'Equation,' 'Gingerly' And Other Linguistic Pet Peeves

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My friend Scott is always sending me indignant e-mails with examples of people using the word "equation" to mean just a situation with a lot of factors, when nothing is actually being equated — as in, "Family members are a critical part of the doctor-patient equation." I tell him I think of this as just routine journalistic bloat, and not even he thinks it's a threat to the republic. But he enjoys grousing about it, all the more because it doesn't seem to annoy anybody else that much. It makes for a fine pet peeve.

I have peeves of my own. When I hear people say "oversimplistic," I suspect they don't know that "simplistic" means that all by itself. I wish somebody would drive "arguably" and "quite possibly" into the sea. And it seems to me it's almost always a bad idea to begin a sentence with "I pride myself on."

A pet peeve should be like a pet theory or a pet story — a tic or fancy that you nurture in your bosom and make your own. You can have a pet peeve about people who mispronounce "mascarpone." But it's odd to use the phrase for off-the-rack gripes that everybody shares. Saying that you have a pet peeve about "thinking outside the box" or "Your call is important to us" is like saying you have a pet theory that you should feed a cold and starve a fever.

I have this notion that "gingerly" shouldn't be used as an adverb, as in, "She hugged the child gingerly," because there's no corresponding adjective "ginger" — you wouldn't say, "She gave the child a ginger hug." I'll concede that "gingerly" has been used as an adverb for 400 years, and nobody's ever complained about it before. But so much the better: Every time I see the word used as an adverb, I can take a quiet satisfaction in knowing that I'm marching to a more logical drummer than the half-billion other speakers of English who haven't yet cottoned to the problem.

Writers tend to have lots of these notions. Kingsley Amis held that it was incorrect to use "pristine" to mean pure rather than "original," and that you shouldn't say, "I was oblivious to the noise," since "oblivious" can only mean "forgetful." And in a usage book he published a few years ago, Bill Bryson contended that it was wrong to use "expectorate" as a synonym for spit, since it really means to cough up phlegm from the chest. The word did originally mean that, but it's been used to mean spit since Dickens' day. And Bryson knows perfectly well that it would be unreasonable to insist on the original meaning — think of the mischief it would work with Major League Baseball's rule 8.02, which says that the pitcher shall not expectorate on the ball. But Bryson also understands that it's the very unreasonableness of the argument that makes it so handy to have around when the dinner conversation flags.

Geoff Nunberg

Geoff Nunberg is an adjunct full professor at University of California, Berkeley's School of Information. He is the author of The Years of Talking Dangerously. hide caption

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Nobody ever took this quite so far as the 19th-century writer and journalist Ambrose Bierce. He's best remembered today for his stories and his satirical Devil's Dictionary, but in 1909 he wrote a book called Write it Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults. It was republished for its centenary last year with entertaining annotations by Jan Freeman, who writes the language column for The Boston Globe. Bierce had a gift for discerning usage errors where no one else would have thought there was anything amiss.

Take the sentence, "Since I made no money last year, I had to live in a dilapidated shack with a dirt floor with 10 other people." By Bierce's lights, it contains five errors. You should say "earn money," not "make money"; "last year" should be "the previous year"; "dilapidated" shouldn't be used for a wood structure since it comes from the Latin word for stone; "dirt" shouldn't be used to mean earth; and you shouldn't use "people" with a specific number — it should be "10 other persons."

This makes Bierce sound like a caricature of a cantankerous pedant. But he clearly enjoyed being perverse and ornery, and my guess is that his journalist colleagues wouldn't have taken any of this too seriously — "Oh, that's just Ambrose being Ambrose."

The weird thing is to see rules like these passed down as traditional linguistic wisdom. Take that edict that you ought to say "10 persons" rather than "10 people." You can still find it in the recent editions of Strunk and White's revered Elements of Style, along with antique admonitions against saying "contact us" or calling something "worthwhile." The linguist Arnold Zwicky calls these zombie rules. Somebody should have run them through a wood chipper long ago, but here we are in 2010 assigning students a style guide that tells them that correct English requires them to write, "There were 5,000 screaming persons at the Lady Gaga concert."

It's bad enough that that leaves students with the impression that mastering good usage requires learning an esoteric code. But it also robs those rules of the kinky charm they had when they were merely somebody's quizzical peeves. Now those personal crotchets are presented as the authorized standards of proper speech, as if you could decree the tune the language is obliged to dance to. But the English language doesn't owe anybody a living — it was here first.

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