This Summer’s Top Pet Peeves

What better time to make a roundup of the words and phrases that have made my life a little bit more interesting so far this year than mid-July when nothing happens. Normally. Some of those are all-time favourites and others are new crushes but I love them all.

“Can I come in?” “I don’t know, can you?”

This one’s an evergreen. I have fond memories of cramming for my finals in linguistics and revising modality is among the fondest. I learned the crap out of it because I couldn’t just memorise it. I know this because I tried and it didn’t work. So I had to spend hours reading, highlighting, writing, and repeating until it all sank in.

It’s easy to see why mistaking ability for permission gets on my nerves although, truth be told, it’s mostly amusing. (The above exchange was in a cartoon, between a vampire outside a window and a lady inside a bedroom. This is why modality matters.)

“Joe told Bob and I to go into the haunted house.”

No, he didn’t. I’ve been hearing I used instead of me increasingly often on TV shows and films and I think I finally discovered why this is happening. People seem to have trouble distinguishing between subject and direct object, and they really want to sound well-educated. Which is a pity, really, because this is the more pleasant part of grammar.

Here’s the difference quickly. “Bob and I went into the haunted house” is correct because Bob and I are the subjects. We do the going into the house. But if Joe told us (us, not we) to go into the haunted house, then Joe is the subject and Bob and I are the direct objects. See what I did there? I confused someone because I’m so crap at explaining. Here’s another attempt: If “Joe told me to go into the haunted house”, then “Joe told Bob and me to go into the haunted house.” Unless you do say “Joe told I to go into the haunted house,” in which case I can’t help you.

The affect-effect conundrum

I solved the mystery. Yes, I really did, after months of confusion and “HOW can they possibly mix these two?” I owe an apology to all those I namelessly cursed for being stupid. Until I decided to check the American pronunciation of the two words. And I discovered that in American English they are homophones.

This is not to say that there are no confusing homophones in British English but at least I was spared the affect-effect problem. Sounding the same is not a valid excuse to keep using one instead of the other, to be perfectly honest, but at least it is some explanation where before there was none.

The difference? Well, you can effect a change and affect the effects of that change with something else. No? Okay. The weather affects the effects of human activity, e.g. crops, where affects stands in for influences and effects stands in for products. Right, this is harder than I imagined. Affect as a noun does not mean the result of an activity. That’s effect. And you know what, just forget effect can be both a verb and a noun, okay? Affect is a verb, which means to influence, and effect is a noun, which means a result/product/outcome. There.

“Hi, I’m impact and I’m a verb.”

Like hell you are. I just saw today a sentence containing “…company F will merger with company A…” and I thought that’s it. That’s how impact became a verb, taking the territory of half a dozen others. Someone was just too lazy to use a real verb and thought why not, impact sounds like a verb. And now somebody has done the same to merger, which, and this is hilarious, is a verb-derived noun.

I’m afraid one of the not so popular facts about English is that the lack of clear grammatical markers for, say, verbs, doesn’t just confuse unfortunately learners. It makes verbs dangerous for native speakers. For lazy native speakers, you understand.

And you can’t blame those charming moments the online community calls brain farts on that first misuse of impact that eventually led to it being recognised officially as both a noun and a verb. Or you can but I won’t believe you. You brain-fart, you smell the result, you know something’s wrong. You don’t pretend it’s roses.

(Author’s note: In the name of fairness, I checked with my 1989 edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary whether impact was a verb then. It appears that it was. A verb that means a very specific thing: “pack, drive or wedge firmly together”. I will continue to refuse to recognise it as a verb to mean affect.)

A kick-off is a kick-off is a kick-off is a kick-off

This was originally a sports term. No, let me re-emphasise this. This was originally a sports term. Look, I understand language evolves and meanings expand and change. But could we perhaps not have every single thing that has a start kick off? It’s ridiculous – meetings kick off, award ceremonies kick off, earnings report conference calls kick off, everything kicks off instead of starting or beginning these days. That’s not evolution, that’s poor vocabulary.

The great thing about language is that it allows us to express a virtually infinite variety of concepts and describe an equally infinite variety of phenomena and realities. It’s a rich arsenal of weapons, if you like, that allows us to conquer the world every single day. Just try to imagine what life would be like if we didn’t have language. No, I can’t, either. And yet we choose to only use a tiny little part of that arsenal. Why? Because we can’t be bothered to learn how to use more of it. That’s not evolution, that’s devolution. Into Newspeak.

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