"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 03/11/10

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Top 10 Irritating Errors in American English

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Last Thursday (March 4) was the National Grammar Day in America. Started in 2004 and celebrated every March 4, the day is set aside to “bring awareness to good, clean English.” It is promoted by the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG) and has been growing in popularity and acceptance.

In the spirit of the day, which is for now only celebrated by grammar nerds in America, I have decided to dedicate this and next weeks’ columns to discussing common grammatical errors in American English.

You see, even native speakers of the English language make mistakes, too. They grapple with as much anxiety and insecurity about the grammatical correctness of, especially their written, English as those of us for whom English is a second language. As linguists know only too well, there is no such thing as a native writer of any language; there are only native speakers of languages. Below are the top 10 solecisms in American English that irritate the hell out of the self-appointed grammar police outside America.

1. Americans are awful with prepositions. They, for instance, can’t differentiate “wait on” from “wait for.” It is typical to hear many Americans—educated and uneducated alike— say, "I am waiting on you" when they actually mean "I am waiting for you." To wait on somebody is to work for, or be a servant to, that person. At first I thought Americans in their usual linguistic "rebellion" had chosen to subvert British English prepositions (in the fashion of "different than," instead of “different from,” since “than” only co-occurs with comparative forms like “better,” “wiser,” “less,” “more,” etc and words like “rather,” and “other”; "in behalf of," instead of “on behalf of,” etc). But I found out that it is actually a usage error even by the indulgent standards of American English.

One day, in 2005, an American journalism professor friend mine in Louisiana told me he was "waiting on" the chair of our department. (I was on very friendly terms with him and we often joked about grammar, especially about the occasional humorous differences between American and British English). So I said to him: “I didn't know you were now a servant to the chair of our department." He knew I was up to some mischief, but he couldn't immediately figure out what it was. When I explained to him why I called him a “servant,” I thought he would say I was wrong by the standards of American English. But he didn't. He instead said, "Good catch, Farooq. You got me there!"

Similarly, Americans don’t visit people; they “visit with” them. And they don’t say they are being interviewed for a job; they say they are “interviewing with” a prospective employer for a job. But by the standards of American English, these are not errors.

2. Their use of the verb “to be” is no less awful. When they use the adverb “there,” it is almost always followed either by “is” or “was” even if the subject in the sentence is a plural noun. Examples: “there is so many people out there,” “there is a lot of problems with that political party,” “there is 10 people in the class,” “there was a lot of people at the party.” This (mis)usage appears to be creeping over to informal British English lately.

And such grammatically awkward expressions as “I could have went [‘gone’] there,” “I had saw [‘seen’] him,” “I should have gave [‘given’] him,” etc are very common even among educated Americans. The irregular past participle is perilously endangered here. But it also appears that Americans are spreading this error across the Atlantic. I spotted it on a British Internet forum a few weeks ago. Funnily, the person who made the mistake was correcting someone else’s grammar! Of course, she became the butt of jokes.

3. Many Americans can’t differentiate the adverb “then” from the preposition/conjunction “than.” I used to think this error was typographical, but letters “a” and “e” are not contiguous on the keyboard. So the error probably derives from the fact that Americans pronounce these words alike. A similar error, which has now been normalized, is the use of the phrase “most everybody” for “almost everybody.”

4. I also find that a good many Americans can’t distinguish the possessive pronoun “your” from “you’re” (the short form of “you are”). It’s usual to read phrases like “your awesome” instead of “you’re awesome.” And they tend to use “you” where “your” is the appropriate pronoun to use. For instance, they write, “I appreciate you taking the time to read this article” instead of “I appreciate your taking the time to read this article.” What you’re appreciating is not the person (which would have justified the use of the pronoun “you”) but the action of the person (which is properly signified with the possessive pronoun “your”). No one says, for instance, “I appreciate you action”; we say “I appreciate your action.”

I had a big fight with a student in Louisiana who thought I was wrong to take off points from her paper for this type of misusage. She appealed against the grade and, fortunately for me, the professor who reviewed it knew enough grammar to overrule her. But I see this error so often that I have now become desensitized to it.

Many Americans also can’t differentiate “they’re” (short form of “they are”), “their” (the possessive form of “they”), and “there” (an adverb of place).

And they struggle with knowing— and respecting— the difference between “its” (a possessive pronoun) and “it’s” (the short form of “it is”), and between “loose” (meaning “not tight”) and “lose” (meaning “fail to win”). To be fair, this solecism isn’t exclusive to Americans; it’s almost universal.

5. Americans have a habit of writing the way they speak. For instance, “should have” often becomes “should of.” Many also can’t differentiate between “ensure” (to make certain in the future) and “insure” (to protect by insurance) because they pronounce these words alike. Just like “all of a sudden” has suddenly become “all the sudden.”

For now, these errors are frowned upon by careful writers and grammarians in America. But if the fate of similar errors is any guide, they may soon be mainstreamed. For instance, “first off,” which is a corruption of “first of all” is now standard. “Out the window,” which was a colloquial and humorous short form for “out of the window” is now respectable.

6. “Both the two of them.” I have heard even professors use this expression here. This seems to me really indefensibly outrageous. Since “both” refers to, and emphasizes, “two-ness” it is redundant to talk of “both the two” of anything.

7. I have discovered that what grammarians call the errors of double comparative and double superlative are widely diffused among American college students, although my sense is that it’s not as prevalent among the more educated segment of the nation. I am talking of such errors as “more better,” “more saner,” “most sanest,” “most cleanest,” “most worst,” etc which combine two comparative and superlative forms in a superfluous bid for intensification. “More” is sufficiently indicative of comparison and often dispenses with the need to add the “er” form to an adjective, just like “most” is sufficiently superlative without the need to add the “est” form.

The first time I saw these errors in my students’ essays, I had to look out of the window repeatedly to assure myself that I was actually in America. Of course, double comparatives and double superlatives were acceptable in earlier times (recall Shakespeare’s “the most unkindest cut of all”?), but they are now taboo in modern English.

Then there are the more pardonable errors of adding “most” to words that are already, by their nature, superlative—such as “unique,” “outstanding,” “exceptional,” “excellent,” etc. Actually, I too had used the phrase “most outstanding” in the past before realizing that it’s redundant since “outstanding” denotes the highest possible degree attainable and is not susceptible to gradation. In my grammar quizzes for the news writing classes I teach here, only two students have been able to identify “most unique” as a grammatical error.

8. Americans, especially young Americans, have invented the really irritatingly redundant prepositional phrase “off of” to stand for “from” or to merely intensify the preposition “off.” And it is catching on very fast among even the educated elite. It’s usual to hear people say something like, “He got it off of the Internet,” or “She made a lot of profit off of that business,” or “She jumped off of the train” (why not simply “she jumped off the train”?), etc. It makes me want to slap someone on the mouth! That sort of murderous violence against the English language should be punishable by flogging.

9. “I’m good.” This is a standard response to a greeting here. It’s rare to find people answer “how are you” with “I’m fine.” It’s always “I’m good.” But to be “good” says nothing about your health or your wellbeing; it merely indicates that you’re of good behavior. And I don’t care if you’re well-behaved; I only wanted to know how you were doing!

10. One last weird expression that gets the juices of British speakers of the English language boiling is the way Americans use “already” as an all-purpose, terminal intensifier to express exasperation or impatience, as in “Get away from here already!” “Resign your appointment already!” According to Dictionary.om, this colloquial use of “already” dates back to 1903, and is derived from a mimicry of Yiddish (a language based on the mixture of German and Hebrew and spoken as a vernacular by the European Jewry) where the Yiddish word “shoyn,” is used in same sense.

And, although “already” and “all ready” are often impossible to tell apart in speech, the written forms have discrete meanings and uses, which many American writers miss. The phrase “all ready” means “entirely ready” or “prepared” (he was all ready to fight). “Already” means “previously” (The man had already graduated from the school when we met him) or “so soon” (Is it chowtime already?).

The truth, after all is said and done, is that because of the power of American pop culture and the dominance of their variety of the English language, many of the misusages I have identified may become so standard that someone reading this piece in, say 50, years from now would wonder if I have my nuts loose. Many usages that were originally regarded as “horrible Americanisms,” and resisted for that reason by especially the British, are now fully integrated into International and British Standard English.

For instance, these words and phrases were once regarded as “horrible Americanisms” and stoutly resisted by the British: radio, immigrant, squatter, teenager, lengthy, to advocate, to locate, to belittle, live wire, hot air, third degree, cold war, mass meetings, peace process. Today, they are so integral to our everyday expressions that many of us can’t even imagine why the Brits had any problems with them.

On the other hand, many Briticisms never cross the Atlantic, a recent notable exception being the sudden popularity in American English of the informal British English word “gobsmacked” after “Britain’s Got a Talent” internet sensation Susan Boyle used it to describe her unexpected success at the talent show. The word means “to be so surprised that you don’t know what to say.”

After she told CNN she was “gobsmacked, absolutely gobsmacked” by her success, the word topped internet search terms in America for weeks on end. Now, I see that many Americans have integrated it into their active idiolect.

However, some American expressions are still resisted by British writers and speakers. Expressions such as “OK, I guess,” “to check up on,” “to lose”; the sentence adverb “hopefully”; spellings such as “color,” “theater”; forms such as “gotten (British “got”), proven (British “proved”), “dove” (dived), “snuck” (sneaked); and grammatical features such as the use of “he” to refer back to “one” (One must support his team; British “one’s” team) or informal “real” (That was real good; British “really good”) have not made successful inroads into British English.

So are numerous words and phrases, some of which I pointed out last week—“sidewalk” for pavement, “gas” for petrol, “first floor” for ground floor (with corresponding changes for other floors), “faucet” for tap, “name for” for the British “name after” (as in, Washington DC was named for (British: named after) former American President George Washington), “wash up” for wash face and hands, etc.


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