A Prescription for Good English Language Usage

Updated: Mar 23, 2020

A Prescription for Good English Language Usage

John’s detective protagonist Harry Stark considers himself one of the last defenders of the English language and a stubborn prescriptivist. Here we present some of his favourite errors, or rather, his least favourite, and some useful rules for good English usage. Learn these, and you can feel holier than thou. These are the secret expressions that signal a solid education. Use them correctly in the hearing of a knowledgeable person, and you move up a notch in his or her esteem. Learn these words, and you can look down your nose at every television news twit who uses them incorrectly. But don’t correct him or her out loud: it gets tiresome quickly. Here we go:

Acronyms—WTO is not an acronym. CARE is an acronym. NATO is an acronym.LASER (usu. written laser) is an acronym. It stands for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. (In Britain, NATOis written Nato, CARE is Care and so on.) Acronyms are initial letters of organizations, etc., pronounced as words. Hence, IBM is not an acronym: it’s an initialism.

Adjectives in English are not inflected for number. Don’t say “women doctors” or “men teachers.” That’s like making the plural of “daily double” “dailies doubles.” Of course, you don’t want to say “man teachers” either, so “male teachers or female teachers”

A prescriptivist is someone who maintains there are rules of usage that must be followed to produce “valid” statements in standard English. A descriptivist (a descriptive linguist) contends that there are no “rules” in English, that usage alone deteminesEnglish. Descriptivists tend to dismiss prescriptivists, mostly refusing to dignify the standard-English position by commenting on it. On the rare occasions when they do say something, the effect of their dismissive remarks is that the rule-abiding approach would restrict the expansion of the language, that one of the great strengths of English is that it never stops growing. Harry says he’s all what is acceptable. Stark, cynically, says descriptive linguists take this position because it keeps them in work. Who decides when usage has rendered a word fit to be employed in polite company? Why, descriptive linguists, of course. The result is they have all got jobs in perpetuity, rewriting dictionaries: and the dictionary business is booming. I’m not really arguing that they have created this nonsense to guarantee employment; in fact, most of them are employed by various academies. Their interest in seeing the language deteriorate stems from their being critics (legless men who try to walk) who justify their existence by adhering to a constantly (ignorant) roller-coaster, around-the-bend, who-said-what-last, self-sustaining cultist view of language-building. Now, Stark is all in favour of the language growing, but as a flower, not a weed.

Adviser not advisor The “or” spelling is an affectation. People think it sounds more important, more like a profession, to be an “advisor,” rather than an “adviser.”

Alleged. This is a big one. Despite what dictionaries tell you, despite the fact that Dickens used it, don’t use alleged as an adjective — because it makes no sense. An alleged murderer is simply a murderer. Such usage clearly puts the stress on “murderer” and not on the allegation that the person is a murderer. (In many instances, of course, the former stress is, in fact, the intention of the user, especially when he or she is a Crown attorney or a district attorney.) Look, if saying a person is a smart murderer or a bloody murderer or a cold-hearted murderer tells us that the person is a murderer with certain characteristics, then it stands to reason that an “alleged murderer” is a murderer possessing the characteristic of being “alleged” (whatever that means), just as a smart murderer would be a murderer who is bright, and a well-dressed murderer would be a murderer who is fashion-conscious. Allegedly is even worse. It’s a non-starter. “The man he allegedly killed.” Such an adverbial use describes the manner in which the killing took place, i.e. allegedly, just as would “The man he carefully killed” or “quickly killed” or “brutally killed.” Say, instead, “The man he is alleged to have killed.” Similar words in this category are “reputed” (“the reputed Mafia leader” [a Mafia leader who is reputed]), “reportedly” (“He reportedly had six wives. [If you’re going to have six wives, you may as well have them reportedly, I suppose]). Say, “the man reputed to be the leader of the Mafia,” “He is reported to have had six wives.”

Alternate and alternative: If the road ahead is blocked, you may choose to take an alternative route, NOT an alternate route. Alternate means every other: first one and then the alternate, and then one and then the alternate–you take route A one day and the next day, you take route B–You alternate between A and B. It’s a continuing choice. You alternate between the left hand and the right hand. If you have to select something for the first time or for a single time, or infrequently, you pick an alternative.

Beg the question does not mean to raise the question. It means: to assume the truth of an argument or proposition yet to be proved. (I’m putting this in bold and underlining it because I’m fed up to the eye teeth with television dolts who think they’re demonstrating their erudition by saying that something “begs” the question when they should be saying it “raises” the question.

It’s between you and me. (objective case, object of the preposition “between”)

Burgeon means to bloom; it DOESN’T mean to grow. Despite the fact that “burgeoning” sounds–you know–just so much smarter than dull, old “growing,” misusing the word just makes you look dumber (to those who know the language–not to the language populists at the OED, of course.)

You Centre (center) ON something. You NEVER centre AROUND a thing, since a centre is a point, not a circle–last time I looked.

Be careful with comprise and compose. Moe, Larry, and Curly comprise The Three Stooges, or the Three Stooges are composed of Curly, Larry and Moe. It’s never comprised of. (The use of which is another sign of a faulty education.)

Earlier is a junk word. To say an event happened earlier today has little meaning, since an event that happened a millisecond ago happened earlier.

Destroyed doesn’t take the adjective “completely.” When something is destroyed it is “completely” destroyed.

Enormity means a bad thing that is particularly bad, a profound offence (offense if you’re American) against morality. It does not mean “really big” (enormousness), despite what the descriptivists who write modern dictionaries have allowed in as a lower-ranking meaning (caving in, once again, to language abusers and the linguistically challenged).

Entitled means to have a right to something. Books and nobles are titled, not entitled.

It’s envisage not envision. Envisage means to put a face on, to create a mind picture. Envision is just an error from ignorance.

Envy and jealousy. Envy is what you have toward your cousin Harold who owns a Ferrari and has a young, gorgeous, blonde wife. Jealousy is what Harold exhibits with respect to his young, gorgeous, blonde wife vis à vis the stud tennis pro at the club. Envy is what the makers of Bingabongabanga Cola have toward the makers of Coca-Cola. The Coke makers, on the other hand, jealously guard their secret recipe.

Evacuate is what you do to buildings. It means to empty. To evacuate people, you would need what used to be called “moving medicine.”

The exception proves the rule is not to be confused with the proof of the pudding is in the eating, in which “proof” means test. The exception proves that there is a rule,because in order for there to be an exception, there has to be a rule. “This barbershop. is closed Sundays and Wednesdays” implies that it is open the rest of the week. Hence, the exception proves the rule.

Face: It’s not clear how this happened, except, perhaps, as another example of the decline of reading—in any event, at some point in the past, say, ten years or so, young journalists (and addled-brained older ones who should know better, but don’t) began to regard the verb face as referring to something that will happen in the future, as in “Crapenschtubel Awful-Awful faces twenty years in prison.” In fact, he may well face twenty years in prison if he has already been convicted and sentenced. He does NOT face twenty years in anything if his guilt and punishment have yet to be determined. Face means a certainty, a done deal, the party’s over, the piper must be paid: “Having been convicted of gross idiocy, Crapenschtubel Awful-Awful (NOW) faces twenty years behind bars.” He faces it, it’s in front of him. How can you face something that has yet to occur?

February. Okay, look closely, open your eyes and your brain. See the “r?” Do you see it? It’s not Feb YOU air ey, It’s Feb ROO air ey. Now, do you see that? Good. So pass it on to the thousands of halfwits in television-land who continue to call the month FebYOUary, and not, correctly, FebROOary, not to mention all your friends: if you can’t get their attention, “text” them.

Free is an adjective, an adverb, or a verb, not a noun, so nothing can be FOR free. It’s simply, “free.” as in: “I received my X in the mail free.” or, “I’m getting a copy of the X free.”

It’s grist for the mill, not grist to the mill.

Going forward–What a horrible buzzword phrase! Use: in the future, or in future. or from now on, or henceforth, or after this, or something, anything but going forward, MBA-breath. Thanks.

Grow, as a transitive verb, applies only to vegetation. One can grow petunias; one cannot grow a business. Why would you want to abuse the language in that way, when the word “expand” carries the required meaning

Hoi poloi means the rabble, not, as it is often presented, the rich.

Hopefully is a lovely word that is dying on the vine, its meaning being replaced in a manner that the descriptive-linguist populists think is perfectly acceptable. Let the language be corrupted by the ignorant! “She gazed hopefully into the sunset.” Very nice, “Hopefully, he’ll have a enough money to pay the bill.” Ugly and wrong. The language doesn’t grow by permitting such abuse, it’s diminished. “Hopefully,” like all adverbs used in that whole-sentence-referring manner, modifies nothing, and, therefore, it has no place in the sentence, and certainly not in standard English.

Impact is a noun, NOT a verb. Don’t say, “The construction will impact traffic.” Say, “The construction will affect traffic.”

Important: See More Important

Jell is what things do when they come together, when they congeal or take a definite shape, when they finally stick to each other in the desired manner. Gel is not a verb; it’s a noun, something you put on your hair.

The word is jibe, as in A doesn’t jibe with B. It’s not jive, which is what some people do on the dance floor. A gibe, by the way, is a taunt.

Lent is the simple past of lend. Loaned is not a word, not the past tense of loan, which is not a verb in any case. Loan is a noun; the verb is lend.

Like and As: What happened here? A fundamental rule of grammar that for years (when teachers knew and taught grammar) was drilled into the brain of every halfwit seems to have been forgotten: like is a preposition and is used before a noun: “He drools like a dog,” while as is a conjunction that introduces a subordinate clause, (which means it has a VERB). “Fred swims well as a man with fins for feet should.”

Literally: greatly abused. “I literally had a heart attack when I saw the test questions.” Boy, have those defibrillators at the ready in the classroom! Literallymeans just what it appears to mean. It means actually, it means precisely, it means not a rough approximation, but rather a no-kidding, right-on-the-money delivery. Don’t use it unless you mean it literally. (I just saw a commercial for a skin-care product, in which a “real person” said his back looked “literally” like a pizza.) Please, please! No, no.

Logo: a logo is not a symbol, like the target for Target stores or the Shell for Shell oil. Logo stems from the ancient Greek λόγος word. A logo is composed of letters forming a word, like NATO, CARE, Unicef, Esso (Standard Oil). IBM is not a logo: it’s an initialism.

Mic, if it were a short form for microphone, would be pronounced “mick.” It would NOT be pronounced MIKE, which IS the short form (ALWAYS was the short form) for microphone until those who do not read, who never read, took over. They had HEARD the short form for microphone, and they read on the side of boxes the word “microphone,” so they assumed that the short form must be spelled “mic.” If “mic” were the short form and was pronounced “mike,” then “tic” would be “tike” and “sic” would be “sike” (or maybe “psych”), and every time a drunk in a B movie had a hiccup, he would say, “hike,” which might spur some to take up country walks, while others would flip a football between their legs. There was never any confusion in times past when people did read and recognized that “mike” was a universally used sort of diminutive for “microphone.”

Minuscule NOT miniscule. It’s not a teeny-tiny “scule,” for Pete’s sake. The original French meaning described a lower-case letter as opposed to a majuscule, upper-case letter.

More Important, not More Importantly. More important is adjectival and part of a phrase with understood words, such as: “More important, Harry recognized the woman who was the witness.” The full sentence with the understood words might be, “What was more important was the fact that Harry, etc.” More importantly is adverbial and clearly in the sentence, “More importantly, Harry recognized the woman, etc.” it has nothing to modify. What? Is Harry recognizing the woman “importantly.” Gee, I don’t think so.

Nauseous is what you might find me if, for instance, I’m exhibiting personal habits that make you feel sick. Nauseated is what you might feel after being exposed to those undesirable habits. So, you don’t feel nauseous when your tummy is upset (unless you’re linguistically ignorant), you feel nauseated. Get it? I’m sure this is another one of those thirty-somethings’ things in which nauseous sounds, you know, better, smarter, more modern, more “literate,” cooler than nauseated, which just sounds wrong, right?

A petard is a small explosive device used to blow down a door, etc., so when you are hoist with (or by) your own petard, you are metaphorically blasted by your own bomb. In other words, you are affected adversely by your attempt to bring harm to others.

Picket not picketer. NOT PICKETER!

Prerecorded is typical television nonsense. Could you postrecord it? Perhaps it’s being recorded now as you watch it, and being played back simultaneously, so you’re actually watching a recording — but, of course, not a prerecording.

Presently means soon, not now.

Processes: In a sort of overcorrectness (if that’s the right term), many, if not most, academics — all scientists, of course — interviewed on the CBC’s “Quirks and Quarks,” pronounce the word “processEEZ,” as if the plural of process is like the plural of thesis, i.e. theses. For heaven’s sake, it’s not: it’s like dressES, tressES, messES. Or maybe they wear dressEEZ. (See “So”)

That’s problematic can mean it’s something that causes a difficulty; it also means it’s an issue that’s debatable.

Proof and prove: see “Exception.”

You protest against something if you strongly object to it. If you simply protest something, you are making an avowal, a declaration, a claim, as in “I protest my innocence.” Or you can use it as an intransitive verb and simply say, “I protest.”

Rack, not wrack. Wrack, a long time ago, meant a lot of things: the one that hangs on is the meaning “wreckage,” as in wrack and ruin. It does not mean (well, let me quote The Economist style guide here:) “It has nothing to do with wreak, and it is not an instrument of torture or a receptacle for toast: that is rack. Hence racked with pain, racked by war, racked by drought.”

Referencing. Here’s a piece of total nonsense. Reference is a noun. It can be used in a specialized sense to describe, for example, a piece of academic writing as one that contains an acceptable number of references: i.e. “the paper is fully referenced.” Saying, however, that something references something else is just academic buzz language. It “makes reference to…”; “it contains references to…” “it refers to…” This kind of professorial English-twisting is shameful.

Refute is what you do when you prove to an objective standard that an argument is wrong. Rebut is what you do when you try to prove it wrong.

RestaurAteur. Pay attention! It’s NOT resurANTeur.

SacrIlege, not sacrelige. It’s sacrIlegious, not sacRELIGIOUS

Scenario is not something that has happened; it’s something postulated, a possible set of circumstances, or actions, or events–something that may occur in the future; it’s the plot of a movie or a book, not a viewing or reading of a movie or book already produced or written. So the rookie reporter for the CBC who said today in reporting a condo fire was dead wrong when she said the “same scenario” occurred last week.

So: Another observation from listening to academics interviewed on the CBC’s “Quirks and Quarks”: Many of them begin their answers with the word, “So.” What’s that all about? AS IN—Q: Why did you study the gozinda fly? A: So, we were looking for something that would… Q: Were you able to collect enough gozindas? A: So, we had some difficulty… (See “processes”)

Species is both singular and plural.

SUSPECT: I don’t know whether this is universal among North American (or even all Engligh-language police forces [services–they don’t like the connotation with the word ‘force’ any more] but Canadian cops like the word “suspect,” even though they clearly have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what it means. But who gives a damn. right? I mean, in the world of descriptive linguisitics, any word, in any spelling, in any context can have attached to itself the latest received meaning. HOWEVER, a “suspect” HAS to be a known person. A “suspect” doesn’t commit a crime, unless he/she is believed to have been observed committing the crime. (A culprit, or a perpetrator, or an unknown person commits a crime.) No search can be commenced for a “suspect” unless his/her identity is already known and it’s believed he/she may have been involved in the crime. It is possible to be seeking a “suspect” whose identity is not known if, for example, the person’s image was recorded by a camera, or if a person was seen by a witness, in the vicinity of the crime and it’s “suspected” that he/she was the perpetrator.

Stanch is what you do to a flow of blood. You are a staunch defender of truth.

It’s tenterhooks, not tenderhooks. From the Oxford English Dictionary: 1. One of the hooks or bent nails set in a close row along the upper and lower bar of a tenter, by which the edges of the cloth are firmly held; a hooked or right-angled nail or spike; dial. a metal hook upon which anything is hung. I was reading one of my favorite (favourite) authors, Gore Vidal, the other day, and he misspelled the word, a solecism I found remarkable in the work of a genius and such a superb writer.

Till is spelled like so. It’s not til. It isn’t a short form of until. It’s a word on its own and it’s spelled t-i-l-l.

Titled: see entitled.

It’s try to, not try and.

Yell is an incoherent sound, the sort of noise barbarian soldiers made as they charged blindly into a Roman phalanx, or that the Apaches screamed as they attacked a troop of U.S. cavalry. If someone makes a loud, coherent vocal expression, he or she shouts: he or she does NOT yell.

When do you use who or whom?

Use who when it’s the subject of the clause:

The killer, who had so far eluded Stark, lived just around the corner. (Replace “who” in that sentence with “he”. “He had so far eluded Stark.”)

Use whom when it’s the object of the clause:

The killer, whom Stark caught only by luck, lived just around the corner. (Stark, not whom, is the subject of the subordinate clause. Replace “whom” with “him” and put the “him” after the verb. “Stark caught him only by luck.”

Here’s a tricky one:

The man who the police say is guilty is out on bail. You might be tempted to think “police” is the subject of the clause, but Harry says that on reflection you’ll realize that “who” is the subject. Besides, in that sentence, it’s a relative defining clause. Let’s discuss those.

Defining (restrictive) and non-defining (non-restrictive) clauses:

In “the man who came to dinner,” the clause begun by “who” tells you what man we’re talking about. That’s a defining clause. In “my mother, who enjoys a good meal, came with us to the restaurant,” it’s apparent we’re not explaining who my mother is in the “who” clause. “Who enjoys a good meal” is a non-defining clause and it’s set off by commas. The commas are key. In the sentence, “The man who the police say is guilty is out on bail,” the “man” is being identified by the clause “who the police say is guilty,” perhaps to distinguish him from another man the police are less certain about who is still in custody. If the sentence were written, “The man, who the police say is guilty, is out on bail,” the purpose of the sentence would not be to identify the man. The man would have been identified in a previous sentence.


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