A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
Light and Variable Sins
English is rich in idioms whose overall meaning may not be guessable from the meanings of the words that make up the expression—classic examples are "kick the bucket" (die) or "take a powder" (depart hastily). In addition, spoken English, like all other languages, has instances of ambiguity that arise from pronunciations that mask word divisions or transform speech sounds.
Finally, speakers are prone to misinterpret an expression for the foregoing or for other reasons and then incorporate the incorrect usage into their lexicons. When such misusages become widespread, the question that arises is whether the new and nominally incorrect version of an expression should be regarded as acceptable.
Old school prescriptivism says no, no, no! This school, whose faculty consists of language police, take it upon themselves to draw attention to such errors and correct them, often in a scolding and withering tone. A more moderate approach is that of the contemporary descriptivist school, whose approach is to listen to what people say, determine what they mean by it, and then declare (or concede) that things mean what a plurality or majority of speakers think they mean—regardless of what they may have formerly meant.
Now as I approach my dotage I am increasingly inclined toward the modern school, though there are cases where I cannot suppress an urge to reach for my old policeman's cap. Let's look at a few examples.
A couple of years ago I was aghast to discover that the state of Colorado, where I live, had enshrined in an official form an incorrect version of a common idiom "one and the same" (which means, simply "the same").
The purpose of the form is to affirm officially that two different names are associated with the same person or company. It's not hard to imagine how such an error could arise. People hear the expression, never having seen it written. In ordinary, casual American pronunciation, there is no difference between "one and the same" and "one in the same": the vowel of 'and' becomes a schwa, its 'd' is assimilated, so 'and' and 'in' are indistinguishable. Ah, but does the original and correct expression make any more sense than the nominally incorrect one? That's debatable.
In the case of this official form (which, I should note, has now been amended to "one and the same"), clearly no one in the production line was familiar with the canonical form of the idiom. This error comes up in my students' writing from time to time. I correct it, though without donning my old cop hat. There is, however, another case where "and" and "in" are confused that requires fully armed enforcement: it's "case in point," not "case and point."
What expression would you use in order to intimate to someone, perhaps vehemently, that they have been laboring under a delusion or serious misapprehension that they are soon to be disabused of? If you're a speaker of British English you might say "you've got another think coming" and you'd be in the comfortable majority of edited literature in so speaking, as the Google Books Ngram Viewer shows:
But if you're an American speaker, you would probably say "you've got another thing coming," and you could be as confident as your British cousin that you'd got it right. You could point to evidence in a web corpus of contemporary English, in which "thing" outnumbers "think" in this expression by two to one.
Which form is correct? "Got another think coming" is earlier, but I don't think that makes it uniquely correct. They're both correct, both easily parsable by using conventional meanings of words, and in many instances, identically pronounced: there's no appreciable difference between /θɪŋk ˈkʌmɪŋ/ and /θɪŋ ˈkʌmɪŋ/ in ordinary speech.
There's a similar split between British and American usage in the semantically identical expressions "not by a long chalk" and "not by a long shot". Competition in print versions of the expression had frequent reversals in the 19th century, as the NGram below shows, but for this expression American English hegemony has clearly won the day:
Again here, there is no basis for regarding one expression as correct and the other not: they are merely variants, whose pronunciation in casual speech differs by only one phoneme: terminal /t/ as opposed to terminal /k/. Do you like your final plosive velar or alveolar?
Here endeth my tolerance for common misinterpretations of English expressions. In several other cases where misunderstanding arises through imperfect construal, hearing, or pronunciation, it strikes me that a modicum of enforcement makes sense to prevent tendencies that would promote the language becoming an arbitrary jumble. For example:
- Though it does yet threaten the canonical (if rather heavy-handed) "for all intents and purposes," I cannot make room in my lexicon for "for all intensive purposes". The latter, incorrect variant introduces the peculiar idea of intensity into the expression, which does not own it in the original.
- It's fine to jive with anyone you like, whether you mean by that "dance to jive music" or "speak jive", but if you wish declare that two things "are compatible, similar or consistent; coincide in their characteristics", please be careful that they do not jive with each other; they jibe.
- When you do not have at hand ideal equipment for accomplishing a task, you "make do" with what you have. You do not "make due," an expression that cannot be forced into any logical meaning on the basis of its constituents. The same is true of correct "without further ado" and incorrect "without further adieu". There is no conceivable sense in the latter.
- The word peak is many times more frequent as a noun than a verb, and as a verb, it is rarely used transitively. In fact its most frequent transitive use is its misuse in expressions like "peak someone's interest/curiosity," where the verb wanted is actually pique—a verb that, sadly, has few other transitive jobs than its required appearance in this expression. So forgive all those who make this common error, while correcting them gently; a generation from now, "pique" may be viewed as the archaic form of this expression; there is no compelling reason aside from a reverence for tradition to insist on "pique", especially when "peak" means "cause to come to a maximum."
- "Baited breath" is something you never want to experience. This would be breath capable of catching a fish. "Bated breath" (a reduction of "abated breath") is part of the idiom "with bated breath", which means "with anxious anticipation".
This column will not be complete until at least one old-school gendarme disagrees with me vehemently, so please have at it in the comments section below!