July 28, 2015
Some people simply cannot stand by and watch the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue. They are very angry—though do not literally explode—when “literally” is used for emphasis. A preposition is something they hate to see a sentence ended with. Bad grammar makes them positively nauseated but certainly not nauseous. And they probably just flinched when I started this sentence with a conjunction.
But these language pedants aren’t the saviors of the English language: more often than not, they are the ones doing the murdering. One of the amazing things about languages is that once a critical mass of people start do things with them–to end sentences with prepositions, start them with conjunctions, and utter admittedly confusing phrases like “could care less”–with regularity, those things become a part of the language itself. And so a lot of language pedantry fails by the very standards that language pedants take themselves to be upholding.
Here are nine common examples of perfectly acceptable English statements the “correction” of which makes language pedants look silly.
Nauseated vs. nauseous
Have you ever said that you’re feeling a little nauseous, only to have a friend tell you that you are not feeling nauseous, you are feeling nauseated, since nauseated means afflicted with nausea while nauseous means to cause nausea? Clearly, that person is not a very good friend. But even more importantly, that person is wrong. The use of nauseous to mean “afflicted with nausea” has been used in this way since the mid-19th century. So feel free to correct them, or just be sick on their shoes. It’s your choice.
Comprised of …
In their traditional senses, ‘comprises’ and ‘composed of’ can be used interchangeably. For example, “the article comprises 1,500 words” and “the article is composed of 1,500 words” are both fine. This is because a whole comprises (is made up of) its parts and the parts compose (make up) the whole. But some heads will explode if you use the phrase “comprised of …”
“It makes no sense!” they yell before their heads explode. “Something can’t be ‘consists in of’ and so it can’t be ‘comprised of!’” And yet “comprised of” clearly does make sense to us. This is because “comprise” has come to mean both “is made up of” and “makes up”; the synonym of “composed.” Even if “comprised of” had started as a misuse of the term “comprised”, which seems questionable, language doesn’t have a harsh immigration policy. If enough people start to use a word or phrase in a given way then, no matter how humble its origin, it becomes a fully-fledged citizen of the language. We welcome you, comprised of.
Less vs. fewer
Many of us are taught that less should only be used for uncountables or things without a plural form, and fewer should be used for plurals. For example: “There are fewer words in this article, but that doesn’t mean it’ll take less time for you to read it.” But there are plenty of modern examples where fewer just sounds wrong when we’re talking about plurals.
“I can’t sell it for less than 100 dollars,” sounds much better than “I can’t sell it for fewer than 100 dollars.” And in many more cases both less and fewer strike us acceptable. This shouldn’t actually be surprising: according to Emily Brewster, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster, less has been used for plurals for over 1,000 years, and the “rule” of consistently using fewer for plurals and less for uncountables seems to have originated in the personal preference of a critic from the 1700s. So if less sounds good to you, it’s probably fine.
Farther vs. further
You will sometimes hear that farther should only be used for distances and further should only be used to mean something like “additional” or “more.” For example: the farther she traveled, the more that her plans required further consideration. But, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), both words share the same roots, and further can be used for physical distance too. Although farther is less commonly used in metaphorical contexts, when it comes to physical distance, both words are equally correct.
“Having your use of language corrected is literally the worst thing in the world,” says one person. The language pedant interjects: “Literally the worst thing in the world? I mean, you think it’s worse than famine or war or death?” Well, of course, it isn’t as bad as that. But many people seem to think that the emphatic use of literally is literally an abomination. But using literally for emphasis has a pretty esteemed history: it has been used in this way for over two hundred years, and by writers like Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald, no less. In conclusion: using literally figuratively is literally the best thing ever.
Many language pedants think that they should only be used as a plural pronoun: for example, “the team came up with a solution that they were proud of.” But it is often necessary to refer to individuals whose gender is not known. For example: “You said your friend is thinking about doing a PhD., [Pronoun X] should come and talk to me.” If you don’t know the gender or name of this person then we could use he or we could use he or she in this example. But the generic he is now seen as pretty sexist. And he or she doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue: “He or she is not going to catch his or her bus!” just sounds terrible.
Enter the singular they! ‘They should come and talk to me,” sounds just fine, as does “they’re going to miss their bus.” Using the singular they is now widely accepted and, according to the OED blog, using plural pronouns to refer to singular subjects is a practice that dates back to the 16th century.
Some people might not think that we can survive without a distinct plural and singular pronoun here, but most dialects of English seem to have done okay despite the fact that the second person plural pronoun you has also been doing the job of the second person singular pronoun thou for quite a while. (Although some dialects now contain new second person plural pronouns like y’all and yous, suggesting a possible future for new third person plural pronouns like th’all and theys). The singular they also has the advantage of providing English with a much-needed gender-neutral pronoun for those who would prefer not to be identified as either he or she. Some people will no doubt continue to object to the singular they for some time, but they’re on the losing end of history.
Beginning a sentence with a conjunction
And so we’ve reached the part of the article where I get to address something I’ve been doing in this very article: beginning sentences with conjunctions like “and,” “but,” and “because.” Some of us were taught that this is not good English. But there’s nothing ungrammatical about starting a sentence with a conjunction. And, in our opinion, it makes your writing look great. If you don’t do it too often. But we don’t do it too often. So it’s fine.
Ending a sentence with a preposition
Prepositions are words like on, in, to, at, and with. In Latin, it’s totally not okay to end a sentence with a preposition. But now that Rome has fallen and barbarian languages like English have taken over, we can flout the rules of Latin as much as we like. Many sentences become overly formal or even ungrammatical if you try to avoid ending them with a preposition. To take an example from the OED, “the dress had not been paid for’ would need to become ‘paid for the dress had not been’” (uh, okay Yoda).
Regional terms and pronunciation
Many English-speaking countries have a standard form of English: a particular dialect of English that is associated with a group of accents and is elevated above other dialects and accents. Received Pronunciation accents are considered by many to be the standard in the UK, General American accents are considered to be standard in the US, and General Australian accents are considered to be standard in the Australian.
Standard forms of English are often promoted by schools and used in the media and are typically appealed to as the “correct” way of speaking English by those in the country. But the selection of a given dialect and accent as ‘standard’ is essentially arbitrary: there is nothing “better” about these forms of English over other dialects and accents. The prestige associated with certain dialects and accents seems to be deeply connected with the social class of its speakers within the relevant country.
When people “correct” others for using terms or pronunciations that are perfectly acceptable within their own dialect, they are implicitly saying that speakers with a given dialect should adopt an entirely different dialect because the one that they are currently using is not prestigious enough. Sounds a bit pretentious when you put it like that, right?
Others that didn’t make the list
Before we conclude, let’s quickly correct some ‘corrections’ that didn’t make the list:
Hopefully, you don’t mind it when people start sentences with hopefully. You can use both can and may when asking for or giving permission. To knowingly utter a split infinitive is awesome. Passives are used by all the cool kids. Your biweekly meeting could take place twice a week or once every fortnight. I’ve contacted experts and contact is totally a verb. And there ain’t no problem with double negatives.