Between You and I

Wherein Our Heroine Files Charges of Grammar Crime.

I am a word snob. I admit it. I respond to the question, "How are you?" by saying, "Well, thank you." I value words - like any good tools, they have specific uses. I enjoy producing the verbal equivalent of a 1/8" ratchet and getting the job done swiftly and correctly rather than fumbling around and getting my fingers pinched with an inefficient adjustable wrench. Those of you who have been reading since the beginning may detect in me a tendency toward the use of run-on sentences, but hopefully you will never see the glaring misuse of a word. We all have our lapses (I've even caught myself committing the redundancy of "ATM Machine"), but the rampant misuse of words is a pet peeve of mine.

Written English today is full of little barbs and irritants for folks like me - they creep into every publication as well as every roadside stand. We see "Tomato's" for sale (what does a tomato own, I wonder?), the world situation is deplored as "to much" (toward a muchness that is deplorable indeed), and we are exhorted to end a situation at work by "nipping it in the butt" (seems a bit late to me).

Misuse of words can, admittedly, produce unintentional humor. One of my favorite written blunders came during a severe ice storm in D.C. several years ago. I had struggled to work and I carefully made my way across slick sidewalks to that shrine of caffeine, Starbucks. The store was dark and a hand-lettered sign on the door read, "Closed due to inclimate weather." It didn't make up for the venti coffee I lacked that day, but at least I got a good laugh out of it. Similarly, when my husband and I were putting together a large piece of IKEA furniture, a notice on the instructions read, "It is advisory to be two people when assembling this furniture." The repetition of this maxim and the giggles it produced probably prevented us from killing each other as we disagreed over exactly what the line drawings with the various arrows really meant.

The flip side of carelessness in writing and speech is "hypercorrecting," an instance where the speaker makes a substitution for a word that sounds wrong, but is actually correct. My favorite gem in this category is "Between you and I." I try to be polite when this happens in conversation - a slight tension of the jaw replaces actual grinding of teeth. However, I laugh like a hyena every time Dame Edna says, "Excuse I?" I suppose it's all about intent.

Hypercorrecting seems to be a continual problem in the realm of the first-person singular pronoun. A friend once received a bad performance review at work which commented that he "has problems communicating with myself." This tidbit of information gives me the sneaking suspicion that the communication difficulties in this instance were not due to my friend's lapses.

I fear, though, that my quixotic little campaign is doomed to failure as it seems misuse wears down even the heavily defended ramparts of the keepers of the rules. When even Merriam-Webster allows this to be used (however reluctantly), I come over all wobbly and must cease tilting at windmills to go lie down for a while. Excuse I...

Posted: Tuesday - March 02, 2004 at 07:31 AM         | |