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Language As She Is Spoke

It is some time since my last rant on language and I know that some of you have been waiting anxiously for one.  So let me put you out of your misery by sharing a few of my current pet literary hates.


  1. ‘Absolutely’ tops the list.  The word is now so ubiquitous – even more than ‘basically’ – that it is becoming auto-reflexive.  Mention casually that the weather has been good and the chances are someone will respond with “absolutely”.   Suggest that the political situation in the Middle East has taken a turn for the worse, and the same word will issue forth.  Listen to call-in radio and the word issues forth at the start of just about every caller response, perhaps after a ‘basically’ or two.  We all use sentence fillers from time to time, but like the irritating ‘y’know’ most are derived from phrases that were once deployed in a more formal manner of speaking.  ‘Absolutely’ is derived from nothing except the now entrenched habit of applying superlatives to absolutely any and all subjects, and most particularly those that absolutely require something more measured.  “How was your holiday?” you ask a friend.  “Absolutely fabulous!”  “Did it rain at all?”  “Well, yes, for about half the time, sadly, but what do you expect in Cornwall in September?”  So only semi-absolutely fabulous, then. “How do you rate Grimsby Town’s 1-0 win against Torquay United?” the presenter asks Grimsby’s (no doubt beleaguered) manager.  “It was an absolutely massive win for us.”  Grimsby and Torquay, it transpires, are respectively in eleventh and twelfth places in League Division Five, so ‘massive’ is the last word that ought to come to mind, even less so when it requires absolutist qualification.  But for footballer managers walking an employment tightrope, perhaps just about every game is massive.  


  1. ‘Fewer’ and ‘Number’.  Both seem to be fading away, the former altogether, the latter whenever used for comparative purposes.  At this rate, I fear both will soon be regarded as archaic. Recently I heard a commentator talking about a crowd at some event or other in more or less the following terms:  “The amount of people here is huge (massive being given a well-deserved break) but perhaps less than last year.”  I was about to correct him in a sentence beginning, “Needless to say….” but the need has become absolutely necessary, perhaps massively so.  What he should have said was that the number of people was down, meaning there were fewer than (at the same event) last year.   Every schoolboy used to know, back in the days when teachers dared to correct their pupils’ spoken grammar, that ‘amount’ was used for mass and ‘number(s)’ for something measured in components that could be counted.   Ditto ‘less’ and fewer’.  


  1. Have I recently addressed “should of”?  If not, I should have.  And if I have I apologise for the repetition, although I might be forgiven as the problem persists and continues to spread.  “England should of picked so-and so,” a blogger recently asserted in comments on the selection of the national cricket team.  I have seen and heard it in countless other contexts.  I suppose the ‘should of’ mutation has emerged from the spoken “should’ve”, the apostrophe getting in the way of clarity.  Apostrophes are always getting in the way, if not in spoken English then in the written form, so perhaps ‘should of” is almost excusable.  But it is a terrible habit to fall into because it brutally betrays the culprit’s inadequate grasp of grammar.  Again, only teachers and parents can tackle this one.  


  1.  I think that is enough to be going on with for now – or, as we pedants say, enough on which to be going.  I could of written more but I have a massive appointment to get to, for which I absolutely can’t be late.  

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