At the turn of each calendar year, I love to purge files, sort housewares, clean out closets and send my usable discards to the thrift store (while hoping I don’t buy them back later). As I do so, I’m also thinking it’s a good time to inventory some words and phrases we’ve been using and discard those that are worn out or don’t fit anymore (or never fit in the first place).
You’ll notice that I’m thinking some about my own lexicon, but I’m mostly critiquing everyone else’s. With all the goodwill in the world, I want to alert other writers to some pernicious misuses we all have fallen into.
Think of it as being a good enough friend to tell someone they’ve got spinach in their teeth. Only, in this case, it’s fun.
Lately, I’ve noticed a short list of words and phrases that seem to be leaching the life out of otherwise fine writing. Some of these usages sounded rare and fresh the first eight or ten times we heard them but went on to infect everyone when we weren’t looking. Others are spoken figures that get jumbled when we write them down, ending up weirdly confusing. And two final examples will open the question: is the English-speaking world headed for incoherence and chaos? Or is English brilliant and quirky enough to survive without a bunker? See what you think.
Some words and phrases begin uneventfully but rapidly spread like a minor but annoying illness throughout public blogs and comments and long and short form rants.
“The list goes on”
I’m sure the writer actually means “etc.” but may be unsure of having enough examples. So instead of thinking of more, they write the knowing phrase, “the list goes on,” and now the reader has to do all the work.
Furthermore, whereas “etc.” is modest and unassuming, the phrase “the list goes on” strides around like a significant phrase the writer chose to really emphasize that there are lots more examples. Lots more! It’s frankly not convincing to me.
Also — whose list? Are you sure we all have the same list? I never have the same list.
“At the end of the day”
Nothing wrong with this one, but what does it really mean? When does “the day” end? When they give last call at the local pub? When the final consequences of a business decision, or a political campaign, or a marketing trend are tallied? When all other activity on a certain front has ended — or we wish it had? Or are we talking about Judgment Day, the real end of the day? The writer sounds as if they know the future, but they probably don’t.
Maybe it just means, you know, bedtime. You tuck yourself in; you try to sleep; you thrash around because of all those conclusions you were hoping to make or demonstrate, now that the day has ended. But we all know we don’t get to button up those arguments every night. Instead, we have to get up again in eight hours and keep slogging.
At the end of the day, I’m afraid there is no end of the day.
I sometimes insert this qualifier when I want to sound modest, or ironic, or arch. Instead, it usually just sounds prissy, so I take it out. Now I’m running a search and destroy campaign for this particular verbal tic.
If we have to even discuss using the words “a tad,” or — heaven help us — “a tad bit,” we may need to chat after class.
“Hone in on”
If you think about it, “hone in on” looks like a mixed metaphor. In my ordinary vocabulary, “hone” means to sharpen an object or refine a thought or a practice. So you could “hone your argument,” once you’ve identified it, but if you are still looking for it, or want to guide someone else to it, you’ll want to home in on it, won’t you? Make like a homing pigeon. (By the way, some astute observers have pointed out that if you lose a homing pigeon, what you’ve really lost is an ordinary pigeon.)
“Based off of”
Here’s another construction that confuses me. If you’re about to talk about the fundamental idea on which an event or conclusion rests, don’t you mean to say the conclusion is “based on” the idea or image? Perhaps this example simply represents another conflation of metaphors — “based on” with “bounced off,” as one bounces an idea off a group.
Regardless, it sounds… off base.
“It’s a doggie dog world”
When someone warns me that it’s a “doggie dog world,” I am contrary enough to deliberately miss their point. Indeed, a “doggie dog” world would be terrific — loving best friends everywhere!
But the cutthroat world the writer means to evoke is a world where dogs fight, and run in packs, and eat each other. It’s a “dog eat dog” world, friends, and we’d better not mistake it for a pet store full of fluffballs. I wonder if Siri knows the difference. If not, we’re probably doomed.
The last lost cause: “it’s” for “its”
Many hardcore word junkies believe that knowing when to write “it’s”and when to write“its” represents final levees against an imminent flood of verbal barbarisms. I’ve thought so for years, and I admit to enjoying something of a puffed up, happy, irritated feeling when I catch someone else making that so-called error.
But now two things have happened. First, I’ve realized that using “it’s” for “its” applies a certain logic to the construction of that possessive. The writer has given “it” the same possessive apostrophe we’d give Joey, or Harvard: “Joey’s choice is Harvard. Harvard’s choice is not Joey; its choice is a legacy.” All very consistent.
Of course the possessive “its” should align with “hers” and “his” — pronouns that don’t need any stinking apostrophes. Some people know that and some don’t; some people care and some don’t. But if you are one who knows, and cares, as I am, you are never supposed to get it wrong.
Imagine my dismay when I recently got it wrong.
Not once, but twice in as many sentences I mindlessly wrote “it’s” instead of “its.” And I can’t even call it a typo — I was writing by hand. Slowly. On the first page of a beautiful new handmade journal I had found at the Renaissance Festival, for crying out loud.
When I came to, I had to scratch those apostrophes off the paper with an Exact-o knife. You can still see the telltale rough spot, though, and they continue to remind me of my fallibility.
But now, I wonder whether I should just get over it, already. I remind myself that the cosmos continues without regard to such jots and tittles. I don’t know if I can become that mellow; old emotional habits of a former proofreader and English teacher die hard.
Like other would-be wordsmiths, there’s a fair amount of ego wrapped up in knowing these rules and fine points and such. But even if I never get over caring about such mistakes, I can at least try to forgive myself for them. Oh, and others, too, I suppose.
The one “mistake” we should have been making all along
Having displayed fully my pompous and arrogant opinions about word choices, it may surprise you that even I am fully ready to embrace the ease and sense of singular “they.”
I truly welcome this trend, after observing decades of anxiety over pronouns and patriarchal gender constructions. First feminists protested their erasure by everyday language, irritating a wide swath of scholars and laypersons alike. And now the LGBTQA+ community has touched a deep nerve by observing that traditional pronouns fail to represent them fairly in the world. I may not be able to learn all the new pronouns I need, but at least I’ll try. I’m not outraged at the idea, as some people are. As I recall, those are the same people who resisted even a simple shift from “mankind” to “humankind.”
Until the conflict is resolved in favor of sense and equality, using singular they allows us to select a simple, familiar pronoun reference to someone that does not misrepresent their gender or indicate it needlessly. We can avoid twisting our sentences into knots or slashing through the jungle of he/she and him/her.
Furthermore, carping that singular “they” fails to signify the number of people represented is a flimsy complaint. If our poor brains could not tolerate that minor ambiguity, we’d all be upset because “you” can be either singular or plural. We’d all be saying, “youse guys,” wouldn’t we? But we only do that for fun, because it sounds cool — not because we need the distinction.
The game continues
I’m glad I got these small judgy observations off my chest. And while I happily affirm the fluidity that keeps language alive, I’ll continue to enjoy picking and parsing and judging the way we all use English. I know I, therefore, open myself up to similar criticisms from those who can’t stand the way I start sentences with “and” or “but.”
And I’ll try not to take those criticisms personally. It just means I have lots of new good friends.