A Desk-Book of Errors in English/Introduction

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A Desk-Book of Errors in English by Frank Horace Vizetelly
Contents: IntroductionA B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z


In these days when the vernacular of the street invades the home; when illiterate communications corrupt good grammar; and when the efforts of the teachers in the public schools are rendered ineffective by parents careless of their diction, constant attempts are being made to point out the way to that "Well of English undefiled" so dear to the heart of the purist. But, notwithstanding these efforts to correct careless diction, the abuse and misuse of words continue. The one besetting sin of the English-speaking people is a tendency to use colloquial inelegancies, slang, and vulgarisms, and against these, as against the illiteracies of the street, it is our duty to guard, nowadays more so than at any other time, since what is learnt in the schoolroom is soon forgotten or displaced by association with illiterate playfellows, or by occasionally hearing words misused at home.

Of the purely syntactical side of the English language, no less a master of its intricacies and niceties than Thomas Jefferson has said "I am not a friend to a scrupulous purism of style; I readily sacrifice the niceties of syntax to euphony and strength. It is by boldly neglecting the rigorisms of grammar that Tacitus has made himself the strongest writer in the world. The hyperesthetics call him barbarous; but I should be sorry to exchange his barbarisms for their wiredrawn purisms. Some of his sentences are as strong as language can make them. Had he scrupulously filled up the whole of their syntax, they would have been merely common. To explain my meaning by an English example, I will quote the motto of one, I believe, of the regicides, of Charles I., 'Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.' Correct its syntax 'Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.' It has lost all the strength and beauty of the antithesis." And Jefferson continued: "Where strictness of grammar does not weaken expression, it should be attended to. But where, by small grammatical negligences, the energy of an idea is condensed, or a word stands for a sentence, I hold grammatical rigor in contempt."

The English language is the most flexible language in the world. Indeed, it is so flexible that some of its idioms are positively startling. Could any phrase be more so than "I don't think it will rain"?—Simple enough as an idiom but positively absurd when analyzed. We say "I don't think it will rain" when we mean "I do think it will not rain." Again, we say "All over the world" when we should say "Over all the world," and "the reason why" instead of "the reason that." Usage has made our language what it is; grammatical rules strive to limit it to what it ought to be. In many instances usage has supplanted grammatical rules. Hundreds of words have been used by masters of English in ways that violate these rules. These uses are to be found to-day recorded by the dictionaries because lexicographers recognize it is their duty to present the language as they find it used by the people. It is to the people, not to the purists, that one must look for the enriching of our mother tongue. To them it is as impossible to confine the English language within the bonds of grammatical rules as it is to stem the tide of the sea. For them all matters that relate to English speech can be decided only by the law of good usage. This, and this alone is their Court of Last Resort. Withal, the observance of certain conventional rules does no harm if it helps him who speaks carelessly to produce a refined style of diction and writing, or if it teaches him who does not know, what to say and how to say it.

The secret of strength in speech and writing lies in the art of using the right word in the right place; therefore, careful speakers and writers should aim to command not only a large vocabulary but a wide and correct knowledge of the meanings of words. These can be most readily acquired by noting the meaning of every new word across which one may come in reading, and by constantly consulting a dictionary, preferably one which compares or contrasts words in such a manner as to bring out clearly the finer and nicer distinctions in their meanings—such distinctions as are necessary to the student to put him into possession of the essential differences of the words compared. Learn the meaning of words and your tongue will never slip. As Southey has said, "the greatest wisdom of speech is to know when, and what, and where to speak; the time, matter, and manner."

The best asset in life is knowledge. Knowledge well-grounded may be secured by the systematic study of words. The desirability of exercising great care not only in the selection of words, but in marshaling them in their correct order must be apparent to any one familiar with some of the errors committed by writers who, notwithstanding the blunders they have made, have acquired reputation as authors of good English, Dr. Samuel Johnson, in his "Lives of the Poets," is responsible for the following statement: "Shakespeare has not only shown human nature as it is, but as it would be found in situations to which it cannot be exposed—a statement the absurdity of which can not fail to impress the reader.

In the King James Version of the Bible, quoted by some authorities as a standard of pure English, one may find the following, which occurs in Isaiah xxxvii. 36: "Then the angel of the Lord went forth and smote in the camp of the Assyrians a hundred and fourscore and five thousand; and when they arose early in the morning, behold they were all dead corpses." It can hardly be supposed that the translators meant to imply that the corpses arose early in the morning and found themselves dead. In the second act of "Julius Caesar," Shakespeare puts into the mouth of Ligarius the following: "I will strive with things impossible; yea, get the better of them." For power of perseverance Ligarius is to be commended. Hallam, author of the "Literature of Europe," declared that "No one as yet had exhibited the structure of the human kidneys, Vesilius having only examined them in dogs"—a declaration which implies that the dog must have bolted them whole. The London Times has occasionally perpetrated absurdities which equal, if they do not surpass, these. In an obituary announcing the death of Baron Dowse it said, "A great Irishman has passed away. God grant that many as great, and who shall as wisely love their country, may follow him." Here the intended wish is not that many great Irishmen may die but that there may be many to follow him who shall love their country as well as he did. An equally absurd example taken from an issue of the Freeman's Journal of the year 1890, announces "The health of Mr. Parnell has lately taken a very serious turn, and fears of his recovery are entertained by his friands," which, one may add, was rather unfriendly on their part. Isaac Disraeli in his "Curiosities of Literature" himself was guilty of an absurdity when he wrote, "It is curious to observe the various substitutes for paper before its invention."

Errors of a different sort found their way even into our earlier dictionaries. Cockeram defined a lynx as "a spotted beast which hath the most perfect sight in so much as it is said that it can see through a wall." The salamander he described as "a small venomous beast with foure feet and a short taile; it lives in the fire, and at length by its extreme cold puts out the fire." Both of these definitions show the rudimentary stage of the knowledge of our forefathers in matters zoological.

Of slang no less eminent a writer of English than Richard Grant White has said, "Slang is a vocabulary of genuine words or unmeaning jargon, used always with an arbitrary and conventional signification," and because "it is mostly coarse, low, and foolish," certain slang terms and phrases have been included in the following pages, together with a few undesirable colloquialisms. These are included because the indiscriminate use of slang leads to slovenliness in speech. Not all slang is slovenly, incorrect, or vicious; much of it is virile, expressive, and picturesque. It is against the spread of that part of slang which is slovenly, incorrect, foolish, or vicious, that one should guard.

The purpose of these pages is not to dictate a precise course to be followed, nor to lay down rules that will prevent any speaker or writer from exercising his privilege as an individual of speaking or writing freely and independently the thoughts that are uppermost in his mind. It is, rather, to point out common errors which he may unconsciously commit, and to help him to avoid them and the vulgarisms of the street which have crept into the language, as well as those absurd blunders that have been recorded as the unconscious acts of persons qualified in other respects to rank as masters of English. To this end, and to this end only, the following vocabulary of errors in English has been compiled.

Thanks are due to the Funk & Wagnalls Company for permission to cite freely from the "Standard Dictionary of the English Language" in the following

Mend your speech a little,
Lest it may mar your fortunes.
 — Shakespeare, King Lear, Act i, Sc. 1.