Friday, 25 June 2010

Some language peeves

I follow the Language Log blog and, whilst I can't find the time and umph to read all the postings, there are certain ones that I really enjoy - esp. the ones related to Chinese language issues and pet peeves from mis-use of English. So, I can't resist jumping on the bandwagon and introducing the three things I think I hate most in bad English these days. They're also three things that are becoming increasingly common and are all filtering over from long-term bad habits west of the Atlantic, (er-hum)!!

1. Writing 'alot'. For anyone inclined to join in this trend, please note that there is no such word as 'alot'. There is a verb 'allot', but this is clearly not what is meant when people write the two words 'a lot' as one. An American friend who lives near my Mother-in-Law in southern Germany told me that, nearly 3 decades ago when she was in junior school, her teacher told her class that if they were wanted to write 'a lot' to make sure to write it as two words, not one, so this is a bad habit of at least 30 years standing from the States.

With the proliferation of the internet and so much written contact across the Atlantic, more and more British people are picking up this error and not even realising that it is an error and not either correct or an acceptable alternative. When I was teaching my first session of the year to a new group of students, I always warned them that I marked their Chinese-English translations in all tests and exams that year and so they would be well advised to bear in mind that I would deduct marks for poor English (all sentences should be put into proper English, not jumbled up guff) and especially for writing 'alot' as all one word. Imagine my reaction when one Masters student asked me in wide-eyed amazement, 'Is that wrong?'

I'm delighted to note that the Blogger spellchecker has flagged up every instance of my having typed 'alot' as incorrect!=)

2) Use of 'different than'. Again, something that has become long established in the States and is now getting used more and more in the UK, (although not to the degree of 'alot' I'm glad to say, but I fear it will happen.....). As this isn't an actual spelling mistake or anything like that, I think this is beginning to be accepted as actually correct in the US as I've recently been reading a couple of American books, including one by a lady with a doctorate, both of which make liberal use of 'different than'.

For reference, the correct usage is as follows:
Different from
Similar/dissimilar to
Bigger/smaller/etc-er than

Interestingly, 'different to' has been in use for the best part of two centuries as Charlotte Bronte uses it in her novel 'Shirley', (I didn't notice in the others) alongside using 'different from', but I've noticed that really strict publications with high standards of grammar from the States disallow 'different than' and I think the publishing house I'm thinking of only uses 'different from'. I do wish everyone else would follow suit!

Despite 'different than' having been classed as acceptable usage by some authorities and even used by some 18th century writers etc (which doesn't mean that it's actually correct, just that it was popular at one point), I enjoyed this thread on the subject. Differing opinions and citations exist, but many feel that 'different than' cannot be excused and/or that 'different from' is to be preferred. I especially appreciated the 5th and 6th postings on the thread I link to here as they take the construction to bits to some degree and what they say makes perfect sense.

Prepostions are a nuisance in any language - even the mother tongue! No-one murders a language like it's mother tongue speakers.....

3) 'Can I get..?' Yes, you can get whatever you like, off you go and get it. If, however, you are asking me to to give you something, then you won't succeed unless you say, 'Can I have...?' 'To get' implies an action on your own part, that you personally go and get it. To ask someone serving you over a counter if you can get something, literally means that you want to come around the counter and get it yourself. You could correctly ask them if they could get it for you, that would be fine, but otherwise, ask them if you 'can have' what you want, PLEASE!

Our American cousins have been asking if they 'can get' things for many decades and now, with the increasing of American English media reaching the younger folk in the UK, you'd be hard pushed to find one these days who asks if he 'can have' something.

Why do bad habits spread so much faster than good ones? If one person starts saying something incorrectly in any given group of people, odds are that a fair number will start to mimic him fairly quickly. This doesn't happen the other way around though. If one person begins to introduce the correct form of speech into conversation over a period of time, next to no-one will even notice, never mind begin to correct their own speech. Sigh! I know I'm fighting a totally losing battle for correct usage, but that's not going to stop the likes of me fighting!!!=)

Edit: Following a rather unpleasant comment 'correcting' me in very abrupt terms and insinuating that I go around correcting folk's everyday speech and how rude that is etc etc, I think I should point out that I very rarely ever mention these things when I encounter them or interrupt people to correct their grammar (unless asked to do so, say by a non-native English speaker). This is MY blog and I can express whatever pet peeves I want to in and on my own terms. If you don't like it, don't read it!

No comments: