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The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

More on “More Ear-itating Word Abuse”

Last month we reran More Ear-itating Word Abuse by our late writer Tom Stern. The article first appeared in August 2013. We heard from many readers, and their comments were just about evenly split between:

For years I’ve hated hearing people mispronounce these words. Thank you for shining a spotlight on this subject.


You are stuck in place while the language is evolving. You are prescriptivists when it is descriptivists who evolve and survive.

For those unfamiliar with such terms, prescriptivists are those who prescribe what they think is right, generally based on past practice and acceptance, and descriptivists are those who observe the world and describe what people are doing in current practice.

Tom Stern liked to portray himself as a language curmudgeon (he also sometimes called himself a fussbudget), but what he really enjoyed was stirring the pot, taking a defensible position, and then getting people to think about how they are using language.

Are we at prescriptivists? We’ve certainly been accused of it, especially when we write things like “Dour  The correct pronunciation is ‘doo-er.’ ” But we’ve also been abandoned by readers who think we’ve betrayed their bent toward prescriptivism when we insist that as well as who can be used as a pronoun to describe people (Old Superstitions Die Hard). Moreover, some readers have disapproved of our acceptance of the singular they in certain circumstances, although we will avoid this use ourselves (more on that in upcoming newsletters).

We like to think of ourselves as neutral, somewhere close to half-way between prescriptivism and descriptivism. Okay, well, maybe the truth is we are a bit more on the side of prescriptivism, and we might be more comfortable with the term traditionalists. We are, however, willing to revisit certain positions and loosen the leash a bit when facts and circumstances support doing so:

Dour  The traditional pronunciation is “doo-er.” A standard variant that is now commonly heard is “dower.”

Forte  (meaning “strength” or “talent”) The traditionally preferred pronunciation is “fort.” American English has now tilted toward for-tay (also see More on Misspoken or Mispronounced Words and Phrases).

Schism  The traditional pronunciation is “sizzum.” However, “skizzum” is rapidly gaining ground.

Short-lived  Because the compound is derived from the noun life rather than the verb live, it is etymologically correct to use a long i. However, the short i pronunciation is now commonly acceptable.

Where we won’t budge is in the area of fad or vogue words and terms that transition from fresh and edgy to stale and tedious due to manic overuse. One such term that has been hanging around irritating us language fussbudgets is “very unique.” To be unique is to be “one of a kind,” not to be unusual. How can something be “very one of a kind”? We draw the line at accepting usages that diminish the power and value of a word that was perfectly good to begin with.

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

13 responses to “More on “More Ear-itating Word Abuse””

  1. Liz Jameson says:

    Thank you for this post! I feel better, as an editor who has been described as “the grammar queen” by my co-workers, that there is a nod toward those of us who are using the more common forms of schism, dour, short-lived, and forte. Whew! I admit that I was unnerved when I was reminded of the “proper” pronunciation of all four words. I was not unaware of the correct pronunciation, but I have been using the evolved pronunciation for most of my life and would feel uncomfortable changing now, as I know I would come off as affected/old-school/pretentious. I’d rather not be known as “the old-lady grammar queen” by my co-workers. I remind people quite often that language is evolving. When it serves my purpose! And then I turn around and edit documents when I see “that” used instead of “who.” Sigh. I’m that person. (So to speak…irony noted.)
    Love what you do. Miss Jane and Tom a lot, but you have done well to move forward with their charm, humor, and desire to right the many wrongs. Or sort of wrongs.

    • says:

      For a “grammar queen,” you appear to have just the right amount of flexibility. Thank you for your kind words, Liz, we do appreciate it. Jane and Tom would have enjoyed hearing from you as well.

  2. Sissy Lisman says:

    I must be a very unique fussbudget. The word forward, as used in moving forward, going forward, looking forward seems to be used in every newscast and many newspaper articles. And now the word resilient is popping up everywhere. So is pop-up, as in pop-up storm and pop-up store. The words transparent and transparency may be just past their prime. What fad word or phrase is popping up next?

  3. Shannon S. Brown says:

    I will never accept “that” as a pronoun for humans; nor will I ever use “they” as a singular pronoun. What’s next? Using “I” in the objective case just because so many people commit this sin? Makes me believe our language is dissolving, not evolving.

    • says:

      Staying clear of using that as a pronoun for people and they as a singular pronoun should keep you solidly in the majority. We will be exploring the singular they further in upcoming articles as there has been considerable discussion about it recently (but we will continue to avoid such use).

  4. Shirley Smith says:

    Please comment on the word auxiliary. Is it augzillery or augzilyery?

  5. Robert Tinsky says:

    I agree 100% with your comment about the word “unique.” If something is unique it is indeed one of a kind.

  6. Janet says:

    Thank you for this article. I too prefer the “traditional” while trying to adapt to the changing times (“going forward” – hat tip to Sissy above). I received an accolade from a former colleague in the form of his nickname for me – “Conan the Grammarian”. I’m not at all sure that he intended it as a compliment but I took it and used it proudly as such. Another word that is getting tired is “unprecedented” – it seems that nothing bad has EVER happened before. And I do mourn the words we have lost: disinterested, enormity, beg the question. I’m sure there are many more but I can’t think of any of them now. L’esprit de l’escalier is sure to kick in this afternoon.

  7. Sunlad says:

    I think “very unique” is correct if we remember that “very” as used here is an adverb. Are you people saying that adverbs are no longer usable again?

    • says:

      The word unique means “one of a kind.” Using the word very to describe unique would mean “very one of a kind,” and this does not improve or enhance the word unique. The use of adverbs is fine when they strengthen your writing.

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