One of my favorite pastimes is to look for continuity errors in movies and television shows. I take great pleasure (rather embarrassingly) in noticing that a character’s wine glass shifts positions as shots change or that a medieval knight is wearing a wristwatch. Writing isn’t the only place where we sometimes get sloppy.
The good news is that I am never at a loss for entertainment; the most meticulous director blinks from time to time.
I am similarly mindful of those situations in which writers and speakers use words illogically or incorrectly. In these cases, I am more likely to be irked than amused.
The following is this old curmudgeon’s relatively short and idiosyncratic list of some real nerve graters.
- “Led Zeppelin’s self-titled album was released in January of 1969.” This sentence claims that the album gave itself a title, an inane suggestion. The fancy Greek word eponymous describes a situation in which a person, place, or thing takes its own name as its title. Or if we don’t want to use the fancy word, we could simply write, “Led Zeppelin’s first album is named after the band.”
- “If you think about it, the monthly payments add up to much more than the immediate payoff.” If the listener doesn’t “think about it,” would the situation be any different? What this writer really means is “upon closer inspection, . . .”
- “I could care less about what people think of the way I talk.” If you could care less, then you care some now. What you really mean is that you could not care less; that is, you do not care at all now.
- “Playing the violin is my forte” (mispronounced for-TAY). This mispronunciation is common in American English but is more actually a case of using the wrong word.
Forte (correctly pronounced for-TAY) is an Italian word for “loud.” The original name of the piano, for example, was piano-forte, which meant, curiously, “soft-loud.” Long ago we dropped the forte.
The French word forte (pronounced fort) means special talent or expertise.
- “The legislature’s newest bill will seriously impact workforce developments.” This ship has probably sailed, but the word should more accurately be affect or alter or perhaps damage. The word impact has long meant “to set firmly into place,” a sense retained in the notion of an impacted tooth.
- The ship has likely sailed on this word confusion, too, but here goes: “The smell of pluff mud makes me nauseous.” The correct word—or at least what used to be the correct word—is nauseated. A thing is nauseous when it causes nausea. That nauseous has come to mean nauseated is, well, nauseous to me.
- “The enormity of the turnout for the candidate’s press conference was unexpected.” Enormity does not mean “huge.” It means horrendous evil. Enormous means huge; we can speak of the enormous number of people who died in the Holocaust and also of the enormity (unfathomable evil) of the deaths of so many innocent people.
- “I am disinterested in cooking shows, so I never watch them.” The right word here is uninterested, which means that one does not care. To be disinterested means to be impartial or objective. If you are in court, you want the judge to be disinterested, not uninterested.
- “The person that took my lunch from the fridge ought to confess.” Of course that person should confess, but he or she is not a thing. A person is always a who or a whom, never a that. (Sometimes people use that because they aren’t sure whether to use who or whom, but you’ll find excellent advice on who and whom elsewhere on this site.)
- “On behalf of the Smith Foundation, we establish this endowment in behalf of the homeless citizens of this city.” This sentence uses the two prepositions correctly, though oftentimes people use on in both expressions. I can speak on behalf of someone/something else, but I speak in behalf of those people who benefit.
- “I promise to try and do better.” The trying and the doing better are not two separate efforts. The proper phrasing is to try to do better.
- “I use to love her, but it’s all over now.” (Apologies to Bobby Womack.) The correct word is used. The same is true for supposed to.”
- “Isn’t it ironic that my dog ran away on my birthday?” No. That your dog ran away on your birthday is unfortunate (or perhaps fortunate, depending on the dog), but it is not ironic.
The misuse of the word ironic is the bane of English professors. Irony occurs when something happens contrary to what is expected and usually with amusing or shocking results.
A spectacular example is found in the story “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry in which a young woman sells her long, luxurious hair to buy a chain for her husband’s prized pocket watch. The husband, however, sells his pocket watch to buy his wife—you guessed it—a set of combs for her long hair.
For examples of events that are unfortunate but not ironic, listen to Alanis Morissette’s song “Ironic,” in which she uses the word ironic wrong every time. (And her repeated misuse of the word ironic in a song titled “Ironic” is, well, ironic, indeed.)
I promised to keep this list short. I will, however, leave you with a list of additional bloopers that we will explore in a future article:
- You may want to reconsider using the phrases “splitting image,” “baited breath,” “chaise lounge,” “per say,” “hunger pains,” “mute point,” or “one in the same.”
- Think twice before telling a friend that something “peaks your interest” or that something is “wetting your appetite.”
If you don’t believe that all of these expressions are, in fact, malapropisms, you’ve “got another thing coming.”
Dr. Ron Cooper is a senior professor of philosophy at the College of Central Florida in Ocala, Florida. Also a novelist and poet, he recently won a Florida book award for his latest novel, All My Sins Remembered (https://www.goliadreview.com/the-catalog). In addition, he is an amateur bluegrass musician who challenges anyone to play and sing worse than he does. For more on fallacious reasoning, he recommends Nonsense: Red herrings, Straw Men, and Sacred Cows by Robert J. Gula.