6 things my English teacher says you do wrong
But now: One of the marvels of dwelling in the public eye in a tourist heaven like Reno is that people you haven't seen in years come through, spot your name and track you down. Happens to me once or twice a year: I grew up in the Bay Area, and a lot of Bay Area people come through here, so the phone will ring and it's somebody who wouldn't talk to me in high school, all grown up.
Usually the experience is fleeting: We were acquaintances 40 years ago, I moved away three years later, and we don't have all that much to say to each other now. They're mostly Republicans anyway.
The other day, though, I got an e-mail from a woman who struggled to teach me English in 1961. English in those days was mainly diagramming sentences (a skill I never mastered and have never needed), struggling to remember what a participle was and trying not to get caught looking down the front of Carol Barthel's blouse (a skill I did master pretty well).
Her note led to an exchange of reminiscences, during which I was shocked to learn that she's only nine nears older than I am. That would have made her 25 when I was 16, rather than the 50 or so I figured she was, and a look at my yellowed yearbook indicates that she may have been the hottest teacher, and certainly was the hottest English teacher, I ever had. Once again I'm reminded that my life consists mainly of a dismaying series of missed opportunities.
Anyway: She's enjoyed my writing, she said, because "you avoid most of the mistakes that have devastated the language."
"Like what?" I shot back, forgetting that she was the first to warn me about using like when you really meant as. But as what still sounds funny .
I asked her for 10 examples of things I don't do wrong, and I'm sure it's only her advanced age that caused her to send but six. Now that I'm aware of them, I hear and read them everywhere, and she's right: They're wrong. Check yourself out:
- "Where's it at?" You don't need at. Just say "Where is it?"
- "Anyways." The word is anyway. Probably comes from something like "any way you look at it," and you wouldn't say "any ways you look at it."
- "To no end," as in, "He annoys me to no end." The to is unnecessary and changes the meaning of the phrase. If you're annoyed to no end, it means there's no purpose to your annoyance. If you're annoyed no end, it means the annoyance is endless.
- The "is-is" syndrome. Barack Obama isn't alone in doing this constantly: "The thing is, is that..." or, as I heard John McCain say the other day, "The thing was is that . . .," as though "thing-was" were a noun. Correct: "The thing is, almost everybody does this wrong."
- "Decimate" meaning something like "devastate" or "damage." This has caught on recently with news reporters, who are forever talking about something being "decimated." As you could tell from the root word, if you'd paid attention in English, decimate means to take one out of 10. Line up the enemy, count off and shoot one every time you get to 10? Then you've decimated his force.
- "Have got." This is one I violate all the time: "I've got a new computer" is prolix, because without the contraction, it's "I have got." "I have a new computer" says the same thing in fewer words.
If you'd gone to San Carlos High School in the early '60s, you'd know these things....