Saturday, September 20, 2008

More Words I Hate

It's been a while since I last wrote about words that I dislike, so by now I have a few more examples ready to share.

Cedar wax wing fledgling wiht thought balloon that says I am not a country, I am a free birdFirst is a word I actually like but am soooo sick of hearing in one specific phrase: fledgling nation. There was a week recently when I kept hearing those words repeated on the news ("The fledgling nation of East Timor..." "The fledgling nation of Kosovo...") and I thought, When that phrase was first used, it was a nice metaphor, but now it's wrecking the nest.

In my previous post on this topic, I talked about the phrases "a wealth of" and "a host of." In the same vein, this time I want to gripe about galore and aplenty. Not much better is abound -- as in that classic Realtor® phrase, "Closets abound." When I put all three words into one Google search, I found links to sites related to tourism, sports or real estate... none known for their measured use of the English language.

Enough about quantity over quality. Another thing that aggravates me is singulars made plural and plurals made singular. Two cases in point:

Person. It's definitely an oddity of English, but really, the plural of person should not be persons. It's people, right? I blame the police (or maybe police T.V. shows) for popularizing the "missing persons department."

Imagine if this usage had been common in classic song lyrics. We'd have Barbra Streisand singing "Persons... persons who need persons are the luckiest persons in the world..." or The Youngbloods admonishing us, "Come on persons now, smile on your brother, everybody get together try to love one another right now."

Okay, I just checked my dictionary (American Heritage) and it tells me that "persons" can be used for specific, small numbers of people, but that in modern usage "people" is also acceptable in that case. The British site World Wide Words says:

Though persons survives, it does so largely in formal or legal contexts...and often seems awkward and old-fashioned. Where it survives it emphasises that each member of a group is being considered as an individual: ...“Eight persons shared a single room”. From the evidence, it seems that the trend towards using people instead of persons is accelerating and that it may not be so long before persons vanishes from the language except in certain set phrases.
So it's not wrong, I admit, to use "persons" but it does sound fussy, legalistic and over-corrected, which is why I don't like it.

Newspaper story with headline Two troops die in AfghanistanTroops. Troop is a group noun -- it's a group (usually of soldiers). More than one group of soldiers can be referred to as "troops." "Support our troops" means support our groups of soldiers. One member of a troop (at least in the cavalry) would be called a trooper in the old days.

But nowadays each soldier has somehow become a troop of one, as in this headline recently run in the Star Tribune, which tells us that two soldiers died, not two entire troops. (And I would point out that the word "soldiers" would have fit in the same line width as "troops," so that's no excuse here.) Can I expect, one day, to read a headline that says "1 U.S. troop dies in Afghanistan"? Because if troop really means one individual soldier, that construction should be possible.

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