Irritating Words and Word Usage provided an irresistable opportunity to sound off about bad grammar, spelling, pronunciation, and any other mangling of language that pisses us off. After the thread had waxed three pages long, hazel-rah posted, “This thread makes me sad. The dictionary is the secular bible, and you’re all bible-thumpers.”
Well, if that’s a sin, I’m definitely guilty. And, in sympathy with my spiritual brothers, the King-James-Onlyists, I even look askance at Merriam Webster’s dictionary, which is more of a chronicle of the slide of American English into a mire of ignorance than an authority on correct usage.
However, this is purely a visceral reaction. Intellectually, I acknowledge that language evolves, and there’s nothing that could be done to stop it. Indeed, it’s healthy for language to change. Who would want to halt the coinage of new words? And, since so-called rules of grammar, spelling, and pronunciation are almost completely arbitrary anyway, why is it a great tragedy if some of those rules mutate? If a child grows up hearing an incorrect usage as often as, or more often than, then correct one, how can he be expected to know the right one? How is it right to sneer at him for getting it wrong?
But why, then, do I find myself assuming that anyone who doesn’t bother to capitalize his email is an irredemable cretin? Why does “Give it to Bob or myself.” make me want to immediately and publically correct the speaker? Why is it that seeing pluralization with an apostrophe-s on a sign makes me want to launch a grenade or a small nuclear missile?
Such errors are the linguistic equivalent of fingernails on the chalkboard. Why do the affect us so? I was lucky to grow up in a household where people spoke mostly correct English, so I always got high marks on grammar quizzes and the like. If something was wrong, it screamed out at me like a forgotten flat in a Bach concerto. When I discovered that my own usage was incorrect, I was mortified and began noting the word or rule whenever I saw it, and particularly when used it myself, until the correct usage became second nature and a mistake had begun to grate at my nerves.
Am I just an insufferable prig? If so, it seems I’m not alone. Any language needs some conservative users to enforce standards, arbitary as they may be, to prevent the tongue from becoming unintelligible. But why is it that some people are so, er, vigilant? Why is improper usage so infuriating? Is it something innate in the language centers of our brains? Or is it just a desire to flaunt our own superiority?
(By the way, feel free to point out any grammar and spelling errors in my post. I’m sure I made a few!)