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Think Differently

Entry 1539, on 2013-06-05 at 16:29:18 (Rating 2, Comments)

In a recent blog entry I talked about my pet peeve regarding work: people who refuse to read and work on screen and insist on printing pages of paper instead. Today I want to talk about another one (and perhaps another example of me being a bit pedantic), incorrect use of the English language.

My favourite example is a common problem which many other people have commented on: use of the word "literally" when the person really means the exact opposite (figuratively). There was a classic example recently when a school principal said that the minister of education, Hekia Parata, was "literally drinking from a poisoned chalice".

Many people might wish that it was true, but (presumably) it isn't. She was forced to figuratively drink from the poisoned chalice because her party has forced her to implement its education policies even though almost every expert and a lot of the public disagree with them. Of course there's also a good chance that Parata also thinks her party's ideologically driven schemes really are a good idea.

So a school principal, who really should know better, made a really simple and obvious mistake. But I guess anyone can make an error like that in a highly emotionally charged situation where schools are being closed, and as I said before, maybe he was secretly thinking that the minister meeting an unfortunate end after imbibing person might not be so bad!

Another good misuse, which I have noted for years, is the use of adjectives with the word "unique", specifically "quite" (and similar words) and "very". Unique means one of a kind so how can anything be quite one of a kind or very one of a kind? It doesn't seem to make a lot of sense although I have read a few justifications of the phrase "quite unique" which have a sort of twisted logic.

This mistake has been seen on some prominent sites, even the BBC. Here's an example: "Another reason why our R&D department is quite unique is that we don't just create insight and innovation for the BBC..." Clearly "quite" doesn't fit here if the conventional meaning of unique is used (one of a kind) but if a technically incorrect one (very unusual) is used, it's OK.

Here's another classic. When US President, George HW Bush, was elected he said that he "couldn’t believe the enormity of the situation." The correct definition of the word "enormity" is "the great or extreme scale, seriousness, or extent of something perceived as bad or morally wrong" or "a grave crime or sin".

Bush clearly meant the strictly incorrect but increasingly common meaning of "something of great size" but I sort of think the real meaning was probably a lot more appropriate in that situation!

And finally I should attain the heights of pedantry and mention some punctuation. How about the good old apostrophe? Some people like to always put an apostrophe before an "s" on the end of a word. So I see words like "its" spelt "it's". Actually when I look back through this blog I see that I was guilty of something similar in the past (generally not using the apostrophe when it was technically required) so I guess I shouldn't be too smart about this particular one!

The rules about using an "s" on the end of "it" to indicate possession are kind of odd, but the more common thing is to use an apostrophe when an "s" is used to indicate a plural of a noun in the form of an acronym. For example, I have seen this: "I read several FAQ's on this subject" but much more rarely this "I have read several book's on this subject". Both are wrong, of course, but for some reason the apostrophe following the acronym seems less bad.

Actually there is one more thing (as Steve Jobs said) I should mention. That is using adverbs. The best example of this is Apple's (or was it Steve Jobs' again) advertising slogan "think different". The word "think" is a verb so "different" is incorrect here and should be the adverb "differently". At least that's the way it initially seems.

I recently debated this with someone who counted herself an expert on grammar. Superficially it is clear: the second word here qualifies how we should think therefore it should be the adverb "differently", not the adjective "different". But I wanted to be awkward and show how initial impressions could be wrong so I came up with an alternative explanation.

I said to image different as a noun. I know that technically the noun is "differentness" but that sounds really clumsy. So if we allow the noun then the phrase is asking us to think about something, specifically the idea of difference. It sounded a bit weak at the time but it was the best I could come up with (except that it was a deliberate error which made the phrase stand out).

So imagine my delight when I read this in Wikipedia: "Many have noted that the clause 'Think different' is not grammatically correct. Since 'different' is considered a modifier, it has to be conjugated as an adverb, making 'think differently' the accurate phrase. However, according to Jobs's official biography, this was because Jobs insisted that he wanted 'different' to be used as a noun, as in 'think victory' or 'think beauty'..."

So clearly one of my heroes, the great Steve Jobs, thought about this the same way as I did. Of course, now that I think about it, all that means is that we were both wrong!

Most people have a few problems getting English completely correct, and if everyone understands what the writer or speaker is trying to say what's the harm? There is none really, but it's still fun looking at those little errors which are particularly amusing: especially poisoned politicians and evil presidents!

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Comment 1 (3558) by Rick Harvey on 2013-06-05 at 18:49:10:

My current pet hate is a phrase so many, even supposed well-healed, misquote so very badly: "The proof is in the pudding".

No it is NOT.

"The proof is In The Eating!"

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Comment 2 (3560) by OJB on 2013-06-05 at 21:21:28:

I must admit that I probably use the "wrong" version more often but the "right" version makes more sense.

I found this at Phrase Finder: "The earliest printed example of the proverb that I can find is in William Camden's Remaines of a Greater Worke Concerning Britaine, 1605: All the proof of a pudding is in the eating."

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Comment 3 (3561) by OJB on 2013-06-05 at 21:29:50:

And according to World Wide Words the phrase "the proof is in the pudding" is becoming more widely used, even by respected sources like the BBC. So it might be like some of the words I mentioned above which are technically incorrect but becoming more accepted.

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