Ok people, most everyone around these parts graduated from college and those that didn't are scrappy in the brains department. It's time we stopped misusing common words. Note that I said "it is time", as opposed to "its time", as in: As far as proper usage of the language, its time has come.
You know what I'm talking about. You're sitting at the computer, less than one second of typing time away from Merriam-Webster.com or Dictionary.com, and you misuse a word despite knowing you only have a vague grasp of what it means.
I'm not an English Nazi. I'm against English Nazism (I'm against the German kind too). If you're correcting someone's improper usage even though that person has expressed themselves clearly and their meaning properly applies to the situation, you are detracting from the conversation. If someone misuses a word like sedulously, ok...I might gently point it out, but I'm not going to hold it against them. At least they're reaching to expand the ol' vocabulary.
On the other hand, sometimes misuse makes the conversation vague or opaque. Sometimes the word is just so common that misspelling or misusing it grates on the listener to the extent that the point is lost...your statement becomes about how ignorant you are instead the topic of conversation. I'm talking about people that have graduated the fifth grade and still swap loose (tighten that nut) for lose (better luck next time). There definitely not using they're dictionaries, their. Oops, that should have been they're/their/there (note that middle one is t-h-E-I-r).
What about when English Nazis go wrong? Who corrects them? Well, I'm about to. (Are you going to complain that I ended that sentence with a preposition, English Nazi? Before you do, make sure every case can be accounted for. I think you know what I'm talking about. Clearly I'm making you mad, so stop sitting around. For or against me on this, you should come out. If you think you're right, it's time to act up. Ah well, if you didn't catch it before when I did the exact same thing at the top of the second paragraph, why should I pay attention to you now?)
Read the following example passage.
Good data is elusive on the genetics of hair color. One of the problems with studying the topic of hair color is that individual genetic studies usually contribute very little data to the understanding of hair color inheritance. So it is not yet possible to grasp why a parent that has blond hair and a parent that has brown hair can produce a child that has black hair because hair is associated with largely unstudied sections of the human genome. Because genetic studies typically have a primary focus elsewhere, information on this issue of hair color is sparse. Common statistical techniques requiring a large sample space cannot be applied to the data; there is simply too little available to make a strong case.
Ok, is there anything wrong with the above passage? Did my use of data as a singular noun bother you? If it did, you, sir, are an English Nazi, and worse, you're wrong in correcting me to boot. (I might have chosen to state this differently: "Your wrong is in correcting me to boot.")
Data, as used above, is indeed singular. It's true that the etymology of the word comes from the plural form of the Latin word datum, and that it maintains this proper usage if you are referring to several data points and they must maintain their identity as individual entities in the context of a particular sentence. I'll bet you rarely use it this way without including a definitive measure word, though, because even you think it sounds clumsy. Moving on, let's rewrite the above passage under the guidelines of English Nazism, no aggregative singular forms allowed:
Good data are elusive on the genetics of hair color. One of the problems with studying the topic of hair color is that individual genetic studies usually contribute very few data to the understanding of hair color inheritance. So it is not yet possible to grasp why a parent that has blond hair and a parent that has brown hair can produce a child that has black hair because hair are associated with largely unstudied sections of the human genome. Because genetic studies typically have a primary focus elsewhere, information on this issue of hair color are sparse. Common statistical techniques requiring a large sample space cannot be applied to the data; there are simply too few available to make a strong case.
"Wait," you say, "I didn't mean you should apply the same rules to hair and information that I'm insisting upon for data!" Well, why not? English is already complicated enough. I think I have the right to ask you to be consistent if you're going to change what is currently recognized as proper usage.
But, ok, let's say I go along with you on this one. Let's say that data is somehow different from hair and information (despite your utter lack of support for this bizarre idea). Let's look at the last sentence of the passage and do a little compare/contrast. I would say this is correct:
Common statistical techniques requiring a large sample space cannot be applied to the data; there is simply too little available to make a strong case.
...and you say it's:
Common statistical techniques requiring a large sample space cannot be applied to the data; there are simply too few available to make a strong case.
It seems your insistence on incorrect grammar has actually changed the meaning of the sentence, or at the very least, made it vague. Too few available what? Is there not enough data, or are there too few statistical techniques available? In the original sentence it is obvious that "too little" refers to too little data because "too little" cannot modify statistical techniques or any other plural, for that matter. If you're going to insist that data is plural, then you can no longer say things like too little data, very little data, or too much data. This would be like using too little to modify any other plural, as in too little screws, which is definitely grammatically incorrect. If you do say it, people are likely to misinterpret your meaning as too-little screws, in other words, each individual screw is too little to do the job: Why won't these boards stay together? Too-little screws. The fix is to use the same number of bigger screws, not more of the too-little ones...that won't help.
The last vestige of the English Nazi's argument clings to the idea that, if we accept data as both a singular and a plural form, how can we possibly know which is the proper form to use? Well, it depends on context, just like you can be both singular and plural. If you're speaking about one datum (an individual fact or proposition) here and one datum there, and they must retain their identity as individual entities, then you may use data in its plural form: This datum and that datum conflict; these two data are at odds. (Note that without the "two" you're back in vague-land. Without that "two" the listener is likely to wonder if you're making reference to all of the data, or still talking about those two points.) In every other case, if you're wondering how to decide, use a measure word instead to make your meaning explicit.
What's a measure word? It is a word, often implied instead of explicitly stated, that organizes a number of entities into a grouping. Consider this statement: My hair is blond. The implied measure word depends on the context; usually, I'm talking about my head of blond hair (that's why it would be as improper to say, "My hair are blond," as "My head of hair are blond."). Similarly, when I speak about data it is most often in reference to a set of data. If saying "the data is..." makes you uncomfortable, go ahead and imagine "the data set is..." If you're talking about two sets of data which must maintain their separateness, go ahead and explicitly state the measure word and talk about "sets of data" so as to avoid confusion for yourself and your listener.
What I'm really getting at here is the usage of data as a collective noun. If the data under discussion is being referred to as a collective whole, then it's singular and can take on all the properties of a singular word. If the individual members of the data set are actually what's being referred to, then it can be used as the plural form. Examples follow.
- The jury is arguing. What argument is the jury, as a whole, making?
- The jury are arguing. I hate it when they argue amongst themselves. What point in particular is causing the problem?
- This family is staking its claim. If they wanted to, the family could stake their claims. But they've decided to stick together as a unit, and therefore it is, as a group, only staking one claim. And that's good...I like to see families stick together.
Data is a particularly frustrating example of English Nazism; that's not to say there aren't valid complaints about the way some people pluralize. There is no excuse for speaking about more than one virus as viri or worse, virii. It's viruses. On the other hand, just because it's proper to say octopi doesn't mean octopuses is wrong, just don't spell it octopusses. And when people refer to a computer as a box, as in I run a Linux box and a Windows box..., they should not conclude the thought: ...so I have, in toto, two boxen. Then again, whenever I see "boxen" it's obviously intentional and hilarious (alluding to the plural of ox), so in that case it's fine. On the other hand, the absolutely proper usage of "in toto" where in total would have sufficed is as infuriating to me as I'm sure it is to you, unless the person is making a joke.
If that example does not engender English Nazism, here's one that does. It's common to refer to an abstract person as in the following sentence: Before a person speaks, he should first think. The politically correct will try to correct this; he should be written instead as he or she. I reject this...in reference to the abstraction of a person, I see no problem with the assumption that person is male. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that the he in this sentence does not refer to maleness at all. It is clear to even the simplest mind that the person referred to could be either male or female and the sentence still holds true; to assume the writer is actually referring only to males is to intentionally misread it.
Now we've all heard the story of the boy driving with his father when they have a big accident. Both are rushed to the emergency room whereupon they are whisked away into surgery. The surgeon, upon seeing the boy's face, exclaims: "We need to get another doctor in here. I cannot operate on my own son." If you haven't heard this little parable, no, the boy does not have foster parents, he was not adopted, he was not driving with a priest, and he doesn't have two fathers. The surgeon is his mother.
This story, though, does not illustrate that we are a sexist society that can only remedy our situation by applying the clumsy he or she construct wherever we would normally use he. Instead, it only illustrates that we are minimally observant, and that, for whatever reason, most surgeons are male and we happened to notice...therefore unless explicitly stated otherwise we generally tend to assume surgeons are male (and no, the reason most surgeons happen to be male and whether that in and of itself is due to sexism in our society, while a potentially rich and perfectly valid topic of discussion, is not germaine to this discussion on semantics). I would point out that feminists are just as likely to be taken in by this story as even the most chauvinistic of men. Clearly, if one's sexist tendencies were the sole reason one might find this story confusing, only the sexist would be confused by it. Imagine a world in which there exists such a simple litmus test for sexism, racism, or whatever other -ism you can think of.
So why should I listen to you, PC Nazi? You didn't seem to mind when I referred to you as "sir" in the paragraph above between the two passages concerning usage of the word data. Besides, languages have a long history of noticing gender. How would you apply your Nazism outside of English? Would you argue that Latin, Spanish, and Italian should do away with gender-based noun declension? You sad, strange, silly little man.
That being said, in my mind the jury is still out on the singular use of they. Occasionally it seems right to use they in reference to the abstraction of a person. It seems to emphasize the abstractness of the referent...it seems to drive home the point that any one of us could fit the bill and the message still holds true. If you strongly disagree, I wonder if you disagreed as strongly when you ran through the third paragraph of this very essay. I'll bet most of you will have to go back and reread that paragraph to see what it is you so readily accepted on the first read-through.
Besides obviously proper and improper usage, there are words that don't really lend themselves to this kind of analysis. For example, consider whether the following is improper in any way: I quickly scanned the police report to see why the deputy had been out in the field for a full two hours. It used to be that this would have been improper use of the word scan, which meant "to examine closely" (scan still retains this definition). What happened to this word, which now also has a conflicting definition, "to look over or leaf through hastily"? I'm betting that technology is to blame for that second conflicting definition. When the first grocery store checkout scanners came out, the technologists probably titled them scanners because they closely examine UPC symbols--that they do so rapidly is nice, but cannot be the point of the original title or else they would have been called skimmers. But to a customer, the scanner was a jump forward not because it was marginally more accurate than a checkout clerk, but rather because it was vastly faster. So the association was set in people's minds, and who's to say whether this kind of evolution is not allowed? I remember throughout my youth being corrected on this by librarians and English teachers, but as it happens I was correct and they were wrong; I was just ahead of my time in recognizing this as a necessary evolution of the language.
Then there is usage that has become proper that I cannot bring myself to use. Consider the prefix bi-. Does this mean "two" or "half"? Well, what does bisect mean? It means to divide into two parts, or cut in half. So this doesn't help us nail it down because it's ambiguous as to whether the bi- signifies two-ness or half-ness. What about bisexual or bicycle? I would argue that, in these two cases, it is clearly two-ness being expressed...half-ness just doesn't make sense in the case of a bicycle, since unicycles and tricycles exist and the comparison is clear, and I don't even want to know what your perception of bisexuality is if an interpretation based on half-ness makes sense to you. This leads me to think, for the sake of consistency, I should consider bi- prefixes to refer to two-ness. This approach does not exclude any case which might also be construed as half-ness, for all such cases can just as validly be interpreted as instances of two-ness as in the case of bisect. The reverse is not true.
Ok, so we're agreed, then. Words prefixed with bi- imply two-ness, and rely on the stem of the word to define the thing that has taken on two-ness. Bisect, for example, means to section, or divide, into two parts. The fact that a bisected object is associated with halving, as opposed to doubling, has to do with the fact that the object is being sect-ed, and nothing to do with being bi-ed.
What about biennial, then? What should this mean, twice per year or every two years? Well, the stem -ennial means "year", and bi- means "two", so I arrive at an expected definition of "occurring every two years". Bingo--that's exactly what it means.
What about biannual? The same argument applies, right? Wrong! Well, not wrong, but not necessarily right. This word can mean either "twice per year" or "every two years" (likewise with biweekly and bimonthly). Arrrgh! How fickle! But, I am forced to admit that there is simply no other available way we could, in a single word, refer to something that happens "twice per" some period of time, so I'll grudgingly let it go.
Except...there is such a word available to us, and it doesn't have an alternative, conflicting definition! Furthermore, it has no connotation of two-ness associated with it, so the teeming masses are not susceptible to misunderstanding it. I'm talking about semiannual, semimonthly, and semiweekly. Everyone knows the prefix semi- implies half-ness, and thus endeth the confusion. The problem, of course, is that the imposter definitions for the bi-words have already snuck in under the radar! Well I, for one, refuse to acquiesce, and I will continue using biweekly to mean every other week and semiweekly to mean twice per week. If you don't understand what I mean when I say biweekly, tough. Everyone will suffer the ambiguity at every turn until they see fit to dispense with the bad definition as I have. (There is hope, it seems; my preferred usage is predominant.)
So far I have discussed mainly semantics. Of greater importance are situations when a person conveys a completely different idea than what is intended, a much more egregious misuse of the language. I invoke the poster child of such misuse...yes, I'm talking about irony, and not the kind that's like brassy or goldy except with iron.
The principle definition of irony is: "the use of words to express something different from and often opposite to their literal meaning." I would argue that this definition allows an interpretation to eke through that does not capture the spirit of irony; merely expressing a meaning that is "different from" the literal meaning, to me, is more sarcasm, or juxtaposition, or something, but not irony.
What's the difference between, say, sarcasm and irony? Well, sarcasm only requires difference between what is expressed and what is literally meant, and it must include the intent to ridicule or otherwise wound. Irony, in my mind, requires more than simple difference between what is expressed and the literal meaning; the difference must be one of opposition. Additionally, irony may or may not be used to ridicule or wound...sometimes it's just used for humorous intent. An example: a sign very near a laser source that reads, "Do not look into laser with remaining eye." This could only weakly be interpreted as ridiculing anyone...the focus is not on cutting down the poor soul who just lost an eye. It's funny because of the idiocy of the person who posted a warning sign, which ostensibly exists to prevent injury, in a place that is so likely to hurt someone that the sign itself acknowledges it.
The word irony is so misused, I fear the concept may require a college education to properly grasp. I award people some points for effort when they misuse the term but get close, where perhaps sarcastic or sardonic would be better choices. I do not have such a forgiving attitude when the person clearly has no idea what they're talking about. I have known people that use ironic when they really mean funny. I challenged one such usage where the person said, "Ha ha! That guy got hit in the nuts. That's so ironic!" Upon further questioning, this person explained, "No, it is ironic because the reason he got hit in the nuts is that he was trying not to...if he'd just stayed where he was, he would've been fine."
Nice try, bucko. That's just bad luck, or perhaps ineptness, but not irony. To clear the bar of irony requires conscious, carefully directed thought. If the effect of all that careful consideration is the opposite of what's intended, that's irony. I would hardly call an automatic response of the nervous system (that is, jumping to a location one considers out of the way of an oncoming softball) careful conscious planning. But how can I hold him responsible when Alanis Morrissette makes a million dollars off a song that is ostensibly about several ironic situations...except it gets the definition completely wrong, and none of the situations described in the song are actually ironic. Her careful plan to write a song about irony resulted in a song that is about everything but irony. One might expect the public to chide such a thing. Instead fans welcomed it based on the same misunderstanding of the term. Maybe she's satirizing her own fans' ignorance. More likely, she's totally unaware that her attempt to raise irony-awareness is deeply flawed due to her own ignorance of the concept. Now that's irony.
Should you use a serial comma when writing a list: bags, bushels, and baskets vs. bags, bushels and baskets? Yes, I say you should. I know everyone will say it's perfectly acceptable either way, but if you typically don't use it, you might find yourself in the following situation. You've written a treatise throughout which are several lists. You come to one list in particular in which you would like to imply certain groupings of two: bushels and baskets, packages and boxes, and bags. Uh oh...now what? If you leave out that serial comma, as you have been doing all along, your reader will think you meant to group bags with packages and boxes. If you leave it as it appears above, then the reader will likely be confused and reinterpret all of your previous lists, lacking the serial comma, as an implied grouping. Oh, what to do, what to do? You're screwed...you should have taken my advice. Besides, what if I was against the serial comma and I decided to dedicate this essay to "my parents, Ayn Rand and God"?
What about good/well? Well, I don't know about you, but I feel good and I'm looking well! That is to say, my fingers work well enough to feel things, and my eyes work well enough to see. In everyday parlance, though, I have no problem with saying, "I feel good," even though technically it ought to be, "I feel well." On the other hand, people who say, "You're looking well!" actually mean to say, "You're looking good!" They are being pretentious by calling attention to the fact that they're speaking "proper English"...except they're showing off improper English. Err on the side of understandability. Always remember: sedulously eschew munificent prolixity, obfuscatory redundancy, and unmitigated hyperverbosity. I'm likely to forgive you if you go wrong in one direction...I don't look so kindly on pompous asses who don't know that about which they talk.
Time for some rapid fire...buckle up.
If you don't know when to use than vs. then, then you're dumber than a squash and I can't help you.
Here's one I don't really care about, but it's probably worth something to someone. I.e. means "in other words," e.g. means "for example". It's good to know the difference, e.g.: you probably won't get this, i.e., you're just too dumb.
It's chAmping at the bit, not chOmping at the bit. Also, it's my old stAmping grounds, not my old stOmping grounds.
A thing cannot be very unique. It's either different from everything else, or it isn't. Uniqueness does not vary depending on whether it's very different or just a little bit different.
I might say there are a myriad of examples of improper usage in this essay, but why would I want to when I could just as easily, and more simply, state that there are myriad examples? (Certainly this essay isn't long enough to provide myriads of examples.) In my opinion, myriad is an adjective that is also a noun, it is not a noun that can also be used as an adjective. The noun form should mostly be left to the skilled wordsmiths, such as when Samuel Taylor Coleridge writes "Myriad myriads of lives." Most of the time, the of is just dead weight, so listen to Occam and toss it overboard.
There. I know I feel a whole lot better, don't you?