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Resolutions for Word Nerds
Below you’ll find ten New Year’s resolutions for self-appointed guardians of the English language. We are a group that needs its own code of
ethics to protect us from ourselves and shield others from our self-righteousness. So let’s get right to …
The Stickler’s Ten Commandments
No using big words to intimidate. You can’t beat a polysyllabic onslaught for sounding authoritative. But laying big words on someone who may not be as educated as you are is just
No correcting someone’s English in an argument. It’s the wrong time to do it. When someone makes a valid point, picking on that person’s language is a cop-out, and a contemptible way of
gaining the upper hand.
Do it in private. If a person you care about says “irregardless,” it can be a thoughtful gesture to gently advise that there is no such word—but
don’t do this when others are within earshot.
No condescending preambles. If you have some wisdom to impart, don’t start with “Didn’t you know,” or “I can’t believe you just said,” or
“How can someone from your background …” Such statements sound uncomfortably close to “I’m smart and you’re not.”
Casual conversation gets a lot of leeway. Public figures are rightly under scrutiny when they’re speaking or writing on the record.
Even private citizens may be held accountable, not just for what they say but for how they say it, in a meeting or serious discussion. However, the
language police ought to back way off in settings where people are just relaxing and making small talk. At such times, perfect grammar is probably the last
thing anyone should worry about. No one ever mistook a Super Bowl party for a summit conference.
And no correcting playful correspondence, either. If you get an email that says, “I didn’t mean nuttin’ by it,” your correspondent is kidding around. What is friendship without
informality and levity? And what kind of a sourpuss would point out that “nothing” was misspelled and that double negatives are bad
Know what you’re talking about. Before you correct someone, how do you know you’re right? There are many myths about “proper” English floating around.
Here are three discredited rules that a lot of people think are true: Never end a sentence with a preposition. (Yes you can.) It’s wrong to split an
infinitive. (No it’s not.) The relative pronoun that cannot refer to a human, so always say “the person who called,”
never “the person that called.” (Utter nonsense.) If you believe even one of these superstitions, you see the problem.
8) Look it up. Good writers choose their words with utmost care. So you can’t go wrong with a dictionary nearby. Many people believe they needn’t look up a
strange word. They are deluding themselves. Suppose a critic you respect refers to a book’s “meretricious manifestation of sophism.” The
word meretricious sounds a lot like meritorious; and sophism brings to mind sophisticated. Having seen the review, you
are eager to purchase and read this admirable, stylish work—not realizing that the critic has denounced the book as lurid and devious rubbish.
No excuses when you slip. Two can play this game, professor. We all make mistakes. If someone busts you, don’t try to wiggle out of it.
No correcting strangers. Keep it to yourself; it’s the Wild West out there.
Readers: Now let us hear from you. Send us your own guidelines for overzealous grammar watchdogs.
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com’s “Grammar Blog.”
Fix any sentences that need correcting.
1. I like people that know what they’re doing.
2. Be sure to carefully read the instructions.
3. What have you come here for?
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Thanks to Bill R. for submitting this item:
It's, like, I don't like like.
When did the misapplication and extreme overuse of the word like start, and when will it end? Proper synonyms for like include similar to, approximating, and resembling.
Notice how the word like could and should be dropped from the following sentences:
I'm so, like, hungry. (Are you hungry? If so, like has no place in the sentence.)
My friend is, like, a really good person. (Is your friend a good person? Drop the like unless the friend is only similar to a good person.)
The movie I just saw was, like, really funny. (Was it funny or not? If it was, simply say so.)
Teens and young adults are the usual suspects when it comes to the introduction and use of new slang words. Often, older adults get into the same habitual use.
We will continue to suffer "like" until it is replaced by some other slang term (just as like appears to have replaced you know).
Pop Quiz Answers
All three sentences are grammatically correct. (See item No. 7 in this week’s article.)
Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.