Five Common Language Mistakes (advanced edition)

The internet has revealed, inter alia, that 70% of college graduates do not know the difference between “its” and “it’s,” and the other 30% like to share helpful articles titled something like “ten commonly misused words and phrases.” The problem is that those articles are all “could of” and “irregardless,” and we read them and pat ourselves on the back for distinguishing “less” and “fewer,” and we learn nothing.

But there are many words and phrases that [some less obnoxious way of saying an educated elite who at least purport to care about prescriptive language] misuse all the time. I offer below five, in increasing but approximate order of difficulty. (These are Americocnetric, but may apply to “you’re” dialect, mutatis mutandis.)

1. I

Nothing, not E.L. James, not Donald Trump, could have prepared me for the modern world’s sudden inability to use this pronoun in the traditional way. In 1953, Marilyn Monroe’s character from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes said “I” instead of “me” in various incorrect contexts, and it was supposed to signal even to the unsophisticated lowbrow audience of musical comedies that she was an idiot; nowadays it would signal that she is REALLY SMART.

I knew a fellow who was at the vanguard of this objective-I movement, a businessman who at one point in the ’80s stopped using the word “me” in any context, because it sounded “weak.” “Give the report to I,” he’d say, striding purposefully forward like an Aaron Sorkin character, and we, the rest of America, thought his speech tick was so cool that we jumped on the bandwagon.

Even Tycho (from Penny Arcade) consistently uses I in the objective case when he is in full-on “brainy” mode (i.e. most of the time): e.g. “I pictured Gabriel and I on this stage…”. I recently read a book (Marvel Comics in the 1960s) that kept using “he” in the objective case, which shows you how easily the dam breaks once a few cracks appear. Perhaps that is the future, but “I” is the present. It’s such a head scratcher: to appear intelligent we, all of us, must misuse a word that a five-year old knows how to employ correctly. And the language became more pretentious because of us – because of you and I!

2. Trope

At this point I guess we can just say that “trope” has a colloquial meaning, the way “literally” does, but it’s weird, because the meaning we all know is pretty clearly based on an error: “trope” was a technical term meaning, essentially, any figure of speech, such as a metaphor; “topos” was a technical term meaning a commonplace motif in literature. Someone started using trope to mean topos, and it stuck. It stuck so hard that if you use the dictionary meaning of “trope” no human being on the internet will understand you (“moot” has a similar problem). But memory is long, and this misuse of “trope” is recent, and there still live humans who learned things from books and remember the old meaning, and they are furrowing their brows trying to figure out what happened.

3. Begs the question

There is a logical fallacy called “begging the question,” in which the conclusion is assumed in the premise. It’s easy to find examples on the internet – excuse me, I mean both that a. there are sites on fallacies that will give you examples and b. that everyone uses this kind of fallacious reasoning all the time without meaning to. But somewhere along the line, someone heard the phrase “begs the question,” did not understand that it had a technical meaning, and started using it as though it meant “raises the question.” And then everybody heard that and fell for it. It was like the time everybody in American decided to pretend that George Zimmerman was white; we all decided to pretend that “beg” made sense in this context. You can’t beg a point or beg an issue; but we created a new idiom because somebody somewhere did not understand logical fallacies. I guess, frankly, this is a less harmful result of the inability to understand logical fallacies than, say, Jenny McCarthy.

4. Immaculate conception

Even Alan Moore used this wrong in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Jesus was not immaculately conceived; Mary was immaculately conceived (meaning that original sin did not pass on to her at the moment of conception). I guess technically Jesus was immaculately conceived insofar as original sin also did not pass on to him, but this is by far the less impressive fact about his conception, so much so that it is misleading to emphasize it – I mean, if someone asks you, “What did Neil Armstrong do on July 20, 1969?” and you say “He went to the bathroom,” you’re probably right, but you have missed the point. So you should use this term only for the embryonic Mary.

5. Cf.

This abbreviation gets bungled so often even in academic contexts that I’m starting to doubt my own ability to understand citations. “Cf.” means “compare” (from the Latin “confer”) and is used when you want the reader to compare your text to another writer’s. But we keep using it to mean “see” or “consult” (which should be the abbreviation “v.” from the Latin “vide”). For example, in volume one of Alexander Murray’s Suicide in the Middle Ages, he mentions in passing (on p48) that the Classical tradition of suicide left its mark on the medieval world, and he includes a footnote instructing to reader to see the discussion in full in chapter eight of volume two – with a cf.! Murray can scarcely mean “compare.” Am I way off on this? Does anyone maintain this distinction any more?

Do you guys have any other abstruse mistakes people make? I should stress, perhaps, that I am in the main a linguistic anarchist, which is why I tend to get most irritated by the appropriation and misuse of technical terms; but my justification for juggling anarchism and fascism is a longer post for another time.


  1. In my experience “jealousy” is used almost universally to also encompass “envy” and this has become a pet peeve of mine. To my understanding: I can be envious of your new sports car, but if I’m jealous of it that suggests I resent the car itself because you’re spending time (or other resources) on it that you’d perhaps otherwise spend on me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’re right. I’m jealous of you for your possession; I envy your possession.


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