wrong. But by that logic, every word or phrase that has ever changed its meaning would also be wrong – a ridiculous conclusion that no one is willing to make. The etymological fallacy, as it’s called, is entirely… well, false.
            See for more info:

            And here is a lot of links on the subject of “caring less”:

            Another argument people will use regarding “could care less” is that it is illogical – meaning that its meaning as defined by usage is different from the literal meaning of its parts. Yes, except that’s exactly what an idiom is. If you disown one on that logic you have to disown them all. Furthermore, the only reason any of the noises that come out of our mouths have meaning at all is because we (or people who lived long before us) arbitrarily assign(ed) meaning to them. All words/phrases mean what they mean because people use them that way. In any language ever, any manner of speaking that has become correct has done so because it first became popular. That is, for one thing, why we speak modern English and not Middle.

            Understanding language involves learning to think about it in more complicated terms than just “right” and “wrong.” As Merriam-Webster’s dictionary of English usage counsels on “could care less” ( page 300), the phrase is popular, has been in use for a long time, and has a more pleasing rhythmic pattern for speech, but people are more likely to object to it in writing. Those are the facts, and they do not support any kind of simplistic interpretation. I would say that it’s perfectly acceptable to use the phrase in speech, less so in writing, and be aware that people may feel the need to call you on it out of prescriptivistic peevishness.

            1. “To put it simply, correctness is defined by usage.”

              So do you regard “your” as an acceptable variant of “you’re”?

              “there is no other way to define correct, …”

              I think that both the extreme descriptivist stance and the extreme prescritivist stance are untenable. Yes, language changes, and “wrong” usages can become acceptable over time, but it is also the case that at any one time there is a large body of “correct” usages and there are also incorrect usages. We couldn’t communicate unless that was the case (though what is regarded as incorrect might depend on the audience).

              Maybe in thirty years “your” will be the normal alternative to an archaic “you’re”, but currently it is wrong.

              Further, even if one prefers to regard such matters as ones of style, rather than correctness, it is still the case that style is important.

            2. “Appeals to history, etymology, or “what you think is logical” always fail.”

              You have to allow a high dependence on logic, otherwise one could never interpret a sentence one had not previously heard.

              Taking the example of “I could care less”, the first time I travelled to America and heard this I (being used to “couldn’t …”) was genuinely unsure what the speaker intended. And, when I asked, the speaker could not explain except by saying “it’s just a thing you say”. He could not explain how the meaning resulted from his word choice, admitting the mismatch.

              And for those claiming it is “obviously” a sarcastic saying of the opposite, this strikes me as a rationaisation, since many who use the phrase can not explain that when asked! In contrast, those who use “couldn’t …” can readily explain their word choice.

              So, one just learns that this is just a case where the meaning (in America) differs from the “logical” one. And having learnt that people are all happy to declare it “correct”. OK, fine.

              But language would break down if such departures from logic were more than occasional, since, as above, you’d never be sure about any sentence or construction that was not familiar.

            3. “Appeals to history, etymology, or “what you think is logical” always fail.”

              And while I’m defending the need for logic, let’s take the example of the American practice of putting commas and periods inside a quotation, regardless of whether it is logically part of the quotation.

              If one is writing, say, a computer manual, and quoting the commands that should be typed, then in the American system it is ambiguous whether the comma or period inside the quotation is part of the command to be typed.

              In contrast, in the British system, where punctuation that is not part of the quote goes outside, there is no ambiguity.

              In popular idiomatic use, such things will not matter. But when writing scientific or technical English, where precision and lack of ambiguity matter a lot, you can’t get away from sticking to rules and logic to prescribe what is “correct”.

              And in such writing it needs to be clear not only to native English speakers — all varieties — but also to Chinese students and similar, and it needs to be clear in thirty years time when idioms may have changed.

              Thus while your descriptivist stance has some merit, it cannot be the whole story, and there is considerable basis for declaring some usages, even common ones, to be “wrong”, even if colloquially acceptable.

            4. “So do you regard “your” as an acceptable variant of “you’re”? ”

              No. Although, it is a spelling error – nothing related to grammar at all.

              “at any one time there is a large body of “correct” usages and there are also incorrect usages”

              That’s right. “Another thing coming” and “another think coming” are both correct. “Another rink coming” is not. This reflects usage.

              “I think that both the extreme descriptivist stance and the extreme prescritivist stance are untenable.”

              What is the extreme descriptivist stance? That anything goes? Yes, that is untenable, and I don’t know of anyone who holds that idea. When I say that correctness defines usage, I did not mean that anything some schmuck says is correct because he said it. But when you have a community of speakers saying it, in earnest, then you know that that is grammatical for that community. And this fits in perfectly with your concern that language is about communication.

            5. I disagree with a great deal of what you say here, but, whatever. That’s fine.

              However, this:

              I know what you’re thinking – most people who hear this for the first time are vehemently against it.

              Is really, really presumptuous and condescending. For what it’s worth, I’m an English professor, and have studied Linguistics rather extensively. And even if that weren’t the case, why do you assume that someone’s disagreement with you is a result of their lack of familiarity with or knowledge of the subject matter under discussion?

            6. “But language would break down if such departures from logic were more than occasional, since, as above, you’d never be sure about any sentence or construction that was not familiar.”

              The problem in your example was not the existence of a non-literal idiom – it was that you weren’t familiar with the idiom because you’re from a different linguistic community. It’s not surprising you would be confused. If I said in Japanese that someone “kicked the bucket,” no one would understand that I was saying someone died, because that idiom does not exist in Japanese. That does not contradict anything I’ve said.

              “And while I’m defending the need for logic, let’s take the example of the American practice of putting commas and periods inside a quotation”

              You are getting into orthography again. Language is language; orthography is how you write it down. Language rules are based on usage, orthographical rules are actually made up. There is no reason that a horizontal line on top of a vertical line should represent a T sound, other than the fact that someone made it up and we all agree to keep using it. If people want to agree to use quotes differently, be my guest. Orthographical rules are ones that you actually can change.

            7. @Miranda:
              “Is really, really presumptuous and condescending. For what it’s worth, I’m an English professor, and have studied Linguistics rather extensively. And even if that weren’t the case, why do you assume that someone’s disagreement with you is a result of their lack of familiarity with or knowledge of the subject matter under discussion?”

              I’m not assuming anything. It’s an empirical fact – lots of people have a problem with this and will run logical circles around themselves to convince you that, say, Singular They ( just has to be wrong. Practically every linguist at Language Log has complained in one post or another about the sorry state of linguistics education and how people “just don’t get it,” and I too have seen personally that most people don’t. I haven’t said anything that wasn’t true, and I didn’t presume anything. But apologies if I offended – I mean you no ill will.

            8. “The problem in your example … was that you weren’t familiar with the idiom because you’re from a different linguistic community.”

              But any widespread language has a mix of many overlapping linguistic communities (different nations, also different age groups, different social groups, and different audiences — such as the scientific community compared to a rap audience).

              It is too simplistic to say that something is “correct” if accepted in any one of these communities, since it may be considered incorrect in others. And given that the communities are overlapping, often language will be used to communicate between different communities.

              What might be common usage among 12-yr-olds in the playground could quite legitimately be deemed “incorrect” if used in a job-application letter.

              “Some English speakers use it and know what they mean by it” is thus insufficient to label it “correct”.

              So I don’t agree that usage alone defines correctness; it has to be some balance between usage, logic, history, etymology and audience.

            9. “Language rules are based on usage, orthographical rules are actually made up.”

              I don’t see any distinction (other than that spoken language has a longer history). Orthographical rules are also based on usage; and language rules are also made up. For example:

              “There is no reason that a horizontal line on top of a vertical line should represent a T sound, other than the fact that someone made it up and we all agree to keep using it.”

              Similarly, there is no reason why the spoken sound “tree” should denote what it does except that we all agree that it does.

            10. So you’re willing to label “your” (vice “you’re”) as “incorrect”. And you justify this because it’s spelling rather than grammar.

              OK, but both are still language. So by your “usage” stance (that “could care less” is correct because many people use it and known what they mean by it), why isn’t “your” (vice “you’re”) also correct on that basis?

              If the answer is that you apply the “usage” stance differently when it is spelling rather than grammar then that sounds entirely arbitrary.

            11. “It is too simplistic to say that something is “correct” if accepted in any one of these communities, since it may be considered incorrect in others.”

              That’s why I didn’t say that. I only spoke of what was correct for the community in question.

              “What might be common usage among 12-yr-olds in the playground could quite legitimately be deemed “incorrect” if used in a job-application letter.”

              Usage already includes this information. That certain words or ways of speaking are used predominantly by children or have an immature feel to them are usage facts. These are precisely the things we take into account when we form utterances. The fact that “choo-choo” is a word you use when talking about trains with babies (or if you are a baby yourself) defines that it is incorrect to use the word in earnest with your boss when you’re talking about taking the train home. Usage defines correctness.

              You’re right about orthography. I disagreed with you but I gave the wrong reason for it. Both language and ortho are ultimately defined by usage. My real beef with what you wrote about quotes is this: You’re calling something wrong simply because it’s ambiguous. Yeah, quotes are confusing and yeah, you can get a bunch of people together and suggest “hey, let’s do this differently,” but it does not follow therefore that people doing it the old way were wrong. Call it ambiguous, if that’s what it is.

              “by your “usage” stance (that “could care less” is correct because many people use it and known what they mean by it), why isn’t “your” (vice “you’re”) also correct on that basis?”

              This is something I did not go into because I was trying not to write a whole book in the comments. The difference between these two is that the people who use “your” incorrectly don’t believe it’s correct! They either don’t know what is correct, don’t care, or they just made a mistake – but if you ask them “does ‘your’ mean ‘you are’?”, they will not tell you Yes. There is every reason to characterize this as a mistake. “Could care less,” however, is not admitted as an error by the people who use it, and it is widely accepted and used in earnest by Americans (if not other English speakers). It is an idiom that many have learned from other members of their linguistic community.

            12. “My real beef with what you wrote […] You’re calling something wrong simply because it’s ambiguous.”

              We’re not actually far from agreement. When I labelled some things “wrong” (doing so somewhat tongue-in-cheek, since I was well aware that Americans regard them as correct) was something like “sub-optimal for communication and comprehension across a wide range of audiences, some of whom will be using logic or etymology to interpret phrases they may not be used to, and especially where there are easy alternatives that are clearer and more readily comprehensible”.

              I fully accept that within-group idioms are a law unto themselves, but language also has a role in wider communication.

      2. Normally it would be in the negative though, ‘Couldn’t care less’.
        ‘Could care less’ seems a bit lame, with almost religious overtones. .

    1. ““Could care less” is not wrong given that the majority of people use it.”

      Fair point, but it’s still wrong! (And it doesn’t make sense.)

      [Re “think” v “thing”] “It’s so obviously either one, because both have a long history in the English language.”

      Fair point, but “think” is still the original, and the only one with a clear and sensible meaning.

      1. “Could care less” does make sense, by the empirical standard that people who hear it know what the speaker means. Sense is transmitted from one brain to another.

        1. If etymology determined the meanings of words, then pontiffs would be bridge-builders, and we would all be “spiritual” by the mere act of breathing.

          Or, as Borges once wrote, sarcophagi are not the opposite of vegetarians.

        2. Ok actually my long response above still says “Your comment is awaiting moderation.” Can other people see it? It’s the one that starts, “I’d be happy to explain.”

    2. THANK YOU.

      This thread desperately needed some proper insight. The common perception of language is so completely wrong. Prescriptivist grammarians, I want to strangle y’all.

    3. Language is arbitrary and doesn’t follow the logic you’d like it to

      A point that bears expanding a little: at no time is there just one kind of logic that could decide any question of usage, or ‘correctness’, if you must use the word. The ‘could care less’ example—as one or two people have pointed out, this is discussed in Pinker’s excellent The Language Instinct—would be a case in point, where both options can be seen as logical, depending on your perspective. And there are other cases where there are more than two perspectives that can be argued to be ‘logical’. The word ‘logic’ used with respect to language is not to be taken to mean the same thing as in ‘Boolean logic’. (Which also means that, largely, the categories of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are, at best, a gross over-simplification.)

      And Tim is, of course, right to point out that language is mostly, if not entirely, about convention, not logic. What counts is whether we reliably convey a particular meaning to a particular audience. Which, as Tim has also said, is the exact opposite (also not in a Boolean sense) of ‘anything goes’.

  30. Worst word ever “like”.

    This is “like” so awesome. I cannot “like” believe “like” my luck. I was “like” duh.

    Like that adds anything.

    1. Of course it doesn’t add anything. It’s a “filler” word. Like “umm”, “uhh”, etc. “like” is apparently a newer one, as is “basically”. If they sound new and annoying to you, adjust your conception of colloquial english.

      1. I work with inner city kids, and a filler I hear a lot is “‘you feel me?” (which is the equivalent of “you know?” and seems to require the nod of the listener.) It just sounds “molesty” to me. And I also hear “axe” for “ask” such as “axe your mama”… which just sounds gruesome.

        1. Additionally, I’ve noticed that everything now is “incredible,” without the slightest suggestion that the speaker has considered the literal meaning of the word.

        2. However, “aks” was the standard for Chaucer. He also did “brid” rather than “bird.” These things change with time. For some people, it’s gone back to “aks” again.

    2. Close. but no cigar.
      Worst is ‘by the end of the day’!!
      In particular high-frequency use of the platitude!

  31. Has anyone pointed out my favourite; ‘in one fowl swoop’ instead of ‘… fell swoop’. I keep on getting this mental picture of a vengeful chook perched in a tree which then dives down on its unsuspecting victim.

      1. I’ve heard “one swell foop” on more than one occasion. (I don’t know what a foop is, but, at least one, is “swell”.)

  32. I loathe “orientate” or its, erm, antonym “disorientate”. Unfortunately some dictionaries accept them.

    Can’t you just orient yourself? Do you need an extra syllable to make the process work? Are you more disoriented if there are more phonemes involved?

    1. Also “acoustical”, rather than just acoustic, or numerous other -ic adjectives that get “-al” appended for no good reason.

      1. “Technological” for technical, and “technology” for technique.

        That is a common conflation in swedish too.

        1. These aren’t the same thing.

          Technique is one specific technique. Technology refers to a set of techniques usually in a functioning joint context.

          The process to manufactor a chip is a technique. The computer is technology.

          1. My point exactly. The conflation is not only infuriating, it is often muddying the water.

    2. Where do you stand on “commentate” amd “administrate”? People seem to think adding extra letters makes them sound smarter.

      1. I frequent several British sites, and the commenters who add the extra syllable to words like “orient” and “comment” (orientate/commentate) are rife.

      2. I live in Italy and that sort of thing is endemic here. Nobody has a simple three-syllable ‘problema’, they all have a much grander five-syllable ‘problematica’.

        And why should anyone be content with a simple three-syllable ‘programma’ when they could have a stunningly magnificent eight-syllable ‘programmatizzazione’?

        (Not sure of the spelling of that beauty — I’ve heard it used by our President in televised speeches, but I’ve never seen it written.)

      3. And then we have “fabrication” and “colouration” for “fabric” and “colour”. I blame this on the desire of chi-chi designers to sound impressive.

  33. I’m all for improving the language with new words, but many are just bureaucratic lingo that creeps into everyday usage. See signage; cf. signs.

      1. Yet I continually hear “We need more bike route signage.” True, they could mean we need various types of signs, but they don’t. They just use the word because they’ve heard it.

        And less for fewer still bothers me. But so does normalcy and it’s accepted usage now.

  34. This started as an innercity-ism, but it’s growing roots: Ignorant s/b arrogant, as in:

    “And then he starts gettin’ all ignorant and in my face an’ that.”

    NB: “an’ that” aka “an’ ‘at” = N@, is a beloved regionalism. If you see a car with a white oval / black N@, that’s where they’re from.

  35. Nothing, in written English, anyway, looks to me more grating than the substitution of “than” with “then”.

    “Then” refers to a point in time, or may have the meaning “next”:

    He wasn’t ready then

    “Than” is a conjunction used in comparisons:

    Tom is smarter than Bill.

    1. I had a Master’s student once (BS, Physics, from a top-tier school, to boot) whose thesis draft (in the realm of computational biology) quantitatively transposed Then and Than. Talk about grating…

      And when this was pointed out, it was waved off with, “Oh, I’m dyslexic.” I’ll never recover from that one.

      1. We get this a lot (not “alot” which we also get a lot) in New Zealand. I think it’s because many NZers pronounce “than as “then”.

      2. Why will you never get over that? How unfamiliar with all the challenges of dyslexia are you?

        Perhaps you should have a chat with Nobel Laureate Carol Greider.

    2. This problem (and many here) develops from written Standard English having a peculiar and strict orthography that bears little relation to any version of spoken English.

      “Than” and “then” are frequently homonyms. If someone uses the wrong one in writing, they are simply making a spelling mistake. They’re NOT using the wrong word. In casual writing, it’s a dick move to point out stuff like this.

      Same exact story with “should of”. Unless you’re grading a paper, who cares?

      1. “Unless you’re grading a paper…”

        “I had a Master’s student once (BS, Physics, from a top-tier school, to boot) whose thesis draft…”

        Thesis = paper. Hempenstein was grading it. So, your point?

  36. For some reason, this one really bugs me:


    The wrong usage: patronizingly amused.
    The correct usage: bewildered, confused.

    1. Usage 1: patronizingly amused.
      Usage 2: bewildered, confused.

      I’ve understood it to be usage 1. Apparently we speak slightly different dialects of English. Doesn’t make your version “correct”, even if yours happened to reach the ears of the dictionarians first.

      The differences in usage will probably be clear from context, so lording your dialect over mine is ridonkulous.

      1. No, what I think it means is that you run across a word you don’t know but think you can figure out and you apply all of the joys of context and/or similarity to other words in order to guess at its meaning. And ‘bemuse’ happens to be a word that you and most people who read it without knowing it tend to take cues according to similarity rather than context.

        And since bemuse is a relatively rare word, most people don’t know it or run across it with great frequency. Given its rarity, I don’t think you can find any solace in the descriptivist consenus defence. No, I think you find yourself in the same position as other people who reason according to similarity and refuse to admit to a lacuna in their lexicon before filling it with an ill-supported inference.

        1. I think you’re right here, but rather than framing it as “right” vs “wrong” we can frame it as a natural process. Obviously the similarity to “amused” has affected the usage of the word, by people linking them. I’m sure this has happened before with many many words. It doesn’t make the original meaning “correct”. How did that meaning come about? Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter if people use it as a weird mutant of “amused”. It’s how it is. Go with the flow!

  37. The increasingly common use of “should of” or “would of” instead of “should have” or “would have”.

    The inability to distinguish “lie” (intransitive) and “lay” (transitive).

    The inability to distinguish “affect” and “effect”.

    The practice in academic writing of placing a list in a continuous paragraph, thereby obscuring all the points within, rather than placing it in, well, a list.

      1. Yes, it is, so it’s somewhat off-topic. But it does really bug me and I thought it might get a rise from academics in the thread.

  38. People need to learn the difference between ‘affect’ and ‘effect’.

    The most annoying thing is Jafaken – white kids from Essex trying to sound black.

    If this thread is too grammer geek nazi then it’s your own fault for axing us

    1. Re. ‘affect’ vs. ‘effect’.

      The US will collectively accept evolution before tackling that one.

      1. “…will collectively accept …”

        Which reminds me of the increasing confusion of “accept” with “except.”

        “He was excepted by Stanford.”

        Poor guy!

        I suppose this was mentioned later in this thread, but I’m coming to it (the thread) belatedly and have only read so far so far. 😀

  39. “Different than” (American) or “different to” (British) versus “different from” (correct for both).

    Compare “A is different from B” with “A differs from B”.

    Now replace “from” with “than” or “to”.

    1. Colloquially, “different than,” while it is ungrammatical, is nowadays accepted and understood–and in some constructions it’s just easier to use. But on both sides of the Atlantic “different to” and “different from” are correct.

      “Different” ought to take a proposition. “Than” is a conjunction used in comparisons, but “different” does not introduce a comparison at all.

      1. How about “other than”? Does “other” introduce a comparison? Is saying “other than” incorrect English? Or does “than” perhaps have broader uses than is sometimes supposed?

    2. At last, someone else who knows this.  From Webster, the word “than” is:

      a function word to indicate the second member or the member taken as the point of departure in a comparison expressive of inequality ; used with comparative adjectives and comparative adverbs [my bold]

      It should be obvious that “different” does not denote inequality – there is no indication of which member (as they put it) is the “superior” in the relationship, and so “than” makes no sense. You can be bigger than, louder than, taller than, weaker than etc, but not different than.  It should be different from. It’s surprising how many people, including a number of popular medical, science and skeptic bloggers (including one who even claims to be an English professor), who apparently don’t know this.

  40. Does anyone ever stop to wonder why some of these solecisms hold on so tenaciously? For instance, why would people think that “just desserts” is a natural thing to say, instead of stumbling over the oddity of the phrase?

    Had I never seen just deserts in writing before stumbling across the double-S version, I would likely have interpreted it as meaning “the rewards which it is just to receive”. Makes sense, doesn’t it? (At least as much as driving on parkways and parking on driveways, no?)

  41. Just to mention that William Safire would have been happy to see this thread. Like many, I only occasionally agreed with his political opinions, but as a word maven he was in the opinion of many the best of the last several decades. I just found that all of his columns are archived here beginning with the first:

    There, his Norma Loquendi may already have had things to say about some of the above posts justifying a neologism based on common usage, too.

    And his explanations of expressions were often fascinating. I particularly remember the one about “Going to Hell in a Handbasket” that had some connection to a painting on the ceiling of a 16th century Danish church, with a devil carrying someone off in a wheelbarrow. I always hoped he might explain where “knocked him ass over tincups” came from (an expression of my father’s that I’ve heard elsewhere on occasion), but I guess it had become too archaic.

    And: nick and Konrad, you have just entered the Twilight Zone.

    1. justifying a neologism based on common usage

      Ahh, thank you, you just raised one of my pet peeves in the gray area between sloppy language and sloppy thinking. Unless I am mistaken, and I hope you don’t take it personal since it is but an example of a common practice.

      When people _note_ (i.e. observe a decent frequency of) a neologism, they are not necessarily _justifying_ it. That goes to how you model their thinking, they may or may not want to justify their own or others usage.

      But if it is noteworthy, it isn’t in need of justifying (since language evolves). Unless of course it is wrong/bad practice, in which case it can’t be justified. 😀 (For example, I may want to be a descriptivist for practical purposes, but I could never justify this use of “justifying” that way.)

      1. Also, since I was portraying this as “sloppy”, I was myself sloppy and unjust: of course what Hempenstein refer to may very well have been outright justification (as in validation). Just as long as we don’t conflate observation and validation.

  42. Augh, these comments are mostly aggravating. Tim Martin is completely right. I won’t belabor the point.

    Okay, I will:

    Etymology and logic DO NOT MATTER. Common usage matters. Language does not come from a dictionary, it comes from people talking. If they don’t talk the way you like, too bad for your conception of the english language. It’s not monolithic.

    1. While I’m definitely not a rigid prescriptionist, I disagree on one point: Etymology and logic DO matter, they simply aren’t paramount in determining meaning.

      Language is a means of communication, and when the guys here complaining are seeing something they consider wrong, there’s no communication there and the pedants have as at least as much right to shape the language as the illiterates. It is very easy, in the internet age to justify an error you make by pointing out that hundreds of people are making the same “mistake” so therefore its not a mistake but an alternative usage. The end goal should be ease of communication, not just adopting spelling error as a new idiom.

      To tie this up to another common subject of this blog, people who uncritically adopt ungrammatical or even nonsensical combinations of words as having meaning should be no more acceptable than people uncritically adopting nonsensical religious ideas because they think they have meaning.

      1. That was a fair comment until the last paragraph, there you seem to have forgotten the very good case for meaning of language you made. Those who made these “ungrammatical or even nonsensical combinations of words” injected _their_ meaning in them, it is merely that the receiver is unable or refusing to decode it.

        To use the religious analogy, it is not the case here that one would reject fairies because one do not see fairies. The fairies are there in this instance, but they may be hard to see.

        It isn’t a lack of intrinsic meaning, meaning would need both encoding and decoding, in “ungrammatical or even nonsensical combinations of words”.

        But what is it? It is, AFAIU, a lack of communication, an inability to decode the encoded meaning. That can be remedied in many ways; asking the sender (not practical) or amass more examples if it is frequent (practical). That is how languages evolves.

        [Evolvability here depends much on the redundancy of language. Seldom can word be put in “nonsensical combinations”. And even so, the redundancy of many messages will eventually enforce a decoding.]

        This analysis is by no means to be taken as carte blanche for “anything goes”. (I think Blake Stacey discussed this above.) The new usage, words or grammar or style, may be impractical (say, outright breaking grammar rules) or confusing.

        1. I do think the analogy holds in some aspects. It’s an indicator of how people adopt words (and ideas) without examining them logically. E.g, people who use “for all intensive purposes” don’t mean it literally, rather they use it as a as a whole, to convey the meaning of “for all intents and purposes”, the same way a religious person uses “God” as a placeholder for “answer to life’s questions” Both don’t understand the actual connection but both accept it on faith (or by habit or because everybody else is apparently using it).

          I think there is validity in the analogy.

          1. I don’t know if you stretched the analogy until it broke or watered it down until it became too dilute (or I’m just too tired), but I’m not sure I grasp the meaning of that comment.

            Yes, if you water down faith until it becomes the same as what happens (accept it on faith, accept it because everybody else is apparently using it), it becomes valid. That would be analogous to pantheism, I think.

            If so, fair enough.

      2. “Language is a means of communication, and when the guys here complaining are seeing something they consider wrong, there’s no communication there”

        I don’t see how any of the “errors” in this thread would lead to serious miscommunication. They’re differences of style.

  43. First off, let me gloat a bit as the (currently unemployed) copy editor who first pointed out the “just desserts” error over on Pharyngula. (takes bow)
    It’s an extremely common error, and I think it’s forgivable.
    But one rarely hears even an experienced journalist getting the lie/lay thing right. (Popular music is partially to blame here: “Lay, Lady, Lay,” and “Lay Down Sally” are both wrong.)
    No one can spell supersede or minuscule. I guess I’m most irritated by the people who can’t spell “accommodate,” since it is so commonly used. Helpful mnemonic device: One can’t be very accommodating without a commode. Two “m’s”.
    There will be a quiz tommorrow.
    -John A. Anderson

    1. Not a poet here, but wouldn’t music lyrics be affected by them being lyrics? I.e. you would use, and permit, more loose language to make them better. Even up to the point of nonsense lyrics.

      In the examples you gave, the use of lay is juxtaposed with the names (“Lady”, Sally) both in spelling and, I think, pronunciation.

      I would never (have the gumption to) take music and tell people it was wrong. Unless it (or they) sound really bad – that is just wrong.

      1. “…but wouldn’t music lyrics be affected by them being lyrics?”

        That would be “…by THEIR being lyrics.” 😉

        “Being lyrics” is a gerund that functions as a noun.

        1. I think many of us would be inclined to grant artistic license to songwriters.
          It’s just a personal quirk of mine (I’ve spent most of my life as a copy editor). I cannot listen to otherwise lovely songs such as Lay, Lady, Lay and Lay Down Sally without cringing.

        2. Don, thanks! Neither being a native speaker nor versed in grammar (I’m sure “gerund” means something there), I tend to have a tin ear to the nuances.

            1. 😀

              We should all be so fluent…let alone funny…in a second language!

              Hell, I’d settle for conversant…

          1. Sure, Torbjorn. Many, if not most, native speakers–even those who write and speak professionally–make that error all the time. It’s called a fused participle. For what that’s worth.

  44. …”this” being comment 56. Looks like censorship screws everything up. What did Sili do…?

  45. I give up. This:

    …”this” being comment 56. Looks like censorship screws everything up. What did Sili do…?

    refers to this:

    Erm… this was supposed to be a reply to comment 54. I don’t know why it ended up unindented.

    which in turn refers to this:

    When have and of are just pronounced [əv] ~ [v], it’s a matter of the spelling of homophones, no grammar involved.

    The numbers “56” and “54” are both wrong, the comments in question keep shifting around.

      1. I believe there is also a problem of moderation to consider: Comment numbering is, I believe, based on the time-stamp of when the comment was submitted, which may be different from when the comment appears.

  46. “hair brained”: should be “hare brained”.

    “irregardless” should be “regardless”.

    “cut the mustard”: this is questionable but I don’t know if this is wrong or not. I think it should be “cut the muster” as in “qualifying to make it into the ranks”; there is more here.

    1. I suspect you’re right about “cut the mustard.” The “cut muster” explanation is just too obvious.
      But this sort of thing happens all the time. How many of us call our wives our “helpmates”?
      It comes from Genesis (the book, not the band), where god makes Eve as a help meet (meaning “suitable”) for Adam’s needs.

  47. “My favorite past time” has become common lately. It’s “passtime”.
    I think a lot of them come from people not seeing these terms in print, only (miss)hearing them.

  48. Haven’t read all the comments, so if someone mentioned this, I apologize.

    I hate hearing the adjective “hypothetical” used as a noun. It needs to modify something.

    This seems to be a trend. Perhaps people want to start using fewer words.

    1. hypothetical is as noun is just short for hypothetical statement. I use it a lot and having to type two long words when you can without ambiguity use just one, is totally worth it.

    2. I think it is philosophical technical language. I wouldn’t bother with anyone’s technical use. Except perhaps if it breaks earlier standards, I’m thinking of SI for measurements, et cetera.

  49. “less” when they mean “fewer”.

    “Less” should be used when the object is infinitely divisible (or at least practically so); “fewer” when it is quantal. E.g., less money, fewer dollars; less light, fewer photons; less text, fewer words; less sand, fewer grains of sand; less time, fewer hours; less ice, fewer ice cubes; etc.

    1. Along those lines: once when I took an operations research exam, I got a 98 instead of a 100. I wondered what I had missed.

      In the set up of the problem, I had written “let x be the amount of widgets” and the professor had crossed out “amount” and written “number of” and wrote “-2”.

      She smiled at me when I burst out laughing.

        1. The person who taught you does not have any sort of “authority” on the English language. Language doesn’t spring from a dictionary, it springs from our mouths.

          This is the crux of the issue.

        2. See my longer comments above. Short answer: Lots of people are taught rules about language that are made up. The less/fewer rule as Divalent stated it is one of them, as the facts (linked to) clearly attest.

          1. Tim, your links show prior usage but I don’t think that is the issue. The issue is about clear communication based a on mutual understanding of meaning. This common meaning is not arbitrary in the sense of as long as someone before you has used a word or a phrase you must accept this as equally common under the excuse that language evolves; this is merely an example of poor communication skills through the abuse of language.

            Of course we have to have some respect for linguistic authority not attributed to some specific teacher but from the sources that collect and report common usage. When someone breaks this common usage ‘rule’ because of a misunderstanding, I don’t see why we shouldn’t consider it an ‘error’ even if someone else has made the same mistake at an earlier time.

            1. I’m having a little trouble understanding your comment… so I’m going to respond as best I can and you can let me know if I’ve missed anything.

              It seems like you’re saying that Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage records mistakes that people have made, and that I’m using that as a reference to say “see, it’s okay to do this because other people have.”


              There is no rule that fewer refers to quantity and less to volume (or that fewer is for countable nouns and less is for uncountable, which is what Divalent was saying). There is no rule. It’s made up. Did you read the entry in Merriam-Webster? Because that’s what it says.

              What MW lists is not mistakes. Read the quote: “Our amended rule describes the actual usage of the past thousand years or so.”

              Actual usage. The way people have actually been talking or writing for the past thousand years. These are not the uneducated few; they are the vast majority. And look at who the quotes are from: James Thurber, Agatha Christie, the New York Times! These are not mistakes. This is English.

    2. But that leads to the related problem of “none.” I was always taught that “none,” being a contaction of “not one,” was always singular.
      Then it occurred to me that “none” is an acceptable answer to the question “How much ice cream would you like?”
      Clearly one cannot say “not one ice cream.” This one stumps me.

  50. How abot the use of “colorized” in the previous post? I know some people still insist on “colored”, though I think the distinction is useful.

  51. The use of “an” in front of words beginning with an “h”, when said words begin with a decidedly hard “h” sound (American English peeve).

    1. I don’t think that’s a peculiarly American English peeve. I believe the usage with h-words is “a” if the stress is on the first syllable and “an” otherwise; hence “a horse, an hotel”. This rather assumes that the “h” is silent in hotel. Nowadays it is not silent, so the use of “an” in writing is jarring and can appear pretentious.

    2. Heard of the Cockney bus conductor shouting out before the stop “Olborne” whereupon an elderly gentleman commented “My good man, you dropped an H”. To which the bus conductor’s repartee was “That’s okay, sir, I’ll pick it up again at Hoxford”?

    3. I defy any American to use “a” in front of “historical,” despite its relatively hard “H.”

      1. I do it all the time in writing, and try to when speaking (and I am an American). I attribute this to laziness in speech: pronouncing the article “a” as “uh” rather than with the long A sound. An unaspirated “h” sometimes just flows better in speech.

        BTW, does anyone else “feel me” when I say that Abbie’s completely anti-prescriptionist views would lead to linguistic chaos? Why should the semi-literate who seldom read past whatever is required through high school set our language standards?

  52. Use of “I” in the objective case of a sentence.

    “If you need help with your grammar, just ask Jerry or I.” (me)

    1. This seems to be misused in speech much more than in writing, but I, too, find it grating. (I was waiting for this to come up!)

      Similarly grating is the objective “me” used as part of the subject: “Jerry and me went down to the lake to fish.”

      1. Yes, and just as grating is the use of the reflexive “myself” where ordinary good usage requires “I” or “me,” as in (this is from Ted Rueter’s “English on the Chopping Block”:

        “Several months ago, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott asserted that homosexuality is a disease, like kleptomania. Defending the religious basis of Lott’s position, House Majority Leader Dick Armey commented, “Both myself and Senator Lott believe very strongly in the Bible.”

    2. “I” is also frequently used erroneously in a compound object of a preposition:

      Wrong: “The argument was between Jane and I.”

      Right: “The argument was between Jane and me.”

      (I wonder whether the defenders of the “correctness is defined by usage” thesis would be willing to give up on the proper use pronouns in conjunctions now that so many people get it wrong.

      The relevant point is that proper usage makes sense (when one knows the relevant facts), and we should preserve this.)

      For the record:

      To decide whether to use “Jane and I” or “Jane and me,” try to run the sentence using just I/me: “Jane and I went to the store” (because “I went to the store”), but “He visited Jane and me” (because “He visited me“).

      People get misled here because colloquial English typically uses “me” in all conjunctions; people learn this is a mistake and then overcorrect.

  53. Fascinating stuff, I’ll read the entire post when I have more time.

    ‘Toe the line’ originates from the early days of ‘the noble art’ of bare-knuckle boxing, when boxers were ‘matched’ against each other, and ‘the ring’ was circular and comprised the spectators/gamblers. There was a line drawn across the diameter of the ring and the boxers had to ‘toe the line’ to show that they were ready to start, or continue, the fight. If they could not ‘toe the line’ the ‘match’ was forfeit.

  54. Are things with out shells, shelled? Or unshelled? I guess they’re shelled, because my spell-check doesn’t recognize unshelled.

    I recently heard the phrase “still unwrapped” and I couldn’t figure out if it meant that the presents were wrapped (having not been unwrapped yet) or unwrapped… still (no one had bothered to wrap them yet.)

    A similar confusion was caused by a sign in the background of an episode of House that said: “Board of Health guidelines state that no objects should be less than 18 inches from the ceiling.” It reminds me of one of those spinning illusions that your mind can interpret as either going clockwise or counterclockwise.

    1. And sometimes we just misread what should be obvious. I was once in a biology lab building and passed a sign that read

      Poisonous Snakes

      Keep Out

      And thinking, “that’s dumb; snakes can’t read…” 😀

  55. “Damp squid” instead of “Damp squib”. I can’t understand how people can confuse the two, as there is obviously nothing unusual about a squid being damp, whereas a damp pyrotechnic wouldn’t work.

  56. “Santa’s little helper”…WRONG!

    Come on, everyone knows that Santa is a maquiladora-owning home-invader with socialist tendencies.

    It’s actually “Satan’s little helper,” which refers to anyone who has ever shopped at Wholefoods or drives a Subaru Outback.

  57. THE most common typo is “it’s” in cases where it should be “its”.
    Probably followed by “definately” (there’s no “a” in definitely!).

    Then there’s something that I always correct, but native English speakers always either give me blank stares or claim there’s nothing wrong with it; so MAYBE it IS acceptable as a language construct, but, as a non-native English speaker, this sounds really illogical to me: things like “cheap prices” and “hot temperatures”.

    1. Right–and regarding “definitely,” an error I often see in the work of my college writing students is the use of “defiantly” for “definitely.”

  58. One mistake that goes unnoticed – and so never corrected – in spoken English is using “INCIDENCES” for “INCIDENTS”.

    In the US, many speakers put a “t” sound at the end of “across”.

  59. “Matte” used as meaning “not glossy”.

    “Matt” means “not glossy”, “matte” is a technique in cinema and photography.

    This is so common I think it may be a lost cause, but one can only try.

  60. One I’ve seen a number of times is ‘reign in’ for ‘rein in.’ It’s a perfect example of Orwell’s moribund metaphor. Originally a vivid metaphor – from the time when people rode horses – over-familiarity has killed its ability to call up a picture. ‘Reign’ – to rule, or preside as a monarch – makes no sense in the context, but people have vaguely heard it as a synonym for ‘regulate, slow down.’ Maybe they think it’s a function of royalty to apply checks and balances. Or maybe they just can’t spell.

  61. “Chomping at the bit.”

    (It’s “champing.”)

    I also thought of “One in the same” and “Free reign,” but I see they’ve been named above.

      1. Nonsense. “Chomping” is merely a popular mistake; that does not make it “equally valid.” (“Chafing,” meanwhile, is an entirely different metaphor.)

        The Free Dictionary site you linked to is little more than a surrender to ignorance on this issue. (“Chomping,” you might note, is a transitive verb; it needs an object, and “chomping at the bit” doesn’t provide it with one.) Try these less-keen-to-wave-the-white-flag references:

        Write “chomping at the bit” in any context in which it matters, and you’ll be telegraphing to your readers that you’re careless and a little ignorant.

  62. Oh, and “diffuse the situation” or “diffuse the problem.”

    It’s “defuse.” (I suspect that many people who make this mistake honestly think that the thing that bomb squads do to bombs is spelled “diffuse.”)

  63. How about when people say “come with” or “go with”, but leave out the thing or person they are coming or going with?

    As in, “You’re going to the movies? Can I come with?”

    I know it’s a way to sound comfortably casual, but it’s become a minor peeve of mine.

    Also: a friend of mine hates the word “awesome” when it’s used as “great, wonderful” instead of “inspiring awe as in reverence/fear”. Oddly, that one doesn’t bother me.

    1. I use it a lot. Which isn’t good, since it is an overstatement, so use inflates the part of the language.

      O well, we can’t all be awesome at language.

  64. It’s slightly ironic to have a grammar police thread on an evolution forum. Like it or not, languages are not static. If a construct is successful and perpetuated in society, guess what… the language EVOLVES. To say that a language is evolving incorrectly is as absurd as claiming that marsupials evolved “incorrectly.”

    1. You’re using the wrong metaphor. Language is less like evolution through natural selection and more like dog breeding. There is an external purpose here, optimal communication. And, like dogs, we don’t necessarily control every linguistic offspring, we can decide which words to formally adopt.

      1. Give me one example of a language change that was “formally adopted,” as opposed to becoming mainstream through common usage. France has been trying that approach for years… replacing adopted English-isms with Gallic alternatives. Is it working? No.

        1. Good point.

          Some spelling reforms have worked, but those are likely the exception that proves the rule.

        2. Hmmmm…but there are writers, editors, teachers. There is [cough] intelligent design. It’s well short of imposing changes by fiat, but it’s more directed than natural selection, too.

          The whole thought is interesting; thanks for raising it.

  65. Using the incorrect indefinite article in front of initialisms. I have colleagues that insist that “a FBI special agent” is correct usage when it is written down but “an FBI special agent” should be used when the phrase is spoken. They can’t get away from the apparent rule that “a” only appears before consonants.

  66. ‘Dearly departed.’ I ran across that one five minutes ago. ‘Dearly’ means ‘at great cost,’ as in ‘dearly bought.’
    ‘Dear departed’ is the correct, if saccharine, usage.

    1. “‘Dearly departed.’ I ran across that one five minutes ago.‘Dear departed’ is the correct, if saccharine, usage.”

      That’s a new one on me, but you can see how it might have come about as an adaptation of the familiar “Dearly beloved” – which incidentally shows that “dearly” doesn’t just mean “at great cost”.

  67. One that I’ve heard over the last few years is “in forever”, as in “I haven’t seen you in forever.” I originally thought it was just my teenaged daughters saying it, but I actually heard it on the news the other day. Not that that means much. But what I’m more used to, “I haven’t seen you forever”, probably isn’t proper usage either.

    1. That’s ONLY correct with ‘like’: I haven’t seen you in, like, fo-evvuh!”

      (Just kidding)

  68. Opposite-door/Next-door neighbor – eeks! It’s your neighbour even if he lives down the street! And could we learn not to condescend when we are trying to vouch (sic).

  69. I’m reminded of the story of the linguistics professor who was telling his students that while a double negative could express a positive statement (“it is not inconceivable that…”) a double positive could never express a negative. To this, one student at the back of the lecture hall shouted “Yeah, yeah!”

      1. I think you might be right. Either makes sense to me, but maybe “yeah, yeah” isn’t universally recognized as a derisory phrase.

          1. Well “Yeah, right” isn’t really a double positive either. The “yeah” doesn’t modify “right” (in contrast to a phrase like “not unlikely”).

            It’s funny, though, which I guess is the important thing.

            1. Right, but I think that what’s funny about the joke it that “Yeah, right!” mounts a sarcastic challenge to the professor in the form of a wry contradiction of his premise.

            2. Right, but I think that what’s funny about the joke is that “Yeah, right!” mounts a sarcastic challenge to the professor in the form of a wry contradiction of his premise.

            3. As does “yeah, yeah”, Don. At least in British English usage (spoken with the second yeah at a considerable interval below the first)

            4. “Yeah, yeah,” when the second *yeah* is lower in pitch generally connotes weary assent, akin to “Whatever [you say}.”

     offers this:

              A linguistics professor was lecturing to his class one day. “In English,” he said, “A double negative forms a positive. In some languages, though, such as Russian, a double negative is still a negative. However, there is no language wherein a double positive can form a negative.”

              A voice from the back of the room piped up, ‘Yeah, right.’

              And here’s the “ESL Joke of the Day” from: the English Humor blogspot:

              ESL Joke of the Day – A Lecture about English
              A linguistics professor was lecturing to his English class one day. “In English,” he said, “A double negative forms a positive. In some languages, though, such as Russian, a double negative is still a negative. However, there is no language wherein a double positive can form a negative.”

              A voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, right.”

              Don’t understand the joke? “Yeah, right.” is a slang expression which actually means “I don’t think so.” Technically, however, it is a double positive, which proves the professor wrong.

            5. Of course I understand the joke. Why would I retell it if I didn’t?

              All I’m saying is that in my particular form of English, I (and others) understand “Yeah, yeah”–which, though not technically a double positive, contains two adjacent positive elements–to mean “Hah! Sure, if you think so”, in a way that implies that speaker *doesn’t* think so.

              And I maintain that “Yeah, right” isn’t in fact a double positive. The comma separates the two elements, so what we actually have is [Yes] + [You are/It is right]. The “yeah” doesn’t modify the “right”. If you accept that as a double positive you’d have to accept “No, never” as a double negative, when in fact it acts as a reinforcing phrase (the “never” reinforcing the “no”).

              “*Not* never” would be a double negative, but “yeah” is equivalent to “no” and not “not”.

              I’ve lost track of my nots now…

            6. I don’t really think of something like “not unlikely” as a double negative either. One’s morphological and the other syntactic, and they don’t really interact. In registers where double negatives are not accepted, something like “not unlikely” is still just fine.

            7. Scott, sorry! That “Don’t understand the joke?” remark was not directed at you. I was quoting the blog, wherein the blogger is addressing his readers. And I agree that “Yeah, right!” isn’t really a double positive.

              My only point in quoting from the two Web sites was to suggest that, predominantly, the joke’s last line is other than “Yeah, yeah.” The inflection you recommend would only come across vocally anyway.

  70. Writing “compared to” when you mean “compared with.”

    When you’re highlighting the differences between things, it is “compared with.”  So when you’re comparing, for example, the results of a medical intervention to see if it is better than a placebo, you compare the medical intervention with the placebo.  You’re highlighting the differences, or at least seeing if there is a difference.

    Alternatively, “Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?” The difference is obvious.

  71. And there are the ones that rely on not saying but implying what it means in context or articulation.

    “I am having a moment.”

    Really could mean any kind of moment, but it doesn’t.

    1. Yes, Ophelia, that one’s a lost cause by now, alas, but careful writers will continue to bridle at the usage (if in silence) for a long time.

  72. “Drug” for “dragged” annoys me no end, especially when used by TV news anchors. And “general consensus”.

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