It is a truth universally acknowledged that it is only a short road that leads from grammatical laxity to cannibalism. At least, it should be universally acknowledged. Human beings are linguistic beings through and through, after all. Because of our miraculous, almost certainly extra-natural capacity for symbolic communication—uttered, written, or mimed—we are the only terrestrial species that possesses a history. Human personality, community, society, and culture are all informed, sustained, and determined by language; everything we are and can be, everything we think and know and believe, is woven from words; even our most immediate sensuous experiences are ultimately mediated to us through concepts shaped by signs.
Hence we must be forever vigilant against this or that apparently harmless solecism that, left to its own vagrant devices, will one day betray us to the forces of chaos, cast open the hallowed gates of Rome to unpaid legions of surly Visigoths, poison the wellsprings of common understanding and civil concord…. Suspect me of exaggeration if you must, but I repeat (albeit with greater aphoristic economy): catachresis breeds anthropophagy. So feel free to ignore your local elementary school teacher’s inability to recognize what form a pronoun should take when it is the object of a preposition, but only if you have no objection to some day being kippered by your neighbor and served up in a chafing dish on his breakfast buffet.
I should point out, moreover, that our situation has never been quite so dire as it is now. The catachrestic is contagious, of course, simply because all linguistic usage, fair or foul, is a social practice. But in former days the contagion was much more easily contained. At one time, for instance, the blundering use of “infer” to mean “imply” was almost epidemic, in all the media and in society at large; but somehow our culture was able to reverse the tendency—not entirely, of course, but significantly. We all know to grimace at the use of “hopefully” to mean “I hope.” And even in academic journals, those lushly floriferous conservatories of sub-literate prose, it is now generally recognized that it is not really correct to say that something is “comprised of” a number of other things (though some dictionaries threw in the towel on that one some time back, and began allowing “consists of” as an alternative definition of “comprise”).
But the errors of usage propagated in today’s all-pervasive media proliferate with such speed and rude vitality that no sooner have they fallen from a political commentator’s or sports announcer’s lips than they have become common parlance. The anxious linguistic purist, tortured by chronic insomnia, fleeting neuralgias, and the occasional mildly psychotic episode—and I speak with some insight on this matter—is now rather like Cuchulain fighting with the invulnerable tide. Still, what else can one do? To surrender to so much as a single misplaced modifier is to summon the flood.
All of this is by way of prelude to a short list of complaints I want to offer to the world at large, so as to make clear that it is not really the dilettante’s catalogue of petty annoyances it might at first appear to be. Nothing less than the future of civilization itself is at issue—honestly—and I am merely doing my part to stave off the advent of an age of barbarism.
And my first complaint is an obvious one, and concerns a matter of simple grammar that, not very long ago, all of us who had made it successfully to the end of elementary school understood. I cannot say what the cause is, but all at once we are suffering through a virulent outbreak of what modern grammarians (boldly combining Greek and Latin roots that no man has combined before) like to call “hypercorrection.” It is truly astonishing how many persons out there have come in recent years to believe that phrases such as “Keep it between you and she” or “Thanks for inviting my wife and I” are formally correct, laboring as they do under the grotesque misapprehension that the nominative case is required wherever there are plural referents. So pestilentially ubiquitous has this fallacy become, in fact, that the grammatically correct use of the objective form in such constructions (for instance, “my wife and me”) is as likely as not to provoke condescending smiles or smirks of superiority from women in taffeta gowns or men wearing Italian ties.
My second complaint concerns words that are rarely used in conversation, and whose pronunciation is as a consequence unknown to the NPR announcers who occasionally have to read them aloud from the printed page. It is a matter of legitimate debate, I suppose, whether one may pronounce the word “idyll” as though it were homophonous with “idol”; I think not, however, and I find myself mildly rankled every time I am told that I am about to hear Wagner’s “Siegfried Idol” or (as happened just this Wednesday) am informed that Tennyson was the author of “Idols of the King.” But, again, I am not on unassailably high ground there. Whatever the case, though, “ribald” certainly ought not to be pronounced “rye-bald,” and under no circumstances whatever may “victuals” ever be pronounced “vik-chew-als” (for the correct pronunciation, consult just about any old episode of The Beverly Hillbillies).
All my other complaints concern the chronic misuse of certain words, most of which are in only limited currency, but all of which seem to be employed incorrectly more often than correctly. To wit: “Fortuitous” does not mean “fortunate.” It means “by chance” or “unanticipated”; and if your dictionary tells you that it may also be used to mean “fortunate,” then your dictionary is a scented and brilliantined degenerate in a glossy lavender lounge suit who intends to teach your children criminal ways while you are away at the grocery store.
No doubt, the same dictionary may also tell you that it is permissible, if not strictly correct, to say “intrigue” when what you mean is “fascinate” or “perplex”; or that it is acceptable to use “momentarily” to mean “in a moment” or “soon” or “presently”; or that “presently” can be used to mean “at present” (though perhaps that last example is not quite as pernicious as the others). Shun its counsels; it is no friend of yours, but is a wickedly perverse dictionary that should be driven in shame from your door.
And then there are some especially irksome solecisms that even the most cynically latitudinarian lexicon is not likely to abet. “Obtuse,” for example, does not mean “abstruse” or “impenetrable” or “complicated”; in regard to angles it means “of greater than 90 degrees,” in regard to inanimate objects it means “dull” or “blunt,” and in regard to persons it means “stupid” or “unperceptive.”
To “refute,” moreover, is not, properly speaking, to “deny,” “contest,” or “repudiate,” but rather to “disprove.” “Restive” does not mean “restless,” but very nearly the opposite: “inert,” “intransigent,” “obstinately sedentary,” “difficult to move,” “resistant,” or “difficult to control.” And “transpire” does not mean “occur”: used literally, it means “exhale,” “emit in the form of a vapor,” or “exude percutaneously”; used metaphorically, it means “come to light” or “be disclosed.”
And, most importantly of all—in part because I find this one particularly intolerable and in part because it seems only recently to have caught on and so its metastasis may not yet be irreversible—“reticent” absolutely does not mean “hesitant” or “reluctant.” It is always incorrect to say that some agent or agency is “reticent to” do something; it is an adjective absolute in its dedication to its noun, susceptible of no licit ligation to any infinitive. “Reticent” means, and means nothing other than, “uncommunicative,” “not given to words,” “reluctant to speak,” “reserved in speech,” “laconic in utterance,” “inexpressive”—not a talker (damn it!). I implore you—I beseech you with a febrile gleam in my eye that would have you nervously backing away from me and feeling for the doorknob behind you if you could see it—not only never to commit this hideous error yourself, but also never to allow anyone else to commit it in your hearing without voicing a withering rebuke and perhaps flinging a sharp object.
All right, so perhaps this really is just a list of paltry private grievances, and the fate of civilization does not really hang in the balance. Your neighbor’s ignorance of how to pronounce “victuals” does not mean, in all likelihood, that he intends to make victuals of you. Forgive me. It has been a long month. And, anyway, this is Friday, when matters of great import ought to be avoided.
So, since I am really just being querulous in public, let me add a complaint against the wretch—surely some Californian—who first started polluting sushi with avocado, an altogether ghastly corruption of the most delightful cuisine on earth. Compared to that, cannibalism would be a relatively benign breach of etiquette.
David Bentley Hart is contributing editor of First Things. His most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press). His other “On the Square” articles can be found here.