Sunday, February 27, 2005

Linguistic Pet Peeves

I think most people have pet peeves when it comes to the use of language. Typically, we linguists tend not to be very judgemental about how people use language, preferring instead to describe and try to understand it. There is at least one class of exceptions for me, and that is when a word with one meaning undergoes a shift of meaning to become identical in meaning with that of a second word. Normally this is a quite unnecessary shift for, per hypothesis, we already have a word with this second meaning.

Journalists are responsible for one such instance in my opinion. This involves using the word "refute" when "rebut" is the more accurate word. To rebut a point of view, is to give arguments against that point of view; to refute a point of view, is to provide a "knock down" argument against it. In the example from the title link, we have sentence (1).
(1) Syrian Information Minister on Sunday refuted Israel's accusation that it was behind the suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.

I'm sure that in the mind of the Syrian Information Minister, he had refuted the Israeli accusation. However, I suspect that Israeli's wouldn't agree. And a journalist shouldn't be taking sides in such a case.

Another case of this is
(2) Less than three weeks after Napster Inc. began touting its all-you-can-rent music subscription service, the company finds itself refuting Internet claims that its copy-protection measures are flawed.

Again, we have an instance where "rebut" would be more accurate.

The importance of these examples is that with this change, the language loses an important lexical distinction.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

To me the distinction between "refute" and "rebut" is that someone who uses "refute" (without some qualifier) implicitly endorses the argument in question as actually being a valid disproof. I too wince whenever I see or hear it used by someone who almost certainly does not wish to make such an endorsement.

7:08 PM

Blogger Glen Whitman said...

I'm similarly annoyed by the use of "literally" to mean "figuratively." Not only does "figuratively" already cover the intended meaning, but we are also left without a word that unambiguously means (what we used to know was meant by) "literally."

2:44 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The misuse of "literally" drives me crazy too (I'm someone who IS judgemental, by the way, of the way people misuse language). May I also offer up the misuse of "evacuate"; people can evacuate a building but if they themselves are evacuated that would be quite an unsightly mess. My main pet peeve of late, however, is the disappearance of "fewer" [for countable nouns] in favor of the often incorrect "less" [which should only be used for uncountable nouns]. This happens constantly and is commonplace on news programs no fewer, uh, I mean "no less".

3:49 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

As a linguist, I am supposed not to object to langauge changes but as Glen notes, we lose the distinction between "literally" and "figuratively." I suspect that what people are sometimes doing here is using "literally" for emphasis. If what is being said to be literally true is obviously not literally true, then there is no harm. It is sort of like the dialectal, "I almost died when he told me that."

8:22 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Brian, I think that sports reporters are a source of some of this. When Dizzy Dean took over as the color guy for the Cardinals when his pitching career was over, he continued to mangle the English language (i. e. speak a nonstandard variety of English) and the English teachers in the area went ballistic. Over time people saw his mangling as endearing, much as Yogi Berra's very odd "sayings" (It's not over till its over).

7:41 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wouldn't it be nice if The Language Guy could actually spell the word "Miscellaneous" that so ironically and incorrectly titles the section containing "Pet Linguistic Peeves" - one of which must surely be the lousy spelling that pervades the Blogsphere.

3:56 PM

Blogger Torah Cottrill said...

My screaming peeve is the use of the noun "impact" as a verb in situations not involving meteor strikes, when the verb "affect" already lies within almost anyone's reach. I suspect these shifts start out as fads passed around among undereducated vice presidents of this and that who are searching for a more exciting word to add oomph (impact)to their presentations. My own linguistic guru, Dave Girshoff at Harcourt, chides me: these gradual alterations in the usage of existing words are natural in a living language and the reason we don't all speak Middle English. Still, the misuse of "impact" grates like chalky fingernails in my head.

11:01 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

It bothers me, as an advertising professional, to repeatedly witness advertising copywriters mangle the English language and grammar. It's a sad thing that we're the ones who push messages to the general public, and I just don't understand why they can't take better care to do their jobs properly. It's no wonder the average American has poor grammar and a weak grasp of his/her native language.

8:18 PM

Blogger fivesight said...

Orientated. Isn't the word oriented? When I heard Bill Clinton use that awful sounding word, I winced, thinking that if the President, a Rhodes scholar, is using this, soon the original word will disappear. Since there are so many professionals and scholars here, please let me know if it has been accepted as a word in English. I have even seen it used in British newspapers.

8:17 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am fascinated with the fact that most of the pollution of language seems to come from popular artists and reporters. I am terribly disappointed that reporters fail to properly utilize their primary tool, but even more bothered by popular artists continually regressing English for their art.

In less than 50 years I would lay money that Mark Twain will sound as completely foreign to young Americans as Elizabethan English is at this time.

I feel old.

1:20 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

My pet peeve? "Guys". Everyone nowadays is a guy. A group of men and women are addressed as "guys". A group of women is addressed as "guys" (even by another woman). A man and wife out for dinner are addressed as "guys". My wife said I lost this battle years ago but I still cringe when I hear the word "guys" used to refer to those other than men.

3:21 PM

Blogger Maureen said...

Actually, "orientated" is a word, but a Briticism (cf. lorry, "lift" for "elevator", "pants" to denote what you wear under your trousers", etc.).

What I've noticed a LOT lately is the apparent disappearance of "lit" as the past tense and participle of the verb "light". "Well-lit" banquet halls and "he lighted the lamp" seem to predominate in current prose. Is this verb becoming regular?

I've noticed that "impact" as a verb seems to denote "to have a detrimental effect, to affect negatively". I still hate it!

My husband has an odd linguistic habit of taking an extra S on things - "in that respects", "that's besides the point", etc. I know I won't change his linguistic habits; I just hope he doesn't change mine! =:o

Another pet peeve - bad punctuation, especially the use of commas in plurals and the misuse of hyphens - using them where they don't belong and omitting them where they're needed.

A 20-something colleague admitted just yesterday that he had "no idea" where hyphens are supposed to be used, and a couple of his contemporaries volunteered that they were *never taught* how to use them! What were their English teachers presenting, if punctuation wasn't part of the curriculum?

12:21 PM

Blogger coll-blog said...

Is it just me, or has there been a noticeable increase lately in the misuse of "might" for "may" and vice versa? It seems I never see the proper use of these terms any more, especially when the speaker/writer is expressing what could have happened in the past (had something else not occurred, for example), but didn't actually happen.

For instance, is it not incorrect to write, "If Mr. Lincoln hadn't gone to the theater that night, he may have lived a lot longer"? I see this sort of construction all the time, and it never fails to jar me. Am I a voice in the wilderness here?

12:12 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

In response to coll-blog:

"Might" and "may" are both modal auxiliaries that do express tense, but not "tense" in the sense in which we are accustomed to hearing it. This tense is purely arbitrary and only dictates the formal status of the verb - tense, mode, and aspect - that most people don't know, much less worry about in informal conversation.

1:31 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does anyone recall the placement of the comma and period inside quotation marks?

1:24 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do remember the placement of punctuation within quotation marks. To me, it just looks funny any other way. So, with that in mind...

My linguistic pet peeve is a phrase that I hear often from young, expectant couples: "we are pregnant." Interestingly, I have not heard any men say, "I am pregnant," although these same young men will gladly admit to sharing in the state of pregnancy with their female partners. My wife is pregnant, and so is, by definition, carrying a developing fetus within her body. We are both "expecting a baby," however I find it arrogant and, despite what I suspect are politically-correct motives, quite chauvinistic to refer to myself as "pregnant." I am not sick every morning, gaining weight, experiencing back pain, or any of the other discomforts that plague my wife at this time. So I have to wonder, where and when did this shift in definition begin? Am I the only one that sees it as a PC expression that should in fact be offensive to women (as it is to my own pregnant wife)? Well, not that offensive, really -- just a pet peeve, and I do feel much better now. Thanks for listening.

10:49 PM

Blogger Eric Madsen said...

I'm an economist who frequently works with large datasets in my studies. My pet peeve is when people treat the word "data" as a singular noun. "The data is telling us...". In fact, The singular form of "data" is "datum". However, I frequently seem to be the only one in the room who says, "the data are...", unless I happen to be with other economists or statasticians who care deeply about using proper grammer, an uncommon occurance. When I say "the data are...", most people seem to think I am speaking incorrectly. If language evolves, and we define "correct language" as that form which most people agree to be correct, then am I speaking incorrectly when I say, "the data are..."?

10:18 AM

Blogger Eric Madsen said...

Okay, so I slaughtered the spelling of the word "occurrence." Think I care?

10:23 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Note that you are talking about what the correct Latin singular and plural forms are. English speakers get to decide what they are in English. They have voted with their mouths and pens. You have lost. However, that doesn't mean that you and your colleagues need to change. No one else is watching to "correct" you. But it is quite wrong for you to insist that Americans speak Latin.

12:29 PM

Blogger Monsieur Le Prof said...

Ohhh... okay. Now I know what to do. I had been confused before whether to use 'data is' or 'data are' when in fact I know 'datum' is the singular of 'data'.

And I'm not even in the United States!

11:58 PM

Blogger Royal Foxbridge said...

Absolutely the worst is when Americans use "Uh huh" as a response to "Thank you". As far as I can tell, "Uh huh" is an expression meaning "Yes"?

The response to "Thank You" isn't "Yes" obviously..

9:29 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

I think that "Uh huh" is being used like the Spanish "de nada" in this case. It isn't what most of us would say.

7:40 AM

Blogger Anleha said...

I can't stand the ever-so-clever "we are pregnant." I have given birth twice; there is no "we" about it.

3:08 PM

Blogger Anleha said...

And the appropriate response to "Have a good one"...

"One WHAT?"

3:15 PM

Blogger goofy said...

I'm not convinced that a distinction is being lost here. After all, it looks like you had no trouble understanding "refute" in these sentences.

7:43 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

This may sound prissy, but hear me out. I think the "refuters" subconsciously think _refute_ sounds less vulgar than _rebut_. I see a lot of this hypergentility in people with mediocre language awareness.

As for my own pet peeve, it's the use of _issue(s)_ when _problem_ is meant. Some mimsy HR type in the 80s decided that "a problem" sounds too negative and we should nice it up as "an issue." As in "Ivan the Terrible had anger issues." I tell my classes that if they're talking about a problem, they should have the cajones to call it a problem. Not that it does any good. In this case, we've lost both issue and problem as distinct concepts.

I have a real issue with that.

5:00 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Barbara, I totally agree with you about prissiness being a problem {issue? :-)}. During a period when I was single as an adult, I dated a nursing professor whose language was littered with prissy choices, such as, in particular, "share." My first encounter was when she said she wanted to share an experience that was important to me and dragged me off to an ESP meeting. I already knew what that was but didn't know that that was where we were going. It was all downhill after that. If I have a snickers bar, the only way I can share it with you is to give you some with the result that I have less. Her kind of sharing didn't cost her anything.

9:10 AM


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