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 mHoning 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.

—Tom Stern.

Posted on Tuesday, October 9, 2018, at 11:00 pm

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22 Comments on Word Nerds: Verbal Custodians Trapped in a Time Warp

22 responses to “Word Nerds: Verbal Custodians Trapped in a Time Warp”

  1. Steve Rosenberg says:

    A couple of items that I’d like to see more clarity on:

    Using “labyrinth” when “maze” is what is meant. You can’t get lost or confused in a labyrinth. In fact, it is the opposite of a maze when used to describe a complicated and confusing situation.

    The expression “pushing the envelope” doesn’t make sense. That sounds like we are pushing a flat paper container across the table. The actual term is “pushing the edge of the envelope.” As Tom Wolfe explained in “The Right Stuff,” the envelope refers to the atmosphere that surrounds the earth. Test pilots tried to fly their planes higher into the atmosphere where it becomes too rarefied to support aircraft. They are then pushing the plane to the edge of the envelope. Hence the term.

  2. Brian Thompson says:

    I’m glad to receive this mention of ‘OFF OF’ because as a Brit I was beginning to think that this was something that was frowned on only in England. I’ve seen it used so often by US newspaper journalists that I was beginning to think it was the norm.

  3. Richard Probert says:

    I have been hearing the word (term) “based off of” or simply “based off” rather than “based on” or “based upon” more and more frequently from many sources. Am I correct in that the former is incorrect?

  4. Leida Santiago says:

    Thank you for the laughter. If I am writing something that is incorrect, I would like to know. The advice that you give is welcome, especially when it’s mixed with humor. For those corrected complainers: Relax, learn, and enjoy the tickle.

  5. Grace Wieland says:

    I love this topic and would like to have it sent to all of the people on television who read the news, as their grammar is so bad. Also people who refer to “The Joneses House” instead of “the Jones House.”

  6. Stephanie Jackel says:

    Please comment on the increasing use of “importantly,” as in, “More importantly, he remembered his wallet.”

  7. S Steiner says:

    “We each have our own preferred era.” Is ‘we each’ correct? I was taught to say ‘each of us has his . . .’

  8. Bill Lawlor says:

    This one was really enjoyable. I grew up on the blue-collar streets of south Philadelphia and graduated from LaSalle College with a major in English. Now, at the age of 67, I teach ESLs how to speak, read, and write English. When I am with them, my English is spot-on, but when I am home or out on the street, the old ways find their way into the conversation:
    Hey man, whatchu doin?
    Nuttin’ much, howbowt chu?
    Yeah me too.

  9. Marc Herman says:

    I think you’re completely wrong about “irregardless.” I heard an amazing lecture by a Merriam-Webster lexicographer this summer in which she debunked all the things that people typically say about this word. And you’ve repeated all those things here.

    • We do not see anything to debunk about what we said. We did not say that irregardless is not a word; we said it’s a nonsense word. We said that it likely resulted from combining irrespective and regardless, which is what Merriam-Webster says.

  10. Dave Harris says:

    My thoughts on “off of” and the Rolling Stones: Words in songs are often the result of trying to fit a rhythm, rhyme, beat or flow in a lyric. If we try to make lyrics grammatically correct, what would we do with La, La, La, Doe, Dee, Doe, Dee, Doe?

  11. Friend says:

    Hone/home in
    Or as one of my bosses used to say “and that is the crutch of the matter.”

  12. Doug C. says:

    This article was interesting.

    Is the use of the comma correct in this sentence?

    What’s annoying about “center around” is that it’s imprecise, and disheartens readers who take writing seriously.

    Shouldn’t the subject (via the pronoun “it”) be repeated if a comma is used, and if the subject is not repeated, no comma should be used? In this type of sentence, I have tried to use commas only when the second clause is independent, but I am not sure whether I am necessarily following a rule in doing so.

    • Our Rule 3c of Commas states “If the subject does not appear in front of the second verb, a comma is generally unnecessary” (emphasis added). Unfortunately, our late writer Tom Stern cannot tell us why he felt this comma was needed.

      We do feel that your question is a good one. The sentence reads fine without the comma, but we don’t feel we are at liberty to “correct” it at this time.

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