More on “More Ear-itating Word Abuse”

Posted on Tuesday, July 16, 2019, at 11:00 pm

Last month we reran More Ear-itating Word Abuse by our late writer Tom Stern. The article first appeared in August 2013. We heard from many readers, and their comments were just about evenly split between:

For years I’ve hated hearing people mispronounce these words. Thank you for shining a spotlight on this subject.


You are stuck in place while the language is evolving. You are prescriptivists when it is descriptivists who evolve and survive.

For those unfamiliar with such terms, prescriptivists are those who prescribe what they think is right, generally based on past practice and acceptance, and descriptivists are those who observe the world and describe what people are doing in current practice.

Tom Stern liked to portray himself as a language curmudgeon (he also sometimes called himself a fussbudget), but what he really enjoyed was stirring the pot, taking a defensible position, and then getting people to think about how they are using language.

Are we at prescriptivists? We’ve certainly been accused of it, especially when we write things like “Dour  The correct pronunciation is ‘doo-er.’ ” But we’ve also been abandoned by readers who think we’ve betrayed their bent toward prescriptivism when we insist that as well as who can be used as a pronoun to describe people (Old Superstitions Die Hard). Moreover, some readers have disapproved of our acceptance of the singular they in certain circumstances (more on that in upcoming newsletters).

We like to think of ourselves as neutral, somewhere close to half-way between prescriptivism and descriptivism. Okay, well, maybe the truth is we are a bit more on the side of prescriptivism, and we might be more comfortable with the term traditionalists. We are, however, willing to revisit certain positions and loosen the leash a bit when facts and circumstances support doing so:

Dour  The traditional pronunciation is “doo-er.” A standard variant that is now commonly heard is “dower.”

Forte  (meaning “strength” or “talent”) The traditionally preferred pronunciation is “fort.” American English has now tilted toward for-tay (also see More on Misspoken or Mispronounced Words and Phrases).

Schism  The traditional pronunciation is “sizzum.” However, “skizzum” is rapidly gaining ground.

Short-lived  Because the compound is derived from the noun life rather than the verb live, it is etymologically correct to use a long i. However, the short i pronunciation is now commonly acceptable.

Where we won’t budge is in the area of fad or vogue words and terms that transition from fresh and edgy to stale and tedious due to manic overuse. One such term that has been hanging around irritating us language fussbudgets is “very unique.” To be unique is to be “one of a kind,” not to be unusual. How can something be “very one of a kind”? We draw the line at accepting usages that diminish the power and value of a word that was perfectly good to begin with.

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Sentence Sequence and Transition

Posted on Tuesday, July 9, 2019, at 11:00 pm

A challenge that any writer can run into is establishing fluent forward movement among sentences. To ensure understanding for readers, writers need to clearly connect related thoughts and properly signal when one is shifting to another. Consider this text: Janice is going to Nashville. She enjoys traveling. She loves rock music and concerts. Her favorite …

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Posted on Tuesday, July 2, 2019, at 11:00 pm

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Posted on Tuesday, June 25, 2019, at 11:00 pm

Last week we discussed how predicates form half of a clause. This week we’ll look closer at the other half, subjects. If the predicate is the engine of the action we communicate, the subject is the body of the vehicle being driven by it, including parts and accessories. The subject includes at least one noun (or noun …

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Predicating Our Knowledge of Predicates

Posted on Tuesday, June 18, 2019, at 11:00 pm

A thorough review of English structure includes understanding subjects and predicates in broader terms. While the concepts of subjects and predicates in their totality may not be as commonly taught as they once were, a brief study will both reinforce our facility as writers and grammarians and further acquaint us with grammatical terminology. Today, we’ll focus on the predicate, the engine of the …

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