I never dress up for Halloween. But as the holiday season progresses through Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, I could easily pass for an ogre.
That’s because this time of year, when family and friends come together, is also a time when I find myself in the same awkward situation year after year: Someone at a get-together wants to talk grammar with me, thrilled to finally have someone to share their disgust with rampant language abuse.
Then they tell me their No. 1 pet grammar peeve. Then, about nine times out of 10, I have to decide whether to tell them they’re wrong or just drown myself in the punch bowl.
If my holiday-party average is any guide, I’d estimate that approximately 90% of the grammar errors that most irk people aren’t errors at all. Perhaps the most common gripe I hear is about “irregardless.” I nod as a fellow party guest says it sounds awful. I smile sympathetically as she says it sounds uneducated. But when she says it’s wrong, I’m in a tough spot.
“Actually,” I say, “‘irregardless’ is in the dictionary. It’s a synonym of regardless.”
That fast, I’m the bad guy.
“No way, I won’t accept that,” is a common response from those not within reach of a pitchfork. But I’m just the messenger. “Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary,” “Webster’s New World College Dictionary” and the “American Heritage Dictionary” all allow it, though they call it “nonstandard.”
“Literally” comes up a lot in social grammar chat. Many people are driven nuts by how often people use it wrong, for example, in a sentence like “I was literally blown away.”
Unless you’re a tornado survivor, grammar sticklers say, that’s just wrong. And unless I’m lucky enough to have my mouth too full of pumpkin pie to speak, I have a decision to make. Do I nod and agree? Or do I deliver some bad news?
All three of the above dictionaries allow “literally” as an “intensive,” rendering a sentence like “The town was literally brought to its knees” as technically acceptable.
“Webster’s” says, “Literally: actually; in fact: ‘the house literally burned to the ground’; now often used as an intensive to modify a word or phrase that itself is being used figuratively: ‘she literally flew into the room’: this latter usage is objected to by some.”
It doesn’t matter how much I agree that this use of “literally” is sloppy or comical. Once I say that, technically, it’s allowed, I’m a monster.
At holiday meals, I try to steer the conversation away from the nutritional value of the food being served. A casual reference to the vitamin content of yams, I’ve learned, can too easily segue to a comment about how infuriating it is when people use terms like “a healthy diet” or “healthy food.”
That drives a lot of people nuts. “A person is healthy. Something promoting good health is healthful,” a fellow guest will say, clearly expecting me to nod in agreement. At which point, I risk my own health by telling them that “healthy” can be synonymous with “healthful.”
“The distinction in meaning between healthy (‘possessing good health’) and healthful (‘conducive to good health’) was ascribed to the two terms only as late as the 1880s,” “American Heritage” says. “This distinction, though tenaciously supported by some critics, is belied by citational evidence — healthy has been used to mean ‘healthful’ since the 16th century. Use of healthy in this sense is to be found in the works of many distinguished writers.”
So this year, if you run into me at a social gathering, don’t be surprised if I immediately start talking about some less controversial topic, like religion, bank bailouts or Rick Perry’s ranch.
JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.