February 07, 2014

F5 the Sixth: #1: English as she is spoke

Here we go again. Four Fridays of February means four further F5s: Four February Fridays of Fabulous Frivolity.

And, one major headache. This is the sixth time that I have done this blog tradition, in which I extol the virtues of my loves, likes, favourites, guilty pleasures, and bad habits. Over the years I've covered such eclectic topics as shaving habits, preferred aftershaves, fountain pens, Godzilla, Doctor Who, wine, spicy foods, Arnold Schwarzenegger, William Shakespeare, Buffalo wings, 80s pop music, James Bond, coffee, and comic books. That's a somewhat fair snapshot of the simple pleasures I enjoy, so it's actually getting harder to come up with new ideas, unless you want to read me extolling the virtues of, say, tasty ice water, or why spiral-bound books are better than Cerlox.

So I thought that this year I'd do something different this year, and talk about my favourite pet hates. I don't mean the things that I genuinely and deeply loathe, like abortion or ScientologyTM. Rather, I mean pet peeves, or severe annoyances: the things that bug me to no end.

Being a writer by profession, I thought I'd start off with bad writing.

Language is an aid to communication. Without language, we'd be reduced to a system of pointing and grunting. Without written language, what was said could have no permanence. English is often a difficult language to learn for non-English speakers, because of its enigmatic and inconsistent rules. There's a reason for this: since the 11th century, English has been more or less a hybrid of French and German, and thus contains multiple conflicting grammar rules and spellings (which is why we say children instead of childs when there's more than one of 'em). We're generally forgiving of questionable grammar when we're speaking, because we know we're doing it off the cuff. But when it comes to writing—and there's a lot of it around, thanks to the Internet—it would be awfully nice if people would learn the rules of their language before committing it to text. Here are my top 10 bad-English hates. Primarily, they consist of misused words.

  • I would be negligent if I didn't acknowledge the single most egregious English faux pas: confusing its and it's. It's is a contraction meaning "it is"; its is a possessive pronoun. See the dog? It's wagging its tail. Yes, we usually use an apostrophe for a possessive, but not when it's a pronoun. We write the dog's, but not hi's or her's.
  • Similarly, there, their, and they're. They're going over there to get their lunch.
  • That was so funny, I literally died laughing. I'm sorry to hear that. To which funeral home shall I send the bouquet? Sadly, you can't tell me, because you're dead of a joke-induced aneurysm. Literally means taking the words at face value. Unfortunately, its abuse to add emphasis to figurative (read: non-literal) language is so widespread that even dictionaries are starting to note it.
  • Superman led Lex Luthor to believe he was weakened by the Kryptonite, but he was protected by a lead shield. The past tense of read is read pronounced "red"; the same rule doesn't hold for lead.
  • Affect is a verb; effect is a noun. If I affect something, it will have an effect.
  • Titled means "named"; entitled means "owed." My new book of essays is titled, "You Are Entitled to My Opinion."
  • Galations is an all-too-common misspelling of Galatians. The Bible is probably the most common book in the world, and everyone (except, perhaps, the blind) reads it in print. So it amazes me that so many people can't spell a word that is spelled out right in front of them.
  • Utilize. Who are you, Cicero? What's wrong with use?
  • I could write an entire blog post in itself on the abuse of punctuation, particularly quotation marks. In North American English, we set apart direct quotations with double quotation marks, like so: "Right," said Fred. A quotation within a quotation is marked with single quotation marks: "I wanted to go out," said George, "but my wife told me, 'Over my dead body.'" For quotations nested deeper than that—and please don't nest quotations deeper than that—alternate between double and single quotes. British English reverses the order, starting with single quotes and using double quotes for the nested quotation. There are also some specialize uses of single quotation marks in disciplines like linguistics or theology, but unless you're doing that, don't use single quotation marks merely to enclose a quotation. (Unless you're British, that is, in which case, by all means, go right ahead.) Whether to put other punctuation inside or outside quotation marks confuses some people. The rules are:
    • Periods and commas always go inside. I can call you "Betty," and Betty when you call me, you can call me "Al."
    • Colons and semicolons always go outside. The weatherbabe had said the chance of precipitation was "extremely low"; I regretted not bringing my umbrella.
    • Question marks and exclamation marks go either inside or out, depending on whether they are part of the sentence or the quotation. I asked my girlfriend, "What's wrong?" She said, "Nothing." But when I said, "Oh, that's good!" she threw a vase at me and called me an "insensitive jerk"!
    Again, the British rules are different, but if you aren't British, you have no excuse.
  • For the love of all that's holy, "do not" use quotation marks for emphasis.

If you want to write, and to be read by strangers, you owe it to yourself to purchase a copy of Strunk and White's little writing guide, The Elements of Style. It's inexpensive, short, easy to read, and extremely useful.