COLUMN: Language police are annoying but necessary

The English language is suffering a decline

I confess to being one of those annoying people with a propensity for correcting the grammar of others.

I blame Miss Dunbar, a teacher who throughout my junior high school years used strategic yardstick strikes to the back of her students’ heads to correct the misuse of the English language.

That concussive educational method has stayed with me and has transformed me into the annoying language policeman I am today, but I can’t help but believe that I, and others like me, are needed more than ever.

I’ll give you an example.

The other day a neighbour bemoaned that her children were driving her to distraction; literally swinging from the rafters, she said.

I nicely explained that what she meant to say was that they were figuratively swinging from the rafters, unless, of course, she’d given birth to gibbons.

And you wonder why people don’t talk to me.

A reader once sent me a scathing letter, telling me that my opinion didn’t jive with his own. I replied that I wasn’t much of a dancer and didn’t fully understand the reference to the swing dance made popular in the mid-twentieth century. The word he was groping for was “jibe.”

So it goes. I just find those mistakes annoying.

When a subject is open for debate, it may be a moot point but unless it’s unspoken it is not a “mute” point.

Look up moot on your Google machine to understand.

And then there are the phrases that if people only gave them a little thought, would never be used again.

When someone tells you “they could care less.” they generally don’t mean that they actually do care but could potentially find themselves caring less.

And the phrase “first come, first serve” seems to imply that showing up early could result in your helping out with whatever event it is that you’re attending.

And while we’re at it, I’m begging you, if you don’t know the meaning of a word or phrase, don’t use it.

Jim Comey famously reported that it made him “mildly nauseous” to think he helped get Donald Trump elected.

I assume he meant to say that he was mildly nauseated as his actual phrasing indicated that he believed that his behaviour nauseated others. On reflection, that was probably true, but still not what he wanted to say.

Similarly, “champing at the bit” indicates that you are eager to do something, but “chomping at the bit” makes no sense and sounds like it would be harmful to your dental work.

I blame the poor use of language on the fact fewer people are reading these days, preferring to gaze at their devices where the language is – let’s face it – regularly mutilated. Fully one-third of Canadians report not having read a book in the past year.

It’s no wonder then that people don’t understand that one can’t just add ‘ing’ to a verb and turn it into a noun. ‘Monsooning’ is not a word, folks and shouldn’t be used no matter how heavy the rainfall.

But now that I’m getting to the proper use of gerunds, I should probably stop.

•••

Tim Collins is a Sooke News Mirror reporter.

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