Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Return of the Grammar Nazi

Never fear, there is always fodder for the delectation!

On NPR, recently, Rene Montagne, a charming and attractive (note the code words, you de-constructionists) morning radio host, has begun repeating the phrase "any time soon".  This is another lazy misuse which has crept into usage, and threatens to become common, with legs. It seems to be a marriage between at any time and soon. It's used when the speaker wants to sound familiar in predictive statements. "There is no expectation of relief in the economy any time soon." The problem is, any time soon doesn't really mean anything more precise or specific than the word soon. Any time soon is redundant and sloppy and should never be used. It's a weed phrase--cull it out of your word garden and don't let it take root. 

Another classic grammar error is the misuse of the superlative. It crops up in various ways, often in sports broadcasts or telecasts (which are both great playing fields of bad language). An announcer will say "so-and-so is the greatest of any player in history". What he is trying to say is that the player is greater than any other player in history, but because he drops the word "other," the speaker unwittingly includes the individual example in the group; in other words, the player is better than any other player (class), of which he is himself a member (nonsense). You hear it all the time these days. This is in effect another misuse of the word any.

Any does not mean all. It really shouldn't be used to designate an entire class of anything. In superlative constructions, it should always be modified adequately to specify its range. 


Kirby Olson said...

Anyone who lays down any kind of line now is a Nazi.

Is there a positive term for creating firm standards?

For wanting a border with the lawless state to our south, or wanting there to be some sense of logic in our language?

Curtis Faville said...

I'm not sure it's "logic" that we wish to protect, but the right to a language which works.

Laziness and manipulation and greed eat away at the standards of language, debilitating it for ordinary use.

Lawyers and doctors and scientists--everyone with a specific need for specific common understanding--use a special vocabulary for the transaction of understanding.

But the need for such common understanding is just as great in daily intercourse.

I wish people were a little more discriminating in their sensitivity to the value and power of the language we all use and depend upon.

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Curtis Faville said...


Of course you are right, given your premise. My premise is really no different, except that I distinguish between necessary, creative and useful linguistic transformations, usages and coinages, and all the others which occur through laziness and contempt for good usage, and end up dumbing down discourse.

Stupid people and manipulators will always find ways to deceive, misunderstand and forget. Does that mean that ALL the changes and mutations which occur are "good"?

Intelligent people describe. But what happens when the language we use to describe becomes increasingly imprecise and sloppy? What then?

I think it's a continuous dialectic between prescriptive and descriptive camps. "Any time soon" doesn't add anything useful to the language--it isn't more precise, or specific, or emphatic. It's just lazy. Sort of like people in an exercise class fooling themselves when they don't do the whole work-out. "I did my work-out today." Yeah, right, but you won't lose those love-handles or build up those biceps that way. It's just kidding yourself.

"Any time soon" is just cute slang--it will probably pass away eventually, but in the meantime, it's just another irritating misuse.

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Curtis Faville said...

Your comment invites paradox.

Which comes first, the breath of meaning or the properly conceived thought?

All thought is "perfect"; all speech is "expressive"; all communication is "complete" etc.

But we don't exist within a permissive atmosphere in which anything that is said is a prior "correct"--in fact, you're correcting my thought and words as you react to them--we're conducting a dialogue made out of agreed-upon definitions and usage. If all usage is arbitrary and vague and rapidly shifting, we're all at sea.


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