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On the Use and Misuse of English

👴 jdcard

On the Use and Misuse of English

I imagine most other almost-educated persons have a list of annoyances regarding the way others use or misuse certain words and phrases in common usage. I therefore do not imagine that my contribution will have any significant impact toward changing the way hundreds of millions of people use the English language. Nevertheless I will derive some personal satisfaction in recording my thoughts on the matter, even though others with much greater influence than mine have railed in a similar manner with little effect.

Perhaps the one word I am most sensitized to is need. I prefer to limit the use of this word to those situations of real need; as in "I need air in order to survive," or "She needs a safe place to live." If you would not literally die if your "need" is unmet then it is probably not truly a need. It may be some thing which would provide you a benefit, or be an object of great desire, but if you could live without it you don't need it. The next time you are tempted to misuse this word consider restating your idea, perhaps like this: "I certainly would enjoy..." or "I would benefit from..." or simply "I'd like...."

Next are two words which have been hijacked: gay and queer. Both of these words have long-established meanings in English which are totally unrelated to homosexual activities (or activists). Both words are useful and are not adequately replaced by their alternatives. Gay is not exactly like merry or happy or any related word. Similarly, queer is not exactly the same as odd or unusual or any other word. These words each have a unique combination of connotations, a unique flavor. Any word which is substituted for them is not quite suitable to the task. If I mean gay I do not want to be compelled to say "lively, joyous, light-hearted, and carefree" in an attempt to elicit the same feeling I might accomplish with the single word. Alas, now if I use the word queer in its long-established sense, I am considered to be queer: a bit of an oddball, a non-conformist, possibly old-fashioned.

Another problem which has become an annoyance is the use of masculine pronouns to refer to persons of either gender. I am perfectly comfortable with this traditional usage and have no problem at all accepting that sometimes he, his, and him may include girls and women and at other times may be specific to males. Those who promote the interests of females have reasonable arguments against that traditional usage. Indeed, it would be logical to have gender-neutral pronouns available to resolve the potential confusion of using masculine pronouns to include both genders. What annoys me though are those who become indignant and insistent that we use awkward constructs like "she/he" or less accurate adaptations like converting phrases to plural form to make use of gender-neutral pronouns. Until there are gender-neutral pronouns in widespread use I will continue to write in the style which seems most natural and appropriate to the subject. Some, who seem to perceive male bias in nearly every sentence, will object. And I will continue to be annoyed by them.

© Copyright 1997 - James Card - Permission is granted for non-commercial use of all original material.

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