Write a column about misused words and receive comments from wordsmiths around the state airing their pet-peeves.
Grammarians take heart: Stewards of the language are vigilant in Maine. A few of them even said my little July 18 rant about four misused words gave them courage to be more vocal in defending correct English.
“Nothing sets my teeth on edge like errors in speaking or writing,” said one of the readers who accepted my offer to send a copy of a 50-word spelling test. Another request for the test came with the comment, “My teeth are set on edge these days by the use of ‘impact’ as a verb, as in ‘Your column is really impacting me to think more about my writing.’”
Another reader said, “I have read the words graduated college, high school, etc., so often in the past year or so that I was beginning to question myself. I am so happy to realize that I wasn’t losing my mind.”
Don Lewis of Brewer said, “I remember that ‘graduated college’ started from TV shows, and I always thought it was a New York Jewish construct. My wife taught in a Hebrew day school at the time, and that is where I first heard it routinely, and then later on TV shows. I used to annoy people about it but gave up. You give me courage to start being annoying again.”
Marc V. Schnur of Islesboro lamented that “English as we know it is dying a slow, sad and painful death when one hears usage similar to the following: ‘She is very unique, worthy of most fulsome praise,’ ‘She is the epicenter of speculation of whether she is interested or disinterested in running,’ and ‘There are militating factors in the parameters of law in consideration of reducing his sentence.’ I could go on, but you get the point.”
“Another one that drives me nuts is ‘orientated,’” Schnur added, recalling a board meeting at which a company presented a new catalog with the motto: “We are a service orientated company.” He said he had a fit, and the motto was corrected to read “service-oriented.”
If you want to irritate Colleen Murphy of Caribou, just say “try and” instead of “try to.” She said, “I haven’t lost any sleep over it (yet), but every time I hear that phrase I automatically translate it to suit myself.”
A reader in Wiscasset agrees: “I really blew a gasket when authoress Suzanne Collins in her “Hunger Games” books wrote ‘try and help’ instead of ‘try to help.’ Many people slur the expression as ‘try ‘n help,’ but for goodness sake don’t write it that way.”
This reader asked, “Why don’t you take the opportunity to talk about the real war on prepositions? If Americans don’t actually hate prepositions, many certainly have forgotten how to use them correctly.”
He presented these examples:
— Prepositions being discarded: graduate (from) college; shop (at) Walmart.
— Extra prepositions being inserted: meet (up) with; where you are (at).
— Using incorrect prepositions: ‘different than,’ when it should be ‘different from.’
In addition to the war on prepositions, the Wiscasset reader said a fear of gerunds is another example of the decline of Standard English: the dismantlement (instead of dismantling) of Maine Yankee; enlargement (instead of enlarging) the facility.
He observes inappropriate use of tech jargon — “epicenter is a geological term and does not denote center” — and the mixing of words, such as irrespective and regardless to make the nonword “irregardless.”
He is bothered by the abandonment of English names for foreign cities (Kyiv instead of Kiev, Napoli/Naples, Mumbai/Bombay, Turino/Turin) and by the misspelling of mill, as in “mil rate.”
“Mill was created by an act of Congress as the name of the smallest unit of American currency, and yet it is nearly universally misspelled with one l,” he said in an email. “All Maine newspapers misspell mill.”
Midweek, I received an envelope in the mail from Belfast, containing a booklet that will go right up there with “The Elements of Style,” “The Associate Press Stylebook” and the “Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage” as a reference for writing.
Its author, Sid McKeen, spent 40 years in journalism at the Worcester (Massachusetts) Telegram & Gazette, and he continues to write a weekly column for the Sunday editions. During his time as associate editor of the newspaper, he produced a weekly critique of staff writing and word usage called “Shop Talk” and “Jabberwock.”
He compiled some of the comments from those critiques into “The Right Word: A Guide to Everyday Usage for News Professionals.” Organized alphabetically, the 38-page, indexed booklet clarifies the use of words and phrases from “about” (“the trusty Anglo-Saxon adverb”) to “woman” (“do not use it as an adjective”). I am pleased to have a copy.
I need all the writing guides I can get to meet the standards of the people who responded to my last column, including the one who said, “Along with Strunk’s book, “Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition” was one of the staples on the bookshelf years ago. That the spine and backing were partly detached from the rest of the book was testament to its utility.”
This reader asked, “Do they actually teach grammar and composition in high school any more? I am, like, so wondering if they, like, do that but, you know, if people can tell what I am saying, so what’s the point?”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.