Language abuse ‘like flea in a goblet of finest wine’

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, February 7, 2007

Considering the overwhelming response to last week’s column on the English language, it appears our coffee companions are real lovers of words.

David Forbes, longtime newspaper editor in the Cochrane area and now a journalism educator, wrote:

WONDERFUL COLUMN. You certainly have a penchant for proper grammar. I am not an expert when it comes to grammar, but have been appalled at the poor writing skills from first- and second-year college/university students who believe they can write.

One of my brothers brought to my attention a few idiosyncrasies. People sometimes talk about a "good" friend. Could they have a "bad" friend? People fill "up" their gas tank. Could they fill "down" their gas tank?

One of my pet peeves is the inappropriate use of apostrophes. I loved the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss (2003). A delightful little book. If you have not yet read it, do.

—David Forbes, Medicine Hat

SEVERAL OTHER readers strongly recommended Eats, Shoots & Leaves, too.

It’s not just punctuation that grabs reader attention, however. While I was at Cochrane Coffee Traders the other morning, hockey enthusiast Doug France approached me with what he regards as two words greatly overused by hockey players in television interviews: “obviously” and “awesome.” Obviously, he’s heard the same interviews as I with these awesome sports icons.

Edmonton coffee companion Colleen Chapman’s pet peeve is the tendency these days to turn nouns into verbs, and words in general into one-letter text-messaging lingo. “To party, to text message – R U with me?” she asks.

Mumbai, India, coffee companion Raj Patwardhan put it well: “When one encounters such abnormal usages, it feels like a flea in a goblet of finest wine.”

Kathleen Adamson responded about the relationship between language and listening. A scholar of Middle East antiquities, she’s also been conducting research into the Rebellion of 1837 in Upper and Lower Canada. She wrote:

IT IS MOST interesting in the course of the historical work I am doing on the 1837 Rebellion to read original documents from that time. The language is so different – more subtle, more artful and more circumspect, even from writers who were not particularly highly educated. Much can be said by not saying something, by skirting around it, by artful devices of expression which convey exactly what the writer means, without saying it openly.

Of course in our society, no one has – or at least takes – the time to communicate in this way. It is the difference between billboards and water colours. In the hammer-direct way we communicate now, nothing is required of the listener, and then we wonder why people are not good listeners now. The art of listening, like any art, has to be practiced, but when the communication is in-your-face and unsubtle, who needs to develop the skill of listening?

I often wonder if this is not part of the problem between the United States and the Arab world: The Arabs are a subtle people whose convoluted and antithetical thinking, I am sure, escapes even diplomats in the West. Miscommunication is a large and dangerous fact of life on the international stage.

Words are so important. What a shame we don’t weigh them more carefully.

—Kathleen Adamson, Schomberg, Ont.

ALBERTA “WORDMAN” Jack Popjes was especially moved by last week’s reference to Phil Minnaar’s new book, The Positive Dictionary. While travelling in the United States, Jack responded with his own recommendations:

HUMAN LIFE is full of broken bodies and broken relationships. Here are some of my favourite descriptive words with a positive message:

Operable. Curable. Remission. As in, "I am sorry to say that you have stage four cancer, but the positive aspect is that it is operable, that with treatment it is curable, and you can expect the cancer to go into remission."

And some positive action words:

Forgive: To forgive someone who has hurt you feels as good as being forgiven and relationships are restored.

Rescue: To rescue is to help someone out of a dangerous situation that they cannot get out of by themselves – as soon as they are ready to be helped.

Find: Finding things, people, pets, and causes that were lost generates some of the greatest joys human beings are capable of feeling.

Heal: Healers help human bodies do what they are designed to do: overcome whatever illness that afflicts them.

—Jack Popjes, San Jose, California

HERE ARE SOME other coffee-companion recommendations for further reading on words and grammar: Bill Bryson’s 1990 book The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way; Michael Quinion’s very popular World Wide Words website,; and Bow valley communicator John Hall’s language website,

© 2007 Warren Harbeck

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