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More Mangled Language and Pompous Usages to Avoid
This column is mostly concerned about the written word, but even so, pronunciation will inevitably enter the picture from time to time.
The expressions chomping at the bit and stomping ground are both corruptions of the original champing and stamping. People find this incredible. But, for instance, consult the 1961 cult-favorite western film One-Eyed Jacks, and you’ll hear Marlon Brando clearly say, “I know all his old stampin’ grounds.” My 1968 Random House dictionary and my 1980 American Heritage dictionary (the one with its own usage panel) don’t even list stomping ground, only stamping. Nor do they list chomping at the bit, only champing.
My 1999 Webster’s lists both, but Webster’s is more permissive by design; it’s what’s called a descriptive dictionary, as opposed to prescriptive ones like American Heritage, which presume, unlike Webster’s, to act as guardians of proper English.
Here are some more words and phrases that make word nerds wince:
Kudos To this great man, kudos are overdue. That’s not a sentence that would raise many eyebrows, but kudos is not the plural of kudo. There’s no such thing as a kudo. Kudos is a Greek word (pronounced KYOO-doss or KOO-doss) meaning praise or glory, and you’d no more say kudos are due than you’d say glory are due. You must change are to is: kudos is overdue. Of course, if you ever said that, everybody’d think you’re strange—everybody but that word nerd skulking in the corner.
Snuck A lot of people these days think this is the legitimate past tense of sneak. A lot of people are wrong. The past tense of sneak is sneaked. Even my Webster’s has a problem with snuck, calling it “informal.”
Flaunt, flout He was a rebel who flaunted the rules. Make that flouted. To flaunt is to display ostentatiously; to flout is to ignore, disregard. Don’t flaunt your ignorance by flouting the correct usage of flout.
Close proximity Also commonly used by a lot of smart folks who should know better. There is a creek in close proximity to the cabin. This is ill-advised for a number of reasons. First, proximity already means “closeness,” so the phrase is redundant: “close closeness.” And this is just an affected way of disdaining nice clear words like near, nearby, et al. What’s wrong with “There’s a creek near the cabin”? Word nerds believe that the fewer words and syllables it takes to get your point across, the better a writer you’ll be.
More importantly, most importantly When grammatical cluelessness combines with a desire to sound glib, we get maddening phrases like these two. I’ve been a pedantic prig, er, copy editor, a long time and I’ve never seen a valid use of more or most importantly. Just drop the -ly and make my day. More important, you’ll be using good English. Most important, you won’t sound like some pseudo-scholarly fusspot.
Impostor, imposter This word helps illustrate my frustration with Webster’s and its “descriptive” approach. Dictionaries like Webster’s don’t exist for that purpose; dictionaries like American Heritage do. Counting the one on my PC, I have eight different dictionaries in my home (what’d you expect?) spanning the period from the 1940s to the present. In not one of the pre-’90s editions is imposter an acceptable alternative spelling of impostor. In fact, one of them defines imposter as a different word altogether (a low-level bureaucrat who determines customs duties). But my 1999 Webster’s and the dictionary on my computer acknowledge both spellings. This is a revoltin’ development; the long-established impostor goes up in smoke, because now people can “look it up in the dictionary” and believe imposter is acceptable.
Well, it isn’t. All Webster’s is doing is noting that a lot of lazy people have started spelling the word with that -er. Webster’s doesn’t judge; it just records changes in the language. Change is good, you say? Sure—sometimes. But imposter is a sign of cirrhosis of the language. It’s change born of ignorance, not evolution.
If enough people make the same mistake, Webster’s feels compelled to acknowledge it, which to word nerds is unimaginably infuriating, especially because people think all dictionaries are the ultimate authority.
This week's grammar tip is by veteran copy editor and word nerd Tom Stern.
Due to the E-Newsletter's large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com's "Grammar Blog."
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