How Dare You Talk to Me Like That?

About a year and a half ago, this guy did the most annoying thing: He corrected my Spanish. On MSN Messenger! It wasn’t so much that he had the nerve to remind me that here in Buenos Aires people say “cuatro horas y media,” not “4.5 horas” (which I knew and hadn’t actually forgotten), but more the fact that Messenger is supposed to be the land of liberties with language, where everyone’s looking for the hot new abbreviation, a way to squeeze every thought into five letters or less. Why laugh, giggle, chuckle, guffaw, and write, “That was so hysterical,” when you can “LOL,” or better yet, “ROTFL”?

If I stopped to correct every syntactical misstep native Spanish speakers made when communicating in their own language via IM, I’d never make it through an online conversation. And don’t get me started on spelling. It’s a wonder that I sometimes know what people are talking about at all. It’s not just a Spanish thing: Recently being in an English-speaking country for six weeks reminded me of how frustrating communicating in my own native tongue can be.

Sure nonsense in English is generally easier for me to decipher, though I don’t have much patience for “your” instead of “you’re,” which is so much worse than confusing “its” and “it’s.” And what exactly does “love ya” accomplish that “love you” doesn’t? Run-on sentences, bad spelling, semantic confusion and grammatical blunders are rampant in everyday written communication. So are overused clichés and a general lack of imagination. If I read one more Billboard article in which a musician describes a new album as being “where I am in my life right now,” I think I’m going to scream.

I remember meeting the Swedish singer Robyn at a New York City party in 1997 when she was only 17 years old. I was impressed by her poise, her intelligence, her beauty, her music and her English. She spoke it so much better than many people I know who were born in the US! So, by the way, does my friend Mariem, an Argentine who has never stepped foot in an English-speaking country.

A few years ago, I saw a segment on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show in which they were debating how to express joint possession. “Bravo!” I shouted out loud. I applaud the discussion of correct syntax in any forum, but I couldn’t believe that some people would actually say “Jack’s and Jill’s hill” rather than “Jack and Jill’s hill.” I suppose anything’s better than “aks” instead of “ask.”

But that’s not all that’s bugging me today. What about those phrases that are sturdily constructed, perfectly spelled, but nonetheless make little sense? Here are the worst repeat offenders, some of the strangest things people say in English.

“I’m going to knock you from here to next Tuesday!”

I heard this on TV recently, and I winced as if a fist were positioned over my head. There are slight variations on how the threat is structured, but the end result — confusion — is always the same. I know when Tuesday is, but where is it exactly? And why Tuesday? Doesn’t, say, Friday always seem like it’s so much farther away?

“I could care less.”

I’ve heard this whopper everywhere from The Golden Girls to the New York City subway to the title of a song by the heavy metal group DevilDriver. Taken literally, it means that one actually cares a lot, which couldn’t be farther from the intention of whoever uses it. If one cares so little that it isn’t possible to care any less, then shouldn’t one say, “I couldn’t care less”?

“A penny for your thoughts.”

A penny? Either you’re poor, cheap, or you couldn’t care less. Yes, there was a time when a British penny had significant value, and finding one and picking it up is supposed to bring good luck for a day, but in the here and now, pennies can’t pay the bills. They don’t even make them in Australia anymore! So if you really want to know what’s on someone’s mind, shouldn’t you be willing to part with more than a red cent? Fork over a cool million, and I’ll not only sing like a canary, but I’ll promise never to use phrases like “fork over” and “sing like a canary” again.

“Come hell or high water.”

Is this really the most creative way to say, “Nothing’s gonna stop me now”? I guess high water would have the potential to stop even the most determined person dead in his or her tracks, especially a non-swimmer like me, but when did hell become mobile? Does it go anywhere? If so, it can go to hell.

“I love you to death.”

Which, hopefully, is not where this kind of love leads. In other words, “till death do we part.” Would I die for you? I don’t know if I’d go that far, but why associate love with something so morbid as death anyway? Why not, as those Wham! t-shirts from the ’80s used to say, choose life? I love you for life. Ah, now that’s romantic!

“Between a rock and a hard place.”

Who comes up with these things? According to The Phrase Finder, this particular one may have been inspired by the choice immigrant copper miners in Bisbee, Arizona, faced in 1917 when they demanded better working conditions: Go back to the mines, or be deported to Mexico. Talk about literal — and kind of dire. It’s not exactly Sophie’s choice, but is having to choose between a Katherine Heigl and Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy anywhere near the same league on the scale of sucky options?

“Where there’s smoke there’s fire”

I’ll admit, I secretly like how this one sounds, and it was the title of a great 1981 country duet by Louise Mandrell (Barbara’s sister) and her then-husband R.C. Bannon. But really? Not only does the very idea make me want to reach for a bucket of water, but if it were true, firemen all over the world would never get a second of peace — or sleep.

“Are we on the same page?”

A tired cliché usually spoken by people who don’t even read and wouldn’t know a book if they woke up next to one. And it begs a few questions (ooh, another phrase I don’t quite get, but what the heck?): What page? And is it worth reading in bed, on an airplane, or on the toilet? It occurs to me that anyone who actually spends a significant amount of time reading, writing, or talking plain, intelligible English would ask, simply, “Do you understand?” or “Do you agree?”

I mean, you might knock me from here to next Tuesday for saying this, but although I could care less, I feel like I’m between a rock and a hard place when I open a book and, suddenly, I’m on the same page as such head-scratchingly bad English.

A penny for your thoughts on this. TC mark

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  • Gucci Mane

    Jeremy you make me lol

  • http://twitter.com/MollyWest12th Molly Oswaks

    Everything about this is just…spot…on. LOVE it.

    • Jeremy Helligar

      Thanks, Molly! I'm glad you got it!

  • brittany

    joint possession?? sounds good…

  • Cotter

    As a grammarian, I have to say that I find it completely asinine to be concerned with such trivial English offenses. In fact, I had to re-read this post to make sure that it wasn't a sardonic piece on linguistic prescriptivism. Most of your ramblings don't even make sense …

    “Yes, there was a time when a British penny had significant value, and finding one and picking it up is supposed to bring good luck for a day, but in the here and now, pennies can’t pay the bills.” You're right. And in the here and now, nobody really speaks Latin; we should “modernize” all of our English words, including “significant,” and “supposed.” Tradition has no place in any culture!

    “Not only does the very idea make me want to reach for a bucket of water, but if it were true, firemen all over the world would never get a second of peace — or sleep.” So this idiom is flawed because it can't be taken literally?

    “I guess high water would have the potential to stop even the most determined person dead in his or her tracks, especially a non-swimmer like me, but when did hell become mobile? Does it go anywhere? If so, it can go to hell.” What.

    And you are certainly not exempt from the group of “people who don’t even read and wouldn’t know a book if they woke up next to one”; you are no English expert yourself! You say, “And it begs a few questions (ooh, another phrase I don’t quite get, but what the heck?): What page?” Indeed you don't “quite get” that phrase; go Google the difference between “to raise the question” and “to beg the question.”

    • Jeremy Helligar

      Come on, Cotter, lighten up! Your ramblings aren't making so much sense either. And as a “grammarian,” you should know better than to use “what” without a question mark.

      • Cotter

        It was stylistic! You know: “Why not, as those Wham! t-shirts from the ’80s used to say, choose life.”

      • Jeremy Helligar

        Very good! So you do have a sense of humor then. Me, too. The piece certainly was not written in the spirit of anger, just a fun discourse on phrases I don't quite understand. If I were to correct someone who said, “I could care less” in real life (which I wouldn't dream of doing), I'd be no better than the guy who corrected my “4.5 horas.” Thanks for reading me, though. It's always good to know that someone is paying attention.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1545803144 Orna Connolly Cunningham

      Thank God someone said it! I love snarky grammar articles (and there's a lot this guy could learn from the pedants of the world, probably just by reading their comments on forums like this), but what were you thinking? If you're going to frame your article by speaking of your grammatical ability, in not one, but two languages, perhaps you should have written something that was vaguely related to grammar. None of those sentences are gramatically inaccurate.

      If you had wanted to write an article about over-used clichés and idioms (which is what you did, essentially) you probably could have gone back to fifth class and borrowed the one your teacher originally gave you. Aside from the gratuitous name dropping, this article really stinks, and for a very unfortunate reason- I mean yes, it's framed badly; it's almost as if you're losing your train of thought half way through, and it's a poor idea, poorly executed, with your subjective ignorance given as proof of point on occasion; but it's an article about language. Language of course being one of the most inflammatory and inspiring subjects in modern discussion, as you well know. When you write something like this, it doesn't have to be good- it has to be excellent. And rehashing old ideas with little explanation apart from the fact that “you don't get it” smacks of pomposity and willful ignorance. This is just so horrible, horribly mediocre, floating in an ocean of linguistic brilliance.

      So disappointing that a publication of this quality would publish this. Why did no one try and stop you?

      • Jeremy Helligar

        Your penny is in the mail.

  • k-dawg

    what about…

    having your cake…

    and eating it too….

    i thought that was a really crappy uh…

    phrase… or something.

  • mischa

    Jeremeeyyy! I had a blast with it, and another reading the comments hahahaa! gee, some people have no life whatsoever!

    anywho, so funny how many many phrases actually make no sense:

    “shit out of luck”…”sock it to me”…. WTF???????

    love you to life hhahahaha!!!

    mischa.

  • http://twitter.com/WellReadWife The Well-Read Wife

    I feel the same way about much of this. Especially “I couldn't care less.” That one drives me nuts and I love the last paragraph!

    • Jeremy Helligar

      Thank you for reading me. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

  • Mina92

    You need to get laid. There is nothing I appreciate more than proper grammar, but you are just being pretentious.

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