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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 n 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.
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There is a two-letter word that perhaps has more meanings than any other two-letter word, and that is “up.”
It's easy to understand up, meaning toward the sky or at the top of the list, but when we awaken in the morning, why do we wake up ?
At a meeting, why does a topic come up?
Why do we speak up and why are the officers up for election and why is it up to the secretary to write up a report?
We call up our friends.
And we use it to brighten up a room, polish up the silver; we warm up the leftovers and clean up the kitchen.
We lock up the house and some guys fix up the old car.
At other times the little word has real special meaning.
People stir up trouble, line up for tickets, work up an appetite, and think up excuses.
To be dressed is one thing, but to be dressed up is special.
A drain must be opened up because it is stopped up.
We open up a store in the morning but we close it up at night.
We seem to be pretty mixed up about up!
To be knowledgeable about the proper uses of up, look the word up in the dictionary.
In a desk-sized dictionary, it takes up almost one-fourth of the page and can add up to about thirty definitions.
If you are up to it, you might try building up a list of the many ways up is used.
It will take up a lot of your time, but if you don't give up, you may wind up with a hundred or more.
When it threatens to rain, we say it is clouding up.
When the sun comes out we say it is clearing up.
When it rains, it wets the earth and often messes things up.
When it doesn't rain for awhile, things dry up.
One could go on and on, but I'll wrap it up,
for now my time is up,
so … it is time to shut up!
Now it's up to you what you do with this.
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.