Tag Archives: grammar

Dr. Language Guy Returneth

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The English language is rich, complex and idiosyncratic, filled with nearly a million words.  Yet, most of us – me – constrain ourselves to three to four thousand at most.  Although we should attempt to broaden our base of words, there are some words and phrases that we should just not use.

No, I don’t mean George Carlin’s The Seven Words You Cannot Say on Television.  A number of you drop f-bombs left and right.  Even I do occasionally, just not as effectively.

No, I mean those archaic forms or trite phrases that we don’t ever get right.  Ever.

Whence and Thence

Whence means from what place; from where.  Thence means from that place or therefrom.  Since the ‘from’ is already included, there is no need to add it in a sentence but we invariably do.  If noted authorities like the English legal system and author Jane Austen can’t get these words correct, what chance do we have?

“You shall be taken to the place from whence you came, and then hence to a place of lawful execution, and there you shall be hanged by the neck until you be dead, and afterwards your body shall be buried in a common grave within the precincts of the prison wherein you were last confined before your execution, and may the Lord have mercy on your soul.”

–The formal death sentence of the English legal system

“Away ran the girls, too eager to get in to have time for speech.  They ran from the vestibule into the breakfast-room, from thence to the library …”

–Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

From whence translates literally as ‘from from where’ and from thence as ‘from from that place.’  It’s nonsensical and redundant.  So, unless you are giving a formal death sentence (appropriate in certain circumstances) or speaking in literary circles like Jane Austen’s World, don’t use these words.  You’ll get them wrong.

Whilst and Amongst

Okay, you can use these words.  Whilst means while; amongst means among.  I just prefer while and among.  However, amongst friends, you may use these words whilst writing.

They control their own destiny.

How many times do I have to hear this phrase from ex-jock commentators?  “This team controls its own destiny.”  Even commencement speakers, like Dr. Oz, tell students “to control their destiny.”  Oh, yeah?  Destiny is defined as ‘the seemingly inevitable or necessary succession of events.’  If it’s inevitable, how can you control it?  You can’t.  Maybe you can affect your future but you cannot control your destiny.

It fell between the cracks.

“This legislation fell between the cracks” says some late night political pundit.  The space between the cracks is filled.  Between is defined as ‘in or through the space that separate two things.’  The space that separates two cracks in the floor is the solid area of the floor.  If something falls and is lost, it falls into the cracks, not between them.

Whilst you ponder on these words of wisdom before they fall between the cracks, Dr. Language Guy, in control of his own destiny, returneth from whence he came.

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Dr. Language Guy

It is I, Dr. Language Guy.

In words used to describe the late TV journalist Edwin Newman, Dr. Language Guy is “a lone literary warrior fighting the encroaching barbarism of imprecise and fraudulent language.”  Dr. Language Guy is eternally vigilant, steadfastly determined and should not be confused with that unrepentant grouch, Curmudgeon-at-Large, or various other persona that I assume when I get befuddled or the moon is full.

My inspiration for this idea came directly from Dave Berry.  While he would understand the need for more than one person to be on constant alert for poor language and grammar, I need to finish my article before the cease and desist order arrives.

Whenever Dr. Language Guy sees or hears a badly phrased sentence, usually by ex-jock TV commentators or by political contenders, but now more and more by the mainstream (lamestream?) media – spoken and print, his teeth grind, his ears ache, his spine shivers, his loins gird, his hackles rise, his knees wobble: Dr. Language Guy is an anatomical mess.

Here are a few examples that send Dr. Language Guy to the medicine cabinet.

1.  The Federal Reserve plans to reshuffle its portfolio of securities to try and lower long-term rates.   (MSNBC/Associated Press, Nov 2011)

When did we, as confident, determined English-speaking nations (that includes you, Canada), decide that we would collectively “try and do” something instead of “try to” do something?  If we try and lower long-term rates, haven’t we succeeded in lowering them?  Aren’t we just trying to lower them?  Better yet, just lower them and be done with it.

2.  She described the scene of her parents sitting she and her sister down … (daily mail online UK, Dec 27, 2011)

Why is the context of subject and object so hard?  As a subject, it’s I, she, and he whether alone or together.  I sat down.  My sister and I sat down.  As an object, it’s me, her and him.  Her parents sat me down.  Her parents sat her sister and me down.  I believe that writers and speakers feel that I/she/he sounds more impressive than me/her/him.  By the way, I/me comes last.  It’s “between her and me” not “between me and her.”  Aarrgghh!

3.  “Any person could of been these victims.” (posting to WJLA website, Jan 3, 2012)

Yes, Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront “coulda been a contender” but the rest of us could have, instead of ”could of,” done better in our grammar.  Double aarrgghh!!

4.  Profiteering off Steve Jobs’ death.  (CBS News 2012)

When did we start profiteering off instead of profiteering from?  When and why did off and out of become preferred to from?

5.  Impacted and conflicted instead of affected

This usage affects me.  It doesn’t impact me and I am affected by it, not conflicted by it.  I know that we often confuse affect (to influence somebody or something) with effect (to succeed in making or doing something) but is this any reason to discard a good word entirely and replace it with, in my opinion, lesser ones?  I didn’t think so.

You will be impacted by a cannonball:  You will be affected by bad grammar.

6.  The misplaced modifying phrase

“Members of the Memory Café at a United Methodist Church work on a puzzle, which aims to help the patients and caregivers suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s and other diseases.”  (from a regional newspaper, July 2012)

I am sorry to read that the caregivers are suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s and other diseases.  They would probably be better caregivers if they were healthier or if the modifying phrase were correctly placed.

In closing, I quote an avid reader – the only one I have – who writes: “Who do we thank for the pitiful state of modern American English?”

To which Dr. Language Guy replies “WHOM do we thank …!”