Saturday, July 25, 2009

(No.41) Linguistic flatulence

There are those -- a diminishing number to be sure in our post-literate Twitter/YouTube society -- who consider the language equivalent of passing gas to be a considerable irritation.  This linguistic flatulence is an inflation unwelcomed by those who scorn the smell of sloppy usage. I belong to this group.

I refer not only to the obvious, not just to the latest commonly heard verbal tick. Perhaps the current leading example of this involves the rise of "like" from 'valley girl' dialogue in Hollywood movies to the inevitable third or fourth word in every sentence uttered or grunted by too many of those produced by our public education system. However regrettable and pervasive a verbal tick may be (such as the friendly and common retail response "no problem") one can still hope it will fall away over time, rather like the tail from the human ape.

I am thinking in particular of the extent to which many people, influenced by advertising and other toads in the garden of English usage, choose to inflate through verbal flatulence what is already precise. Among my particular dislikes are these improper combinations:
  • free gift
  • return back
  • very unique
  • exact same
  • added bonus
  • real people
  • quite obvious                                                                                                                                                                          
Or such solecisms as these about which too few seem to care these days (or in too many cases even know enough to care):

  • attaching "pre" to create a ridiculous word as in "pre-owned" to replace "used" (as if it were possible to own something before it is first owned ).
  • the frequent but almost universally incorrect use (especially by television reporters) of "beg the question" as if it means to raise or pose a question rather than to take for granted the matter in dispute, to assume by implication what one is trying to prove. 
  • the continued and widespread misuse of "incredible" so that it has now largely lost its purpose: to describe something or someone that cannot be believed. It has now become the word routinely spoken to describe something only mildly positive or barely interesting, as in "You paid only 50 cents for that striped condom -- that's incredible".
  • the injection of non-existent syllables into spoken words so that "paraplegic" becomes 'para-puh-legic' .                                
A highly prescriptive approach to English usage is unrealistic and bound to fail to stem the tide as surely as King Canute on the shore. Change in the use of the English language is inevitable and continuous. I recognize that language evolves ( it matters not whether one likes the changes) when enough people choose often enough over a long enough time to use certain words in certain ways to mean certain things differing from what was once regarded as proper usage. 

However, no matter how liberal the prevailing approach to what is acceptable there are some usages which are for me just too irritating or silly to pass unremarked. Hence this column.

Alastair Rickard