Words, words, words: the good, the bad, and ‘hopefully’

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, January 31, 2007

My fascination with words should be no surprise to our readers. In fact, it’s words that brought our newest coffee companion and me together for the first time the other day.

Dr. Phil Minnaar, of Calgary, was in Cochrane distributing copies of his just-released book, The Positive Dictionary: Only Words with Positive Messages.

In this vest-pocket-sized contribution to a delightful life, Phil has compiled 704 English words with positive connotations, together with two-sentence motivational thoughts on each word.

“Every word conveys a positive message in the form of a positive action or activity which can be practiced on a daily basis,” says the educational management consultant originally from South Africa. For example:

“Celebrate: Celebrate the goodness in life. Celebration is an expression of joy and gratitude.

“Dare: Dare yourself to do what you think is impossible. To dare is to test your courage.”

“Congratulate: Congratulate those who have achieved something worthwhile. To congratulate is to recognize something well done.

In the midst of so much verbal negativity in the media these days, Phil deserves congratulations for drawing our attention to these sparkling gems of hope. The Positive Dictionary  is available in Cochrane at Westlands Bookstore and Bentleys Books.

While we’re on the topic of words, I’ve been noticing lately a disturbing trend in print and broadcast media toward using what many might regard as unacceptably bad English. But here, I’m not thinking of the “bad” bad of vulgarities and profanities – of which there is more than enough – but of bad grammar.

Even the venerable CBC is succumbing to sloppy English. In a recent news item on the shooting of wild horses, the reporter said, “[They’ve launched an investigation into] whomever is causing the deaths of the wild horses” – using “whomever” when “whoever” is the correct form, since it’s the subject of the verb “is causing.”

I was discussing this with Cochrane coffee companion Shirley Bays, a member of the Editors’ Association of Canada (EAC). She pointed out one of her own pet peeves in language abuse.

“Whatever happened to adverbs?” she asked, referring to instructions such as “Drive safe” instead of “Drive safely.”

I bounced my grammar concerns off my Toronto-based son James, also a member of the EAC. He conducted an informal e-mail poll among other EAC members. Here are a few of their pet peeves:

Dangling modifiers: “For sale: Large German Shepherd dog. Eats anything, specially fond of children” (Sue Innes).

Apostrophe abuse, as in the confusion of the possessive “its” with the contraction “it’s,” where “it’s” stands for “it is”  (Carolyn Wilker); and plurals of nouns, as in “banana’s” and “chair’s,” where there should be no apostrophe (Rosemary Tanner).

Overcorrection and case confusion, as in “between you and I” and “He told Jim and I,” where “me” should be used instead of “I”  (Dawn Loewen).

The use of “could care less” when what is really meant is “couldn’t care less” (Barb Adamski).

My concluding observation this week has to do with the tragically maligned word “hopefully.” Here’s a situation where several generations of writers and speakers of English have been wrongly accused of committing a grammatical error for making statements such as: “Hopefully, it won’t snow during the Calgary Stampede.”

In fact, “hopefully” is a member of a special group of words known as “sentence adverbs,” and we use other words in this group all the time – and no one ever would think of marking them wrong. Included in this group of words are: naturally, incidentally, sadly, realistically, fortunately, (not) surprisingly, and obviously. These words usually appear at the beginning of sentences, and mean things such as: “It is obvious that...,” “It is sad that...” and “It is hoped that....”

Hopefully, this settles the matter of words for this week.

© 2007 Warren Harbeck

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