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A Word, Please: Better to keep your peeves in check

September 08, 2010|By June Casagrande

Peevishness is always a bad idea. The minute you say out loud "my pet peeve is," you're choosing to let something annoy you. And in a world full of annoyances like movie theater texters, bed bugs and Ty Pennington, that's a recipe for round-the-clock rage.

But in grammar, peevishness is especially unwise. By letting other people's speech bother us, we're not just obsessing over something beyond our control. There's a good chance that what we're obsessing over happens to be something we ourselves are wrong about.

For example, some of the people reading this probably got a nails-on-a-chalkboard sensation from my last sentence because it ended with the preposition "about." Lots of people were taught, especially in the middle of the last century, that this is a no-no. So when they catch someone else ending a sentence with a preposition they get annoyed.


But every language guide, from the "Chicago Manual of Style" to Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style," says there's no such rule.

Peevishness doesn't keep up with the natural evolution of the language. Someone who has been recoiling at "healthy" used for "healthful" since the 1950s probably doesn't check every new edition of the dictionary to see whether lexicographers have changed their tune.

Putting aside peevishness is easier said than done. There are some language peeves that even I can't quite get past, no matter how hard I try.

The contraction "there's" before a plural still grates me, even though I know that linguists accept it as idiomatic. "There's" is a contraction of "there is," which suggests a singular should follow. There is a man I know. There is a car for sale. There is a hole in the bottom of the sea. Most people don't use "there is" before a plural: There is men. There is cars. There is holes.

But make it a contraction and people are much more comfortable putting a plural after it: There's men who follow and men who lead. There's cars in the tunnel. This use is especially common when "some" or "many" comes between "there's" and the plural noun. There's some men I know. There's many cars for sale.

Punctuation in e-mail greetings peeves me, too. Everyone I know writes "Hello June," with a comma after June but with no comma before it.

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