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Saturday, February 4, 2012

English as a first language


To my shame, I once dated a girl who said “libary” instead of “library.” She also said “supposebly” instead of “supposedly.” I say “to my shame” not because I dated her but because I did nothing to correct these heinous errors. Young, smitten, it’s possible I even thought they were cute or quirky. I recall mentioning it once, she didn’t stop, we moved on. When we eventually (inevitably) broke up, her mangling of the English language was not the cause, though it should have been. (For the record, the break-up was my fault. I was a jerk. Big surprise.) Anyone learning English will tell you its tricky, but when it’s the only language you speak, you should try and get it right. So says the grammar Nazi inside me.
Yet I make mistakes all the time. My wife despairs about my commas. Semi-colons and colons are mysteries to me. I end sentences with prepositions. My grammar sins are numerous and wide-spread. I try to improve, and when my errors are pointed out, I welcome the advice. There is no way—NO WAY—I would go blithely through life mispronouncing basic words. Someone would stop me, and I would welcome it.
In honour of all the stupid language errors I make, here are some that drive me particularly crazy:
“No problem.” I use this one quite frequently, and I hate it. It’s meant to replace “You’re welcome,” but it isn’t adequate. “No problem” clearly indicates that whatever you’re being thanked for wasn’t a big deal and didn’t put you out at all. Like, you’ve helped someone move. It took all day. You’re sweating. Your friend dropped a couch on your foot. Beer and pizza seem a pitiful price to pay for your labour. You are told “Thank you” and you say “No problem.” That’s a freaking lie. It was a HUGE problem. “You’re welcome” at least acknowledges that a favour was done, but it was worth it for the joy of gratitude or something. No problem. Pffft.
“It’s the least I can do.” No it’s not. No matter what you did, it isn’t the least you can do. The least you can do is always nothing. Another ridiculous saying intended to trivialize an accomplishment, favour or good deed. I suppose it could be interpreted in a different way, since “It’s the least I can do” implies that you have at least done SOMETHING, but even so, whatever you did, odds are you could have done less. Give a bum a dollar, but you could have offered a penny. Give a bum a penny, but you could have chucked pocket lint at him. Etc, etc. Certainly I’ve never heard this phrase used without immediately thinking “No, that’s not true. You could have done less.” Another one I’ve caught myself using, curse me.
“Built it with his bare hands.” Unless you’re referring to a Lego spaceship or a Jenga tower, you’re lying. You typically hear this from handymen (handypersons), novice or otherwise, as they stand proudly in front of their creation, thumbs in belt loops, chest jutted out ever so slightly, as they tell you the tale of just how complicated it really is to built a bird house. “I built this house with my bare hands.” Come on, man. Granted, it was your “bare hands” that were safely wrapped in leather work gloves before gripping the tools that hammered nails and sawed boards, but that really isn’t the same thing. “Built it with my bare hands” calls to mind some Paul Bunyan-esque image of you snapping 2-by-4s in two and driving nails home with one mighty punch. I will allow that your “bare hands” get the assist, but let’s face it, the tools are the real hero when you build something. I’ve used this expression only once, caught myself, and have never gone back. (Mostly because I haven’t built anything since.)

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