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

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:

  • run "a monk" (instead of "amok")
  • the "physical" year (instead of "fiscal"—this one is quite common)
  • "ferry" out something (instead of "ferret")
  • work "ethnic" (instead of "ethic")
  • write to your "legislatures" (instead of "legislators")
  • broad "tenants" of something (instead of "tenets")
  • x and y should be a and b "respectfully" (instead of "respectively")
  • it's a "mute" point (instead of "moot")
  • lobster—a true "delicatessen" (instead of "delicacy")
  • "increment" weather (instead of "inclement")

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:

  • I see a lot of people confusing "flounder" with "founder." ... I think the confusion is intensified because the two meanings are somewhat similar.
  • A friend at work used to say "beautific," thinking that this was the proper spelling and pronunciation of "beatific." It's true that you don't hear "beatific" said aloud much. I also heard a (moronic) local news reader say on the radio that a nun had recently been "BEET-ified" by the Vatican. [hee-hee. I rather like this image. —JEH]
  • Speaking of embarrassing radio news readers, I heard a story that I suspect may be apocryphal, but it's funny nevertheless. A friend said that years ago he heard a radio broadcast in New York reporting the death of Malcolm X. The news reader read it as the death of "Malcolm the Tenth"! [...and there was a joke going around when that movie came out: "I decided not to see Malcolm X 'til after I've seen the first nine in the series." —JEH]
  • My husband gets irritated when people say "short-LIVVED" rather than "short-LIVED" with a long I. I've taken to saying it his way, but I notice that I always get funny looks. I also hate it when people say "prImer" instead of "primmer" when they mean an introductory-level teaching guide to something. I had an argument with a guy in college who told me that the dictionary and I were both dead wrong on this one!! Hmmph!

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.

(Last updated: 29 February 2000)

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