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FIRST-PERSON: Speaking up (or upwardly?) on how we use the English language

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–An academic colleague once stopped me when I used “Aren’t I” in a sentence. He was gentle, but it was still embarrassing, for I was saying, “Are not I?” How could I have missed that for years?

Maybe it was because “Am I not?” sounded prissy. Probably it was because a lot of other folks made the same mistake, and I never thought anything about it. Whatever the reason for my error, I was glad to get help.

What does it really matter? After all, folks know what we’re saying. Well, they also know what Tonto means when he says, “That right, Kemosabe,” but are we content with that norm? And what of our impression on the farmer when we call a bull a cow, on the sergeant when we call a rifle a gun, or on the biologist when we call a butterfly a bug? We show our indifference to the critical distinctions which frame their working lives.

The same sort of thing happens when we come in contact with folks who work primarily with words — teachers, preachers, lawyers, journalists and other writers. It hurts them to watch us use a verbal metric wrench on a decimal bolt. We may turn the bolt, but we mess up the head and make it harder to grasp in the future.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we turn into grammar Nazis, punishing every sentence fragment or dangling preposition. “Not really” is a perfectly good sentence, elliptical though it may be. And “Speak up!” is a lot better than, “Speak upwardly.” So yes, we should cut each other some slack. But there’s a place to question usage.

In my experience, we preachers are particularly susceptible to these infelicities:

1. Disinterested. “He was disinterested in serving.” The word is uninterested. Disinterested means objective or impartial, as in “Bob was an attentive, disinterested observer.”

2. Less. “We had less folks this Easter than we did last year.” Fewer is the word. It refers to items you can count, such as votes. Less refers to things you measure but don’t count, such as water.

3. Criteria. “Experience is the most important criteria.” Criteria is plural; criterion is singular. The same goes for phenomena and phenomenon. Don’t say, “It was an amazing phenomena,” or “That’s the most important criteria.”

4. Reticent “He was reticent to go without permission.” You mean hesitant. Reticent means silent, as in, “Paul’s been awfully reticent today,” or, “He sat reticent throughout the committee meeting.”

5. Literally. “He literally exploded with joy.” If he did, then we have a nasty cleanup job. Instead, this is figurative rather than literal speech. Just say, “He exploded with joy.” We’ll know it’s figurative. Now, if a trapeze artist slips from the grasp of his partner, Grace Colfax, we can say, “He literally fell from Grace.”

6. Presently. “I’m presently looking for a youth director.” Currently is better. The preferred meaning of presently is “soon” or “shortly,” as in, “Presently, we’ll be arriving at the station.”

7. Honed. “I honed in on the best candidate.” You mean, “homed,” the sort of thing a homing pigeon or a homing missile does. When you sharpen something, you hone it, as in, “I honed the blade so I wouldn’t make a mess of the Thanksgiving turkey,” or “I honed my trumpet skills so I could join the symphony.”

8. Hopefully. “Hopefully, he’ll give up.” “Hopefully” is an adverb, saying how he will give up. But giving up seems the opposite of acting hopefully. What you mean to say is, “I hope he’ll give up.”

9. Infer. “I didn’t mean to infer he wasn’t qualified.” Imply is the word here. To infer is to conclude, as in, “I infer from your remarks that you’re no fan of his.”

10. Fulsome. “We were struck by the fulsome presence of God.” You might use overwhelming, but not fulsome, unless you find God’s presence offensive.

You may be saying, “I don’t appreciate you nitpicking me.” Actually it’s “I don’t appreciate your nitpicking me.” It’s the nitpicking and not the person you don’t appreciate. Or maybe it’s both now that you’ve read this piece.

English is a very flexible language, and usage is always evolving. Yes, we may push the linguistic envelope, but we need to be sure we’re not enveloped by linguistic carelessness. For carelessness can diminish the power of our witness.
Coppenger is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church who also pens reflections on two websites, www.comeletusreason.com and www.listten.com. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.net. Photo title: MARK COPPENGER.

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  • Mark Coppenger