The uses and abuses of language

When I was younger (about middle school age) I was one of those kids who corrected other people’s grammar. I know in hindsight that it was probably the aspect of my personality that people liked the least, and it’s something people don’t appreciate, even if it could be beneficial. I had made such a reputation for myself that I made a t-shirt that read “GRAMMATICATOR,” which was a nickname that one of my friends gave to me.

Usually the worst offence to me was when people didn’t use the proper past tense of “bring” and would say either “I brang this” or “I brung this” and I would continually chip in and say “Don’t you mean brought?”

In high school I toned this down, but I know occasionally I still did remind people of what they should say instead of what they said. The GRAMMATICATOR part of my personality has always existed in me to some degree, though it’s a lot smaller than it used to be. I still take great pleasure in copy editing work. I like making people’s work flow a little better (or at least in my opinion).

Shortly after entering into university I stumbled across a video that, while not revolutionary, did completely change the way I think about the use of language. It was an excerpt of a talk by Stephen Fry, who is a ridiculously intelligent man who can also act pretty well too. His video. which I’ll include below, essentially has him talking about how much “grammarians” make him a little angry. He argues that we should all maybe have a little more fun with language than grammarians allow us to have.

This definitely got me reconsidering my mode of operation, but as I said, this wasn’t exactly life-changing, just important to hear and consider.

Nowadays I rarely do correct people’s grammar as they talk, but there are a few bits of language that particularly irk me, the first of which I’m unable to escape from myself.

  • like: The usage of the word I’m referring to is that of the space filler. “He must have been, like, 40 years old,” one might say. The like doesn’t need to be in that sentence; we use it to fill space while we think of something to say. Many times have I tried to rid this particular piece of language from my speech, but it’s near-impossible. It’s become so engrained in cultural speech that there’s no possible way the word could be eliminated unless massive numbers of people tried to do so. And I found that during the times I tried to eliminate “like” all I ended up doing was substituting it for another “placeholder” phrase, usually “You know.” So in summary, this word is awful, but it’s unavoidable, so there’s nothing that can be done to remedy it.
  • literally: I don’t know when this word took on its “modern” usage, but it has almost completely lost its meaning. The distinction is simple; if I am literally jumping for joy, I’m jumping up and down. If I’m figuratively jumping for joy, I’m really, really happy. Somehow, people have started using “literally” as an intensifier, so they’ll say something like “That’s literally me!” on places like Tumblr. Except usually they’re referring to a quotation or picture from a fictional character, and so they are not literally those characters. My friend Robin also takes part in the “literally” crusade with me but neither of us will ever be able to stem the tide. But then again (thanks xkcd!):

  • they: this doesn’t usually annoy me too much, but I am often asking myself “who are they?” when something says “they need to do something about this” or something like that. I remember some time ago, when I used to read Eerie Indiana books, there was one book where the characters met the Council of They, who were responsible for all of the “they say” phrases currently in existence. I can’t believe it was one of the only books to address that (if there are any more books that address the vague “they” let me know).

That’s all for my grammar ramblings today. Just remember the difference between it’s/its, your/you’re and there/their/they’re and we’ll be cool.

3 thoughts on “The uses and abuses of language

  1. saiditomyself

    As a avid Stephan Fry fan, thank you for introducing me to yet another of his wonderful lectures. It was certainly a nice start to my day. I agree with all of your bulleted points, but I can never bring myself to correct someone on them without getting anxious about offeneding someone for being wrong. Thank you and have a good day.

      1. glasspaperweight Post author

        It happens (I make typos all the time when I blog), and thanks for the comment! I tend not to correct people on their grammar usually, but I will sometimes call people out for the abuse of “literally.” Glad I could show you another of Stephen Fry’s works, he’s great!

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