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Grammar Rant

The Oxford English Dictionary, in the slightly censorious tone that always accompanies such occasions, picked ‘toxic’ as its Word of the year. Not a terrible choice, although I think ‘snowflake’ made a better claim. Whatever, it got me thinking about words and phrases that have fallen into widespread but in my view disreputable use of late. Here, in no particular order, is my top-ten list:

1. ‘Less’ rather than ‘fewer’, as in ‘less people go to church every year’. The rule is, if you can count them it should be ‘fewer’, if it is a solid entity it should be ‘less’. The same goes for ‘number’ and ‘amount’. Sadly, ‘fewer’ and ‘number’, in that context, seem to be on the brink of extinction.

2. ‘Bored of’. It has been ‘bored with’ for a boring number of years, so why the sudden change? I suspect it has merely become conflated with ‘tired of’ – and I have to admit the difference in use between the two prepositions is no more than a quirk of the usage. Still ‘bored with’ it is for me, perhaps a case of misplaced loyalty.

3. ‘Floor’ versus ‘ground’. The latter seems to be giving way to the former, even outdoors. I am simply floored, but refuse to be ground down. Meanwhile, it is, as it has always been, ground outside and floor inside. What is the problem?

4. ‘Nightmare/Horrendous’. Getting stuck in traffic for half an hour on the M25 is annoying, perhaps even infuriating, but it is not the stuff of nightmares, nor is it horrendous. Nightmare is the murder of 6,000 Jews, or other forms of genocide, not showing up late for a party.

5. ‘In terms of’. Politicians say it all the time. “In terms of immigration, the government is firm.” What is wrong with ‘about’ or ‘on the subject of’? A minor irritation, perhaps, but I wish it would go away.

6. ‘Basically/Absolutely’. Callers on call-in radio can hardly begin a sentence without basically. Asked what he did for a living, one caller responded with “Basically, I’m a plumber”. Asked if it was a job he enjoyed he said ‘absolutely’. Thereafter, ‘basically’ and ‘absolutely’ were scattered pointlessly throughout the conversation. While I’m at it, I might add the equally meaningless ‘obviously’. These words are used as needless fillers.

8. ‘Reaching out’. Faced with opposition to our views, we are now asked constantly to ‘reach out’ to the other side, meaning seek some accommodation or compromise. During the recent Brexit debates in parliament, warring factions were constantly urged to ‘reach out’ to those who disagreed with them. Most of them would rather retch than reach.

9. ‘Perfectly clear’ (the subject of a recent piece I wrote). The expression, as in “I have been perfectly clear on this point” – sometimes with variations that include the word ‘crystal’ – is beloved of British politicians. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, uses it all the time, almost invariably when precisely the opposite is true.

10. ‘Empowered’. Not in itself a bad word, but like so many decent locutions, constantly overused. Women are now ‘empowered’ we are told, or at least seeking to be. Employers are urged to ‘empower’ their employees. Empowered to do what, one might well ask?

There, that’s my grammar rant for the new year (which, as my American-designed word-processing programme keeps insisting, should be New Year).

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