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The Word

The language dustbin

Some advice doesn't age well

By Jan Freeman
December 28, 2008
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AS REGULAR READERS of this column know, I often turn to usage history to help put current complaints in perspective. There's a wealth of material: During the past couple of centuries, when prescriptivism really got rolling, there was an English-language authority ready to pronounce on almost any usage point, no matter how small.

Many of their rulings are still with us today - lie and lay, the meaning of decimate - but others now seem puzzling or bizarre. So to usher in the new year, let's sample some well-aged usage tips, and consider: Will today's pet peeves look just as absurd to the readers of 2109?

Presidential campaign. "The phrase . . . is a blatant Americanism, and is a good example of what has been well styled 'that inflamed newspaper English which some people describe as being eloquence.' Is it not time that we had done with this nauseous talk about campaigns, and standard-bearers, and glorious victories, and all the bloated army-bumming bombast? . . . An election has no manner of likeness to a campaign or a battle. . . . it is a mere comparison." (Richard Grant White, "Words and Their Uses, Past and Present," 1886)

Being built. "The purist used to insist that we should not say 'the house is being built,' but rather 'the house is building.' So far as one can judge from a survey of recent writing the purist has abandoned this combat; and nobody nowadays hesitates to ask, 'What is being done?' " (Brander Matthews, "Questions of Usage in Words," Harper's magazine, 1901)

Blame on. "Indefensible slang. We blame a person for a fault, or lay the blame upon him. Not, as in a New York newspaper, after the last Presidential election, 'I do not blame the defeat on the President,' but 'I do not blame the President for the defeat.' " (Frank Vizetelly, "A Desk-Book of Errors in English," 1906)

Sleuth "denotes the track of a living creature, in particular the track of a wild animal. . . . In a semi-humorous way the newspapers commonly mention a detective as a sleuth; their readers, not thinking of the humor, take sleuth to be a regular synonym of detective. The only meaning the word has in sober English is track or footprint." (Joseph Fitzgerald, "Word and Phrase: True and False Usage in English,"1901)

Love for like. "Although the word love may be applied to many things less exalted than those capable of inspiring the passion of love, there are limits. . . . If persons really mean what they say, when they speak of loving oysters, cake, ice-cream, etc., it is confessing a deplorable circumstance, which they would do better to keep to themselves." (Richard Meade Bache, "Vulgarisms and Other Errors of Speech," 1869)

I have got for I have. "Hardly any other word in the language is so abused as the word get. A man says, 'I have got a cold'; he means simply, 'I have a cold.' . . . A man may say, 'I have got more than my neighbor has, because I have been more industrious'; but he cannot with propriety say, 'I have got a long nose,' however long his nose may be, unless it be an artificial one." (William Mathews, "Words: Their Use and Abuse," 1877)

Girl for daughter. "A father, on being requested by a rich and vulgar fellow for permission to marry 'one of his girls,' gave this rather crushing reply: 'Certainly. Which one would you prefer - the waitress or the cook?' " (C.W. Bardeen, "Verbal Pitfalls," 1883)

Very pleased. "Don't say 'I am very pleased to see you.' Say 'I am very much pleased to see you, or I am pleased to see you.' Note. - Very cannot directly modify a verb, and, hence, not its past participle. 'I am very delighted,' 'I am very disappointed,' etc., are incorrect expressions." (Josephine Turck Baker, "Correct English, How to Use It," 1907)

Graduated. "This word, when applied to one who receives a degree from a college, is a past participle of the verb to graduate (to mark with degrees, to confer a degree), and it requires some part of the verb to be before it. . . . In the memoir of Webster, at the beginning of his dictionary, it is said that 'he graduated with reputation in 1788.' The biographer might as well have said that 'he born on the 16th of October, 1758.' " (Edward Gould, "Good English: Popular Errors in Language," 1880)

Indorse. "Careful writers generally discountenance the use of indorse in the sense of sanction, approve. . . . 'The public will heartily indorse the sentiments uttered by the court.' - New York Evening Telegram. 'The public will heartily approve the sentiments expressed by the court,' is what the sentence should be." (Alfred Ayres, "The Verbalist," 1885)

Laundry. "Meaning a place where clothing is washed, this word cannot mean, also, clothing sent there to be washed." (Ambrose Bierce, "Write it Right," 1909)

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