Watch your language!

The explosion of information systems seems to be speeding up the rate at which misuse of words is overtaking proper use.

Just as stoplights and traffic signs enable millions of drivers simultaneously to share the highways, so rules about word use and grammar enable us to communicate, because we agree certain words and phrases mean certain things.

Recently, Mary Ellen Bell, a public relations specialist at the University of Wisconsin, noted the increasing misuse of “that” and “who.”

Bell sent e-mail to members of Agricultural Communicators in Education asking for comments on whether they had noticed the general confusion over the use of these words. While most agreed that the words are frequently interchanged, one writer said that this battle might be moot:

“Alas! The grand old American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition, sneaks in the following statement: Some grammarians have argued that only “who” and not “that” should be used to introduce a restrictive relative clause that defines a person. This restriction has no basis…It is entirely acceptable to write either “the man that wanted to talk to you” or “the man who wanted to talk to you.”

Frequent errors

  • Use vs. usage. The word “usage” is gaining ground, but it's almost useless. It has no advantage over the simpler “use.”
  • Irregardless” becomes a common bastardization of the words “regardless” and “irrelevant.” Let's be clear: “irregardless” is not a word.
  • Suffer vs. sustain. This one is easy. Every time you hear a newscast saying the building “suffered” damage, you can be sure it isn't true. Buildings, no matter how technologically advanced, do not have nervous systems or emotions. People suffer, animals suffer, arguably even one-celled amoebas may suffer, but all inanimate objects “sustain.”
  • Splitting infinitives--such as “to walk,” “to do”--is so common that people don't realize that phrases such as “to generally agree” are incorrect. These “split infinitives” incorrectly separate the verb phrase “to agree” and the modifier “generally.” Yet split infinitives are easily found in any popular publication. In fact, did you notice that “are easily found” should read “easily are found?” Unfortunately, “easily are found” sounds incorrect because we're so accustomed to hearing the improper version.

One contributor lamented the increasing use of “No problem” as the standard reply to “Thank you,” but perhaps that is best left for another article.