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Word Nerds: Verbal Custodians Trapped in a Time Warp

A big drawback to a column like this is being perceived as having insufferable attitude: “So, Mr. Expert, I guess you think you’re so superior.”

It’s not like that. Word nerds do custodial work. A lot of brilliant people can’t write. Ernest Hemingway was a terrible speller. Word nerds don’t think they’re “better”—do janitors think they’re better than the office workers they clean up after?

I often wonder why I bother about details that concern so few normal people. Oh, I know what Arthur Conan Doyle said: “[T]he little things are infinitely the most important,” but on the other hand, I once saw Dick Cavett take a swipe at noted Harvard law professor-author Alan Dershowitz by correcting his grammar. Dershowitz made a sour (but unperturbed) face and shot back that unlike Cavett, he was too busy making a difference in the world to worry about language trivia.

So it’s not about word nerds’ delusions of superiority. We feel like anachronisms, displaced in a world of shifting values and priorities. We live in an idealized past. We each have our own preferred era, be it the time of Shakespeare or Swift or Dickens or Twain or Shaw, when people read a lot more and savored the mot juste.

Oh, and everyone you knew could write, spell, and punctuate, and felt enriched by a good vocabulary.

Anyway, onward to this week’s entries of infamy…

Irregardless I’ve heard a lot of bright people say this nonsense word, which results from confusing and combining regardless and irrespective. If people would just think about it, what’s that dopey ir- doing tacked on? In technical terms, ir- is an “initial negative particle.” So if “irregardless” means anything, it means “not regardless” when its hapless speaker is trying to say the exact opposite.

Center around The whole play centers around the consequences of ill-gotten gains. This common, misbegotten expression results from the unhappy union of two similar terms: center on and revolve around. Because the phrases are roughly synonymous, if you use them both enough, they merge in the mind. What’s annoying about “center around” is that it’s imprecise, and disheartens readers who take writing seriously. The center is the point in the middle. How, exactly, would something center around? You get dizzy trying to picture it.

Hone in This is another mongrel, like the two that preceded it. It’s the brain-dead combo of hone and home in. We simply can’t allow confusion to be the basis of acceptable changes in the language. In recent years, “hone in” has achieved an undeserved legitimacy for the worst of reasons: the similarity, in sound and appearance, of n and m. Honing is a technique used for sharpening cutting tools and the like. To home in, like zero in, is to get something firmly in your sights: get to the crux of a problem.

Reticent This trendy word properly means “uncommunicative,” “reserved,” “silent.” But sophisticates who like to fancy up their mundane blather are now using it when they mean “reluctant.” I was reticent to spend so much on a football game. When I hear something like that, I wish the speaker would just reticent the heck up.

Allude Allude to means mention indirectly. In one of its most unspeakable moves, Webster’s lists refer as a synonym. Horrors! When you refer to something, it’s a direct transaction: I refer to Section II, paragraph one, Your Honor. When you allude to something or someone, you don’t come out and say it; you’re being subtle, sly or sneaky: “Someone I know better wise up.”

Off (of) “Hey! You! Get off of my cloud,” sang the Rolling Stones, unnecessarily. The of is extraneous, and off of is what’s known as a pleonasm. That means: starting now, avoid it.

Couple (of) Hey, gimme a couple bucks, wouldja? When I was a kid, this is how neighborhood tough guys talked, while cracking their chewing gum. Don’t drop the of; one more little syllable won’t kill you.

This grammar tip was contributed by veteran copy editor and word nerd Tom Stern.

Posted on Friday, May 17, 2013, at 9:59 am


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