Trying to eradicate the misuse of language may seem a trivial pursuit during a worldwide medical crisis. But unclear communication can lead to poor decisions, even imperil lives.
When my last column invited readers to submit pet peeves, my inbox flooded with 76 responses.
One burning complaint: Politicians who start to answer a reporter’s question by saying, “Look!” or “Listen!” as if talking to children.
And when a politician starts by saying, “Good question,” or “I’m glad you asked that question,” readers said they suspect a hidden meaning: “I hate that question, because if I answer honestly, it will hurt me.”
Many readers objected, as expected, to the infection of language produced by the filler words “like” and “you know.”
Other clusters focused on usages that produce redundancy, such as “completely destroyed” and “actually believe,” and on bloated language, such as “at this point in time,” rather than “now.” One reader turned a lovely phrase in his criticism of that usage: He said the writer probably wanted to create “the illusion of fluency.”
Other readers’ peeves:
• “Very unique.” Unique means one of a kind; there’s no room for a qualifier.
• A friend “invited John and I” or “John and myself” to dinner. If John were busy, and only you were invited, you wouldn’t say a friend invited I to dinner. Make it “me.”
• Speaking of dinner, many readers recoil when a server calls diners “you guys,” and at the end of a meal says, “I’ll bring you guys’s check right away.”
Keen-eyed readers wished people would distinguish between further and farther; between fewer and less; and between compared to and compared with. Those distinctions, and a bunch more, are for a future column.
For now, back to politicians: My favorite reply to a tough question came from a 1960s Minneapolis alderman, Pumpkin Joe Greenstein, a North Side grocer who, some said, won the election mainly because he gave out free pumpkins at Halloween. Joe confronted the challenge head-on:
“On this issue, I’m going to straddle the fence and keep both ears to the ground.”
Twin Cities writing coach and Emmy Award winner Gary Gilson can be reached at writebetterwithgary.com.