Saturday, November 22, 2008

English rules, words, and phrases that every supposedly educated person should understand

It bothers me when people with multiple university degrees misuse English, or whatever the lingua franca happens to be. This is especially grating when it happens to be the miscreant's first language. Correcting this will be a hard, thankless task, but I believe that this blog and I are up to the task. I would like to warn readers that much of this will sound awfully self-righteous on its own; for that, forgive me, I need the catharsis.

Where to start . . . ?

Let's start with a rule that I just correctly applied, but that is too often confused - the difference between saying "Jack and me" and saying "Jack and I."

"Jack and me" is not always incorrect. Consequently, people who always use "Jack and I" become transparently pretentious. "Me" is the 1st-person pronoun to be used as a direct or indirect object. In plain language, this means that you can use "me" whenever something is being done to you.

Example: "The teacher reprimanded Jack and me for being slovenly heathens." (correct)
vs. "The teacher reprimanded Jack and I for being slovenly heathens, and I just proved her right." (incorrect, pretentious).

That will be our grammar lesson for the day.

Let's get on to diction and pronunciation.

"Homage" is pronounced the way it is spelled. It is an English word, and has been for a long time. Say the bloody H. You do not sound more intelligent by saying it like a French word, as in "Omaaaajh." On the contrary, you sound like an unlettered savage, trying to feign intelligence.

The noun that corresponds to the verb "to prevent" is "Prevention." You decrease your esteem amongst literate people when you say "Preventation."

The verb that corresponds to "Orientation" is "to orient." You sound like a self-important buffoon when you say "Orientate." Is that consistent with the above lesson on "Prevention?" No, of course not. Merely because a "zealous" person is a "zealot" who is full of "zeal" does not mean that a "jealous" person is a "jealot" who is full of "jeal." Languages are never perfectly consistent, so quit boo-hoo-ing, and live with it.

There is no such word as "irregardless." Nobody ever uses "irregardless" without really meaning an actual English word, "regardless." People who say the former likely do so because they have heard literate people using real words like "irrespective" or "irresponsible." In these cases, the "ir-" prefix actually means something.

A verbal trick you use to remember something is a "mnemonic" device. It is NOT a "pneumonic" device. It will not cause you to be short of breath.

To "forage" means to find and gather something desirable from a relative wilderness. To "forge" means to create or build something from materials that are difficult to work with.

There is no such verb as "to impact." You cannot "impact something." You may "have an impact" on something, or you could "affect something." You have a perfectly good verb and a perfectly good noun to explain what you mean - there is no justifiable reason to "verb a noun."

That's enough of that for today; let's move on to misused phrases.

The phrase "to beg the question" is so abused that instances of its correct use are dwarfed by instances of its abuse. "To beg the question" does NOT mean that it "raises the question." In using it this way, you fortunately do not sound like a pompous fool. Instead, you simply sound like an otherwise normal individual whose experience in intelligent conversation and debate is highly limited. "To beg the question" means to provide an answer to a question or challenge that provides no information that was not already assumed in the question.

Correct usage example: "Why should we cut taxes?"
"Because then people will give a smaller percentage of their income to the government."
"You are begging the question."

Incorrect usage example: "Why should we cut taxes?"
"Because this will allow people to spend their money, resulting in a expansion in private enterprise, which will, in turn, create more employment and prosperity for all."
"But that begs the question: how much to we need to cut taxes in order to see an effect?"

In the first example, the person responding to the question did not provide his interlocutor with any information that was not assumed in the question. The questioner obviously knows that cutting taxes results in people giving less money to the government, he is asking why this is a desirable thing. The responder was truly "begging the question." In the second example, the responder has provided a reasonable answer to the original question, which raises the issue to which the second question is addressed. The response in no way "begged the question."

The opposite of "de facto" is "de jure." You can pronounce the "j" if you like, although to be faithful to the Latin, one should not. "de facto" implies that whatever is being discussed is not the result of an official ruling, legitimized by the accepted authority, but that it has come to be by convention. If it had been legitimized by the accepted authority, it becomes, by definition, "de jure."

At this point, I suspect that the collective attention span of my target audience is on the wane (there is probably an underlying reason why they haven't already learned these simple things). The rest of you could probably go for longer, but since you are already educated, enlightened individuals, I don't want to carry coals to Newcastle. This, therefore, will be the end of this lesson. If you are very fortunate, we will reconvene some other day.

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Brian Barker said...

I live in London and if anyone says to me “everyone speaks English” my answer is “Listen and look around you”. If people in London do not speak English then the whole question of a global language is completely open.

The promulgation of English as the world’s “lingua franca” is impractical and linguistically undemocratic. I say this as a native English speaker!

Impractical because communication should be for all and not only for an educational or political elite. That is how English is used internationally at the moment.

Undemocratic because minority languages are under attack worldwide due to the encroachment of majority ethnic languages. Even Mandarin Chinese is attempting to dominate as well. The long-term solution must be found and a non-national language, which places all ethnic languages on an equal footing is essential.

An interesting video can be seen at Professor Piron was a former translator with the United Nations

A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at

The Proud Islamist said...

I fully agree with you about the threatened minority languages.

That said, there will be a lingua franca, be it English, or something else. That doesn't mean that we have to stamp out other languages, but we do need a way for us all to communicate.

If we all use Esperanto, that's fine. I just think that if we do, people should not disguise their errors as erudition.

Kelly said...

I like this post but I'm not sure about your point on impact. I must just be uneducated (honestly) but I think I do like using impact as a verb.

Emily Gusba said...

What about people saying they're "weary" of something when they mean "wary"? Because I've heard it a LOT recently, and it gives me the creeping horrors.

Also, whether for better or for worse, "impact" is only one of a laundry list of verbified nouns. Apparently 'tis all the linguistic rage.

Emily Gusba said...

ALSO - on homage. Because of the way h is treated in pronunciation, you'd "pay homage," but something would be "an omaaj" to Y.

Sometimes H is silent, and sometimes not, depending on where you are. Clearly, a wise person wields her H judiciously.(

And sometimes H serves as an idiot detector, as you so rightly pointed out.

The Proud Islamist said...

Thank you for you comments Emily, I will bear them in mind if make a series of these posts.

Kelly: In that case, I can only allow you to wallow in your own barbarity.

Emily Gusba said...

Oh you are more than welcome - and there are plenty more grammar rants where those came from.

Case in point: the importance of the Oxford comma. (