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Ben Zimmer on Language

Language never stands still. Usage, phrasing, new words, new meanings, new “penumbras and emanations” are unending.

And it frames the way we see the world. For decades, language maven William Safire tracked the course and politics of American English in his “On Language” column for The New York Times. Last fall, the great maven died.

This weekend, his much younger successor, Ben Zimmer, steps up to the plate — ready to take on “the party of no,” the politics of yes, the verb “to Kanye,” and a whole lot more.

This hour, On Point: we’ll talk with the new language maven, Ben Zimmer.


Ben Zimmer joins us from New York.  This Sunday he takes over The New York Times Magazine’s “On Language” column launched by William Safire in 1979. Zimmer is executive producer of VisualThesaurus and a contributor to Language Log. He was editor of American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and is a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary.

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  • Brett

    Mr. Zimmer,
    When will the word “random” be restored to its rightful place! ;-) It seems to be one of the more misused words in circulation these days.

  • Gabrielle

    This looks like a fun interview! can’t wait!

  • Lon C Ponschock

    Some time this afternoon I will hear the stream version of this program. If he says “basically” or “essentially” once, I turn it off.

  • http://ravenatyournextevent.com Greg

    I know this is old but I still can’t stand, “It is what it is.”

  • Al Hansen

    Basically it’s the use basically, of the word basically, basically.

  • David Henry

    I am most disturbed by the growing misuse of the word “myself.” Everyone seems afraid to use “me”– ever. I am dyslexic but I at least know using myself in place of “I” and “me” is not correct.

  • Tom from Boston

    Grammar question: when someone asks “How are you?” Do you reply “I am well” or “I am good.”

  • http://MyGreenVermont.com Ed Cobb

    One of my pet peeves: “…is comprised of…” instead of “…comprises…” or “…is composed of….” A helpful mnemonic: Substitute “include” for “comprise” to get the general sense when generating a sentence.

  • http://billyrubinsblog.org billy rubin

    Turning off a program because someone says “basically” or “essentially”?! That seems really smart.

    I found Safire’s underlying philosophy of language limited and moderately annoying, although my guilty Safire-ian pleasure is getting worked up when people use the terms “pretty unique” and confusing “disinterest” and “uninterest.”

    Curious to hear Ben’s thoughts on John McWhorter’s (popular) work such as “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue.”

  • http://www.lit.org/author/fritzwilliam F. William Bracy

    Okay, Tom. Let’s test your guest. What’s wrong with the following:

    I guess I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    I know of no more popular misuse of a phrase, unless it would be the ever popular,”Welcome to the First Annual …”

  • laurance

    If you could please shed negative light on the overwhwelmingly broad use of the word literally, from the water cooler to print and broadcast media.
    (“Working in the office was like being in a tornado, literally”)

    All the best,


  • http://n/a Bonnie Kiermaier

    I have a question re the use of “ones;” e.g., as used this way: ” . . . those ones.” The word ones doesn’t seem necessary to me and sets my teeth on edge. I’ve only noticed this usage in the last few years.

    Bonnie Kiermaier
    Virginia Beach VA
    WHRO/WHRV Public Radio

  • davidk

    My pet peeve is “Do you mind if…” and people incorrectly respond with “yes” when they mean “no”. (Yes, I don’t mind, go right ahead…)

  • Aaron

    I’d like to hear Zimmer comment on the term “going forward,” which seems to be appended to ever political pronouncement these days, regardless of the fact that the meaning of the sentence would almost always be the same without it.

  • Ellen Dibble

    “Read my lips” — it carries so much freight.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Written and spoken language merge and change each other when writing here on the net. You telegraph, you use images, stories, short cuts… (I didn’t say “whatever” — I used ellipses.)

  • David Lawrence


    It just grates. I understand why people see a need for a word that describes a certain form of online presentation, but the instant I hear the word “webinar” I tune out the rest of the message.

    I think this mostly comes from my negative knee jerk reaction to marketing messages in general, and this fits in that sphere. Nonetheless I’ve encountered several other people who hate the word too.

  • Darrell

    Do most phrases come in to popularity by “outsiders” trying to become “insiders”? Is there a sense that people are using “hip” phrases trying to be “cool”?

  • Ellen Dibble

    “I did good” in western Mass. is now accepted usage. I think it started when the French came down from Quebec.
    Also, lay and laid/lie and lying are used in new ways, sometimes to avoid talking about fibbing, for instance, even in the remotest way.

  • Rex

    PLEASE address “the fact that.” People don’t know how to say something and state it as a fact. I hear it everywhere.

  • Brie

    PET PEEVE: Alzheimer’s when pronounced as “Old Timers”. To me, that is just ignorant, but it seems common place, even on the news!

  • http://ravenatyournextevent.com Greg

    Actually I ride the purple line into Boston and they DO say “de-train” pretty regularly.

    I like last year’s new word of the year “unfriend” and I have a corollary: “refriend.”

  • karen

    Can’t stand it when nouns become verbs–such as the misused word “IMPACT”. Let it be the noun that it is! Even more offensive is the more recent misuse of the word “grow” when it is applies to finances such as the (gag me please!!) phrase “to GROW the economy”! UGH! Drives me nuts!

  • http://www.onpointradio.org/2010/03/ben-zimmer-on-language#comments Kimberly

    Could you please address the usage of “less” and “fewer”…I am stunned that people don’t know the most basic grammar…I will be less aggravated and lose fewer nights of sleep if you could help correct people about these two words–especially the TV ad companies and that annoying announcer on TNT–it’s “more movies, FEWER commercials” not LESS commercials!…thank you.

  • Phyllis

    Several peeves – primarily the use of “UP” as a verb. The doctor “upped” my prescription.

    Also, saying “quote unquote” before the quote!

  • Tom

    I hate that snuck has gained a seat at the adult table; everybody uses it now. I was mocked when I used sneaked, and took the abuse in silence.

  • http://www.paulfranklinhomes.com Paul Franklin

    The misuse of “ignorant” is one of my biggest pet peeves. The irony of it, is that those who misuse it are, themselves, ignorant.

  • Jennifer Whitlock

    Mr. Zimmer just mentioned that the word “literal” is often used in an obviously non-literal context. When Sarah Palin resigned as Governor from Alaska last summer, her publicist stated: “the world is literally her oyster.” My husband and I laughed for the better part of an hour over that one.

  • Joel

    I have it ingrained in my head from an old college professor that the words “social” and “societal” are synonymous. Therefore, “societal”, should be avoided as it can be always be substituted by “social”. Now, whenever I hear the word “societal”, I cringe. What are your thoughts on this issue?

  • Steve L.

    Pet peeve: the overuse of the superfluous phrase ” moving forward”.

  • Patty

    What happened to poor little scheduled? Now everything is slated. I want to throw slated into the waste bin!!

  • Rex

    another BS term for laziness: The wheels are in motion

  • Laura

    I’m bothered by the recent use of “online” mistakenly used for “in line”- as in “i was waiting online at the bank”

    Also, “in the day” referring to “the past”- how do these things happen???

  • Ryan

    I really don’t like “the best ______ ever”… superlatives irk me every time.

  • Dot Bergin

    Whatever happened to “shone” – as in “the sun shone” (NOT “the sun shined”)

  • Jane Lamb

    Ask the good man why, if one must follow the rules to have one’s say in certain fora, not one (practically) American journalist/commentator is able to use an If-Clause properly. Example: /If he went, he would see them/ becomes /If he would do, he would see them/. One hears this from such luminaries all Charlie Rose through to all many CNN journalists, to name a few. Yes, language is a power game, but grammatical correctness ain’t what allows people to speak in certain fora. It is how they play the game.

  • Cynthia

    Pet Peeves: Errors

    lie, lay, laid

    “I could care less” (why bother mentioning it at all if you COULD care less?)

    “supposably” (have heard this on NPR!!! OUCH)

    I understand that language evolves – it’s the DEvolution that bothers me.

    Pet Peeves – Usage:

    “Have a good one!” (A good WHAT????)

    In business usage, “I reached out to so-and-so…” (“Reached out” sounds almost evangelical)

    “He’s good people”

    etc., etc., etc.

    Welcome, Ben!!!!!

  • Ellen DIbble

    I thought the only people using subjunctives were in Jane Austen novels, but then I find subjunctive is crucial to discussions on the net. People trying to lay things out as given truth are a bane, and need all sorts of caveats. What I personally have learned is that there is a lot that people care about and “know” something about, probably should be able to discuss.
    I have learned it’s okay to “fly” without solid grounding, so long as you use the subjunctive.
    The big bonus is that a group of people can sometimes get to the heart of the matter, thinking en masse. (All cliches there, sorry. Haven’t got time to think from scratch — woops.)

  • Carly Vernon

    These days, what drives me batty is how often “I mean” is used to begin and punctuate a sentence. You are SAYING it…so I KNOW you MEAN it. It’s the new “like”

  • Lev

    I will never forgive Sebastian Junger for introducing the phrase “The Perfect Storm” to the English language. It seems like the perfect thing to say when you can’t actually think of anything substantive to say about an actually very believable circumstance

  • Nathan Sledge

    My language pet peeve is the misuse of subjective prounouns as objects of prepositions (ex. He went to the movies with her and I). This happens among even the most educated people. In fact, I have heard both the President and the Secretary of Education misuse these pronouns in interviews.

  • Marie Malchodi

    It’s hard for me to hear the word “impact” used to mean “affect.” I know it’s here to stay because it is used everywhere and it solves the problem of whether “affect” and “effect” is correct.

  • Jeff

    What about the use of “myself” for “me”. This seems to be on its way to becoming correct usage.

  • Leslie Jenson

    I’m tired of the phrase will you “Reach out.”

  • http://WBUR Chris O’Rourke-Friel

    Who decided that we should say “the China team” instead of the “chineese team” for example, and how did this change become standard usage?
    Also, my wife, from NYC, says “a scissor” instead of “a pair of scissors.” Where does that come from? Enjoying the show.

  • John

    Pet peeve: the overuse of the superfluous phrase ” moving forward”. Posted by Steve L., on March 16th, 2010 at 11:29 AM — Superfluous phrases should be used sparingly

  • Barbara

    I’m tired of the overuse AND misuse of the word myself. I think people have given up trying to figure out if they should be using me or I so they just substitute myself.

  • marilyn bentov

    I wonder if some changes i structural use of language reflect deep sociological change. For example, “that” has replaced “who” in most speech wile “who” is used for institutions. Also, the line between subjec and object is increasingly blurred, as in “between my friend and I,” (which still makes me grind my teeth).

    I know language changes, but often feel that these two changes, among obvious others, reflects the impicit acceptance of ourselves as “human resources” or commodities. After all, the language –and most ancient languages–has made this distinction for a reason, and whatever the reason, the social context and the values it carried surely influenced, e.g., a distinction between pronoun subject and object.

  • George Shumar Jr

    Someone said that their “pet peeve” is people misusing the term “Literally”. Last week, I believe it was Jeff Numberg on Fresh Air who made the point that this type of useage bothers a lot of people so it’s not really a PET peeve, it’s a general public peeve. A pet peeve should really be your own private neurosis.

  • Chris

    My pet peeves are common idioms which are technically or scientifically inaccurate or redundant. At the top of my list is “rate of speed”. Speed is a rate. Does “rate of speed” mean “acceleration”?

  • http://yahoo.com John Russell

    Pet Peeve: “At the end of the day”

  • Robert Epstein

    My pet peeve is the use of “fulsome” to mean having “a lot of” or “a full set of” — such as “a fulsome set of teeth” — the word means disgusting and probably comes from the root “foul” — no?

  • Joe

    Prefacing or emphasizing a statement with “Look…” or “the fact of the matter is…” is meant to signal the listener that immutable truth is about to follow. When used by many public speakers, these cues actually precede their main propaganda point.

  • http://none Margery Buckingham

    I am curious about the practice of responding to “Thank you” with “Thank you” rather than “You’re welcome.

  • Dan Sharp

    Can’t stand the “s” everyone seems to think belongs on the end of “regard” i.e., “in regards to”

    Also regret that we no longer use subjunctive i.e., “if I were” vs. “if I was”

  • maria travers

    iam so tired of hearing ” you gotta do what you gotta do” i feel as if the person i am telling my situation/ problem to is just not really hearing what iam telling them, not offering much help. i end up right where i started.this expression just simply gets on my nerves!!

  • http://burrandmccallum.com Andrus Burr

    Hi Tom and Ben,
    Could you comment on the pronunciation of “processes” which many people seem to think should be “processeees”, which I thought should be reserved only for words ending in “…is” such as thesis.

  • Sydney Richer

    Is the agreement of subject and verb no longer necessary? Even in the NY Times I see things like

    “. . .NONE of them ARE going . . .”

    Has this rule changed?

  • Steve Caminis

    How, and why, did so many broadcasters/politicians/business leaders, not to mention athletes decide to change the proper use of “I” and “me.” The subjective and objective pronouns are misused with emphasis as if they are striving to be correct.

  • http://www.lit.org/author/fritzwilliam F. William Bracy

    Answer to quiz, above:

    The meaning rests on a double negative which does, in fact, equate to a positive — notwithstanding the adage, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

    Being in the wrong place at the wrong time places me somewhere else — away from “the place” I shouldn’t be in. If a safe is on it’s way down toward my head in this particular spot, I would certainly be to my benefit if I were standing not there, but somewhere else.

    The intended meaning for most usage cases would be:

    I must have been in the right place at [precisely] the right time (which is why my neck is so short).

  • Glenn

    I cringe at “orientated”!

  • http://billyrubinsblog.org billy rubin

    special thanks to Jane Lamb for pointing out what everyone seems to have been ignorning (and which Ben is almost discussing at the moment): power. the “pet peeve list” is the mildest form of the kind of ‘isms’ (race, regional, class etc.) that help justify various forms of repression, political and otherwise.

  • Kevin

    In the news over the last few years I have heard the word TROOP used to describe single soldiers as in as in, “three troops were injured today.”

  • Elizabeth Little

    “like”. This word HAUNTS me. I like the word like, when it’s not used as a filler or to begin a sentence. Speak with an individual between the ages of 12 and 23 and you will understand what I’m talking about. By the way, I’m 28, so many of my peers talk this way – it drives me INSANE!!!

    Hope you share that!


  • Michelle Carter

    “Eat healthy” always bothers me, as in “Ten Tips for eating healthy”. Healthy is an adjective, not a verb! I can see how it came from dropping the modified noun (“healthy food”). But it still bothers me! I just think it sounds so stupid! Is there an appropriate adverb to use in these cases?

  • Frank

    Your guest has said “you know” 15 times in twenty minutes

  • Pamela

    The phrase that causes me to grit my teeth is describing a sequence or span as being “between … to …” as in “between three to four o’clock” or “between Washington to Philadelphia.” I don’t recall ever hearing this ten years ago; now, I hear it everywhere, including from NPR commentators.

    Pam in Connecticut

  • Trish Ramey

    Yay! Ben said, “Different from” instead of the prevalent “different than.” Though I fear he standing almost alone against the tide. :-)

  • Malcolm

    I invite you to join me in my irrational scorn for the use of “graduate” (in the educational sense) as a transitive verb, as in “I graduated college.”

  • Michelle Carter

    p.s. I mean to write “not an adverb”!

  • Andrew McNeill

    Recently seen bumper sticker:


  • Priscilla Jones

    I have noticed an increasing use of a sound “repair” -

    Length, Width, HeigTH

  • maureen

    Why do some people say Valentime’s Day? It drive me crazy!

  • Lewis Kirk

    How did it become acceptable to say pissed off in broadcast media and, god forbid, even NPR?

  • Susan Sardina

    Grammar isn’t taught any more!!! The current expression that really annoys me is: “Me and Sam are going to the …”, instead of Sam and I are going… You would NEVER say “Me is going to the …”, so why say me and Sam? It’s so easy to figure out when to use me vs. I. Just remove the other person and see if the sentence sounds right. If not, it probably isn’t. Pretty simple! Get it right!

  • Ellen Dibble

    Don’t forget “Yo’man,” short for “You know what I mean” which seems to me a sort of sly handshake among gang members, hoping to assure one is “one the same page.”
    A rather insecure individual not of the underworld will say “you know” three or four times in a sentence to assure him/herself of the same thing.
    Oh, him/her — let’s hear Zimmer on that.

  • Carrie Youngblood

    My linguistic pet peeve is fairly recent. Why do pundits use the word “reticent” when they mean “reluctant”? The words have different meanings!

  • joan kaplan


  • Darrel

    regarding Michael and socio-economic dialects, you would be surprised at the ability of these students to code-switch, that is use one dialect at home and another in the work place, it’s almost downright bilingual. the key is to not make the students wrong for using a particular style at school. we would offer “That’s how you say it at home, but how would you say that at school?”

  • Marie Malchodi

    Just one more:

    “Whatever” to mean “I don’t care in the least about what you are saying to me.” I’ve been trying to keep my 8-year-old twins from using it, but it is everywhere! Perhaps this is another losing battle.

  • Brad

    Nuclear/Nucular-Why is it that no one ever corrected President Bush, which has somehow given credence to his new pronunciation?

  • Marci

    Can’t stand “irregardless” and the use of “athleticism”! Are these even words in the dictionary?

  • Archie

    Overuse of the following words:


    And the following expressions:

    “At the end of the day”
    “It is what it is”


    Best of luck to Mr. Zimmer.

  • Art

    The phrase “very fun,” commonly used, ‘drives me BATTY!’ It is “a lot of fun” — NOT “it is very fun.”


  • Gary

    I wish UM, Mr. Zimmer UM, would UM, express UM, himself with UM, more UM, concise diction. UM, it would UM, convey UM, more UM, respect.

    Guess what my peeve is?

  • Nick Bodley

    There are many things I’d like to ask! First, though, is why people who spell very well frequently misspell “lose” as “loose”, “breathe” as “breath”, and perhaps less often “choose” as “chose”.

    I also find it interesting that some non-trivial number of people can’t spell such a short word as “off” correctly.

    It’s looking as though a dialect of written English is splitting off, defined by something akin to a consensus about variant/incorrect spellings. I try to be kind, and refer to it as Popular English.

    Finally, when does Ben think “alot” will be in the dictionaries?

  • Alexa Martindale

    Great topic!
    I inherited a love of language from my grandmother and father. I find new words fun and indicative of trends and fads…will the word tweeting be around in 100 years?? What does get under my skin is the misuse of old words. When good is used for well it sends me around the bend.
    I do have a question on words like dived vs dove, dreamed vs dreamt, pleaded vs pled (I actually know the dif there but can’t think of other examples.)I generally see the “ed” version in books I’m reading aloud and I always change them to the more old fashioned one. Am I wrong to do so?
    I listen to Grammar Girl for fun and hang on her every word and I now will look forward to yours, Ben. Congrats on the fab position!

  • Joe

    Why don’t you take on the overriding issue of using language for propaganda purposes? A person such as Frank Luntz understands the power of language and is willing to manipulate words for political/personal gains. Someone who could counterbalance the propaganda (both left and right) would be doing a great service for our country. Are you willing to take up the gauntlet?

  • Don

    My old mentor at Yale, and perhaps yours, too, David Bromwich used to tell us, in his freshman seminar: Synonomy is the destroyer of languages. He often made this claim in defense of established usage, but it seems just as well to speak in favor of the newfangled. My questions are: Do you think Bromwich’s dictum is right? And do you spot the trend in `synononymization’ in contemporary usage? Can it be stopped? Should it be? Maybe the blending of meaning is a move to efficiency.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Tom Ashbrook just said “you know” three times in one sentence. Didn’t bother me. I mean, I needed a little pause too. Now Zimmer has said “you know” twice in about ten words.

  • Susan

    Use of past perfect (I believe that’s what it’s called) is on the wane. People say “I went to the store” when they really mean “I had gone to the store.” Also, that TV commercial that refers to “well-paying” jobs. What’s up with that? Trying to get our attention by using wrong English?

  • John

    Is the agreement of subject and verb no longer necessary? Even in the NY Times I see things like
    “. . .NONE of them ARE going . . .” Has this rule changed? Posted by Sydney Richer, — The rule has not changed. “None are” has always been correct as evidenced by its appearance in the King James Bible and the works of Edmund Burke.

  • Kathy

    Call myself if you have any questions.

    This one drives me crazy!!!It does not drive myself crazy. Thanks for a great show.

  • Chris

    When is something in common usage just wrong? How about when “nuclear” is pronounced “nookyular”?

  • Christy Moody

    From Columbia SC

    It drives me CRAZY (hair pulling) when I hear young people today saying … “That is beasting.” “I am beasting at this video game.” “Oh, he is beasting.”

    ARGH! ACK! STOP! Please?

  • Phil Bregitzer

    My pet peeve is the incorrect use of a group (as a subject of a sentence) as if it were a plural. As in: “The [group] are engaged in an activity”. Correct usage could be either “The [group] is…” or “Members of the [group] are…”

    What REALLY bugs me is that the chief perpetrators of this grammatical crime are members of the media. It is used more often on the BBC than on American broadcast networks, but it seems to be creeping into more common use over here as well. It is SHAMEFUL for those holding degrees as journalists to make such a mistake.

  • James

    Loan is a noun and while lend is a verb but loan is too often used as a verb. So much so that it’s becoming accepted. This truly irritates me.

    New Canaan, CT

  • Peter C.

    Gary: Ha! Um, good point. I’m hearing a lot of “definitely”‘s, too — “I definitely [this or that]“, as if it’s being called into question.

    I do miss Mr. Safire.

  • Paul Pilch

    I have a bunch of complaints about the what I perceive as “business speak” that has become ubiquitous on news shows, from my colleagues at work, everywhere. My peeves are all essentially the substitution of a perfectly good word with a cutesy phrase, for example:
    “get my head around” for understand
    “going forward” for future
    “push back” for resistance

  • Jill Mirman

    Between you and I…. ahg!!!
    Why do it wrong? It doesn’t save time. If I wouldn’t say, “Give it to I”, why would I say, “Give it to Tom and I”?? Thanks. Great program. Jill, Billerica, MA

  • Joe Cutshall-King

    Mr. Zimmer,

    I find it gut-grinding to hear processes (the plural of process) pronounced “process-seeze.” It seems so affected when the plurals of recess or access are not pronounced that way. Recently I heard a philosophy teacher pronounce the plural of the word “premise” as “premi-seeze.”

    I studied Latin. One crisis, two crises (pronounced cri-seeze). Is this a crisis or am I just a fuddy-duddy?

    Joe Cutshall-King (pronounced CUT-shawl-King)

  • Kathy Dube

    My pet peeves, as used my newscasters or networks, are: “All New” … “Dead Body” … and “Very Latest.” If something is new, it should be all new by definition; aen’t bodies always dead? and who suggested “very latest” would be more enticing than the “latest” news.

  • Ellen Dibble

    “Sort of” – a court reporter I know says a certain attorney throws that in all the time (whatever all the time means), which is far more important than the color of his hair.

  • http://john-s-allen.com John S. Allen

    Mr. Zimmer discussed the evolution of language. Could he also please discuss synthesized languages such as Esperanto? I know a couple who are Esperantists, and one thing they say about Esperanto is that machine translation (bizarre results as it often does produce) works better as a two-step process, first translating into, then out of Esperanto — the reason being that Esperanto avoids the ambiguities that occur due to natural evolution of language.

  • http://www.kpbx.org Jerry Olson

    The loosing battle that I fight is the use of the word “fun” as an adjective. As in,”This will be a fun day!”

  • David Kidd

    I’m a fan of Dr. Zimmer’s since I’ve read some of his columns on Language Log. I’m just happy to see a linguist in the news and adding the voice of reason to the peevologists.

  • Erin Saunders

    Business-email offenders, especially prevalent here in Utah:

    “suppose to” without a D
    “needs fixed,” “needs done,” et cetera
    “I am wanting”
    and the ever-popular “git’r done!”

  • Ellen Dibble

    The food of reason becomes scarce, Ashbrook just said, when buzz words dominate the debate.
    Zimmer, “Politicians have long been aware” of this.
    Oh, I hope he wields the language on our behalf against the spin-meisters or teaches us to do so.

  • Zach Silvia (Providence)

    I am an anthropology student and I know Mr. Zimmer has a linguistic anthro. background. My question is about the concept of “revivals,” bits of culture that fell out of use some time ago and return at a later time. Are there any examples of this in our language today and do they retain their “old” usage or contain completely new meangings…specifically with words that have returned?

  • http://billyrubinsblog.org billy rubin

    @ Brad (11:40 a.m. comment)–
    do you pronounce the word “iron” “I-run” or something more like “ahrn”? explain to me then how Bush 43 is so goddawfully wrong.

  • Julia Loomis

    Would Mr. Zimmer please comment on the loss of the use of the pluperfect in American English. We lose meaning when we no longer use the correct order of tenses.

  • George Gropper

    Example of noun to verb:

    Stewardess on a plane: “I’ll be around shortly to
    beverage you.”

  • Jed

    How can we incentivize people to talk awesomer?

  • Marisa Coutts

    Americans: “You done good!”

    And like… like… like… like… like…


  • Marita Hartshorn

    My granddaughter Abby describes herself as a tween. When and how did that come into our language?

  • Ellen Dibble

    As to anthropology, I am crazy entranced by word histories. I hope he shares the way our language shakes hands with ancestors and invaders from time immemorial. I mean, even runes, words that you throw down for fortune-telling purposes. Tell us.

  • Art

    Please, my fellow Americans, stop using the terms “Super” and “Expert” for everything relating to America!


  • Bruce Burns

    Before about 10 years ago, I never heard anyone put an “of” into constructs like, “it’s not that big a deal”. Recently, hardly anyone uses it without the “of”: “it’s not that big OF a deal.” Is this a regional usage that spread? Is it new? Isn’t it wrong?

  • Kay

    I’m creeped out when Tom uses the phrase “open the kimono on [a subject]“–admittedly not that often, sorry Tom!

  • cynthia

    It bothers me that it has become common usage to abbreviate “In addition to…..(something previously referenced)”, to simply “in addition” . It hurts my ears!!

  • http://www.scadrllc.com Raphe O’Geaney

    Any thoughts on “…try and…”as opposed to what i think is properly, “…try to…”

    Also the now all too commonplace,… there is (for example) many of them… using the single when the sentence requires the plural

    The latter happens with many of the staff and guests I hear on NPR.

  • Hunter Smith

    I have often wondered why the word “palindrome” was not actually a emordrome…given it’s meaning it would be more accurate. Food for thought

  • Brad

    @Billy Ruben-
    There’s only one U in nuclear! I pronounce iron as “I-earn”.

  • Bob

    A common phrase especially among members of younger generation, even well educated – Me and Ted are going to the game rather than Ted and I. Also especially in academia beginning sentences with So. As in “So, we began our study with the following hypothesis”. So, when and where did this start?

  • Ellen Dibble

    I think the use of “So” in academia has to do with paragraph breaks. It launches into a new phase of the “story,” as if to say, take a breath, and move on.
    Judges, delivering a charge to a jury, maybe 30 minutes long, will say “Now” every time there is a paragraph break. It signals a turn of some sort. So.

  • cynthia

    that is, in place of the more acceptable, “additionally”

  • Bob

    So, the occasional use of so as a paragraph break is reasonable. What I am suggesting is that so used at the beginning of a lecture or overused during a lecture is annoying. Not everyone in academia is guilty of this of course. But there does seem to be a recent trend toward a kind of academic respectability for the excessive of so. So, that is all I’m saying.

  • http://none Giles Ross

    Take the phrase “thank you for listening to John and I,” heard on an NPR station.

    Your guest on 16.3.2010 takes an overly chaitable view of this when he suggests that the speaker “isn’t sure when to use I or me.”

    The reason the hypothetical speaker doesn’t know which to use after a pronoun is because he or she was playing video games instead of paying attention at school.

    Or perhaps it is because sometime between now and the time I want to grade school they stopped teaching grammer. And perhaps this was because of fear of offending some segment of the population.

    And I might say the same thing about using lay (to place or put an object somewhere) for lie (to assume a prone or supine position in a bed or similar piece of furniture).

  • loninappleton

    Ok, now that we are in the swing of things, here’s few more:

    Firstly and Lastly instead of First and finally.

    The only thing that happens “at the end of the day” is sunset.

    Here in Wisconsin on our NPR station, the state network does an annual show on words and phrases that should be banished from the language.

    The banished word list comes from Lake Superior College and is updated every year and posted on New Year’s. Find it here — you will be disappointed:


    That said, I still won’t listen to speakers who use “basically.”

    BTW “That said” is that which *was* said. It need not be said again and is redundant. All this verbal garbage starts in the schools, and is not imported into them by “tweens” or anybody else. They are word crutches used to add emphasis or enhance the professional’s self esteem or both.

  • Ellen Dibble

    The reason people aren’t sure of many points of grammar has to do with “nonstandard” usages. If half of the people I hear talking say “I’m going to lay down for a while,” I’m going to consider saying that if I’m visiting so-and-so. If all the kids I play with say “let’s you and me go to the store,” or “The whole group is going to town,” where someone thinks that’s got to be “let’s you and I” or “the whole group are” — on that latter, I believe the Chicago Style Manual has said that whether a group “is” or “are” depends upon point of view or emphasis.
    I am wondering if the age of a language weighs in on some of the locutions that irritate people. Long ago I learned a bit of German, and I was amazed at the number of for instance intensifiers, words like “ganz,” adverbs that a speaker gets a feel for but seem part of the music of the language, sometimes taken on board purely for the rhythm, for the mouth-feel, like fine wine. I have thought that black English did this better (the music of language) than the English handed down from the original settlers, but I don’t know whether rappers (for instance) are preserving that — or want to share it, actually.

  • teresa

    Enough technical discussion – although enjoyable! I am interested in who are Ben’s favorite writers – and what is it about their use of language that attracts him?

  • loninappleton

    A correction is needed for the Lake Superior College “banished word” post. It should have been stated “You will *not* be disappointed.” I apologize and hope that all concerned note my correction

  • Carol Shoemaker

    Pet peeves, like vs as if, me and him (or her) are going to the fill in the balnk

  • Ellen Dibble

    So instead of “that said,” what would you say? “Given those issues,” “Taking into consideration the aforementioned”? “Because of those matters”? Would you restate the aforesaid in a more collapsed version, a wider umbrella than “that said”?
    To me, “that said” is as useful rhetorically as some of the mathematical symbols. It is very precise.
    Words like “So” or “Now” are better than “Additionally” if the following sentence is not additionally, but another direction altogether, related, but bear with me while I show you another signpost here. That sort of thing.
    I would say “additionally” if I wanted to make a point that what follows is linked pretty directly, in a sequence. If it was not in a sequence, but had a rather nuanced connection to the preceding, I might not spell that connection out, but signal the turn with “so.” If someone is being sloppy logically, then the “so” would be a symptom of that sloppiness. But not necessarily sloppy.

  • Meg Phelps

    My pet peeve: the use of “myself” when “me,” or worse yet “I,” is the proper pronoun. Mr. Zimmer expressed his curiosity over what made a peeve a peeve for some people, so I will explain why I hate it. It is imprecise. “Myself” is used only when the verb is reflexive, and so the use of it clarifies the meaning of the verb. What is the purpose of language, other than to communicate clearly? That’s why there are rules of language. Call me nit-picky if you will, but I think the world would actually be a better place if more people were concerned with using precise language to make their meaning clear.

  • kris

    the ubiquitous misuse of the phrase “begs the question.”

  • Ellen Dibble

    To me, accuracy in language usage is related to honesty. I notice that when people are trying to seem forthright and forthcoming but are actually trying hard to obfuscate, grammar is the first casualty. If I can’t tell the subject from the object, where a sentence begins and where it ends, what the sequence is, whether that word was “has” or “had,” that sort of thing, then I have a pretty good clue that I’m “being had,” and I watch the body language rather than the words.
    If I were a child learning language from parents whose chief use of language is to obfuscate — it exists — I would come to school with a useless casserole of verbalisms. It might take quite a shakedown to convince me that language can really communicate, or even what communication is all about.
    Teachers, you have your work cut out for you. Personally, I think the etymology, the history of a word, conveys the communicative use of language. The idea that a word was cooked up, doctored along the way, affected by the world and affecting the world — all that says to a child: Language is not “just” what your terribly confused and confusing parents throw around; language is a heritage you can claim and use for the purpose of making sense.

  • Zeke

    So, English (school taught) is not my first language, though I find what is in use every day is only ‘commercial-Americanese’(note the unnecessary, um, quote, unquote, and use of hyphenation). While it may not be 110% correct, it is far more expressive, and more technically sound especially when it comes to products, procedures, and outcomes.

    I am surprise at how many upturned noses and nuke-you-lar outburst are toward purely emphatic statements. If anything they are shorthand tasked to express a more precise level of emotion and state of mind. More often than not, “good work, old chap” just don’t have the same ring as “awesome, that’ll absolutely do it”. Don’t forget that in the lists/blogs/gaming influenced language of today, perfect/awesome/good all have an implicitly accepted value, “regardless” of their book definition.

    Don’t forget the original colonial’s pronunciation and grammar was yet another point that the British dismissed the good people of Boston as mere “peasants”. While you gnash your teeth at some pet peeves as the ignorant unduly beasting the language, people not spending time to read the New Yorker, and lament that John Kerry can no longer use “Who among us” in a sentence without drawing a snicker, for everyday usage it is these words with commonly adapted meaning just have more…oomph.

    In fact, they are much easier to maneuver through and poke fun with, as well. I also say “procecees”, because it is simply easier to pick up at “S” at the end, for precise instructions, that is far more important.

  • Meg Phelps

    I’m sorry, but at the end of the broadcast he said “it depends on WHO you’re speaking to” and “I’m going to have to, LIKE, build up to that.” (emphasis mine.) Puh-lease!

  • Ellen Dibble

    I think some people who are persnickety about word usage are mourning the uselessness of some of their school education. Why was it blasted into me for 12 years that one should speak in a certain way, only to find that it is considered pretentious to keep speaking in a certain way? Who is invading my language? Do you mean I am supposed to UN-learn the King’s English? Isn’t there some validity to the right to be scornful of those who didn’t pay attention in third grade?
    School is all about scorn, don’t you know. You study because you want to be “better than.” Don’t you know. Now let’s see if I can do a winking face … ;-)

  • Ellen Dibble

    I am waiting for “puh-lease” to show up in Webster’s Dictionary. It is definitely VERY different from “please,” in pronunciation, tone, and meaning.

  • http://www.theitem.com Ivy

    entitled for titled. Drives me crazy

  • Lon C Ponschock

    Because I have taken an active effort to get such things as “basically” and “essentially” out of my life I am making multiple comments today.

    This one is about a handy reference book on word gaffes called “Origin of the Specious.” In interview and in direct response to the use of “basically” the author replied that since it is used almost universally incorrectly it should not be used at all *and* has no place in modern English.

    If users of such tripe could only hear themselves… This is what I hear when “Basically” starts a sentence: “I know so little about this that I have to use a crutch word.”

    Alternately I had some mail with the author of the book “Um– slips, stumbles, and verbal blunders, and what they mean” in which he said (I’m paraphrasing from memory) that “basically” is shorthand used in academia to indicate “I don’t have a knowledgeable answer right now, but we all know what I mean.” I told him I did not agree and that the speaker refuses to acknowledge meritocratic narcissism. I received no further reply.

  • http://wbur.org Kathyah

    Susan Sardina – 11:34 – My #1 pet peeve!

    Second – improper use of adverbs.

    Third – the double negatve ‘don’t hardly’, as in ‘I don’t hardly get any time to myself’

    Would be fourth, except I think I’m guilty, is along the lines of improper use of he/she against him/her (I think that would be the second option – I’d have to be doing it to confirm). I think I do faily ok with I/me/myself.

    My partner teaches 1st grade. Her grammar isn’t horrid, but sometimes I cringe. I usually don’t correct her, but we have talked through some grammar stuff. It concerns me that her grammar is being heard in an environment where English is likely the least dominant language in the system. There are over 50 languages in the school system.

  • kate

    First it was “incentivize”. Now, I hear “incent”!

  • Carolyn

    I have listened with dismay several NPR commentators use “I am agnostic on that” to mean “I don’t know” or “I am ambivalent.” WHAT??? This, I fear will go viral as has the misuse of oxymoron to mean contradiction in terms, one of my major pet peeves. The most disturbing aspect of this is that these have been started by presumably educated people to show off their intelligence. It certainly indicates the loss of subtlety in language.

  • http://www.onpointradio.org/2010/03/ben-zimmer-on-language Tom Dumstorf

    I hate when people say “Where’s it at?” or “Where’s she at?” (Redundant, no?) Also those who use “ideal” when they mean “idea”.

  • Bea Preece

    One of my one major pet peeves is when people use “I am waiting on you” in place of “I am waiting for you” to mean that they were waiting for a period of time for you to do something. Even newscasters use it this way. Did I learn the use of verb incorrectly?

    Bea Preece

  • Rob

    “No worries” in response to “Thanks.”

  • http://onpoint terry jackson

    Did Ben Zimmer attend um the Terry Gross um School of um Public Speaking?

  • http://makingthesong.blogspot.com Christopher P.

    I thought that Ben was very interesting and a delight. HOWEVER; the “ums” made me scream!! Stop saying “Um”!!!!!!

    I propose a law to ban the word!

  • Kathy

    Exactly right? Is it possible to be inexactly right? I guess so because I hear everyone say this. Forgive me Lord, I said it myself the other day. Its insidious!

  • Marilyn Kelly

    pet peeves:

    “transparent” – as used in the computer industry to mean “hidden from the user” vs.
    “transparent” – clear, see-through

    “graduate high school” – seems like we stopped graduating from high school some time in the 80s, now we graduate high school. I hear national newscasters using the term, which drives me nuts. Am I just old fashioned?

    Thanks for the show.

    Marilyn Kelly

  • loninappleton

    Last one for me:

    Attention writers and editors of the popular entertainment industry:

    No one says “basically” in historical drama. I heard this one in a cheap update of “Robin Hood” from the BBC or British market. And no one says “basically” in the future either. There was a short-lived science fiction series in which I heard “basically” used the way a boy does on a cell phone talking to
    his squeeze before turning it off.

    The fact that people who should know better, editors, do not catch this stuff is appalling. Either they don’t know (see post above about mertitocratic narcissism) or they are afraid to point out the errors because so-and-so has more degrees than a thermometer and knows better but for some reason is using
    verbal tics.

    I turned off a talk because the program provides a transcript and I was able to word check it. This was an instance of being able to trump the meritocracy through technology.

    It is not just the frequency of usage that gets me it’s the pretentiousness that accompanies “basically” and “essentially” as well.

  • Brett

    “Don’t forget “Yo’man,” short for “You know what I mean” which seems to me a sort of sly handshake among gang members, hoping to assure one is ‘on the same page.” -Ellen Dibble

    If I were you, Ellen, I would make every attempt to steer away from spending time with gang members, lest you be too influenced by their vernacular.

    Far be it from me to offer advice; however, should you be in a position of contact–perish the thought–with their linguistic idiosyncrasies, you might consider the possibility of presenting them alternatives to their various colloquial patois.

  • Ellen Dibble

    As I recall, al-kaeda is Arabic for The Base — speaking of “basically” – so I checked the history of our word “base,” which goes back to Old English “bas”(French a bas, downward? I’m thinking), to Latin “venire” (come) and Greek “banein” (go), and Sanskrit “gam” (to go) and Sanskrit “gati” (a going). I am cross-referred to the word “come,” which goes back via Anglo-Saxon cuman and German kommen to Latin venire (guen-ire, for comparison, the root being GwEM), and then to Greek banein and Sanskrit gam (to go). So that’s a second branching of that tree.
    Checking out GwEm as a (Greek) root, it relates to come, to go, to base, and — get this – to diabetes.
    I take back everything I said about etymologies being enlightening. I got that from Walter Skeat’s Concise Etymological Dictionary. Maybe if they included Arabic derivations, it would be clearer.
    Basically, al-kaeda can have it.

  • Sam Wilson

    I guess, its only in USA, where people refer, “A What?” instead of “Pardon me” or “Beg your pardon”

    Initially it sounds pretty offensive to most people outside N America.

  • Ishmael

    Why do people say “oh-nine” when they really mean “zero-nine”, in reference to the year referenced numerically as “2009″? “Oh” is — well, I don’t know what it is. “Zero” is a number, but “oh” isn’t.

    Then, truly linguistically challenged people are writing “vice” to mean “as opposed to”. I have no idea where this comes from.

    Lastly, what about politically right people saying “democrat” when they should say “Democratic”, to reference the Democratic political party? This is similar to the use of “nuc-yoo-ler” by people who wish to refer to nuclear phenomena — people who often seem to have little ligitimate claim to using the english language at all.

  • Ishmael

    … and misspelled the word “legitimate”, in an ironic twist. Thank goodness the post was about speaking and not about spelling.

  • Florence Radigan

    Thank you Tom” You hit the nail on the head” I said that purposely. One of the things I find annoying is when a “tragedy” is described as an”event”. The phrase “it speaks volumes’ is used to describe the most trivial things. Mark Twain said “say it in plain English”.Thats why I prefer radio to television because the language is used appropriately. Thank you Florenza

  • Ellen Dibble

    Sorry to post yet again, but I am pretty sure I know why a “tragedy” would be described as an “event.” This is a trickle-down effect from the carefully nonjudgmental language used in the courts. In court, any event under discussion is referred to as “the incident,” because it hasn’t been proven to even have taken place. In the case of “tragedy,” that carries evaluative freight. If a person died, the person died, but to call it a “tragedy” kind of gives an edge to the prosecution, and we want the defendant to get a fair shake. If the disaster is natural, not manmade, you still have to be careful, because you can be sure some insurer is trying to lay blame here or there, so an apparent tragedy might be deemed partially human failure (to warn, to prepare, etc.) down the line once the costs are totaled up.

  • Charles K.

    a Pet Peeve: It appears the missuse of ‘as’ and ‘like’ and their substitution for each other has become so commonplace that few people even mention it anymore or encourage the proper distinction. Does this suggest we are just too lazy, not being taught well or merely encouraging the linguistic shift?

  • Brett

    Ellen Dibble, from 03-17-10 @ 11:05am,
    Interesting point…(you may see my post later in the day, hope so) Anyway, what you are describing rings true. In many circumstances, as in the courts, or even if one were to hear (my attempt at a “subjunctive mood,” as it were) a “tragedy” termed as an “event” or even “incident” in the media makes a lot of sense. “Event,” for example, is somewhat more neutral than “tragedy” and doesn’t appear to put a value or “spin” in what occurred. Erin go bragh!

  • Ellen Dibble

    Brett, your posts are getting onto the thread way later than the times given. Last night you posted something that showed up this morning, but when I was putting up a post about “the base” and “al kaeda,” your post should have been there a half hour ahead of mine. It wasn’t. Today, your post shows 12:57 PM, yet it wasn’t on the thread about 8:00 or 8:30 PM. I have no clue what that’s about. Other postings show up instantaneously. Have you been bad lately? ;-) ;->
    Erin go bragh!

  • Andrew Ade

    Will Ben or someone dear language maven please help?

    I am a Pennsylvania-based college English professor who daily encounters students saying/writing the phrase “to be based off of,” as in “The movie ‘Clueless’ was based off of Jane Auten’s novel ‘Emma.’”

    What the hell is that? Don’t they mean to say “based on”? How can something be based “off of” anything?

    Thank you to anyone who can clarify this for me.

  • Naomi Bindman

    @loninappleton: “here’s a few more” should be: “here ARE a few more.”

    other common but incorrect usages that irk me: saying someone was “hung.” My grandmother used to say, “Curtains are hung, people are hanged.” (She also corrected “eating healthy” as “eating healthfully.”)

    And one for the pet peeves list: “Actually” to begin every sentence. Doonesbury had a great strip a while ago about this.

  • giginightingale

    starting every sentence (particularly in answering a question) with “so”.

  • Faith Huxley

    Welcome, Ben!

    Every time I hear “good” in response to “How are you?”
    I cringe internally… several times every day!!! Rarely does anyone say “well”, and even more rarely is “good” grammatically correct.

  • Brett

    It is interesting how people become armchair pedants regarding everyday speech. I find, all too often, the people who say “I’m well” latch on to a few pet peeves/simple rules of grammar but actually know little about grammar and usage.

    BTW, it is a pet peeve of mine that people use ellipses when they don’t mean an omission of superfluous words but substitute ellipses when a comma would be appropriate.

    Also, the comma goes inside the quotation marks at the end mark, no matter whether it’s part of the quoted word/phrase or not. The exceptions would be question marks or exclamation points–not sure about dashes, though (periods and semi-colons also go inside end quotation marks no matter what). Of course, unless one is in England (where the comma, semi-colon or period go either inside or outside, depending on it’s use in that particular sentence) the comma, semi-colon and period always go inside in the US. We are in the US (dear, Mother England is far, far away), so please do put your commas inside! Thank you!

    Oh, and one exclamation point will do, madam, despite your desire to overemphasize to us how you “cringe internally” everyday. The phrase “cringe internally” is redundant–at the least, verbose–as “cringe” can be either internal or external or both, and we don’t need that much specificity in knowing your internal responses to your external world. It is a bit like saying “I was nervous internally.”

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