By Doug Wagner
The day my teenage daughter informed me that the dictionary she uses at school lists “figuratively” as one of the definitions of literally was a dark day indeed. The illiterati had won.
“Next thing you know, black will mean ‘white,’ ” I said. “Up ‘down.’ ”
So it seems a little late for Weird Al Yankovic to start waving the flag about the words that we Americans so thoughtlessly turn on their heads. At this point, what’s the use?
OK, maybe not all is lost, but I think we need to pick our battles a little more practically than Yankovic does in his “Word Crimes” video. Whom vs. who? Come on, Al, that battle was lost at least three decades ago when, as a fresh-out-of-college copy editor, I was instructed by the newspaper’s editor in chief to avoid the use of whom because it sounded stilted.
What’s a young editor (or writer) to think thirty years later, with Al chastising those who couldn’t care less about whether “couldn’t care less” or “could care less” is correct? Is he right or out of touch? He’s both, of course, and his pet peeves aren’t all lost causes. Some of them are worth mastering if for no other reason than that the erosion of the language is a relatively slow process and there are still plenty of language connoisseurs out there who appreciate good form (as opposed to merely acceptable form). In other words, you’ll win the hearts of those most worth impressing if you pitch in and defend a few of our most endangered guiding principles.
And the following are a good place to start:
Its vs. it’s. It’s is a contraction like any other, and apostrophes just aren’t optional when it comes to contractions. You wouldn’t dream of dropping the apostrophe in ain’t, right? You’ll look pretty sloppy if you don’t honor this one.
Good vs. well. Using good when well is called for still falls on many ears like the sourest of notes. Think of it this way: It’s impossible to do good on a grammar test. You either do well or do poorly. And if you’re going to do something, you might as well do it well.
The use of quotation marks for emphasis. That’s one task too many to ask. They can’t very well distinguish quoted matter, words as words (see ain’t above), terms meant sarcastically and emphasis. Instead, italicize like I just did in that last sentence. Quoting and there wouldn’t have made any sense. Only confusion can come of relaxing the rules on this one.
Irony vs. coincidence. Irony is when something happens that’s the exact opposite of what you’d expect, and that’s no coincidence. Considering that irony is as much a part of life as air itself, shouldn’t we honor its definition? If we start messing with the definitions of the most basic of elements, the domino effect will render the whole language nonsensical.
As for lost causes, Ammon Shea covers them pretty well in Bad English, which was released last summer. As with literally, it seems that the masses have embraced the bastardized definitions of hopefully (“it is to be hoped” as opposed to “in a hopeful manner”) and unique (“unusual or uncommon” vs. “one of a kind”). So go ahead and scratch those off your bucket list of things to master. Only the choir would hear your preaching.
When you think about it, it’s easier to be a writer in these anything-goes days than at any time in the past—and easier to set yourself apart by mastering a few simple rules. So while you’re at it, why not do it well?