Tales From a Word Nerd

Back when I was in college studying to become an English teacher, I felt that the English language was already in a pretty advanced state of disrepair. When I was student teaching, the standard response to anything my junior high students didn’t understand was ‘that’s so mental!

Apparently, “mental” to them meant anything that they felt was off-track, hard to understand, or just plain weird.

The misuse and overuse of the word set my teeth on edge, just as much as ‘whatever’ does today. Even when I was a high school student, ‘word torture’ as I called it, drove me nuts. I was a real word nerd, and I bored the pants off everyone on how we were ‘murdering’ the English language.

But now that I’m in my mid-sixties, I am still a word nerd and am not ashamed of it. I’d say the most annoying popular and misused word to my ear these days is “like.” It hurts my head when I hear people speaking in this way: ‘so I’m like walking down the street, and like this guy like comes up and says like…’ and so on.

If I were teaching English today, any kid who interspersed their speech with “like” would get a warning. For this first infraction, I would explain how using “like” many times while speaking implies a paucity of language skills. It is also a useless placeholder (such as “um” or “ah”) so that the speaker can take time to think of what else they want to say.

FYI: Here’s the real scoop on poor misused “like:”

  • “Like” can imply similarity, such as “This feels like cashmere.”
  • “Like” can express enjoyment, such as “My daughter likes peas.”
  • “Like” is too often used in explaining something that someone said, such as ‘he was, like, so angry!’ Just say ‘he was angry.’

If the aforementioned kid misused “like” in my class again, he or she would get a detention and an automatic meeting with the parents.

Of course, in this day of uber political correctness, I would probably lose my job. It is sad that it has become more important not to hurt someone’s feelings rather than learning proper speech.

But there you go; it’s the sign of the times. I’m am sure that my generation drove adults nuts too. For instance, all of our ’60s hippie-speak had to have been maddening: “far out!” “right on!” “groovy!” “whatta gas!” “outta sight!” “freak out!” “cool it!” and “can you dig it?”

But at least we didn’t say “like, can you, like, dig it?’



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