Thursday, May 7, 2009

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

It's May 7th, and you all know what that means! That's right: it has been roughly 4.5 months since the first instalment of my potentially ongoing series: English rules, words, and phrases that every supposedly educated person should understand!

Hurray! Confetti and streamers rain down!

Today we start with a word: "momentarily." This word, in its authentic usage, describes an action that takes place over a very short period of time, i.e. a moment. It is, however, commonly misused to denote imminence. Consequently, if one says "Mr. Smith can see you momentarily," one is not saying that the audience will be waiting a short time to see Mr. Smith (indeed, one could be intending for them to wait hours for his availability), instead, one is saying that the meeting with Mr. Smith, whenever it does happen, will be fleeting.

The correct rejoinder in most cases is "Well then, I'll come back tomorrow."

Mispronunciation can be just as jarring as misuse. Naturally, we expect there to be local and personal variations in pronunciation of a word. In our last segment we covered the folly of "irregardless," but dropping a syllable can be just as bad. It has never mattered to me whether someone did say "toe-may-toe" or "tom-AH-toe," but to pronounce it as "toe-toe" would be definitely more than grating.

Consider the way many people (even in the medical profession), will call something a "Respitory infection." Is it an infection one may only contract whilst relaxing? Again, it doesn't matter if one says "Resp-IRE-atory" or "RESP-er-atory", but to drop a syllable entirely is at best laziness and at worst a sign of low literacy. Though uncommon in North America, I don't mind if someone says "Anti-BEE-otics" instead of "Anti-BYE-otics," but if I had a dollar for every time a person with two degrees said "Antibotics," I would have a lot of dollars.

"Dilatation" falls into the same category as "preventative" - we have a perfectly good word, "dilation," to describe that phenomenon. Only the poseur, attempting to increase his esteem amongst the dolts he surrounds himself with, needs to add an extra syllable.

Latin and Greek singular nouns can be difficult to transform into the plural, and vice-versa, but there are a few endings that ought to be common enough for the people using such terms to know their proper usage. For instance nouns ending in -um are generally Latin, and the plural form should generally end in -a. A building cannot have auditoriums. It has auditoria. We do not cruise online forums. We cruise the online fora.

A slip here and there is of no consequence, and simply adding an "-s" is excusable for most of the uneducated brutes in the population. What is far more galling, however, is when one of the rabble begins misusing the plural form to denote the singular, as in "This is an interesting phenomena," or when the Latin and Greek endings are superimposed onto words that are clearly common English nouns "we need to streamline our processeeeeez."

"He is an alumni." It sets my teeth on edge just to hear it.

For the uninformed, uneducated, unrefined individual, we can only have pity upon them, and forgive them for not having had the benefit of good language instruction. For the pretentious pretender, however, no such consideration should be made.

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REVIT said...

If the majority of English-speakers understand 'momentarily' to mean 'imminently', is it possible that you, being in the minority, should accept this common usage of the word and adapt to the inevitable flux of language?

Perhaps rather than deriding the majority for not conforming to the Oxford English Dictionary, we question whether static definitions are the problem.

The Proud Islamist said...


Though they may be at the gates, the barbarians can be held back.

The Oxford English Dictionary itself has become contaminated with a descriptive approach to language - it aspires more and more to conform to the vulgar usages of the mob.

Those of us who adhere to the prescriptive approach are known to one another by our eloquence - a sign that separates the intellectual old money from the uncouth nouveau riche.

Now, seriously speaking, language is for the purpose of communication. I actually do not complain with colloquialisms or slang, so long as they are widely understood by the intended audience. What I object to the most strenuously is the use of bombast by those who are intentionally trying to make themselves seem intelligent, but whose actual erudition is minimal.

Kelly said...

Thank you for the installment. I found it quite enjoyable and was really hoping you would cover the dilation-dilatation issue eventually. The suspense has been bothering me. Thanks!