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Friday, December 2, 2011
Words and Language Toolbox

End-of-year potpourri

By Paula LaRocque

An interesting thing about monitoring media writing is seeing certain linguistic trends develop — including trends in errors. At this time last year, my 2010 folder bulged with a gaffe I hadn’t seen before but that suddenly appeared in the work of even competent writers.

That gaffe was “one of the only” instead of “one of the few.” Never mind that “one of the only” is a dopey and illogical inaccuracy — for some reason, there was a sudden surge in its use in media writing. The mistake persisted through 2011, which also produced the equally deplorable variant “among the only”:

“It’s the birthday of poet and novelist Maxwell Bodenheim, born in Hermanville, Mississippi (1892). His family was among the only Jews in rural Mississippi, and after his father’s store went bankrupt, his family moved to Chicago.”

“His family was among the only Jews.” Nice phrasing. Why not something literate, as long as we’re professional writers? Maybe: “His was one of the few Jewish families in rural Mississippi.”

A common error in my 2011 collection is basic verb conjugation — particularly pertaining to verbs such as sink. It sinks. It sank. It has/had sunk. American students learn grammar as elementary as that in the third and fourth grades. Yet, here’s a veteran newspaper writer: “Meanwhile, shares of Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs Group sunk as investors bet they would collapse ...” Here’s another: “There was silence as the foreign minister’s words sunk in.”

Both verbs should be in the simple past tense: sank.

The substandard bust instead of break or burst is another entry in my 2011 “Gross Grammar” folder. Consider: “Police said the men mocked his attire before taking an object from his girlfriend and using it to bust the windows of the red Mercury Sable he had been driving.” Anyone who calls clothing or wardrobe “attire” can surely rise to the word “break” instead of “bust.”

Adjective/adverb errors are also perennials in the garden of bad grammar. “Most importantly” and “feel badly” have been in my end-of-year folder for years, and 2011 was no exception. “Most importantly” is an elliptical expression meaning “what is most important,” so careful writers and speakers lop off that “ly” and keep the adjective: most important.

“Feel badly” is always wrong, yet even polished writers fall into its trap: “According to the police, the shooter admitted feeling badly about the doctor’s death.” Feel is a sense or linking verb (like seem, look, taste, smell, appear,
remain, become, etc.), and we use adjectives, not adverbs, with linking verbs. We don’t feel stupidly or hungrily or angrily any more than we seem stupidly or hungrily or angrily.

Mistakes with the word gauntlet, a glove, are common. The word is confused with gantlet, a double line or row that a subject travels between, often as a punishment or

hazing: “He says an extended run through the gauntlet may not be a bad thing for the Massachusetts senator.” This writer means gantlet.

A frequent new confusion in my 2011 folder concerns the words adieu, which means “farewell,” and ado, which means bother or turmoil. Check it out:

“She said it was a case of much adieu over nothing.”

“So without further adieu, let’s move to our real subject.”

“Fall is here. Summer has bid Adiew.”

Well. What can be said about all that, except that it’s dreadful? The word wanted in the first two cases is “ado.” And who can say how “Adiew” — both misspelled and wrongly capitalized — got into a newspaper?

As long as we’re discussing the preposterous, check out this writer’s understanding of “Lo and behold”: “He got the battery replaced at a local watch shop that happens to be an authorized dealer. Low and behold, after two weeks it hasn't lost a second.”

The freakier the error, the less likely it is to catch on. So the crazed cliché is usually a one-off. Yet I’ve seen “doggy dog world” (instead of “dog-eat-dog world”) for decades. I don’t know what “doggy dog world” means, but it apparently means something to some:

“I mean, I know it’s a doggy dog world and everything, but there should be at least a little room for professional courtesy.”

Wild metaphors, like crazed clichés, are usually one-offs, too, and my 2011 folder had plenty of one-timers. There was the reporter who likened the Middle East to “a metaphorical salad of dominoes waiting to fall and a powder keg waiting to blow.” Or the political writer who said we’re “beating our heads against a dead horse.”

I don’t expect to see either of those trend-setters in my 2012 folder.

Happy New Year!

Paula LaRocque is author of “The Book on Writing,” “On Words,” and “Championship Writing.” Her first novel, a mystery titled “Chalk Line,” was published by Marion Street Press in September 2011. Email: plarocque@sbcglobal.net. Website: paulalarocque.com

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