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July 08, 2024

Language Issues: What Not To Say and How Not To Say It

By Richard Voza

I was one of those kids who loved school and still do. Am. Sure, I loved summer, but I also enjoyed the end of August when it was time for new school clothes, a book bag, lunch box, and the accessories. Maybe it's because as a kid I was never very good at anything except school. I got great grades and was voted "Most Likely to Succeed." School and wiffle ball were my only positives up through high school, where I then excelled at not going to class.

Some successful students have natural intelligence, some pay great attention, some have a great drive to learn, and others just have a fabulous memory. With little more than a fear of what happened if I brought home a bad report card, I paid attention as best I could, especially in English, or what we now call "language arts." I can't name every helping verb, but I can tell you what's wrong or right with a sentence. I've had a few principals, superintendents, and some with the title of "Dr." come to me before finalizing their writing. Words "speak" to me, no pun intended. Few times exist when I can say I'm 100% correct; but if it involves words, I'm your human. However, being such a human has its drawbacks. I constantly suffer great annoyance words are just plain wrong. Here are some that drive me not up a wall but through it:

  1. "Either side"

    Please, writers and speakers, stop saying "either side." It doesn't say what you're thinking. I'll usually read/see/hear something like this: "There was a statue of a lion on either side of the library entrance." What they mean is that there is a statue of a lion on the left and also on the right. When you say "either side," that means "one side or the other, but not both. This is an error made by the best writers in the best publications; nobody is innocent. I have never seen this written correctly unless it was something written by me. Here are two ways to correctly say there was a lion on both sides:

           There were statues of lions on both sides of the library door.
           There was a statue of a lion on each side of the library door.

    If you want to use "either side," then here's how it would be used correctly.

           Jim, please put the box down on either side of the door.

    That would be telling Jim that he can put it on either the right or the left side, obviously not both.

  2. "Finding yourself"

    One of the most overused written phrases is that a person "found himself/herself..." An example would be, "John was walking through his regular city route when he suddenly found himself in an unfamiliar neighborhood." Another would be "John was just trying to keep a good pace with the other runners when he suddenly found himself in the lead." It seems that the intention is to express that someone was progressing towards something or someplace, and then a moment of revelation showed that he was actually in a place at which he did not expect -- or something like that. Of course it's possible to lose track or attention and then be in an unexpected situation, but there has to be a better way to write it.

           "John was walking through his regular route in the city when he sensed that he had walked into an unfamiliar neighborhood."

           "John was just trying to keep a good pace with the other runners and was surprised that he was able to take the lead."

    We can't "find ourselves" unless there was a period of time in which we were either lost or unconsciousness. Of course there are allowances for figurative language, but that's not the case here. It's more of a tendency of writers to find an easy way to express something and then repeat, repeat, repeat until readers have been so bludgeoned with the phrase that they will easily accept it. We have to do better. We have to find a new way to say it, otherwise we may as well just write greeting cards.

  3. "It was all downhill (or uphill) from there."

    The reason people get this phrase wrong is because they are mixing up the reference. People are under the false impression that this has to do with a growth chart or line graph, in which a line going "up" is a good thing, line going "down" is a bad thing. However, what it really refers to is riding a bicycle either "uphill" or "downhill." Down is bad on a growth chart but good on a bicycle. So when we believe that things are progressing smoothly and easily, we are supposed to be saying that "it was all DOWNhill." When things are difficult, we should be saying that the conditions were "UPhill.".

  4. "I could care less."

    Ouch. When one uses this phrase, the intent is to express that one does NOT care at all. Complete lack and/or void of caring is taking place. However, if one says that one "could care less," then that means that while you admit that you have very little care, there is still room for you or others to care even less than you do. In other words, "I don't care, but it's possible that I could care even less than I already do." What one really should be saying is that "I could NOT care less." That means that you have such an absolute void of care that it's not possible for you to care any less than your current non-caring level.

  5. "Irregardless"

    This one I've only heard in southern New Jersey. However, keep in mind that at one point "South Jersey" almost became a separate state from "North Jersey." I can speak for most of Bergen County when I say we would have been very pleased.

    "Regardless" means that you are totally without regard, meaning you are going to progress without influence from certain things or conditions. For example, "regardless of the rain, I walked to the store." It means that I ignored the rain and walked anyway. But when I say "Irregardless," then I'm saying that I was lacking the condition of not regarding. It's like a double negative. The prefix "ir" means not or without. So, "irregardless of the rain" means that I was without the condition of NOT being influenced by the rain, which means I was influenced by the rain.

  6. "People that..."

    Too many times I hear this from teachers, radio announcers, and just about anyone with a voice. If a pronoun refers to people, then it must be "who" or "whom." The word "that" is used for things or animals. I will constantly hear someone say, "I saw a lot of people that were tired." No no no. It should be "people who were tired." People are not things or animals, so they get the blessing of being a "who" or "whom."

  7. "Alright"

    There is no such word as "alright," although many educated people believe the contrary. The influence is from the word "already." The similarities are kicking sand in your face. There are two separate words: "all_right." The English language is all ready dumbing down by the minute, so don't push it further into the drain. Please don't use the word "alright." Does anyone say "alwrong"? "I read your answers, but they were alwrong." I don't see it working out.

I had a college course called "Linguistics and Grammar," taught by Dr. Robert Kloss. He busted our brains for months, bringing pain from every comma, period, and especially the semicolon. I clawed for and earned every pixel of my A-, which was originally a B until I won the debate over my final exam grade. On the last day of class he told us that he was very proud and hoped we would carry on the knowledge he bestowed upon us. However, he added, please keep in mind the single most important thing about language and communication: no matter how well or poorly you might say it, the only thing that really matters is that your audience knows exactly what you intend to say. If I had had a gun, I might have shot him.

-- Richard Voza

Article © Richard Voza. All rights reserved.
Published on 2009-06-15
4 Reader Comments
Josh Brown
03:24:18 AM
Excellent article. I'm guilty of them all, except for #7 (hopefully not anymore!) And it annoys me greatly every time I see it spelled alright. ;)

Especially glad you mentioned that/who. That one always gets me mixed up!
Alexandra Queen
06:03:37 PM
An article to warm the cockles of the heart! Some excellent points.
12:08:17 PM
Wow! Someone who actually knows how to use the language. I hate "Mines," too. It drives me nuts.
05:05:22 AM
All of the above are like nails on a chalkboard for me. Like Renee, I hate "Mines" also. I tell my students that Mines are where you dig for gems.
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