Incorrect Use of Words

The incorrect use of words is like chalk screeching on a blackboard

“ I can't always explain why something is wrong; I just know it is.”

I'm tone deaf when it comes to music: couldn't tell an A from a D if my life depended on it. As a kid taking piano exams, I'd be asked to identify notes played by the examiner: occasionally I could distinguish a flat from a sharp – flats sounded sad – but otherwise I was pretty well guessing.

And yet, impervious as my ear is to the distinctions between musical notes is how exquisitely sensitive it is to the sound of words. Mangled phrases, clichéd expressions and terms that don't mean what people think they do are chalk screeching on the blackboard of my hearing.

It drives me batty when someone says, “I could care less” when she should be saying she couldn't care less. And why do people start sentences with the term, “To be honest with you?” Surely not because they are dishonest the rest of the time.

You can lay your laundry out in the sun, but you lie in the sun. You don't lay in it: lay takes a direct object. I had a huge crush on Kevin Costner after he played Crash Davis in Bull Durham. Then he went on late-night television and described “laying on cement” – it was a story about being arrested, if memory serves – and, in that instant, my crush evaporated.

I can't always explain why something is wrong; I just know it is. When someone says, “If I would have known,” it's clear to me he should be saying, “If I had known.” There's a grammatical reason, sure, but I can tell from the sound that it's wrong.

Which is not to say I never make mistakes. I do. And I don't mind being corrected. On being introduced to a woman I would come to know as Aunt Harriet, I mentioned that she and my parents had common friends. “I would hope they're not common,” she replied, not unkindly, and explained that what I'd intended to say was that they had friends in common.

I might have been momentarily, slightly, embarrassed – more about having committed the faux pas than about having it pointed out. But it was the last time I made that mistake. And I think of Aunt Harriet and smile whenever I hear someone else make it, which is not infrequently.

Another time, I described something to an acquaintance as “very unique” and then listened as he explained that something (or someone) is unique – or it isn't. The word means unequalled; of which there is only one. Very unique is redundant. Again, I was mortified, though fleetingly. Again, it marked the final time I ever made that slip. Listen for it: You'll hear it a lot.

That said, I appreciate that not everyone likes to be corrected – about language or about anything. And whoever's doing the correcting risks coming across as a pedant and a know-it-all, so mostly I bite my tongue these days.

I might flinch when someone says, “between you and I” instead of “between you and me.” I resist asking people who use the word “whatever” as a reply to a question if they know how disdainful they sound.

And what's with awesome? The word means inspiring awe, or wonder – at times, dread. Awesome is the power of God or the force of nature. It's a big word. Having exact change for a loaf of bread so the cashier doesn't have to break my twenty is nice. “Awesome,” she says. It's not. In The Book of Awesome (Amy Einhorn Books, $28.50, 2010), Neil Pasricha elevates dozens of excruciatingly mundane occurrences to the category – from when the socks match up out of the dryer to popping bubble wrap, for heaven's sake. I don't get it.

And I still wince when an announcer describes an approaching motorcade as arriving “momentarily.”

As I learned it, the word means for a moment, not in a moment: The butterfly lit on her shoulder momentarily. My Canadian Oxford has a second, alternative definition now: at any moment, or very soon. (very sad!)

I appreciate that things change, that language evolves, and that this is not necessarily a bad thing. An argument is made that usage determines meaning, so it could be that momentarily was used so often to mean “in a moment” that in time it's what it came to signify.

On one level, I get that. On another, though, it bothers me. I worry about the danger inherent in allowing standards to relax to the point where they no longer do the work of standards, so that words and phrases are so routinely overused or misused that they lose their meaning. And I worry that fewer and fewer of us will know how badly the language is being mauled – or how sad that is.