You Might Be Saying it Wrong: English Words and Grammar

dictionary, english
Go ahead and check ... you might be nonplussed.

My husband’s kind of a snooty guy. Not in some foodie/movie/oenophile hipster way. Just in a “no, you’re wrong/I’m right” way. He has difficulty containing this “tic” and it’s nearly impossible when he deems someone has mispronounced or misused a word. Especially when that someone is me.

A sample conversation:

Me: Hey, today after visiting my dad I drove the kids by some of my old stomping grounds.

Him: It’s stamping grounds.

Me: I know it’s “stamping” grounds but no one else does.

Him: People are stupid. It’s “stamping.”

Me: You’re stupid, shut up.

Him: So how’s your dad?

See, I’m a woman of the people. I hate pretension more than I love grammar, though I love grammar quite a bit. I have a background in linguistics and there’s a long tradition in that field of hurling invective such as “prescriptivist!” at people like my husband, who believe once -a-rule-always-a-rule, and “descriptivist!” at people like me, who acknowledge language evolves and point to words like “nice” that once actually meant something along the lines of not-so-nice.

My husband is one of the few people I know to use the word “presently” to mean “in a sec” instead of “now.” And boy is he nonplussed with the common usage of nonplussed! What’s so hard about speaking correctly? But me? I avoid those words and others like them because (1) I don’t want to be corrected if the hubs is in earshot and (2) I’d rather the people I’m talking to understand what I’m saying than for them to be wondering if I mean what I’m saying in the traditional sense or the new-fangled botched English sense. Even worse would be to get corrected: “Oh, Madeline, you mean ‘chomping at the bit.'” I don’t want to have to explain that, no, “champing” is the historically correct term, just so I can be right and they can be wrong (which feels good but also awkward).

Ben Yagoda over at Slate is sympathetic — he’s been watching the misuse/new use of words (disinterested, nonplussed, presently, momentarily and others) and is fine with change. Just not too quickly. In addition to a fantastic list of words whose original meanings are on their way to extinction, he also made up an algorithm that will help preservationists and humble folk like me decide whether to stand up and go with tradition or risk ridicule and quiet judgment when they embrace the currently popular meaning and pronunciation (yeah, I wrote “currently.”)

All of which brings me to this: the kids. What do we teach them?

Well, the former linguist in me knows that what my husband and I “teach” our kids? They’re not going to learn. Their peer groups trump us when it comes to language. Even modeling correct usage of those words won’t prevent them from claiming that they’re “disinterested” in cleaning their own rooms.

However! There are a thousand teachable moments at dinnertime and the stomping/stamping, chomping/champing, presently/screw you! conversations provide a nice gateway to speaking explicitly about language and debating the very issues and vocabulary that Yagoda brings up.

My kids can work it out for themselves whether they’ll follow in their father’s linguistically conservative footsteps or roll with it like Mom. As long as they know English can get weird, my job as home-based grammarian is done.

Until they start texting and emailing me, that is. Then I’m siding with my husband. We may presently (current usage) differ on how far English has evolved, but we’re united when it comes to believing all words should be spelled out and that proper punctuation is not only a must, but a real treat!

What about you? Anyone champing at the bit to chime in?

Photo: via Creative Commons

Article Posted 5 years Ago
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