Bad Language

I’m sure pretty well everyone has linguistic pet peeves and which ones bother you can say something about the way you think. How picky and self-superior you are. You can find these lists online but I thought I’d make my own.

1. … so… (not meaning therefore or to a great extent). I tried a few months ago to quit starting sentences meaninglessly with “so”. “So do you come here often?” “So how’s it going?” I found it very difficult. So means therefore (or as an adverb to mean to a great extent: “She’s so urbane”) but we have slipped into using “so” to lubricate conversation, or maybe to slyly imply that some internal exchange was already going on between us and here’s my comment out loud. It’s replaced “well” which was used the same way in the mid-to-late 20th century (“Well it came down to earth and it lit in a tree…”).

2. is is. This is a problem with use of a noun clause. “The problem is is that he made a mistake” is wrong of course, but I hear it all the time. “What the problem is is that he made a mistake” is okay. In the first one the noun clause is “that he made a mistake” and the first “is” is the verb, so there’s no need for that second “is”. That he made a mistake is what the problem is. In the second example there are two noun clauses, “What the problem is” and “that he made a mistake”. The second is is the necessary verb, a similar example of which is this sentence.

3. No problem (instead of “you’re welcome”). You know, it never crossed my mind that there could be some problem when I thanked you for doing your job properly or saying something nice to me. I even prefer the time-honoured Americanism of a simple affirmative here: “Yes ma’am”.

4. a couple (no of). “I brush my teeth a couple times a day” just doesn’t make sense. There are lots of situations where we drop unnecessary little words or flourishes, but I think this one came through “a coulpla” and for some reason the further shortening for me is particularly irritating, sloppy, and disrespectful of good verbal sense. An exception is where couple is followed by more or something comparable: “we have a couple more bottles in the car.”

5. begging the question. This is properly a logic error where an argument presumes the truth of a question in issue rather than supporting it: “My fries taste better than yours because yours have worse flavour.”  I almost never hear this used correctly, and quite well-educated lovely people use it to mean that something in issue invites (begs) us to ask a subsequent question. What bothers me isn’t that their meaning isn’t clear, but that using that phrase that way falsely (and usually unintentionally) implies familiarity with philosophy of logic. That people who use it wrongly only look like fools to a diminishing number of archaic pedants only makes things worse.

6. uptalk. We still hear examples of this embarrassment: finishing statement sentences  as though they were interrogative. “So I went over to his place? And like I knew he was in there? But he didn’t answer the fucking door? So I busted it open?” etc. It’s as if we are looking for agreement or trying to be sure someone is paying attention. I hear newscasters or other professional talkers doing this to an extent I can’t believe, and keep waiting for them to end a concluding sentence by dropping their voice. Most of the time they do.

7. Singsong or sardonic tone in newscasters. This one is hard to describe accurately in prose but once you realize what the speaker is doing it’s either laughable or enormously annoying. The singsong tone is information rendered with the opposite of uptalk, dropping the voice with the same false emphasis at the end of each sentence, or (recently on the CBC National) whispering the last word or two of a sentence. I wonder what kind of announcer these people are trying to sound like. The sardonic tone for me is even worse, and I don’t think the young people practising this affectation even realize they are doing it. It’s a whineyness where the talker is offering straightforward statements as if they deserved to be mocked, using the penultimate emphasis of a querulous child: “The prime minister said he’d been TOLD about it. He indicated it didn’t MAT-ter. He told the house nobody CARES about that.” (I’m afraid you might have to hear an audio tape of this to get what I’m referring to…).

8. Use of “literally” (I’ve seen this one complained about elsewhere). Literally means exactly or truthfully. But we’ve let it slide into a less precise expression of emphasis. “He literally ate me alive.” “I literally shit my pants.” Really? No. We literally laugh out loud, or walk out of a meeting, or tell someone to go to hell, but don’t usually literally blow somebody’s brains out.

9. Up the Nose. I make a fuss about noise in restaurants and this problem is similar. Some people in certain situations imagine that what they have to say in a public place needs to be heard by everybody. One way to accomplish this is to just talk louder, but another is to drive the sound of your voice up into your nose and the back of your throat so that it becomes harsh (try it: say hello in your ordinary voice and then say it forcing the sound upward and kind of constricting your throat at the same time). Both men and women do this and it’s particularly prevalent in trendy eating places, bars, and cafés. It drives me crazy.

This isn’t bad language per se, more like a bad way of talking. For some reason certain places are like a magnet for this special grating exhibition. Sometimes I have to leave for example the very good bakery Beaucoup because I can’t stand hearing the prevalent conversations in there.

10. American Long Vowels. At some point someone explained to Americans that you’re not supposed to pronounce foreign words as Americans would render them phonetically (Viet Nam as Vee-YET NAY-am; and alto as AL-tow (Al – short form of Alan – and “to” rhymed with Joe). No, they’re told, the natives pronounce their vowel sounds “long”. Wanting nothing so much as authenticity, they dutifully switch to vee-YET NOMM (rhymes with Tom as a Canadian would say it), and ALL-tow.  Natives, however, say those words about halfway between the American phonetic version and the American “educated” version: Veet NUM (rhymes roughly with hum) and AHL (or even UL-)-tow (rhymes with throw). Anybody who tries to listen to non-English-speakers cringes at this inaccuracy that feels like affectation, even though it’s completely unconscious. The same silliness has leaked into English-language words: avocado as OF-oh-COD-oh, Anna as ON-a, aunt as ONT, etc.

11. Sportscasters bending the tenses. This is a bit silly, really, and I’m not sure why it bothers me so much. It may be confined to ice hockey. The play-by-play announcer uses the future tense for something that has already happened. The forward who has the puck shoots it into the other team’s end of the ice and skates off so fresh players can replace him. Once he’s done this and the puck is halfway down the ice the commentator says “Gretzky will dump the puck and skate off for a change”. Like he is prescient or so very familiar with the game that the next thing about to happen is to him a foregone conclusion. But it’s already happened. It’s like a gimme in the golf these guys all play.

12. No simple pragmatic telephone etiquette. Ring ring. Answerer: “Hello?” Caller: “Hello”. What in hell is that? I’m not referring to an archaic Emily Post silliness, it’s just common sense. When you phone somebody and they answer, you identify yourself or state the reason for your call. The number of times I have to say “Who’s calling please?” when I answer the phone is increasing, and this isn’t counting wrong numbers where the person doesn’t speak English or is a three-year-old. We still have a landline at home and 80% of the time when it rings it’s a recording, silence followed by Asian language, “how are you doing today?” or “hello”. I know I know it’s all text now. But until voice telephone disappears completely couldn’t we just be sensible?

13. Infer/imply. “What are you trying to infer?” we hear often. This one is simple: imply is active, infer is passive. I imply by calling you a redneck that you have right-of-centre points of view. You may infer when I make that comment that I’m a left-wing wet. The etymology isn’t helpful. plicare (for imply) means to enfold, fero (for infer) means I carry. I guess when we imply something we are folding a meaning into it and when we infer it we are carrying a meaning out of it. If you don’t know the difference you shouldn’t use these words at all.

14. Word and language upgrades. For some reason certain people find some ordinary words and phrases not quite… emphatic? interesting? enough, so they feel it’s necessary to change certain words irrationally, or use usually awkwardly archaic language. A lot of these appear in technical areas like healthcare or climate change. “Processees” is one. It’s the plural of process, which used to be processes. I recently heard a physician who was lecturing on infectious diseases use the word “condome” for condom. Healthcare people seem to need reassurance of their special status by saying “altering” for changing, “to a greater degree” for more, and even “it behooves us to” for we should. What are these people trying to do? It has to be a completely transparent attempt to enhance themselves in others’ (or their own) eyes doesn’t it?

15. Advanced Directives. With the Covid pandemic comes much public attention paid to making decisions about what kind of care you want and don’t want, especially if you’re elderly. These are correctly advance (not advanced) directives or advance care planning. I can think of two reasons for this small but annoying mistake. One, somebody with an instinct for enhancement of importance (see 14, above) is sneaking the idea that these directives are somehow advanced, not … what, retarded? reactionary? simplistic? A bit like the so-named territory in computer programs forbidden to all but people who know how to write code (I’m afraid there are people in the world who do this without knowing they are doing it). But otherwise and probably a lot more likely these blunderers are just copying someone else and not thinking about what they are saying.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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