Friday, April 30, 2010

One word, two words

I’m not normally one to broadcast my pet peeves but something has been irking me lately and I thought I’d share it with you all.

Part of being a fiction writer almost always involves doing something else to pay the bills, and for me that equates into not a small amount of editing and copyediting on a daily basis. Most copyeditors fall into a healthy range between two extremes: on the one side, a calcified opinion that the English language achieved perfection with Strunk & White and should not be tampered with; and the other … well, I suppose the other extreme would be a complete ignorance of the conventions of good grammar, punctuation, style etc. Like I said, most copyeditors fall in a healthy place somewhere in between: adhering to the general rules and conventions of written text, while understanding that English is a fluid language and can be bent and twisted in any number of ways.

I believe in this. I mean, I’m a huge fan of good grammar – of understanding the rules that comprise good grammar – but I’m also a huge fan of word play and neologisms and other deviations from the conventions. But my peeve is this: deviations and new conventions do not happen at random, with no logic. There is almost always some kind of grammar-based rule at work that allows the deviation from or evolution of our language to take place.

The chief example I’m thinking of is the difference between “log in” and “login”. These are two relatively new terms to our language, emerging sometime after the invention of the modern-day computer during the last century. The distinction between the two terms seems self evident to me but I always see people struggle to use the right one in the right place. Is it really that hard to grasp? The former is a verb, meaning to enter your username (another computer-based neologism) and password to gain access to digital information within a computer. The latter is a perfectly acceptable noun, meaning the place (usually comprised of data fields) where you commit this action of logging in. Yet time and again, I see website instructions that get them wrong. “Go to the log in and sign up for our free blah blah blah,” or some such foolishness.

It’s not like similar constructions haven’t already existed in our language for centuries. But of course people get those wrong, too. I’ve seen otherwise well-educated people confuse “everyday” (adjective) with “every day”; or worse, “maybe” with “may be”. I have my own blind spots, mind you. I cannot tolerate “impact” as verb, even though it has been one in modern English since the 1930s (and in Old English, it was actually a verb long before it was ever a noun). I can be sweet-talked into allowing it in certain circumstances, though I do draw the line at the nonsensical adjective “impactful.”

My point is this: the rules around these conventions are not arbitrary and are not based on gut feeling: they are very much grounded in the basic parts of speech. But pointing out these errors, time and time and time again, often to people who just go by what sounds right and wouldn’t know what a preposition or the subjunctive tense even is, leaves me feeling old and crusty. But am I wrong? Do other people run into this sort of thing? Am I being overly crotchety? Should I just wash my angst down with a glass of Gordon’s and tonic?

Let me know.

And on a completely unrelated note: It might be a while before you see a “Review: …” post on the blog. I’ve had the great privilege of being asked by a long-standing and venerable literary journal to write a rather lengthy essay on a fellow Maritime author, and am currently in the process of re-reading three of his books. I won’t be reviewing each of them here, though I will happily post a link to the essay should it get published online. And next up after I finished these three books is a 600-page tome published in the 18th century. So yeah, it’ll be a couple of weeks at least before you all see a new review from me.


  1. Can you help correct my stubborn friend, or me if necessary... she used the following sentence, "You have the hugest family" I say the word "hugest" was not needed, she could have said "you have a huge family" I thought she sounded dumb? or did I?

  2. Hi Nina,

    No, you are correct - hugest is totally unnecessary, and rather juvenile. Here's my 20-second grammar spiel on superlatives: If it's a one-syllable word, you can add "-est": eg. cute/cutest, hot/hottest, etc. If it's more than one syllable, you need to say "the most": eg the most intelligent, the most bizarre. The only exception is if the adjective ends in "-y"; then you can add "-est": eg. busy/the busiest. So technically you can say "hugest", but in your friend's instance it's just wrong, unless she talking about something specific. i.e. I have the hugest family in the entire apartment building (though "biggest" would be better.)