Annoying Words

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When the devil wants to enrage old English teachers — an irascible lot, to be sure — he has people abuse and overuse certain words, among them the following examples.

To begin with simple words. Most people don’t seem to appreciate the difference between “may” and “might,” a distinction that used to be taught in the seventh grade, along with that between “lay” and “lie.” If you don’t see the differences among these words, observe how Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson use them.

How many times have you heard someone say “prior to” instead of “before”? “Prior to” has its proper place, as when we say that something is logically prior to something else, but as a rule “before” is better to indicate temporal order. “It happened a week prior to my birthday” is sluggish and pretentious.

I’m far from the first to complain that hordes of people now use “transpire” to mean “happen” or “occur” instead of “come to light,” “turn out,” or “be revealed.” This has become so common that the traditional usage is apt to cause confusion. An important shade of meaning has been lost to our language.

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Joe Sobran [send him mail] is a nationally syndicated columnist. See complete bio and latest writings. Watch Sobran on YouTube.

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