Saturday, November 29, 2008

In Which I Nit-Pick

Everyone has their own personal word-usage pet peeves (well, don't they?) (and probably someone's is people using "their" as a singular. Sorry, it's common gender-neutral usage now; I'm claiming it.) (and probably someone else's peeve is overuse of parentheses, for which I have no defense.)

Ahem. Where was I?

Right. Herewith, some word-usage things that drive me bananas. I mean no offense to you if you are a perpetrator of any of these; it is your perfect right, just as it is mine to use the word "parent" as a verb even though to many people that particular usage is, lo, as to the sound of fingernails upon a chalkboard. As are these to me:

1. Unique. According to Dictionary.com, the first two definitions of "Unique" are "existing as the only one or as the sole example; single; solitary" and "having no like or equal; unparalleled; incomparable". Got that? Incomparable. That means: You cannot qualify the word "unique." Something cannot be "more unique" than something else," or "sort of unique," or even "really unique." Either something is unique, like New York City, or it is not, like the legions of Harry Potter knockoffs crowding the children's fiction shelves of a library near you.

2. Nonplussed. Again, Dictionary.com: "filled with bewilderment"; the adjectival form of the verb "nonplus," which means "To put at a loss as to what to think, say, or do; bewilder. " Basically, if you are nonplussed you are taken aback, thrown, knocked for a loop, etc. Which is the opposite of how I've often heard/read it employed. I think that "non" at the beginning throws people off, and they think it means something similar to "nonchalant." But no, no, no: If I say, say, "When he broke the news to her, she was nonplussed" it means "She had ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA he was gay/a Republican/a Vulcan, and was totally freaked out, even though she was trying gamely to be polite," not "She'd known for ages and wondered why he even bothered to make a big deal out of it."

3. Gift, or Gifted. These are, respectively, a noun meaning "a present someone gives you" and an adjective meaning "what your brilliant child, who reads at a college level and can do long division in her head, is". THEY ARE NOT VERBS. There is no good reason for them to be verbs. There is a perfectly good verb that means the same thing that people mean who are going around saying "My great-uncle gifted me with this lovely and yet gigantic urn, but it doesn't fit in my living room so I am going to gift it to my little cousin", and that verb is the verb TO GIVE. As in "My great-uncle gave me this strangely hideous urn." Or "I am going to give it to my very goth little cousin, who might appreciate it better," or, if you must employ the passive voice, "I was given this weird vase by some relative who thinks I like anything black; want to help me smash it up for mosaic pieces?"

I will make an exception for the term "re-gift," on the highly scientific grounds that "re-give" just doesn't sound right.

4. Disagree with. I didn't notice this one much until I became obsessed with the controversy over same-sex marriage in the wake of this year's election. I read a lot, a lot, a lot of blogs and comments and websites and articles, and then I remembered why I am not usually more political: because it makes me tired and cranky and angry and upset to read the opinions of people who seem to me to be so manifestly wrong, and not just wrong about anything but about me and people like me (in one major aspect, anyway). I know if I were a better person, a more political person, I would reach out to and engage with these people and either try to convince them of my rightness, or, even better, to find common ground with them, and thus work to make the world a better place, but I am not a better person and after a while I just stopped reading all those sites.

But not before I had noted one very disturbing trend, and that was the tendency of many participants in various debates to start their comments with the phrase "I disagree with gay/same-sex marriage, and..." or even "I disagree with gay/same-sex marriage, but..." This phrase just seemed wrong to me. Not ethically or morally wrong, but wrong in relation to the English language.

I mean, you can disagree with another person ("I disagree with the previous commenter, who wants to destroy traditional marriage") and you can disagree with an idea or philosophy ("I disagree with the notion that church and state should be separate entities") but two people marrying each other is an action, and marriage is a state of being, and you can't disagree with an action or a state or with any non-personified being, for that matter. It would be like me saying "I disagree with exercise," or "I disagree with Mount Vesuvius" which are both meaningless statements. However, I could say "Exercise disagrees with me," or "Volcanic eruptions disagree with me" which are both proper word usage and factually true, although they employ a tertiary meaning of the word "disagree".

Or, if I were to mean what I think most of those commenters mean, I could say "I disapprove of exercise/volcanic eruptions." However, my disapproval is not going to stop other people from going to gyms, or volcanoes from erupting. Nor should it. And I look forward to the day when other people's disapproval of (not disagreement with) same-sex marriage similarly matters not a whit to me and mine.

And in that, I believe I am not unique.

Now you have been given all the English-language curmudgeonliness, and all the political commentary, that I have in me to rant.

I hope it didn't nonplus you.

10 Comments:

Blogger Phantom Scribbler said...

I am *totally* changing my Facebook status to "disagrees with exercise" right this very minute.

No one who knows me well will be nonplussed by that statement, however. I have been vociferously disagreeing with exercise my entire life.

8:03 PM  
Anonymous Amy said...

I've been confused for years about what "nonplussed" meant. I had a kind of picture of it as disdainful, like my cat when I present her with food. But she is definitely not bewildered by the food. And in fact that feeling of "totally freaked out but trying gamely to be polite" is one I've had often, and am very glad to have a name for! Thank you! :-)

8:54 PM  
OpenID ppolarbear said...

I am morally opposed to the word nonplussed. It sounds all calm and chill and that's not what it means. So I refuse to use it. I hope that leaves me free from grammarian wrath?

I hate, also, the misuse of disapprove. I will happily join your campaign to eradicate its usage. I have been known to attempt very bad jokes, ("you disagree with abortion? someone actually named her kid abortion? that's awful.") that entertain nobody but myself.

My other pet peeve is alumni. Colleges seem unable to use this word correctly, which is more than a bit disturbing, considering. I am routinely summoned to meet with an alumni--who is, in fact, female, and only one person.

7:54 AM  
Blogger elswhere said...

ppb--I think refusing to use the word "nonplussed" is a perfectly honorable stance. Though I like the word exactly *because* it seems to somehow, just from the way it sounds, connote a valiant attempt to remain calm and chill in the face of taken-abackness.

So, you know, to each their (or, to each his or her) own.

And I'm right there with you on "alumni". I went to of a women's college, though, and to their credit they always scrupulously use the term "alumnae", or "alumna" for the singular. They have a big classics department, and I guess if they messed up some alumna or other would correct them pretty quickly.

11:41 AM  
Anonymous Marina said...

Hi Elswhere!

Long time no post. I love all your pet peeves (in that I too am made peevish by the same language misusages) and will add my current:

"whenever" used where one should use "when" as in "Whenever I was pregnant with my daughter, Mathilda..." (as if one could be more than once). And clients use it a lot when discussing their illnesses or pregnancies or what have you. And since they are coming to me NOT for proper English usage tips but rather for midwifery care I must bite my tongue and not correct them. Bah.

(clearly beginning sentences with 'and' is NOT one of my peeves -- forgive me if it is one of yours)

Happy Thanksgiving, oh far-away Canadiennes!

Best,

Marina (childhood friend of Rosie B.)

11:41 AM  
Blogger Arwen said...

I love nonplussed. It seems to me a very British way of being shocked, and therefore I am forced to like it.

However, I always thought it hyphenated, which goes to show you can't trust me.

I like the idea of disagreeing with a volcano. "Now, SIMMER DOWN. That is a totally EXPLOSIVE opinion, and not at all necessary!"

12:39 PM  
Blogger Rev Dr Mom said...

Using gift as a verb is absolutely on my list of "drives me crazy."

I also am bothered by the phrase "where is it at?" although I think it is common usage now. Isn't "where is it?" perfectly clear and sufficient? I guess I got that one from my mother whose peppery answer to "Where is it at?" would be, "Between the a and the t."

6:14 PM  
Blogger Jana B said...

Quote from you: "She had ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA he was gay/a Republican/a Vulcan, and was totally freaked out, even though she was trying gamely to be polite," not "She'd known for ages and wondered why he even bothered to make a big deal out of it."

Well, I'm sure if he was a Vulcan, she WOULD have noticed. Between the pointy ears, the green blood, and the total lack of emotional displays... you'd have to be extremely self-involved not to noticed something was up, ya know?

Nonplussed is an interesting word, but the prefix "non" being used as just a normal part of a word would make me crazy. I can't use it.

*gasp* I work at a university, and have heard "alumni" used so many times in reference to an individual... Now that will drive me crazy as well.

On the "disagree with" subject... I'm doing a series of posts on my blog about gay marriage, (That's how I found your blog, in fact!)and you are completely invited to be a guest author for a day and rant about this!

On a side note, I hope you don't mind the use of... lots of periods for no apparent reason! :o)

6:44 PM  
Blogger liz said...

My pet peeves are "try and" instead of "try to" and "could care less" instead of "couldn't care less" and the Pittsburghism, "needs washed (or other past tense)" instead of "needs to be washed (or other past tense" or "needs washing".

And I completely am with you on your pet peeves.

7:00 AM  
Blogger S. said...

So with you on "very unique." It's like being a little bit pregnant, isn't it?

Now I understand Phantom's FB status. Oh, internets, how nonplussed I am without you.

11:24 AM  

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