Sunday, February 17, 2013

Increasingly fashionable linguistic errors (continued)

Following up my previous posts on Getting it right with "may" and "might" and A few more prevalent linguistic errors, here is an updated tally of some annoyingly common linguistic barbarisms, many of which are also logically fallacious, that I notice have increasingly infected writing and conversation over the past few decades. Of course, this doesn't pretend to be a comprehensive list.

    I'll start by reiterating examples I've already mentioned:

(1)  When people use "may" where they really mean "might", the resulting formulations don't really make sense, and often sound silly to anyone paying attention.  For further explanation, see here.

(2)  It is remarkably common for people to use formulations along the lines of "more X than anyone" or "more X than anything" when simple logic should tell them they really must mean "more X than anyone or anything else".

(3)  It has also become increasingly common for people to say "hone in" when the expression they're really groping for is "home in". I suspect that a phonological slippage from "home" to "hone" is part of the explanation, and I also suspect that part of the problem is that many people no longer have any idea what "hone" means. To "hone" something is to sharpen it, as in honing the edge of a knife--or, by metaphorical extension, making something more acute or effective. If you hone your analytical and linguistic skills, you can use them to home in on errors like this one.

(4)  And even a great many otherwise intelligent and educated people appear to believe that the phrase "this begs the question" means something along the lines of "this raises the following question" or "this forces us to ask the following question". It doesn't.

(5)  When I posted some of these examples a few years ago, my friend Mark Gerson added:  "Yes – also: 'I could care less'. It’s the precise opposite of what people mean when using the phrase."

(6)  And now let's add another increasingly common linguistic misdemeanor, usefully nailed by Mark Kleiman:
“Loath” is an adjective meaning “reluctant.”
“Loathe” is a verb meaning “abhor.”

Therefore a phrase such as “They would be loathe to admit it” is gibberish. Any given instance could be a mere typo, such as I constantly make in this space. And it’s a typo the spell-checker won’t catch, since “loathe” is a perfectly good word. But I detect a trend of substituting “loathe” for “loath,” which would be a shame.

Yours for sensible & literate discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S.  It's also vitally important to prevent the extinction of the final serial comma.  If you're not sure why that's true, see here.