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English language

Every exception to the rules and definitions that some supposed authorities consider permissible makes the language a little harder to learn and understand — both for people whose native languages are not English and for native English speakers, all of whom have to learn the exceptions along with the original meanings, pronunciations, sentence structures, etc. and have to try to figure out what the perpetrators of deviations from standard English really mean.

This site is about common, inexcusable blunders in American English pronunciation, grammar, punctuation, etc. that we hear supposedly intelligent people in radio and television news make repeatedly, as well as many other people.  It does not address everything in those categories.  These are the ones that most annoy, exasperate, and infuriate one person (Dr. H.).

Pronunciations

(a) NOT “LOM”:  Kilometer (kilo meter, not ki LOM eter): It is part of the Metric System (S.I., Système Internationale — Le Système international d’unités), which has standard prefixes and units.

We don’t say “mi LIM eter,” “cenTIM eter,” “ki LOG ram,” ki LOC alorie,” etc.  In the Metric System, say the prefix first and then the unit.

The LOM pronunciation is an example of mispronunciation humor, like pronouncing Versace to rhyme with ace and face.  It started when someone noticed that since kilo ends in O, kilometer coincidentally happens to resemble “ometer” words like thermometer, speedometer, galvanometer, etc. — which are all measuring instruments, concrete objects.  He thought it would be funny to pronounce it ki_LOM_eter. Unfortunately, some people who heard him say it that way did not get the joke, and the mispronunciation has spread until it seems, in the United States, to be the predominant one.  That may be because the system of measurements in this country is not the Metric System.  Most people in the U.S. are less literate in the Metric System than Canadians, for example.  In Canada, the Metric System is the basic system of measurements.  It is taught in school, starting in the early grades.   People there have not fallen for the LOM joke. They still use the proper pronunciation.
I (Dr. H.) was a physics major at Washington University in the late 1960s.  One of the professors liked to use mispronunciation humor, including kiLOMeter — but his students knew that he was joking.
A kilometer is not a measuring instrument, like a thermometer, a speedometer, a galvanometer, etc.  The word happens to resemble words that refer to measuring instruments, but intelligent people should see the difference.  It is especially appalling and infuriating that many American scientists and engineers, who should be smart enough to know better, use that ignorant pronunciation.  Americans (citizens of the USA), let’s be as smart as Canadians.

(b) hologram, holography, holocaust: The O is long, not short: “Holo” has one L, like “holy,” “holistic,” “solo,” and “polo” — not two Ls, like “hollow” and “holly.”

(c) “Pulitzer” is “pull it sir,” not “Pew litzer.”

(d) “Caribbean” has the accent/emphasis on BE, not on RIB:  CaribBEan.

(e) Qatar: Kah Tahr, not “Cutter” or Gutter”: An Arab man on “60 Minutes” a number of years ago who said those pronunciations are acceptable was just being polite to the ignorant American he was talking to. It is “Kah tahr,” with a break between the syllables, as if it were two words, and with equal accent/emphasis on both syllables.

(f) Names: Sohpia LORen, not LoREN; Jacqueline BISSet, not BisSET; Cate BLANchet, not BlanCHET

Subjunctive mood, especially past subjunctive

The widespread ignorance is appalling. The subjunctive and past subjunctive moods are extremely important in communicating meaning. They refer to hypothetical situations. For example, say, “If I were” instead of “If I was” in hypothetical situations, “if he had been” instead of “if he was” where it is appropriate, etc. “If I [or it, he, she, etc.]  was” is about the actual past, as in “If it was Tuesday, I was at a chess club meeting, so I could not have committed the crime”; “if I were” is about a hypothetical situation (one that is not true or factual), as in, “If I were old enough, I would retire.”  It is vitally important for everyone to speak the same language if we want to understand each other.  Many people do not even know that the subjunctive mood exists, and they wonder why people seem to talk in the past tense sometimes when they are not really talking about the past.

Using the right words conveys your meaning accurately. When Joe Theisman said in a television commercial several years ago, “If I didn’t break my leg in the Super Bowl…” was he suggesting that he doesn’t remember breaking it or that the incident was a hoax?  He almost certainly meant, “If I hadn’t broken my leg….”  We hear many people make the same mistake every day.

Confusion of series with compound verbs

Sentences that start out appearing to have one verb with a series of objects but  unexpectedly become sentences with compound verbs, where the first verb has only two objects: For example, a sentence with the structure, Subject | verb | object 1, object 2, and ___, where the blank is not another object of the verb but is instead another verb, making the sentence one with a verb with two objects followed by a verb phrase: “He did X, Y, and went….” instead of “He did X and Y and (then) went….” For a clearer and more concrete example, “She bought a sandwich, a soda, and had lunch.”  The sentence starts as if she bought three things but then switches to one with two verbs.   It should be “She bought a sandwich and a soda, and had lunch.”  (The comma is optional but adds clarity.) The first “and” links the two objects of the verb bought; the second “and” links the two verbs, “bought” and “had.”  Most people seem to have an irrational fear of overusing “and.”   We hear this kind of thing many times every day on radio, on television, and in many other situations. Please stop it. Hearing a sentence like that one is like hitting a pothole in the road.  The listener has to backtrack mentally and restructure the sentence in his/her mind.  (It is a violation of parallelism, and it causes confusion.)

Times more, faster, longer, higher, heavier, etc.

— i.e., “times” followed by a comparative form of an adjective: This usage appears to be a kind of advertising deception that has spread to general use. “Times” refers to multiplication, and “more” (or the comparative form of an adjective, like “faster,” “taller,” etc.) refers to addition, so “two times more” really means three times as much or as many, and so on. One time is the same as 100%, so “two times more” really means 200% more, which is three times as much or as many.
“Times less” is an ignorant, innumerate, idiotic usage. One time less of anything is 0, and more than one time less is a negative number. People who say “10 times less,” for example, really mean one-tenth as much or as many, which is actually 90% less.

an his

There is no reason to say “an” before “historic,” “historian,” “Hispanic,” or any other word in which the initial H is not silent.  No one says, “an history book” or “an history teacher”; “historic” and “historian” should be treated the same way.  “An honor” is correct because the H is silent; “an historic” is ignorant and foolish.

Past tense of certain verbs

Snuck:  Jennifer Garner was right when she corrected Conan O’Brien.  Just as the past tense of leak is leaked and the past tense of peak is peaked, the past tense of sneak is sneaked, not snuck.  There is no reason to use a word that is an exception to the general rule when a word that is not an exception already exists.  Among other things, adding an unnecessary and irregular word makes the language a little harder to learn; it unnecessarily adds a word to the huge number of words that children, non-native speakers of English, and everybody else have to know.  Snuck obviously was originally intended to be humorous, but people who should know better do not understand that. Conan gleefully showed Jennifer the dictionary to “prove” that snuck is proper, but he was mistaken. In recent years dictionaries have included words that are not “standard” English so that when someone hears or reads them he/she knows what they mean.  They are still substandard and undesirable.

We should be aware of what we are saying or writing.

Why do so many people copy ignorant people instead of copying people who know what they are doing?   Many Americans seem to be hostile to knowledge, science, intelligence, facts, truth, and related things they should be in favor of.

“…Most people would die sooner than think – in fact they do so.”
Bertrand Russell 
The ABC of Relativity (1925), p. 166