Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Be careful out there

People’s insecurity about the use of their own language is deep-seated and sad, and it leaves them defensive. (For God’s sake, never tell someone you are meeting for the first time that you are a copy editor; say that you sell crack to schoolchildren.) They hold on to misinformation taught in elementary school, or they go looking for advice. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of bad advice out there.

A gentleman named Sam Greenspan operates a Web site called 11 Points, at which he posts top-ten lists plus one. Earlier this month he posted “11 Little-Known Grammatical Errors That Will Shock and Horrify You.” Shocked and horrified indeed was I, because a substantial amount of his advice was either misguided or flat wrong.

Item: He insists that hopefully may only be used in the sense of in a hopeful manner, never in the sense of it is hoped that. Sadly, the hopefully wars of the 1970s and 1980s continue like the Korean stalemate, without even an armistice. But many adverbs of emotion are used as sentence adverbs in English (as in the previous sentence), and no one objects. Give it up.

Item: He takes could care less as meaning its literal sense of having some capacity to care rather than couldn’t care less. But English idioms are not necessarily logical, and I have never encountered anyone who mistook could care less for meaning anything other than couldn’t care less. Want to guess how much I care about this issue?

Item: You’ve got mail for you have mail is a construction Mr. Greenspan deplores, even though have got has been well established in English since Chaucer went to grammar school and, Bryan Garner says, “adds emphasis and is perfectly idiomatic.”

Item: I too once insisted that anxious and eager could not be used interchangeably, that the former had to be limited to states of anxiety rather than hopeful expectation. But the language is what its users make it, and anxious for eager, like aggravate for irritate, appears to be well established and not worth a cavil. You can, like Canute, order the tide not to come in, but you will get your feet wet.

Item: Mr. Greenspan, like the Associated Press Stylebook (that repository of outdated and unreliable advice), is under the impression that two objects must be in motion before they can collide. That’s because the Latin root of the verb means “to strike together,” the co, from com, indicating that both are in motion. But while etymology suggests meaning, it does not legislate it, and English, you may have noticed, is not Latin. R.W. Burchfield, the late editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, said in his revision of Fowler that there is no reason that a vehicle cannot collide with a bollard as well as with another moving vehicle.  

Mr. Greenspan means well, and what he says is what you can find in a number of outdated or unreliable sources. When you are in need of advice on language and usage, dear ones, just come back here.  


  1. Thank you for this. English language usage certainly changes horse midstream.

    I remember when fulsome was not the best word to use with "praise".

    Will return to learn more.

    (Please don't read this with copy editor-ly eyes. It's rather early and coffee is not ready and...

  2. With our modern understanding of physics, all educated people should know that everything is in motion, always. And so it's very easy for two items to collide even if one of those items appears to be standing still. In fact, the "stationary" item is just as much at fault for failing to get out of the way.

    Thankfully, I think we still recognize that it takes at least two to collude. Or tango.

  3. Normally I avoid commenting on posts like the one you mention, but when it did the rounds a few weeks ago I couldn't help myself. Unfortunately, my attempt to add a measure of level-headedness to the discussion was quickly submerged, as I wrote elsewhere, in a deluge of wrong-headed peevishness.

  4. This is good to know, since I've had four people show me this list in the past month.

  5. Feel free to direct all four back to me.

  6. Some people make me so mad, I could drink. Then I'd walk a staggered line and probably collide with them all, but seriously, I could care less.

  7. I like Jan Freeman's defense of "anxious" for "eager" in her annotated edition of "Write It Right": "Eager and anxious overlap in meaning not because our speech is careless, but because eagerness and anxiety coexist in the human heart."

  8. Irregardless of the consensus of opinion, I could care less...

    I'm no grammar-Nazi, but this kind of thing drives me up and over the wall, then I run screaming into the night.