THE JOYS OF BEING SMUG ABOUT ENGLISH USAGE

Welcomat - November 1, 1989

I am one of those people who are so confident of their knowledge of the niceties of the English language that they find a good deal of entertainment in the occasional odd usage, a good pun or a classic misinterpretation. If I can manage to insert into the sentence the phrase "gave me pause", it's usually followed with "big, hairy ones." If someone tells me to depress the clutch, I tell the clutch about the homeless situation, or that its mother died. Then there's the Chinese lunch cart at 16th and Market whose sign at the pick-up window advises, "Order other window please". Does anyone else feel the urge and say "I'll have the other window please"?

My mom is a self-appointed English usage cop and she raised me to yell at people who mispronounce etcetera (there's no "eck" in there) or nuclear. However, this is the woman who also once mentioned "Every time Karl Malden is on TV saying 'it's dangerous to carry cash', I think 'What's dangerous to Carrie Cash, and who's Carrie Cash, anyway?'".

The business office is a good place for creating new works - such as "downsizing" - and for using input as a verb (it's not). Here in the government, we have one of my favorites - excess as a verb. This is not the classing English grammar problem of the difference between "access" and "excess" - this is really using sentences like "We're going to excess that printer - we don't need it any more".

Mom has also put me on the "stamp out hopefully" bandwagon, but I've just about given up. If you look up "hopefully" in your Webster's, you will see that "Hopefully, I'll get a raise" does not mean the same thing as "I hope I'll get a raise". But that's the way people use it nowadays, and it's now common usage, and the dictionaries should legitimize it any day now.

A recent move to South Philly has given me a new route to walk to work - straight up Eight Street. I've been noticing Dave Barry's rules for handwritten signs are closely followed in South Philly: Every word that ends in "s" gets an apostrophe before the last letter, and at least one random word must be in quotation marks, giving us signs like TRY "OUR" CHEESE STEAK'S. Every morning when I pass PARKWAY JEWELRY BY "PHYLLIS KELLY", I wonder what Phyllis's real name is, and why she has to use an alias.

But the brain really starts working when I pass CORONA DI SETA, "HAIR DESIGN", "STYLING" BY "FRANK". Okay - Corona Di Seta is the name of the shop, but what do they do there? Something with hair, but "hair design" doesn't mean anything, even without the quotes. So we can guess probably cutting or styling.

No, it can't be styling, because "styling" is in quotes, too - which means it's not really, or not quite styling. The imagination runs wild. Maybe it's something horrible, like hair mangling or hair shellacking. Why else would "Frank" need a psuedonym? "Phyllis Kelly" probably just doesn't like her given name, which might be something like Hortense Schtukgartner, but "Frank" probably can't afford to let his real name get out. I have yet to see what "hair design" comes out of there - if a customer complains after a haircut, does "Frank" gleefuly cackle, "Ha, ha - you should have paid attention to the quotes!"? At lease none of the words in the sign end in "s".

All right, so people don't appreciate being told that their apostrophes are misplaced, that they're being overrun with quotation marks, or that they're mispronouncing "asterisk" (risk, not rick). And I've lost all my friends because I deliberately misinterpret everything they say. But it's worth it to be smug about English language usage. Notice the usage of "it's" in the previous sentence - the contraction get's the apostrophe, the possessive doe's not...


Copyright Eric Peterson, 1989