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October 24, 2009

Fiendish Editorial Content

Fiendish Words - editorial content

Mind your language

This section of the web site is called Words and as it happens "words" and being pedantic about them is one of my interests.

This would, perhaps, be pardonable if I observed the highest standards of grammatical etiquette but I don't; most of the time I sound like I have been to Ian Dury's masterclass in language mangling.

Spelling, mispronunciation, malapropisms all bring out the tiresome pedant in me. Even though I believe that as a living language English should be allowed to evolve, I can't help wincing when I hear someone say "from whence" instead of "whence". If I am feeling particularly bold or I know the person well I'll generally lean over and explain that as the word whence means "from where", when they say from whence they are saying the equivalent of from from where, which sounds like the name of a dodgy 1960's French chanteuse.

I can't help correcting my son when he says "should of" instead of "should have", even though the percentage of the populace who say "should of" is now so high that it will not be long before dictionaries acknowledge the legitimacy of "should of" as an expression.

Which reminds me; why do Americans use the curious phrasing "it was not that big of a car" instead of the simpler "it was not that big a car"? It's not that they are keen to add superfluous words otherwise they would say "write to me" as the British do instead of "write me", or "he's in the back" instead of "in back".

But I digress. (You can't start a sentence with a but!) Oh, but I can.

A while back a fellow gamer who happened to be a teacher - but only a Physics teacher so that does not really count - picked me up on my use of the word less when I should have said fewer. "Ah yes, but I've got less units than you."

"Fewer units, you mean," he said.

I would not have minded but not only was he a Physics teacher but a Welsh speaker to boot!

Actually instead of being offended at having my grammar corrected I was quietly thrilled. Here was another little imperfection I could pick other people up on.

I take comfort in the fact that I am not totally obsessed by adherence to grammatical rules. A preposition is something with which I am happy to end a sentence ....

Fowler says (and I agree, which I am sure he'll find heartening) that people who insist on worrying about split infinitives and sentences ending with prepositions are trying to impose the strictures of Latin on the English language. Seeing as English is not Latin there is no reason why it should follow the same rules.

In my day job I was, for many years, a news editor so I suppose that might have encouraged my pedantry. Before the days of spell checkers I would cheerfully spend my day correcting spelling mistakes and typing errors. This was particularly crucial when reporting on African affairs of state as there was a prominent statesman at the time named Sithole whose name just invited a crude mistype.

Perhaps as a hangover from my editing days I still have a sharp eye for a typo or misspelling. The two words I see mispelt most frequently are lose, which is often spelt as loose, and definitely, which is often spelt as definately.

Now, if people habitually spell the word lose as loose, how do they spell the word loose? Looose, perhaps?

As for people who spell definitely as definately, how do they spell the word definition? As defination? That sounds like something boy racers do with their car stereos.

I can understand years ago people being unaware that they spelled certain words incorrectly because no fool is going to double-check every word in the dictionary, but now we have word processors, surely the definately crowd must get tired of having this misspelling corrected, even if the loose crowd remain blissfully unaware of their misspelling of the word lose because loose is a genuine word that would not be recognised as an error by the spell-check (called a literal in the trade, I believe).

As for people who pronounce the letter H as haitch instead of aitch, this really used to get on my tits until learnt that these people were so certain that their pronunciation was correct that you could win easy money off them in a bet. Even after they handed over the money most of them insisted that the dictionary was wrong because their teacher had taught them to pronounce the letter that way. A high proportion of haitchers seem to come from Ireland where perhaps haitch is the correct pronunciation.

I find it ironic that among a group of people (Londoners in particular) where the letter H is routinely dropped from the start of words ("I didn't 'ave an 'ope") so many people incorrectly add a redundant aitch at the start of the letter aitch.

"Ah yes!" they argue, "of course it begins with a haitch because the letter haitch makes a huh sound."

Well, if that is the case why don't we pronounce the letter F as "feff" because it makes a fuh sound? What about the letters lel, mem, nen, rar, ses, wubble-you, xex and ywhy?

If you know of any words that are commonly misspelt (or is that misspelled?), mispronounced or used in the wrong context do let us know. Perhaps your pet hate is nouns transitioning (sic) into verbs. Alternatively maybe you have a foible of your own, something else that inexplicably drives you nuts, like people who sniff instead of using a hanky, or people who don't stand on the right hand side of the escalators on the London Underground. If so, drop us a line and we'll feature them in a future article.

John Harrington

Scott Thompson of Montreal writes:

I came across your language page while searching for facts about the pronunciation of the letter H. We have a couple of guys here at work who insist on using "haitch," so I was glad to point out your thoughts on this point. We do a lot of web commerce solutions here, so you can imagine how many times we're forced to hear "haitch tee em ell." One of the gentlemen in question is, indeed, Irish (although he grew up in Birmingham), and the other is an Aussie.

I thoroughly enjoyed your page, with the possible exception of your tolerance for split infinitives, my personal pet peeve. You did catch some of the other things I love to hate, though. "Looser" is a term I've almost come to expect when playing games on-line.

Here are some of the more common mistakes I find (at least over here in Canada):

spelling --
You're vs Your ("Your stupid." My response: "What about my stupid?")
It's vs Its (Come on, I learned the difference when I was six)

pronunciation --
Nuclear as NOO-kyoo-ler (Do they spell it nucular?)
Kilometre as kih-LAH-mih-ter (Do they pronounce centimetre sen-TIH-mih-ter?)

I understand some dicitionaries are now accepting this alternate pronunciation of kilometre. Personally, I find that consistent inflection helps to make the logical separation between metre, the unit of measurement, and meter, a tool used in measurement.
KIL-o-mee-ter versus o-DAH-mih-ter.

Seeing how Americans have already ruined the distinction between the two in spelling, I suppose pronunciation was the next to fall.

inventing words --
Disorientated (You certainly are...)

(JH replies: Is that "alternate" pronunciation or "alternative"?  "Alternative" is more common in the UK with "alternate" thought of more as a verb. It is ironic that the word "pronunciation" is one of the most commonly mispronounced words.  Many people seem to think it is spelt pronounciation.)


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