How's Your English? A Celebration of Grammatical Sins

Monday, June 02, 2014

A misspelled sign near the Colorado River by Charles O'Rear in 1941. (EPA/National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons)

Am I disinterested or uninterested? Does this require a that or a which? And when, if ever, should I be using the word "very"?

We're not looking to start a mutiny here, but according to former dictionary editor Ammon Shea, the rules of English are not as clear as we may believe them to be.

The English language has been evolving for hundreds of years. There have always been critics and there have always been those charting new territory into the linguistic unknown.

Shea's new book, "Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation," comes out tomorrow and is billed as a celebration of grammatical sins of sorts.

And he says that new words, with new meanings and new rules of grammar, are all just signs of a healthy thriving language.

"Everybody who has ever tried to suffer through trying to reading Beowulf or anything that's more than 100-years-old in English prose knows that the language changes and that words mean different things," says Shea. "But one of the things that I think is often overlooked is that the rules that ostensibly govern our language change as well."

As a society changes over time, so too does the society's language. Shea says that during the early 20th century, language commenters thought that the world "dilapidated" should only be used to refer to a stone house because it came from the world lapis. 

"Any fool would know that it couldn't possibly apply to a wood house," says Shea. "But then, of course, we don't pay any attention to that now."

In the second half of the 19th Century, an American by the name of Richard Grant White wrote the book "Words and Their Uses, Past and Present: A Study of the English Language." Shea says that Grant White, a man he considers to be an "utter idiot" despite his education, had an overwhelming desire to correct the language of other people.

Grant White had several language pet peeves, and loathed the word "jeopardize." In his book "Words and Their Uses," Grant White wrote that jeopardize was "a foolish and intolerable word, which has no rightful place in the language."

"He wrote that way about almost everything," says Shea. "He said the same thing about ice cream—he thought it should be 'iced cream,' with a 'D.' He thought 'photographer' was something only fools say because anybody who knows anything about Latin and Greek should know that it's 'photographist.' He thought that 'real estate' was a ludicrous introduction from the realm of law. He went on and on like this."

While Grant White is one of the more extreme examples of a language commenter, Shea says he is not so different from others looking to correct grammatical sins.

"Some of the things that he's saying are really no more extreme than the things that people today say," adds Shea. "I think that changing rules mean that our language is healthy. Healthy languages change, dead languages do not change—that's very simple, and it's been long established."

Listen to the full interview to hear more from Shea.





Ammon Shea

Produced by:

Ellen Frankman


T.J. Raphael

Comments [70]

Gary from Cherry Hill, NJ

Tons--This is a measure of weight, not a measure of number or volume ("tons of people") While hundreds of large people may weigh tons, that is not what speakers mean when they use "tons" to refer to volume.

Jun. 21 2014 09:03 AM
Jane from Earth

"Processes" pronounced "PROH-suh-seez" instead of "PROH-sess-uz"

Only words ending in "-is" are supposed to take the "eez" plural pronunciation (oasis > oases, thesis > theses, etc.). Words ending in "-cess" don't take the spelling change or the corresponding pronunciation shift.

Jun. 05 2014 11:12 AM
Jan from DC Metro

I'd like to know how this started. On the radio or TV, someone asks a question, and then the respondent begins by saying, "so,..." as if to ignore the fact that he/she is being asked a question, and instead is merely continuing with his/her presentation.

It's so annoying !

Jun. 04 2014 10:29 PM
an from conroe, tx

until may be contracted to 'til; however, I see frequently 'till' used in its' place. generally, till means to turn over earth as in gardening?
also, use of 'your' instead of 'you're'...

Jun. 04 2014 09:35 PM
Nellie from New York y

As an ESL teacher, I try to accept things that don't interfere with communication; why not just have one firm of "be" - - He be going, we be English speakers. Be is the only verb in English with 8 forms. It gives learners a lot of trouble. That said, my private-school, elite-college educated husband says, "There's five of them." Even a cow-college grad like me knows it should be "there are." Irks me no end.

Jun. 04 2014 07:33 AM
Margaret from Morningside Heights, NYC

Joe (at12:56) is wrong. Preventative is in the dictionary. I agree about lazy pronunciation - I think it means a laziness in psyche. Harry Sherr (sp.?), on NPR, has a catalog of "So" used as a stupid introductory.

Jun. 03 2014 06:35 PM
Margaret from Morningside Heights, Manhattan

Pet peeve: insensible/non-sensible apostrophes. Popular usage evolves; so you might forgive "its" losing the rule of which one takes the apostrophe. I don't want to - it's supposed to be that the one contracting two words into one trumps the one that's a possessive. It drives me nuts when people have no sense of the reason for an apostrophe at all. It is suggested that there's an intentional mis-use, as an indicator of a sex act being a certain way; a way to declare the preferred side of the sociological planet.
To the caller re. "I could care less" meaning the opposite: People aren't so much forgetting to say "couldn't", being literally accurate, as they are doing the usual, evolved, abbreviation of dropping the "As if" at the beginning - the meaning of it is still assumed understood. That is the complete original version of the expression. "As if I could care less (I couldn't)!" The other abbreviation descended from that is: when "As if!" leaves out the rest of the subject, whatever that subject is is understood.
"As if (there'd ever be such a thing/it would matter, etc.)"

Jun. 03 2014 06:23 PM
Skip from Washington

Thinking more about this, it occurs to me the priority should be clarity and precision in communications. There is no loss in clarity when someone says, "Hopefully it won't rain", instead of "It is hoped it won't rain". We all know what is meant. This usage has been somewhat accepted, although it still sounds bad to those who were strictly taught it was incorrect. Young people will say "She was like..." instead of "She said something like...". It's a shortcut, faster to say, and there is no loss in meaning. However, changing the usage of a word like unique to mean rare( e.g. "very unique"), rather than one of a kind, removes from the language a useful, precise meaning. There is no other single word that means unique. In cases like this, we should hold the line and teach that "very unique" is an error.

Jun. 03 2014 02:34 PM
Skip from Washington

"Setistics" (for statistics), and "this-shear" (this year). Only shepherds should say "this-shear", not NPR on-air staff.

Jun. 03 2014 01:47 PM
Teri from Parrish, FL

"her and I" makes me crazy as does "her and her sister" etc. I have even heard this on the news!

Jun. 03 2014 11:02 AM
Ron from Lorain, OH

I would ask of Mr. Shea then, who makes the rules for our language? Or are there no rules necessary as long as the goal of effective communication is met? If there are to be rules, should we strive to follow them? Or is it okay to alter the language to our liking as long as those to whom we are speaking or writing understand what it is that we want to say? Is language anarchy a silly notion or an evolved acceptable standard?

Jun. 02 2014 11:51 PM

I double over in nausea whenever I hear this:

"Hi, I am a horrible prig without a single friend to prevent me from blighting human company. Stand still, and I will correct your grammar."

Or sentences like this.

Jun. 02 2014 04:54 PM
L from Beverly, MA

I get the willies just typing these!

Jun. 02 2014 04:54 PM

To Goldenhorn: You mean "if I weren't already listening."

Jun. 02 2014 04:16 PM

Only Van Morrison should be allowed to say "wherever you're at":

There's no need for argument
There's no argument at all
And if you never hear from him
That just means he didn't call
Or vice ya versa;
That depends on wherever you're at
And if you never hear from me
That just means I would rather not...

Hit it

Oh oh
Roll me over Romeo
There you go
Lord have mercy...


Jun. 02 2014 04:11 PM
Judy from Louisville, KY

If I would have
Myself and Joe went to the movies
Oranges are different to apples

Jun. 02 2014 04:05 PM
Forrest from Waialiua, Hawaii

The redundant term "safe haven," a favorite of every media hack. A haven is a safe place; there is no such thing as an unsafe haven.

The use of adjectives of degree with the word "unique" (The word in quotes should be italicized, not in quotation marks, but I cannot type italics in this comment space)," e.g. "very unique," "more unique," absolutely unique," etc. (Also, the overuse of "absolutely.")

Jun. 02 2014 04:04 PM

1) ubiquitous confusion of "its" and "it's"
2) confusion of jealousy and envy--they are not the same

Jun. 02 2014 04:00 PM
Michael from Oakland

Why is it that nearly no one today, including reporters and broadcasters, more often than not, cannot speak or write a sentence without using the following words: like, totally, actually, awesome, expert(s) ?

Jun. 02 2014 03:53 PM
Elvera Joseph from Forest Hills

What has happened to agreement of subject and verb? Is it obsolete? It's seems to have disappeared -- even on WNYC. You'll probably tell me "there's lots of reasons for that." But would you ever say, "there is lots of reasons for that?" Does using a contraction nullify the rule?

Jun. 02 2014 03:52 PM
Jean Lerner from Kerhonkson, NY

"I've got" instead of "I have". Not only is it poor grammar, but it's an ugly sound.

Jun. 02 2014 03:51 PM

It's funny how some errors are less grating than others and how everyone's list of most despised goofs is different.

Lexicographers naturally enjoy watching the vulgar changes language. That's the object of their science.

Journalists aren't very well educated; generally, the most we should expect of them is a better than average facility with language. So when journalists make language errors (especially when broadcast journalists do this), how are we to react?

I have a speciality - I keep a list of "broken clichés". These are errors in figures of speech that typically seem solely to result from having heard a cliché, having mostly understood its usage but having never read it in print or actually understood the relation of the words it contains to one another. Broken clichés are related to eggcorns but are not always mere homophones; also eggcorns are not always cliché.

step foot
all intensive purposes
half hazzard
after all is set and done
the spurt of the moment
scotch free
up to stuff
let the chips fall where they lay
risk adverse
tenure tract
off [one's] own beaten path

Add more! The last of these may not perfectly belong - like "yellow dog journalism", it's a creative collision of two clichés where the whole speaks more loudly than the sum of the parts. Not to be clichéd.

Jun. 02 2014 03:51 PM
Red Ryder

Who hasn't driven past a fresh produce stand's sign announcing
'Tomato's For Sale'? What is the tomato selling?
And who told me the stand has a sign?

Jun. 02 2014 03:49 PM
Mr Isaac from Berkeley ca

Hopefully, you will stop using hopefully, as an adjective instead of an adverb, I hope.

Jun. 02 2014 03:40 PM
Warren Criswell from Benton, AR

"The problem is, is that ..." Just one "is", please! Even President Obama does this.

Jun. 02 2014 03:36 PM
Warren Criswell from Benton, AR

"The problem is, is that ..." Just one "is", please! Even President Obama does this.

Jun. 02 2014 03:33 PM

Andrew Jennings in the FIFA story made this common mistake: he said he was so jealous about someone's reporting instead of saying envious. Jealousy and envy are two very different feelings. Please help people stop doing this.

Jun. 02 2014 03:29 PM
Mary from Connecticut

While I have's the misuse of "I" and "me" that annoys me the most. Even actors on the BBC say variations of "...between you and I...." Shocking! I think a lot of folks are afraid they will use "me" wrong and so substitiute "I" -- and then use it wrong. And it's so easy to know which to use (leave out the other noun or pronoun in the phrase: you would not say "...between I..." or "Give the book to I", right?.

Jun. 02 2014 03:27 PM
Ela slave

As a middle school teacher I have to constantly fight students who refuse to calitalize proper nouns, use periods, and capitalize the pronoun "I".

Jun. 02 2014 03:26 PM
bill obrecht

Please distinguish between mistakes in Grammar and mistakes in Usage. You don"t seem to know the difference.
Then, you might consider moving on to issues in Syntax. Thanks !

Jun. 02 2014 03:24 PM

On random use of apostrophes: I have some sympathy for ABC's, and have resigned myself to the English speaking world's eternal confusion over its and it's, but using it for plurals in totally capricious ways (hamburger's and sandwiches on the same menu, for example) makes me nuts. Not nut's.

Jun. 02 2014 03:12 PM
Christine Rockwell from Cranston, RI

Not for nothing, but...

Jun. 02 2014 02:57 PM
Bekky Bubbers from Winona, Minnesota

I spent one year in North Carolina and not once did I hear the word "converse." I always heard "conversate." I'm much happier back in Minnesota.

Jun. 02 2014 02:57 PM
Deb Warren from Minneapolis MN

So many! But my latest is when someone starts the answer to a question with, "I mean...", as if they're clarifying something they previously said, but they haven't said anything!

Jun. 02 2014 02:51 PM
Jen from Minneapolis

"New and Improved" drives me nuts. Things are either new OR improved. My local MPR hosts constantly say this. It is also common in ads. Wish it would go away!

Jun. 02 2014 02:51 PM
Cordell Roy from South Jordan, UT

I have "grammatical" peeves: 1) mis-pronunciation, especially by weather-people, of the word temperature to temp-a-chure...just lazy; 2) the use of "surface streets" especially by traffic reporters to mean secondary roadways or freeways (aren't all streets "surface" streets?); the mis-pronunciation of the word "species" to "schepies" or, even, "schepchies". Fingernails on a blackboard for me...

Jun. 02 2014 02:42 PM

Jewlery for jewelry, relator for realtor, and people on social media spelling out the contraction "should've" as "should of".

Jun. 02 2014 02:36 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y,

Technology will continue to change the language. "Stupider" people will continue to make understanding each other "stupider."

Jun. 02 2014 02:34 PM
Carolyn from Danvers

I hate that most people no longer understand or apply the correct usage of subject and object pronouns. "Me and my friends" instead of " my friends and I". Or "she visited John and I" rather than "she visited John and me". And don't get me started with "shoulda went". Yikes! !

Jun. 02 2014 02:29 PM
Bob Metzger from Minnesota

The wide misuse of the work "conscious" makes my brain hurt. It seems like the word "conscience" has vanished from many vocabularies, replaced wholesale by "conscious." The cynic in me says that perhaps the concept of a conscience has simply vanished from society, so that now simply being conscious is considered good enough. I should probably have a "guilty conscious" for feeling that way...

Jun. 02 2014 02:28 PM
Birdie from Austin, TX

Dear John,

It's been pointed out already, but IRREGARDLES is a double negative!

100% exaggerated to a number greater than 100...110% for example.
100% is a finite, descriptive figure. Over 100% becomes a silly, embellished number that doesn't mean anything.

If you say you love me 110% then I might not think that was enough...why not 150 or 180%?

A percentage has a basis of 100. 100% is the max.

Jun. 02 2014 02:06 PM

Just count how many times you hear the word "absolutely" in the next 24 hours. It is out of control.

Jun. 02 2014 01:58 PM

My boyfriend was SO excited about this show and texted me immediately (as though I wasn't already listening) because he THINKS can continue to ask, "Where you at?" whenever he calls, without me saying, "Same place your dictionary's at"! He may be right, of course that I may just like correcting him, but that doesn't stop me from grimacing whenever he opens his cake hole, ha ha! Being British, and having gone to school in England, where rules can be drilled into your brain by a mere stare from your teacher, it's my cross to bear living in Texas, where "Do what?" a dozen times a day was enough for me to send my former lover packing for good. Great show, thank you!

Jun. 02 2014 01:53 PM
Peggy Matson from Little Rock, Arkansas

The misuse of apostrophes makes me nuts. "It was Eric Shinseki's job to take care of Vet's." The Vet's what?? People wear pj's to bed, drive RV's and learn their ABC's. Use apostrophes to denote ownership or contractions not make plurals.

Jun. 02 2014 01:32 PM
jmyers from dallas

The incorrect use of "DONE" as in "I'm done" is just so wrong. THINGS are done, not people. If people are finished with something, they are "finished" NOT done.

Jun. 02 2014 01:17 PM
Joe Harchanko from Salem, OR

John, John, John. The problem with "Mom, wherever you're at" is not the dangling preposition. The problem is that it is needlessly complex. "Mom, wherever you are..." is better but you insist on creating an awkward contraction: "Mom, wherever you're". This sounds awkward so you add a superfluous "at" to try to fix your error of a bad contraction. The same goes for "Where's it at?" which is far better as "Where is it?" Keep it simple. Otherwise, your adding a wart to draw attention away from an ugly face, metaphorically.

Jun. 02 2014 01:02 PM
Niamh from Austin, TX

When a speaker does not use the article "an" before a word beginning with a vowel. Instead "a" is usually elongated to "aye". To sound better, I suppose. It's also becoming more common on public radio!

Jun. 02 2014 12:59 PM
Susan Kelley from Austin, TX

Reporters and interviewees are the worst in my pet peeve- beginning the answer to a question with the word "so.." when there has been no antecedent comment. I think this is the current hip affectation of a casual response to a question. Example: "What has been the response to the 25th anniversary of Tienneman Square in Beijing?" Reporter's Response: "SO, many younger people are not really aware of the anniversary....."

Jun. 02 2014 12:58 PM
Bill from Cape Cod, MA

My two are: (1) "foward" instead of "forward" (even David Gregory, the Host of "Meet the Press" uses it); and (2) "vunerable" instead of "vulnerable". Is it just laziness in pronunciation or something else?

Jun. 02 2014 12:56 PM

Many commonly mispronounce "preventive." They pronounce it as "preventative," which is not a word.

Jun. 02 2014 12:55 PM
Jim from Corvallis, OR

Further and farther.

Apparently, many believe further is the more British-sounding, hence upper crust, representation of farther. Nothing could be further from the truth! Farther refers to a physical/measurable distance, further, a metaphysical one.

Jun. 02 2014 12:54 PM
Kathy from Mt Pleasant, MI

I cannot stand it when people say "I seen" something. It's either I have seen or I saw. It drives me crazy!

Jun. 02 2014 12:52 PM
Dave from San Antonio, TX

Look, stop starting sentences with "look," especially on the radio, where it should be "listen," right? Ugh!

Jun. 02 2014 12:51 PM
Christine from Dearborn, MI

"Where are you AT?" Drives me crazy. Please drop the 'at' people...

Jun. 02 2014 12:51 PM
Steph from Austin

Espresso is commonly pronounced EXpresso. One comes from a gas station, the other from a coffee shop.

Jun. 02 2014 12:50 PM
Grace from Portland

Many folks say "realitor" instead of "realtor", "jewlery" instead of "jewelry"!

Jun. 02 2014 12:50 PM
Cynthia from Portland, OR

I recently threw away my ever-growing list of grammatical grievances because I thought there was no use being negative (and I wasn't likely to forget them because I'm reminded daily!). Two related pronunciation peeves that leap to mind are "Febuary" and "infastructure." Granted, it takes effort to say those words properly, but Americans are just lazy. Let me add another instance of a missing letter that came out of Neil DeGrasse Tyson's mouth last night on "Cosmos": artic instead of arctic.

Jun. 02 2014 12:41 PM
Marci Stifter from West Bloomfield, MI

My child's elementary school principal spells buses, BUSSES anytime she uses bus in its plural form. I cannot stand it!

Jun. 02 2014 12:39 PM

I have noticed this more and more recently when speaking with sales clerks: When asking about availability of a product they reply, "We have these ones or these ones." Where did this come from? I grew up in the Midwest and now live on the West this a regional thing? "These ones?"

Jun. 02 2014 12:36 PM
Jon from Portland

In Portland, Oregon people tend to say "heith" instead of height.

Jun. 02 2014 12:32 PM
Jerry Klein

I hate news writers saying "x people were evacuated" when they mean home or towns were evacuated. "People evacuated" sounds painful.

Jun. 02 2014 12:26 PM
Gangi from Portland, OR

Decimate. It used to mean "reduce by 10%" - from the root "dec" meaning ten. Alas, even NPR reporters now use it to mean devastate. I've given up on this one, but it always causes a little ripple of irritation every time I hear it, especially from those whose usage should be better!

Jun. 02 2014 12:24 PM
michael from 97013

Centers on, revolves around, NOT centers around. Dang it.

Jun. 02 2014 12:23 PM
sam from San Antonio Tx

Supposebly...this is not a word. It never has been. It never will be. Supposedly, because you are supposing something.

Jun. 02 2014 12:22 PM

It's very frustrating to hear incorrect and bad grammar everywhere, including on TV and radio. I think it's just being lazy with one's speech, as if it really doesn't matter. As a teacher, mother, and grandmother, and in the words of Captain Kirk and Mr. Scott (from various Star Trek episodes) it's hard to "fight a thing like that" - my ears are offended daily...

Jun. 02 2014 12:19 PM
Rick Evans from 10473

As long as Ammon Shea believes we should be able to make up whatever grammar rules suit us, why not go all the way back to spelling words however we wish before jerks like Webster came along.

Also, we can quit teaching writing and save money on all those snooty English and writing teachers who hurt our feelings when they grade our essays. Us shood be aybull to rite however we like to.

Jun. 02 2014 12:17 PM
Isaac from Portland, OR

Irregardless is a one word double negative. If regardless means to not regard, then irregardless would mean to not not regard.

Jun. 02 2014 12:09 PM

Toward or towards
anyway or anyways

Jun. 02 2014 12:04 PM
Mick from Shackville

I am uncomfortable with the verbification of the noun 'critique,' but I would delight in the conversion if the meaning were sufficiently different from 'criticize'.

Jun. 02 2014 11:31 AM
Erin from Virginia

I can't stand modifiers of "unique". "Unique" means "one of a kind". It's not possible for something to be "very one of a kind" or "sort of one of a kind".

Jun. 02 2014 09:54 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.