Wednesday 15 June 2016

Living in a Multilingual World (The One About my Inner Linguistic Norman Bates)

I literally died that night”. No, you didn’t, I thought, looking at my work colleague straight in the eye. Although I could “literally” kill you right now. Smother you with one of the cushions from the Family Learning Room, if you like.

No, I am not a murderer. At least not of the homicidal variety. But when it comes to grammar… well, let us just say that there are a few words and constructions whose misuse awakens my inner Norman Bates.

It is ironic that I am more permissive of modern linguistic fads in my native tongue, Spanish, than I am of my adopted one, English. I have no idea what that says about me but perhaps my attitude owes more to a certain disdain for the Royal Spanish Academy and its zealous role in enforcing obeisance to the language tsars.

However when it comes to English, I have no shortage of gripes. Not to the point of a “Mr Disgruntled of Tunbridge Wells”, shooting off letters to The Daily Telegraph every two days to complain about the difference between “use” and “usage", but certainly with what I call linguistic laziness. The “I can’t be bothered to do better” attitude. The English language is one of the richest lexica there are in the world, formed from the amalgamation of different cultures. To treat it as if it were an arid, barren land, bereft of adjectives and adverbials is a crime, in my opinion. Culprits should be sentenced. I can think of no better punishment than to write a thousand times: “it’s” is the contraction of “it is” whereas “its” is the possessive form of “it”. A thousand times, literally.

I know that this impassioned (fanatical, you say? Nah, please, let’s not get too heavy here, shall we?) position puts me on the side of traditionalists. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. I’m perfectly OK with double negatives (as long as they are used to reinforce an opinion) and the replacement of “more than” by “over” as in “for over thirty years”. At the end of the day it is communication that we are talking about here.

Where I draw a line is in those words and phrases that are bandied about as if there were no consequences beyond their utterance. Yes, there are consequences! We are all human after all. There is no such thing as “more unique”, just “unique”; do not give “110%”, 100% is enough, thanks; do not “literally die of laughter” because if you die, how come you are telling me the story? And, please, please, please, do not get overexcited and do not be overtired. Just be excited and tired (not both at the same time, of course). When did we become a nation of “overs”? Is it to do with cricket? Well, I can’t play the game and I do not understand the rules.

Say "literally" once more. C'mon, I dare you

As I mentioned before, traditionalist, I am not. I love the freedom of the English language, its linguistic institution-free status. One of the reasons, I believe, why it has flourished and become the lingua franca worldwide. But, if we want to preserve the beauty of this language, we ought to be more proactive and less laisez-faire. Let us be bothered, let us do better and use the wide vocabulary that different cultures have bestowed upon Shakespeare’s language. Otherwise my inner linguistic Norman Bates will keep coming out. I mean that literally, by the way.

© 2016

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 18th June at 6pm (GMT)


  1. I'm with you, Cuban. What do you think about the upcoming upgrade to the iPhone? Evidently emojis will be replacing words, a nightmare for the Norman Bates of the world.

  2. Pedants of the world, unite! The word that gets me is 'revolutionary' - I have been assured that new slippers are 'revolutionary'. Che Guevara is revolutionary, I told them. These are just slippers.

  3. This post is *literally* why we've been blog buddies for years. Are you sure we're not distantly related?

  4. As a student of Latin, the misused word that fries my bacon is "decimate." It doesn't mean something was destroyed completely; it means one tenth of something was destroyed, as in a Roman legion that was ordered decimated because of cowardice. Soldiers were forced to line up and sound off by counting one to ten. Every tenth soldier was beaten to death by his fellow soldiers. It was considered one of the worst punishments imaginable.

  5. I just read a book (more like an essay) you'd enjoy by a Princeton philosopher titled "Bullshit." I may review this in a few days.

  6. How true it is.
    And there are a few commonly used phrases which encourage my psycho bitch from hell to surface as well...

  7. lol yeah, some are just so stupid to say. I'm sure I've used a few too now and then, but I still cringe when I use them.

  8. At the end of the day it is communication - that - we are talking about here.

    Communication is - what - we are talking about.


    1. Touché! Amended. Thanks.

      Greetings from London.

  9. Life should be so easy that there be a single source for proper use of a language. My own experience includes a whirl at teaching high school English (and history), using approved textbooks, then stepping into journalism where my welcoming gifts included an Associated Press style book, an United Press International style book and the newspaper's very own style book, each of which had its own idiosyncrasies. Then, of course, moving about the country brings the revelation that certain regional words/phrases/idioms obviously are not conducive to textbook English and often contradict it.

    Language is a living, breathing, ever-changing "thing," and what is proper today often is archaic tomorrow. My solution is to use it in an "ecumenical" manner, with an emphasis on my own likes and dislikes.

  10. Hi ACIL - wonderful post ... and I know I make many mistakes - yet do not know why ... one day I must make an effort and understand our grammar. The English language is the fastest changing language on the planet - with so many uses being made of it ... it's fascinating to see what is happening and how it will develop. Great post - fun to read and to understand from ... their and they're ... it's and its ...

    Cheers Hilary

  11. My view is the same as yours and when I write I endeavour to stay on the straight and narrow path. However, I think I fail when trying to write as if 'chatting' but am mindful of the fact that conversationally I lapse into common phraseology.

  12. Nah, languages adapt and change and are breathing in and out with their users. I'm ok with misuse and abuse too when utterances are genuine and immediate. Yep, I'm quite liberal. Heck, I am a culprit of knowing many languages, but not one in depth. Call me an amateur.

  13. I'm often annoyed by the crimes committed against language, both in English and Spanish. I'm Dominican and you're Cuban, so you know our peoples have done rather creative things with our mother tongue. We are the kings and queens of chopping off words, of breeding Americanisms, and pure linguistic laziness...

    Like you, I have a word (or 13) whose misuse drives me half mad: "literally" is one of them, the erroneous use of apostrophes pull growls out of me, comparisons that make no sense make me glare from the inside out...

    And don't let me start talking about shorthand when texting. Really, don't let me. For if I do, I might have to shock someone. Literally.

  14. I especially hear you on the it's and its!!!!!!!!!! I do not think texting is helping the situation either. I enjoyed your post so much.

  15. I'm more than used to seeing atrocious grammar at work (from those who have Bachelors or Masters or some other kind of degree). Something that you get used to. However, for me, my twin pet peeves are people's comprehension skills (non-existent) and reading skills (also non-existent).

    Example, at work, when I send an e-mail to someone, my who I is is pre-populated at the bottom (name, job, my areas of responsibility, phone and fax number). 9 times out of 10, I will have someone respond to an e-mail with the question, what is your fax number?


    Father Nature's Corner

  16. language - an everchanging story :)

  17. I agree with you. (But only 100%, not 110...) It's bad enough that most people use atrocious grammar and spelling on Facebook, but what reeeeeally gets my goat are the professional writers who do the same. Wouldn't you think that professional journalists and authors were better versed in grammar than most people? Evidently not. Oh, and if someone scares me half to death twice... then what?

    Have a super weekend.

  18. I just read an excellent book called The Unfolding of Language which explores how language has developed through change - much of which change has been viewed as deterioration at the time. Very interesting. I still hate certain misuses of language though, I particularly hate the misuse of the reflexive, for example people who say 'please reply to myself' a) it's ugly, b) there is a specific use for myself eg I wash myself, I made it myself and the misuse of the word undermines grammar in all sorts of ways.



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