U Suck @ Grammer: Thatz Not a Word

When I started this post, it was literally just going to be a snarky list of words that people frequently use that are technically not dictionary-sanctioned English "words." I was going to write this list because when people use words that are not words, it irritates me and makes me feel all judgy and desperate and eager to point out their misusage.* But, my husband, who is much nicer than I am, has taught me that people do not like it when you tell them the word they have just used is not in fact a word, or is not the correct use of a word, or is not the correct pronunciation of a word. People do not enjoy it or learn a valuable lesson from it or appreciate the future embarrassment from which you have saved them, largely because they are too busy thinking of subtle ways to poison you.
Don't be this girl.

This -- and here's the hard part -- is true even when you are totally right and they are totally wrong. Your rightness does not vindicate you; your correctness does not make you likeable. I know, I know, this is crazy and backwards and extremely hard to comprehend, my brothers and sisters in formal literacy! But I have tested this hypothesis in the field and trust me: pointing out vocabulary usage errors is not as cute as you think it is.

So, I was going to just write a list of words that are not words that people use as words and put it up here so that people could see it here without me saying anything and then people could stop using these "words" and I could stop shoving one thousand olives in my mouth at cocktail parties to avoid having to "conversate" with you for "all intensive purposes."


After doing a little digging on the subject, I've actually reversed my position. Yes, there are plain usage errors and misunderstandings (see, e.g., "all intents and purposes" above). Those are mistakes and mishearings that can be funny and bad and irritating. But those mistakes are different than inventing and repeating and using words that "are not words." And to define what makes a word not a word, I had to ask the question: what makes a word a word?**

Part of what changed my mind is that I found this great, helpful article called "'Not a Word' is Not an Argument" by Stan Carey, a language blogger. He writes,
If you see or hear someone reject a word by saying it’s “not a word”, you can reasonably assume that they mean it’s not a word they like, not a word they would use, not a word in standard usage, not a word in a certain dictionary, not a suitable word for the context, and so on. There’s a difference, and it matters.
He goes on to discuss the fact that a word is not rendered "not a word" by the fact that we don't like it. Words gain their wordness by our using them as words; "irregardless" is a non-standard and non-preferred word, but it is -- notwithstanding the cringing of English majors everywhere -- a word. Carey denounces the denial of "word" status to less-standard diction, and questions our self-anointed ability to erase and invalidate any "word."
Word aversion and word hatred are an aesthetic indulgence; word denial is a different beast. Why do the cranky resolve to outlaw disliked words? From what imaginary realm do people conjure the authority to decide what’s acceptable? And how do peevers cope with the Nadsat in Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, the Newspeak in Orwell’s 1984, or the idiosyncratic hyperinvention of Joyce’s later novels, to name just a few well-known literary examples?
I write what I want, betch.
I wrote a piece previously about the misguided snobbery and privilege inherent in "good grammar," and that post touched on the fact that there are two competing theories about language: one, that English is a mutating, living, evolving vernacular, subject to constant change and interpretation, versus two, the notion that there are important, immovable rules of good writing, and mastering these rules is an art form of its own. I think there's merit to both viewpoints, and I agree that there are certain usage rules that are helpful and necessary and black and white. We need sentence structure and punctuation and subject-verb-object agreement to be coherent and understandable.

But words themselves are much more undulating, much sexier, much juicier, much more prone to change.  Words can be molded, crafted, re-worked in wonderful ways. Words evolve through the deliberate meddling of good writers and the accidental meddling of bad writers and through their everyday use by all of us. More than just the art of lining them up neatly, good writing can be the very creation of language.

I, for one, delight in a good portmanteau, the elegant smushing of similar-sounding words to create a new, joint word. I delight in these word combinations to the point of frantic insistence -- I will not abide you discussing your friend the "Gay Asian" when he should rightfully be your favorite "Gaysian;" and don't tell me you were attacked by sharks during a tornado when it was clearly a sharknado, and if you're taking a photograph of your new car I will be the first one to accuse you of being a cartographer.  Okay, that last one is just a pun.  But whether it's a graceful French "portmanteau" or a vulgar, middle-class pun, or something in between, I do love these Frankenword creations. Are they words? Maybe. Are they a fun product of understanding and enjoying and manipulating language? Absolutely.

I heard this fabulous, accidental portmanteau this weekend. Over too much wine, a very smart friend of mine stated that someone was looking to "validify" his opinions. And it made so much sense! Validate + ratify. Or maybe validate + solidify. Either way, the appended suffix made it clear, maybe even clearer than it was before: this guy wanted support, he wanted encouragement, he wanted to be validified. It sounded so good and so real and I so completely got what my friend meant and I had no desire to correct her. Her use of language was colorful and charming and had made me understand her story even more, and isn't that the whole point of communicating? So, evolving language has its place, and I'm all for accepting and contributing to its evolution in smart, thoughtful ways.

But y'all fuckers gotta stop saying "supposably." 

*Neither judgy nor misusage are words. Or are they???

**Detour for my stoned readers: what makes the sky the sky? What makes your toe your toe? What makes a camel and camel? What makes a camel toe? Your underwear is too tight. Oh my gosh. You're welcome.
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Write comments
May 11, 2015 at 1:11 PM delete

I still hate that "irregardless" has gotten to the point where it is acknowledged and vaguely acceptable.

I apologize if I've already mentioned this to you, but I think you might enjoy this magazine article by David Foster Wallace that deals in large part with being a stickler for Grammar: http://harpers.org/wp-content/uploads/HarpersMagazine-2001-04-0070913.pdf (starts on page 3... admittedly a long read).

Stan Carey
May 12, 2015 at 6:24 AM delete

Hi Alison, this was a fun post to read! I'm glad you changed your mind about non-words – some of them anyway – and that my post played a part. Pretty much everyone has pet language peeves, I think, but finding fault in others' usage can be a destructive habit. One trick I've found helpful is to use hated words a few times, even in jest, and then they don't seem so awful.

To Blake: Much as I like DFW, and love aspects of that essay, it's riddled with errors. See Language Hat for a solid takedown: http://languagehat.com/david-foster-wallace-demolished/

May 18, 2015 at 5:27 PM delete

Stan, thanks so much for reading and commenting. Your blog is awesome and I'm really enjoying it! I like the notion that you can be a passionate language-lover without being an asshole about. (Asshole - now that's one of my favorite words!) Thanks!

May 18, 2015 at 5:29 PM delete

*About it. No one is infallible!

nancy john
February 1, 2016 at 12:21 AM delete

I agree with the tip of not trying too hard to imitate the way of speaking. Aside from it's annoying, I think it will just blow their chances. Thanks for sharing.

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