Grammar Wails from My Inbox |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Wails from My Inbox

My fellow word nerds often send me cheerfully exasperated emails. I’d like to share a few of them with you …

• My recent aggravation is the mispronunciation of the word “divisive” by many people I respect. They prefer to say “divissive,” with a short rather than a long i. These otherwise articulate people are grating on my sensitive nerves. 

This pronunciation has become epidemic in the last decade. Numerous office holders and just about all the political pundits of the airwaves seem to have simultaneously anointed “di-viss-ive”—and I wonder why. I have a glut of dictionaries around the house; some are very recent, some go back seventy years. Only my notoriously permissive 1999 Webster’s New World acknowledges this renegade alternative pronunciation. All the others allow but one option: “di-vice-ive.” I guess I can understand how “di-viss-ive” could happen: by extrapolating from division instead of divide. Still, it’s always jolting to see yet another tsunami of ignorance wipe out a long-established usage in a heartbeat.

• What really gets me is the forgotten use of “an.” As in “I went to the zoo and saw a elephant” instead of “an elephant.” Have you noticed? 

I hear and see this all the time now. Just recently my local paper reported on “a entertaining and informative work.” Maybe an innocent typo, but the way things are going, who knows? My guess is we have the sports world to thank for this, with an assist from hip-hop culture.

It’s often employed for emphasis. You’ll hear an athlete-turned-analyst such as the peerless Charles Barkley say something like, “They have a actual point guard.” When you say two short vowels in succession like that, without the in an to smooth things out, you tend to pause after the first a, and that break emphasizes “actual point guard,” and makes it stand out in the sentence. This can be effective, but it’s still an illiteracy. And this annoying little habit is not confined to ex-athletes and DJs. I hear it more and more from a lot of old pros who seem to find it fresh, or “street,” and are doing it deliberately.

• When people writing or speaking cannot think of a graceful way to connect one part of a sentence to another, they insert “in terms of.” I call it the Universal Joint of English. 

The more one thinks about in terms of, the less sense it makes. Still, this is true of a lot of idioms. In terms of is OK when used sparingly. But try listening to a radio or TV broadcaster for ten minutes without hearing at least one in terms of. Too many people overuse it; some say it twice in one sentence. The least they could do is break up the monotony with when it comes to or in regard to—sometimes as for or simply about works just fine, too.

Once you start noticing these verbal tics and crutches, they rankle like a roomful of sneezing in-laws. I recall one commentator who started every other sentence with “The, uh”: “What’s your favorite Shakespeare play?” “The, uh … Hamlet.”

I got to where I could predict his next The, uh with ninety percent accuracy. I would just wait, teeth grinding, for that inevitable The, uh and not hear anything else he said.

Tom Stern

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13 responses to “Wails from My Inbox”

  1. Dennis T. says:

    Nice work, I love your stuff.

  2. Carol D. says:

    No need to put a comma before the word “too” at the end of a sentence.

  3. Sandra M. says:

    I have another “wail” for you. The phrase “in regard” has turned into “in regards”. It is driving me insane!

    p.s. Thank you for doing

    • You are right on about that. We address this both in Chapter 5 of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, and on our website in the “Confusing Words and Homonyms” section of the English Rules tab—under In Regard(s) To. If we write another “Wail” article, you’ll be first on the list.

  4. Karen T. says:

    … they rankle like a roomful of sneezing in-laws!! Love it! In-laws rankle, but, WOW!! (and, please, don’t lecture me about the overuse of exclamation marks. I know. I know.)

  5. Ginnie S. says:

    divisive—I’ve noticed on Downton Abbey, the popular British drama on PBS, that they say di-viss-ive, so I just figured that it was the way the English say it. Is it?

    a, an—Charles Barkley is black and grew up in a culture that would say “a actual point guard.”

    • Charles Barkley is a smart man, and when he’s on TV he should speak standard English. This is something we feel he’d agree with, by the way.

      As for “divissive,” as mentioned in the article, numerous dictionaries (except one Webster’s), going back to 1941, do not recognize this pronunciation (but there are instances of course where American and British pronunciations differ).

  6. Andrea says:

    I’m writing an scientific article right now, where I need to describe plant promoting bacteria – that improve plant growth. I came accross two terms “phytostimulant” and “phytostimulator”. Is there difference between the two terms? Is one of them incorrect? In the literature I find more often phytostimulator, but my boss says it is incorrect… Thank you for your advice.

  7. Patti says:

    I am pulling out my hair! I want to gnash my teeth and snarl at the offender every time I hear “I could care less.” As my husband and I were arguing (affectionately) about this, he brought up several websites that say we now must accept this nonsense because it is an established “idiom.” Please say it ain’t so, or we might as well say this sentence is just fine too!

    • This phrase does seem to be acknowledged as an idiom by some websites, including Wiktionary refers to it as a “malapropism.” If you analyze it, “I could care less” may not be as offensive as it seemed to you at first. There is a sarcastic attitude implicit in this elliptical statement. “I could care less” means “I suppose if I really thought about it, I could care less.” Our objection to it is that it is tired and unoriginal.

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