Words & Stuff

J: Unleashing the Prescriptivist Within (Reader Comments and Addenda)

(29 February 2000)

I recently encountered the phrase "feint of heart" (though it was again unclear whether this was simply a typo).

Randy Dittberner writes that for years he's been keeping track of grammatical errors he hears people make, and provides a sample:

Randy concludes, "Hopefully, you will enjoy these." And indeed I did. I've heard "tenants" for "tenets" before, but most of the others are new to me.

I'm surprised it took me so long to think of the common misuse of "pour" for "pore" -- if you're looking carefully through a book, you're poring over it, not pouring. Though the words were at least spelled the same in Middle English.

Ranjit says: "Not long ago I heard a newscaster on NPR say '...the Limerick Nuclear -- NUKUlar reactor...' He actually uncorrected himself." Very impressive, and suggests this mispronunciation is even more pervasive than I thought.

Ranjit adds: "In an Eyebeam comic strip, a fish comes to Eyebeam, a lawyer, to complain about his lowly evolutionary status. 'I want to break my lease on life.' 'That would violate the very 'tenants' of biology.'"

Terri Walton notes that the new 14th edition of the venerable Chicago Manual of Style leans toward using "their" as an epicene pronoun (good for them!), and provides some more prescriptivist peeves:

It took me a couple of months to think of mentioning misuse of "literally" as an all-purpose intensifier, though I guess that's not quite the same kind of error this column was mostly about. (I was reminded of this peeve by an NPR reporter saying someone was "literally trying to survive.") More in the spirit of the column are a couple of other misspellings I've seen fairly often: "dangle" for "dandle" ("he dangled the child on his knee"); "oogling" (or "oogling at") for "ogling"; and mixing up "emphatic" and "empathic."

One more: "who's" for "whose." Hint: "who's" is short for "who is."

Over eleven years after this column appeared, alert reader Ardath Kirchner pointed out that I had written "each others'" instead of "each other's." I would love to claim that I had done this intentionally to fulfill Hartman's Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation, but in fact it was simple ignorance. Now that I know, I've corrected the punctuation.

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Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>