We recently asked readers what word is most likely to start a grammar fight, and we may have inadvertently started one in the process.
Jerry Levy of Deerfield wrote us to relay the following exchange:
"She: This is right up your alley. What's a word most likely to start an argument?
He: That would be irregardless.
She: It's not that contentious, think of another.
He: It's perfect because few people use it correctly.
She: It's not even a real word.
He: I rest my case."
A short time later, we received an e-mail from Karen Levy, wife of Jerry.0
"He: What word do you think is most likely to start an argument?
She: That would be adverse.
He: I am not adverse to that choice.
She: I think your usage may have adverse consequences.
He: Which would be...?
She: It may adversely affect your love life."
For the record (not that we're taking sides), Merriam-Webster's Dictionary dates "irregardless" usage back to the early 20th Century and writes the following on its behalf:
"The most frequently repeated remark about it is that 'there is no such word.' There is such a word, however." Its inception, the dictionary posits, most likely occurred from the blending of "irrespective" and "regardless."
And in Karen's corner, "adverse" means unfavorable or hostile, as in "adverse weather conditions." But her sparring partner meant he was not "averse" to her choice. Averse means disinclined and is usually followed by the preposition to.
Several people nominated "comprise" as their fighting word.
"Proper usage: 'The group comprises Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Bill Evans, (etc.),' " writes Mark Lucht. "I know it sounds funny, but it's correct. Wrong, wrong, wrong: 'The group is comprised of ...' More commonly used, but, again, wrong."
We're going to let Merriam-Webster's weigh in again.
"Although it has been in use since the late 18th Century, (comprised of) is still attacked as wrong," writes the dictionary. "Why it has been singled out is not clear, but until comparatively recent times it was found chiefly in scientific or technical writing. …You should be aware, however, that if you use (comprised of), you may be subject to criticism for doing so, and you may want to choose a safer synonym such as compose or make up."
Finally, back to the word that started it all: dilemma. We were originally inspired to seek nominations for grammar-fight inducing words by several word experts noting that the definition of dilemma is shifting. (Traditionally it has referred to a choice between two unappealing options, but it may be evolving to become synonymous with predicament.)
Verne Farrell wrote us with the following:
"My husband and several of our friends remember that when we grew up dilemma was spelled dilemna, with an 'n.' This always tripped us up as kids in school. Do any of your readers remember that spelling, and when did it change to double m?"
We posed Farrell's question to Mignon Fogarty, author "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" (Holt Paperbacks).
"I had the same dilemna/dilemma experience," Fogarty says. "I was taught 'dilemna' in school, and when I got older and actually checked a dictionary, I was shocked to find that it was spelled 'dilemma.' Further, the only correct spelling appears to be 'dilemma.' It's not as if 'dilemna' is a substandard variant or regional spelling. Dictionaries will note alternate and sometimes even nonstandard spellings, but 'dilemna' doesn't even show up that way, not even in the Oxford English Dictionary, which usually shows archaic spellings.
"A quick Google search shows that it's a widespread problem," she continues. "Many, many people all over the world were taught the 'dilemna' spelling, and as far as I can tell, nobody knows why."