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Them’s fightin’ words

A recent piece in the Chicago Tribune caught my attention online. Columnist Heidi Stevens asked readers which words they believe are most likely to start a fight. This wasn’t about let’s-step-outside kinds of  words. She wanted to know: Over which words will people go to the grammatical mat?

It’s probably a safe bet that anyone reading this blog has, at one time or another, gone fist to cuffs, in the verbal sense, over proper word usage.

What got my attention about the piece is that it began with a word over which I once lost a bet. I’m fairly sure I’ve told you this story. I once bet my husband that “irregardless” could not be found in the dictionary. It can. The way I should have phrased the bet was that “irregardless” is an incorrect form of “regardless.” Foolish me.

Stevens cited other examples I’d seen cause disagreements, including “adverse” versus “averse” as well as another one I had to have hammered into me long ago by an editor. I should have known better, but I learned my lesson and never forgot it. As an editor myself, I’ve turned around and taught it to quite a few writers. But not before going to the mat on it. It has to do with the word “comprise.” A whole is not “comprised of” its parts. The whole “comprises its parts” or it “is composed of” its parts. “Comprised of” is incorrect. I was 30 before that one sank in.

Arguing about grammar and word usage can be thorny. Many of us are accustomed to correcting people, especially if we are editors. It’s our job. We aren’t always accustomed to having our edits challenged. I’m not sure I’ve ever argued with an editor, but I have learned good lessons from several.  (I did have a manager once who hated the word “it” and edited it out of everything I wrote.)  It’s interesting to see how arguments progress until one party produces hard proof. (I used “it” four times in that paragraph. So there.)

I tell you, many of the subjects we’ve addressed here have sprung from disagreements. Being proven wrong is one of the best ways to learn; I know.

My advice: Don’t hesitate to engage in debate about words. Just be sure your argument is phrased in such a way that your position can be supported by a source you and your opponent both trust. Irregardless.

Note: Earlier I wrote “fist to cuffs.” I looked it up and found several alternate spellings, including “fisticuffs,” “fisticuff” and “fist-a-cuffs. Anyone?

Another note: This is a tricky week for Word Nymph. If, among the planes, trains, automobiles, weddings, funerals and business trips, an entry isn’t posted promptly, please be patient. Today’s is my 300th post. Surely there are one or two in here you haven’t read yet.

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