IN A WORD
As a professional writer, I’m attuned to proper grammar and spelling even though I’m not immune to making errors myself. Several years ago, in my own magazine, I described something as “penultimate” without looking it up. I assumed that if ultimate was pretty good, then penultimate must be even better. One of my readers informed me that penultimate meant second best! Another mea culpa started in my early childhood when I was learning to write by connecting letters together. It sounded to me like the teacher called it “cursiff.” I’ve used the word in speech, but never saw it printed. So when did I learn that it is spelled “cursive?” Quite recently, and from my eight-year-old grandson!
As a former teacher of high school English and creative writing, I often enjoyed tripping my students by asking them the difference between “flammable” and “inflammable.” The response was predictable, and they were astounded to learn that these two words are synonyms.
Another word game I had with them was tenses. I’d ask, “If the three tenses for “ring” are “ring,” “rang,” and “rung,” and for “drink” are “drink,” “drank,” and “drunk,” what are the three tenses for think? Predictably, the class would respond in unison, “think,” “thank,” and “thunk,” then they would look at each other in embarrassed amusement.
It’s no wonder that some folks really do say bring, brang, and brung, and probably think that “clink,” “clank,” “and “clunk” are tenses rather than sounds.
OK, grammar purists, here’s one for you: “A cluster of agitators was or were filtering through the crowd.” The subject is one cluster (singular), but there are many individuals (plural).
This case requires an adjunct rule: If the members of the group act separately use the plural form. And, in this case, the cluster of agitators were acting individually, whereas a bag of peanuts was sitting on a shelf.
It’s quite similar, then, to the common conundrum, “Everyone coming to the party should bring his/her/their own beverage. After all, we say, “Everyone is coming, not “Everyone are coming.”
And speaking of misused plurals, how about the store closeout-shelf sign that reads, “All items 25 cents?” I’m so tempted to put them all in a bag and hand the clerk a quarter.
I close with five pet peeves commonly suffered while listening to TV announcers. First is the misuse of notoriety for fame or popularity. Noteworthy, noted, celebrated, popular, famous…any of these would be much better than notoriety which means notorious!
Second, if “it goes without saying,” then why say it?
Third, why am I supposed to feel warm and fuzzy when a human interest story ends, “And that’s what it’s all about.” All what’s about? Perhaps it was one of those stories that started with, “It all began…”
Fourth, the announcer who assures us that it’s a live performance. Is he concerned we might wonder if it’s a dead performance?
And finally, signature signoffs have degenerated to a new low with the hackneyed “And the rest, as they say, is history.” I don’t know who “they” are, but I wish “they” would stop saying it.