Butchering the Language We Misuse Some Words and Phrases So Often That Dictionaries Now Feed the Errors Back to Us

Article excerpt

The first three paragraphs contain several questionable usages. Can you spot them? If not, read on and learn. If you CAN spot them, savor the smug superiority reserved for those who know the difference between right and wrong ... when it comes to language, anyway.

Everyone has their little grammar pet peeves.

All around us, people are literally butchering the language. It's enough to make a person nauseous.

Even worse, it seems dictionaries - presumably the last word on subjects such as these - are going right along with the masses. Could it be that the editors of these esteemed reference books really could care less about the state of the English language?

Actually, Michael Agnes, editor in chief of the Webster's New World Dictionary, says he could care less because, in fact, he cares a great deal. The notion that people might think he "couldn't" care less is not only disheartening, it's a gross misinterpretation of what Agnes and the dictionary are trying to do, he says.

"A good dictionary is the reporter of language use," Agnes says. "You tell what's going on in the community. You (as a journalist) may not like some of the things you have to report, such as crime. But you don't let your personal opinions intervene. Your job is to present reality and a good dictionary editor is very much the same."

Agnes may not like the fact that people say "could care less" when they mean "couldn't care less," but who is he to say all those people are wrong. Call him a victim of peer pressure, if you will, but Agnes defends his decision to include the "incorrect" phrase in the dictionary along with the following definition:

"Could care less - corruption of the phrase 'couldn't care less.' Informal. To feel the least possible degree of interest, sympathy."

Dictionaries are loaded with similar examples.

Take the word nauseous. Traditionally, it means "causing nausea," but editors like Agnes know that very few people who say "I feel nauseous" mean to imply that they make others sick. Rather than correct those individuals, dictionaries have simply adopted the new definition of the word.

Webster's acknowledges the preferred definition by including the following notation:

"Nauseous - 1. Causing nausea. 2. feeling nausea, nauseated: usage objected to by some."

To the people who say "could care less" and "I feel nauseous," such definitions serve as validation that they've been right all along. To others, the practice is maddening and just another reflection of the way our language continues to change - for better or worse.

As Oakton Community College's official "Dr. Grammar," Richard Francis Tracz hears language miscues every day. Sometimes he corrects the errors, but often he just grits his teeth.

Admittedly, Tracz, chairman of Oakton's English department, says it's more difficult to correct language errors when dictionaries endorse questionable practices like using a plural pronoun with a singular antecedent (e.g., Everybody should bring their lunch tomorrow.), so the grammar doctor chooses his battles wisely.

"There are certain things that are obvious errors," Tracz said, noting that the aforementioned example clearly is one of them. "I still think that's wrong. It's a matter of what is your pet peeve and how much will you tolerate."

Language love affair

Though it might not always be so obvious, Americans are surprisingly passionate about language.

The Internet is loaded with sites devoted to the topic, including many that call for certain words, or word usages, to be banned from our language entirely.

Some words, like "Y2K," and "high-tech," should get the boot for sheer overusage, many language enthusiasts argue. Whereas words such as "literally" and "hopefully" should be taboo until people learn to use them correctly again.

Then there are words that fall into both categories, like "millennium. …