There is Actually a Science About Language and Grammar Ranters Should Look it Up

Buzzfeed, bane of my Internet browsing, recently had a list of “17 misused and made-up words that make you rage“. The list is just a collection of GIFs and one-liners about what you should be saying. I was amused because it seems like anytime a website is desperate for content, they’ll post some rant about the “decline” of English. (While I may be desperate for content, I can assure you I won’t rant about stupid people ruining our wonderfully pure language) Most of these rants are just prescriptive hissy fits that consider the mistakes in a vacuum. If the average wannabe grammarian on the Internet knew basic linguistics, they might understand where these mistakes comes from instead of threatening to beat a co-worker to death.

So let’s quickly go through these. While most of them are “wrong”, the reason they come up isn’t just stupidity.

1. Irregardless – “ir-” is a variant of the prefix “in-” that English borrowed from Latin (in many cases through French). “in-” typically negates the root it precedes in modern English. But that hasn’t always been true. “in-” has also been used to mean “in or on”. We see this in contemporary confusion over what exactly “inflammable” means, because we tend to misread the “in” as meaning “not” when it actually was used in the sense of setting something on fire.

2. Supposably – Sometimes things “roll off the tongue” so nicely and we get sound changes. That, in fact, defines language change since humans started speaking. Also, the suffix “-able” is productive in English. Supposably might be taking up meanings not currently covered by supposedly. 

3. Flustrated – There are so many reasons this might legitimately come up. Articulation problems with /l/ and /r/ sounds are actually pretty common, and the sounds are really similar so someone in a rush can easily mix them up. Also, the only time I have heard the word “flustrated”, it was clearly meant as a portmanteau (a word made by combining parts of other words) of “flustered” and “frustrated”.

4. Conversate – Does this honestly happen that often ? I’m proud that the author managed to correctly identify what a back-formation is, though. They should also realize back-formation tends to result in new words that are accepted (broadcast as a verb is a backformation that developed to describe the process of transmitting a broadcast program).

5. Random as meaning “weird or goofy” – It just seems worth pointing out the author’s own definition doesn’t necessarily contradict the “wrong” example given, as it is possible to dress without aim, direction, rule or method. 

6. Sherbert – Welcome to rhotacism. R ends up in lots of weird places in English. It turns out it’s kind of a weird sound that appears in very few languages.

7. I could care less – I don’t really have a defense for it, because it is weird. But people claiming to not understand it remind me of the joke about a professor saying that while in some languages a double negative means a positive, no language has a double positive mean a negative and a student says “Yeah, right”.

8. For all intensive purposes – Again, there’s not really a defense of continued use of it. But when it appears, it’s typically because they mishear “intents AND” as “intensive”. Spoken English does not always sound how we write it.

9. Announciate – Again, does this even happen? (I have heard “pronounciate” or “pronunciate” more)

10. Foilage – unless people who live in leaf-watching areas see the misspelling of “foliage” way more than I am currently guessing, no one probably sees this enough to scream. But actually, the switching of sound orders has happened A LOT in English. Also, maybe I’m super weird, but I definitely saw the word spelled as foilage but pronounced as “foliage” when I was growing up.

11. Expresso – people tell me this is common, but I’ve never heard anyone pronounce espresso with an X in the middle. And my dad has some weird pronunciations of Italian and Spanish words. Literally the only use of expresso meant to be pronounced with an X (Portuguese calls it expresso, but the X is pronounced as an S) I can come across online is a pun in the University of Texas’ alumni group.

12. Nauseous – This is my favorite, because people making the “nauseous = causing nausea; nauseated = sick” claim actually prove that they don’t care about the history of English. The Oxford English Dictionary shows usage of “nauseous” as meaning “affected with nausea” going back to at least 1885 in the United States. To top it off, the first ever monolingual English dictionary lists nauseous as “loathing or disposed to vomit.” That definitely sounds like a definition of being sick if I ever saw one. This usage might not follow as a translation of the classical Latin nauseōsus, but English has rarely borrowed words with the exact same meaning as in their original language.

13. Precedent pronounced as “president” – I’ve actually heard this, and it’s weird to me too, but I think that’s more a quirk of an individual.

14. Misunderestimate – Has anyone ever said this aside from George W. Bush?

15. Vice versa pronounced as “Vice-a versa” – As people point out in the comments, if we’re treating this like Latin, then the e in the first word does need to be pronounced. Evidently, a two syllable “vice” is still done in Britain. And if we’re going to be super Latin pedants, then vice would not be pronounced like modern English “vice” at all, but the phrase would be pronounced vee-keh ver-sah.

16. “Whole Nother” – When I hear (and occasionally use) “whole nother” it’s typically in the phrase “a whole nother”. It’s like “whole” is being spliced into “another”, similar to other exclamations such as fan-fricking-tastic. It’s definitely nonstandard, but most spoken English is “nonstandard”.

17. Meme pronounced “me-me” – Again, not one I’ll defend because the pronunciation is clearly wrong here. But how many people routinely heard the word meme in spoken conversation until a few years ago? It might also be that some people more in the know on memes also know that Dawkins coined the word by abbreviating the Greek “mimeme”.

As you can see, the “proper” grammar seems kind of arbitrary over several of these rules. Unfortunately, that seems to be the trend in most grammar articles online because grammar is typically taught assuming language exists in some kind of vacuum. Linguistics gives the context needed to understand where our modern grammar comes from. While I don’t really agree with linguistic prescriptivism, as long as amateur grammarians are going to try to do it anyway, they should learn some linguistics to help better analyze the errors they think people make.

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