Saturday, November 12, 2005

Breaking the Rules

When I first started this blog, one of my rules was that I wouldn't post any messages complaining about the countless mistakes people make when they talk. First of all, it makes you seem pedantic; second, people hate it when you correct them, and third, to do it right, you'd have to devote an entire blog to it. It would be a full-time job, and it wouldn't even pay anything. Besides, it would be a losing battle, since most people are very defensive of their own behavior, even when they know it's wrong. As a matter of fact, they're usually more defensive when they're wrong -- when they're right, they just ignore you.

In any event, today I'm going to break my own rule.

But before I begin, I have to say that nobody speaks perfect English. I once read an interview with Noam Chomsky -- who's generally regarded as the father of modern Linguistics -- and even he made a tiny grammatical mistake. I accidentally make little mistakes sometimes as well. And other times, I make them deliberately, like whenever I begin a sentence with "and" or "but" or "or." You're not supposed to start a sentence with a conjunction, but I do it all the time, because I consider it more a matter of style than a rule of grammar. I don't mind the occasional split infinitive either. After all, this is English we're talking about, not Latin.

Okay, with all that out of the way, I'll highlight a few of the more annoying mistakes that people commonly make, starting with the one that prompted me to write this little essay in the first place.

A lot of people seem to think that -ette is a feminizing suffix. This is a very common mistake. But is a cigarette a female cigar? Is a kitchenette a female kitchen? Is a sermonette a female sermon? The answer in all three cases is no. The suffix that generally turns male into female is -ess, as in tigress, lioness, actress, governess, princess, duchess, temptress, enchantress, seductress, sorceress, and goddess. There are other feminizing suffixes as well, like -enne (comedienne) and -trix (aviatrix, dominatrix). But -ette is not one of them.

It's pretty obvious from the examples above that -ette is a diminutive suffix -- it's a way of denoting a smaller version of something. Since women are generally smaller than men -- and have pretty much been regarded as inferior to men throughout human history -- it's a pretty easy mistake to make. So people who make this mistake aren't necessarily stupid or anything -- they're just wrong.

Here's another one. Everybody knows that the word me is an object and not a subject. That's why we don't say things like "Me and Bill robbed a liquor store last night." However, there's a tendency for some people to over-correct and replace me with I when me is the correct word, as in the sentence, "If anyone saw us beating up that liquor store clerk, it could mean big trouble for you and I." There's a similar mistake that's probably just as common, which is to use the word myself instead of me, as in the sentence, "After you get a statement from that liquor store clerk, give a copy to either Sgt. Mendez or myself."

When I was in college, one of my linguistics professors referred to this sort of thing as "hyper-urbanization" (in the sense of trying to sound urbane -- not in the sense of over-developing a city). I've never heard anyone else use the term that way, but I like it, so I'll pass it on to you.

Considering all the mistakes people make, this next one is hardly worth mentioning -- especially since technically it isn't even a mistake -- but I'll mention it anyway because it sounds stupid. Have you ever heard anyone introduce a thought they once had by saying "I remember thinking to myself..." or "I thought to myself..."? You probably have, since just about everyone says it. But guess what? Unless you have the telepathic ability to implant thoughts into the minds of others, you can't think to anyone but yourself. So saying you thought to yourself is redundant. Just say "I thought..." or "I remember thinking..." Most people will understand what you mean.

Here's a mistake that's so common that I think the rules of grammar will eventually be changed to accommodate it. But for now, it's still wrong, so don't say "I'm going to lay down" when you mean "I'm going to lie down." Lay is the past tense of lie (as in the sentence, "As soon as I lay down, my head started spinning and I felt like throwing up.") but it's also a verb in its own right. It's a transitive verb, however, so it always takes an object, as in "Lay your cards on the table" or "Lay the weapon down or I'll shoot." Confusing the whole matter, of course, is the other meaning of lie, the past tense of which is lied, as in "She lied to me once too often, so I poisoned her food."

All the trouble people have with lay and lie is perfectly understandable, given the ambiguity with the verb To Lie. For example, when someone says, "The air outside was filled with toxic fumes, and people were lying in the street everywhere you looked," it's possible to intrepret this to mean that people in the street were not telling the truth, perhaps due to one of the side-effects of the poisonous gas. So when people say, "I was laying in bed," maybe it's to make it clear that they were in a recumbent position, and not engaged in telling something other than the truth. Of course, the two aren't mutually exclusive -- it's possible to tell lies while situated horizontally, but in the limited space I've given myself here, I can't give that topic the full discussion it deserves.

Just to make something clear, I'm really not trying to change the way people talk -- how stupid they want to sound is entirely up to them, which reminds me of something my 7th grade English teacher told us one time. One of our vocabulary words was "patina." I'm paraphrasing because I don't remember her exact words, but she gave us some good advice, which I am now passing on to you for free: "If you want to sound ignorant and uneducated, say puh-TEE-nuh instead of PAT-n-uh."

To wrap things up, I'll just list a few other assaults against the language that I find particularly annoying, without going into a detailed explanation:

  • Where it's at: This was a hip counter-cultural thing to say in the '60s, but it's just as grammatically incorrect today as it was forty years ago. And now it sounds dated as well.

  • Aren't I?: No explanation should be needed here. If you know how to conjugate the verb To Be, you already know why this is wrong.

  • Rather: It's a great word, but it isn't a verb, so saying something like "I'd rather that you don't tell anyone" is just plain wrong.

  • As best as I can: Say either "as well as I can" or "the best that I can."

  • In process: Something can be "in progress" or it can be "being processed," but "in process" just doesn't make any sense.

  • As far as [whatever]: Say either "as for [whatever]" or "as far as [whatever] is concerned."

  • Whom: I'm convinced that this word will eventually disappear from the language -- and that might not even be such a terrible thing -- but it's still in the dictionary for now, so use it.


There. I'm done. I've barely scratched the surface, but I feel better anyway, even though I understand that nothing I wrote here today will actually do any good. Like I said, it's a losing battle. And I have to admit, with all the problems in today's world -- ranging from the poisons in our air to the impending plague of rats -- there are arguably much better things to concern ourselves with. On the other hand, no matter how bad things get, I'd like to think we'll always be able to find time to criticize the way other people talk.

Anyway, to end on a happy note, I want to mention a mistake that used to be very common, but which I hardly ever hear today. Twenty or thirty years ago, it seemed like half the population of the United States pronounced the word sherbet as sherbert -- that's even one of the alternate pronunciations in one of my old dictionaries. It used to really annoy me when otherwise intelligent and articulate people pronounced the word that way, but fortunately, that particular mispronunciation seems to have fallen from popularity. Either that or I'm just not talking to as many people about sherbet these days.