Wednesday, February 22, 2017

This Week: Romancing the podcast (part 5) + like/as if

like/as if
Since the 1950s, when it was especially associated with hipsters, “like” as a sort of meaningless verbal hiccup has been common in speech. The earliest uses had a sort of sense to them in which “like” introduced feelings or perceptions which were then specified: “When I learned my poem had been rejected I was, like, devastated.” However, “like” quickly migrated elsewhere in sentences: “I was like, just going down the road, when, like, I saw this cop, like, hiding behind the billboard.” This habit has spread throughout American society, affecting people of all ages. Those who have the irritating “like” habit are usually unaware of it, even if they use it once or twice in every sentence: but if your job involves much speaking with others, it’s a habit worth breaking.

Recently young people have extended its uses by using “like” to introduce thoughts and speeches: “When he tells me his car broke down on the way to my party I’m like, ‘I know you were with Cheryl because she told me so.’” To be reacted to as a grown-up, avoid this pattern. (See also “goes.”)

Some stodgy conservatives still object to the use of “like” to mean “as,” “as though,” or “as if.” Examples: “Treat other people like you want them to treat you” (they prefer “as you would want them to treat you”). “She treats her dog like a baby” (they prefer “she treats her dog as if it were a baby”). In expressions where the verb is implied rather than expressed, “like” is standard rather than “as”: “she took to gymnastics like a duck to water.”

In informal contexts, “like” often sounds more natural than “as if,” especially with verbs involving perception, like “look,” “feel,” “sound,” “seem,” or “taste”: “It looks like it’s getting ready to rain” or “It feels like spring.”

So nervous do some people get about “like” that they try to avoid it even in its core meaning of “such as”: “ice cream flavors like vanilla and strawberry always sell well” (they prefer “such as vanilla . . .”). The most fanatical even avoid “like” where it is definitely standard, in such phrases as “behaved like a slob” (“behaved as a slob” is their odd preference).


On the podcast this week, we conclude our discussion of romanticism.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

This Week: Romancing the podcast (part 4) + ringer/wringer

Old-fashioned washing machines lacked a spin cycle. Instead, you fed each piece of wet clothing between two rotating cylinders which would wring the excess water out of the cloth. This led to the metaphorical saying according to which someone put through an ordeal is said to have been put “through the wringer.”

Few people remember those old wringer washers, and many of them now mistakenly suppose the spelling of the expression should be “through the ringer.” This error has been reinforced by the title of a popular album by the band Catch 22: Washed Up and Through the Ringer.


On the podcast this week, we continue our discussion of romanticism. 

Paul Brians’ latest blog posts, including his most recent offering, “Alien Apostrophes Invade American Department Store!” are here.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

This Week: Romancing the podcast (part 3) + wonderkind/wunderkind

We borrowed the term “wunderkind,” meaning “child prodigy,” from the Germans. We don’t capitalize it the way they do, but we use the same spelling. When writing in English, don’t half-translate it as “wonderkind.”


On the podcast this week, we continue our discussion of romanticism.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

This Week: Romancing the podcast (part 2) + “lite” spelling

“lite” spelling  
Attempts to “reform” English spelling to render it more phonetic have mostly been doomed to failure—luckily for us. These proposed changes, if widely adopted, would make old books difficult to read and obscure etymological roots, which are often a useful guide to meaning. A few—like “lite” for “light,” “nite” for “night,” and “thru” for “through”—have attained a degree of popular acceptance, but none of these should be used in formal writing. “Catalog” has become an accepted substitute for “catalogue,” but I don’t like it and refuse to use it. “Analog” has triumphed in technical contexts, but humanists are still more likely to write “analogue.”



On the podcast this week, we continue our discussion on the word romantic.