Wednesday, August 17, 2022

A Bit of Paperwork

I grabbed my shopping list yesterday, after dinner, and went to the grocery store to pick up a few things that I'd forgotten to purchase the previous evening, when I forgot to take the list with me. Upon arriving at the store, I pulled out the shopping list and found, instead, a list of notes I had been scratching down for one of those "X number of grammar mistakes that irritate me" posts, which I had left lying nearby where it was convenient to add things to it as they occurred to me. Whoops.

So, I decided it's time to pull the trigger on this grammar rant, inspired in recent weeks by YouTube videos whose narrators said things that I couldn't help correcting out loud. They couldn't hear me correcting them, of course, but I'll have my revenge regardless. Or irregardless. And while I'm making that joke, let me note (for probably the umpteenth time) that I'm not disturbed by the standard line of gaffes like "irregardless," which regardless of so many grammar snobs' complaints that it isn't a word, clearly is a word because I typed it right there. People write it and say it all the time. The evidence that it's a word is incontrovertible. Whether it's a word that makes its users look ignorant is another question.

And then there's the "I could care less" canard. I actually find it more irritating to hear or read this long-standing idiom "corrected" to "I couldn't care less" than to encounter the original. The pedantry is so unbecoming. And when you drill down into grammatical facts, there is actually no grammatical error in the sentence "I could care less." Anyone who has a problem with that needs to go back to Sarcasm 101. And if you're gonna go all literal on me and evaluate "I could care less" vs. "I couldn't care less" on the basis of which one is closer to the truth at face value, I'd submit that no matter what you're talking about, you could probably think of something that you care less about – so, besides being an ironic remark to start with, it's also literally more accurate than the "corrected" version. Suck on that.

But now, on to the list itself, so I can finally throw it away and not confuse it with next week's shopping list. ... "As a kid ... " – Seemingly smart people keep saying things like this: "As a kid, my mother made me eat everything on my plate." How old was your mom when she had you, anyway? The grammar snob nomenclature for this mistake is "misplaced modifier," which in turn is a more inclusive version of the "dangling participle" that was listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual two or three editions back. In more lay-oriented (or orientated) terms, it means you're not thinking clearly enough about what you're saying, because what you're actually saying (or seem to be saying) isn't what you mean. "As a kid" seems to modify "my mother." What you meant was "When I was a kid." Say what you mean.

This is, unfortunately, a type of sentence-structure goof that you see and hear everywhere. The easiest-to-detect instances actually have a participle clause, with a verb ending with "-ing," introducing a sentence whose subject isn't the same as the subject of the participle. Like, "Driving to work this morning, a deer jumped right out in front of me." This sentence raises questions that demand answers, like: What kind of car was the deer driving? Where does it work? Are deer allowed to drive now? Is life in the wild going so badly these days that they have to get jobs? Who's hiring them? Who's putting them at the wheel of a car? Shouldn't something be done about this?

More subtle instances of misplaced modifiers may slip by without most people noticing, but I notice them and they're a leading cause of me yelling at YouTube. When sentences start with "Hopefully," they're almost never well thought out. "Hopefully, the escaped rhinoceros will go away so I can come down out of this tree." This is literally a prediction that the rhino, feeling hopeful, will leave. What you really mean when you say this is, "I hope the escaped rhino will go away."

And then there's "thankfully." "Thankfully, the pterodactyl was more interested in collecting the shiny time machine than in attacking and eating me." How do you know the pterodactyl was thankful? Most accounts of flying dinosaur attacks suggest that pterodactyls have a rather entitled attitude, and take what they like without a scintilla of gratitude. A more thoughtful word choice would have been "fortunately," although I suppose that could also be interpreted as saying the pterodactyl was fortunate in its choice of target. "Lucky for me," maybe? Or how about "I'm thankful that ... "

And now, here are just a few cases of easily confused words, where I've noticed some folks going with the wrong choice. The distinctions may be subtle, but missing them can lead to a thoughtful remark sounding just a bit wrong.
  • Perverse vs. Perverted – This isn't really a mistake, since (according to Merriam-Webster) "perverse" can also mean "marked by perversion," but I think that definition is mostly there in recognition of the fact that too many people aren't propertly distinguishing between these two words. Mostly, and I think most correctly, "perverse" means something like cranky, stubborn, wrongheaded or improper, shading toward but not quite reaching the utter twistedness that I would describe as "perverted." Their noun forms are different, too: perverseness vs. perversion. You wouldn't necessarily call someone a pervert for being perverse. Perverse behavior is more self-punishing than perverted behavior is. Does that help?
  • Unsatisfied vs. Dissatisfied – Here's another vanishingly subtle distinction, but I think it's worth preserving just to ensure we have the words for what we really mean. Conditions or requirements can be unsatisfied; only people are dissatisfied. Hunger, thirst, and other wants and needs can go unsatisfied; a person whose needs aren't met may even feel unsatisfied. But even when those needs are met, someone may still feel dissatisfied – discontented, aggrieved, disgruntled – because there's having enough, and then there's having all that you want.
  • Testimony vs. Testament – It almost drives me bonkers to hear these two mixed up. Usually it goes like this: Something or other is "a testament" to this or that – like, the capture of the Golden State killer is "a testament" to he persistence of police, who kept working the evidence through multiple generations of detectives until genetic geneology finally cracked the case. Yadda, yadda. Only, "testament" is a legal act, as in "last will and testament," while the word that example is looking for is "testimony," as in giving evidence or bearing witness.

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