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Friday, March 2, 2012

A Visit from the Grammar Police

Every now and then I come across an article or review in which the writer gives vent to his or her favorite (or least favorite) verbal failings among contemporary writers. We all have them, but I always try to remind myself that every writer has a weakness or two, and the point of publicizing them is to give all of us a chance to learn and improve our own work. Writing well is a lifelong learning process, and when we stop learning, we stop growing. Here, to add to your own personal list of grammar sins to watch out for, are a few of my obsessions.

I am obsessed with the proper use of the direct object for personal pronouns. If I gave the book to you, and you gave it to George, and George decided he didn’t like it and gave it Melinda, why on earth does it transpire that Melinda decided to wrap it up and give it as a gift to Harry and I? What happened to me?

Then there are the words that are fast fading, and I miss them. I cringe whenever someone tells me that a reviewer has called a book marvelous and lavished it with fulsome praise. For those of you not cringing at this moment (or laughing at the reviewer’s sneaky joke), fulsome is related to false, not full. Fulsome praise is false praise, best translated today as smarmy.

Then there are the now ordinary usages that occasionally produce startling images. If you live in a college town and order bacon and eggs and pancakes (and don’t have to worry about high cholesterol), and the waitress asks you if you want them together, you had better be careful of your answer. It’s best to reply to the possibly overeducated young that you prefer them simultaneously rather than together—a mixture that is likely to appear on the plate unappetizing at best.

There are some words that probably can’t be recovered. Career is one of them. The sense of careening is lost now, and those of us who occasionally find ourselves writing career instead of the more idiomatic careen usually cross out the error and make the change. And, of course, the original meaning of careen is pretty much lost also, just like a ship might be from leaning, or careening, too far over in a high wind.

But if I have to give up some of my favorite words, I get to use new ones, or old ones with new meanings. I especially like troll, which I find blinking in my brain whenever I come across someone who delights in finding errors in other people’s work and then pointing them out to everyone they encounter.

Words are fun, and I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t try to learn and use new ones, expand my vocabulary as a way of making my sentences more precise, and seek out and learn from other writers whose subject matter is different enough from mine to promise new words and ideas.

If you have favorite words disappearing or changing, let me know. I’m always ready to add to my list of words to watch.

3 comments:

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Susan,

I also love examining words. Before we moved from our house, one of my favorite books was an unabridged Cambridge dictionary of etymology. I found nothing more interesting then examining the origin of words. Sadly, we had to downsize when we moved to an apartment. My husband insisted that a majority of my books and bookcases be given away. He felt I could access dictionary info online. He was right, of course, but I do miss my huge print etymological dictionary.
And I agree with you. Words, new and old, are fascinating.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I have a few dictionaries that I still rely on even though I know they're thirty years out of date. There's something about reading a dictionary that is the freest kind of reading--just the words revealing themselves.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I'm with you there!