Tuesday, November 13, 2007

You completely and totally annihilated that word

Oh, people. Sometimes we say such dumb things, don’t we? Then we hear others say dumb things, and we wonder if there is a way to let them know a better way, a right way. OUR way, of course.

Many readers of this column have written me asking how to stop people from saying things badly. Today’s suggestion: When you hear something egregiously wrong and/or irritating, simply shout, “Stop it!” It might work, or it might get you hurt. We’ll just have to see.

Sometimes people say ugly things by combining words to make a new one. “Guesstimate” now is well established as a combination of “guess” and “estimate,” and it never fails to irritate me. You can guess at something, you can make an estimate. Either one will suffice, neither is precise, why combine them? Stop it.

Heard just last week: “It was a rememorable weekend.” “I got so flustrated I couldn’t speak.” “They need to stop calling — it’s downright harrassination.”

We also hear people who like to sound educated, so they use unnecessarily long words (sometimes inventing them on the spot), relishing all the syllables. I’ve heard these lately: parameterized, polarizabilities, summarization, derivatization, containerizing … and, perhaps my favorite of this group, reflectionization. Long words can play important roles in language, but unnecessarily long ones can sound, well, puffed up.

The same goes for many phrases that many of us use (you? do you say any of these?), and that are really short. The trouble with them is, they’re still longer than they need to be. Consider the following, and see if you notice a reflectionization of yourself in here.
• continue on — “continue” means to go on with something, so “continue on” is like saying “go on on.”
• safe haven — “haven” means a safe place. So why say “safe safe place”?
• protected sanctuary — see “haven,” above.
• may or may not make it happen — “may make it happen” automatically means it might, it might not. So we don’t need to add the “or may not.”
• how to behave and not behave — face it, knowing how to behave covers how not to behave.
• complete and total annihilation — if something’s complete, it’s total; if it’s total … well, you know. Besides, annihilation is total by definition.

Now for a Stop it that makes me want to scream. Ready? “Sooner than later,” as in “This is an important move, so we need to do it sooner than later.”

If I had hair, I’d pull it out. SOONER THAN LATER?? What kind of phrase is that (other than immeasurably annoying)? If you mean something needs to be done quickly, say “We need to do it quickly.” If it has to happen soon, say “We need to do it soon.”

To be closer to correct and a tad less irritating, you would say that it should be done sooner rather than later. Rather! However, sooner is ALWAYS going to happen before later happens. So ditch the “later” part altogether and simply say that it needs to be done soon.

Now that we’ve salved the sooner than later burr under my saddle, let’s try to stop similar annoyances. See if you can stop others — or yourself — from uses such as “stronger, not weaker” (heard on National Public Radio yesterday), “taller rather than shorter,” “happier rather than sadder” and all the rest of the “rather than” sayings that belabor the obvious. Of COURSE most things have opposites, for Pete’s sake — you don’t have to spell it out with up not down in not out cold not hot white not black just Stop it!

Now that we’re rolling, let’s stop people from giving their phone numbers faster than a speeding bullet. “What’s your number?” “Three three six seven zip zip zipzipzipzip.” Say what? Especially on an answering machine. I’ll have to play that sucker back a hunnert times, and I still won’t understand it. Is it a new contest of some sort? Stop it. Slow down.

One more and we’re done for the day. I know, you can’t hardly wait. That’s it. Can’t hardly. Somewhere in the back of your brain there probably lurks a grammar school lesson on the evils of double negatives. Dust it off. If you’re having trouble waiting (or hearing or seeing or moving or whatever), then you can hardly wait (hardly hear, see, move, etc.). If you say you can’t hardly, then you’re saying the opposite of what you mean. You CAN hardly. Do you sometimes say “can’t hardly”?

Stop it.


1 comment:

Kano said...

You show irritation at the "sooner than later" phrase but don't point out that it seems grammatically incorrect in addition to being redundant.

I've looked around online and it seems quite common. But placed next to comparable '-er' adjective phrases like "it's bigger than smaller" or "she's faster than slower" we can clearly see that it's missing the "rather".

There is a use for the phrase "sooner rather than later". It gives emphasis to "sooner". One could use it to correct someone's misunderstanding, for example:

"No, we need to finish that sooner rather than later."