When Trying to Sound Intelligent Backfires

So, I’m at a writers’ conference—a professional setting, yes? With folks who are clearly well educated, especially about the use of words, yes?–and this is what I hear: “Just give Jim and I a call, and we’ll talk it over.”


Then came a recent commercial on TV, where a supposed doctor was saying, “This product has been tested by myself and others in the medical field.” Good grief. I shut off the TV and escaped to a published book, where I’d surely find respite from the rotten use of language, only to find this awaiting me: “…the choices which he had made would come back to haunt him.”

Double cringe.

And don’t even get me started on those signs in grocery stores that say the express lane is for “10 items or less.”


Okay, yes, I know you can’t edit speech. And expecting grocery store owners to know proper grammar is a bit pie-in-the-sky. But here’s the deal: we writers are surrounded by the improper use of the English language. And while walking around correcting the errors people make in speech will garner you far more resentment than gratitude, I do think we need to be aware enough to (a) use these terms correctly in our writing and speech and (b) correct improper usage in our personal sphere of influence, such as with our kids or those who consider us mentors of any kind. Or the folks who read what we write. Not because we’re the grammar police or want to show others how very intelligent we are, but because we’re wordsmiths. And because, Twitter and texts notwithstanding, using language well still matters. And trying to sound intelligent only works when use language correctly.

Next week, I’ll give you some guidelines that I keep in mind (not, you will notice, which I keep in mind) as a wordsmith. But for now, I want to hear from you, fellow wordsmiths, about two things:

First, if you have elements of English that cause you grief. Does the use of which/that stymie you? Are you confused (as I confess I still am at times) as to whether something is laying or lying? Let me know and if it’s something I’m not already addressing next week, I’ll suss out simple tricks to help.

Second, what language or grammar gaffes set your teeth on edge? I’m guessing I’m not the only one bothered by these kinds of things.

Ready? Set. Go!

69 Responses to When Trying to Sound Intelligent Backfires

  1. Avatar
    Chris Storm September 30, 2015 at 5:12 am #

    A friend sent me this text: “My birthday was funner than I imagined. ”
    I replied, “Great but I think you meant to say ‘more fun’.”
    She replied, “No. I meant to say funner. I like that word better.”

    • Avatar
      Ivane Luna September 30, 2015 at 6:41 am #

      Cringe. I actually use that word all the time. I know it’s incorrect, but it’s so much funner to say. *grin*

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball September 30, 2015 at 11:49 am #

      I promise not to rant. Really I do.

      Okay, maybe I don’t.

      Since when is using language well about what we like? ARGH!! That’s like saying “I like it better when 2+2=22.” Liking something doesn’t change the fact that it’s wrong.


  2. Avatar
    Louise Gouge September 30, 2015 at 5:17 am #

    I have two pet peeves:
    Between you and I, it’s a secret.
    Me and Joe are going to the movie.

  3. Avatar
    Deborah Raney September 30, 2015 at 5:22 am #

    Two that have popped up more than once recently are using “verses” instead of “versus” and using “peeked” or “peaked” when the person actually means “piqued” as in “That piqued my interest.”

    I give people much more leeway in casual e-mails and text messages. But yes, it’s all I can do not to correct grammar mistakes. But I KNOW I’ve made them too, and I’m grateful for people’s grace when I do.

    • Avatar
      karen Ball September 30, 2015 at 11:58 am #

      Sigh. I should have read your last line before letting myself rant in my reply to Ivane. Show grace.

      You reminded me of last Thursday night, when at my coffee group, one of the gals pointed out 1 Peter 2:27, which tells us to “Honor all men” or, in other translations, “Honor all people.” The people are more important than the grammar.

      Doesn’t mean I’ll give up on encouraging proper usage of the language. But I need to do it with a little less…snark.

      Thanks, Deb. You’re so good for me!

  4. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser September 30, 2015 at 5:52 am #

    OK, here’s a question…using the first example you gave of “Just give Jim and I a call…”

    If one wanted to use that kind of error deliberately in dialogue, either to show the level of sophistication or cultural background of a character, how would one point it out without sounding tendentious?

    Most readers would probably consider it a ‘minor’ mistake, and criticism would sound like nitpicking. Many would probably not think it a mistake at all.

    Would illustrating with a more egregious error be better? Or could the mistake be pointed out in dialogue as well, by a character who has the habit of putting on airs in this way?

    My favourite errors are in scientific, aviation, and military jargon be those who want to look like they’re In The Know.

    Case in point, “this weighs 10 kilograms”, or to be even more hip, “kilos”.

    Nope. A kilogram is a unit of mass. Something that has a mass of 10 kilograms has the same mass in weightlessness.

    The sea-level weight of your object is 98 newtons, but it’ll never be used except by geeks like me.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball September 30, 2015 at 12:03 pm #

      This is another reason to know how to use language well–so you can abuse it when you’re developing characters in your writing! What you suggest would be fine, depending on what level of education–or the lack thereof–you want to show in your character.

      Using the proper jargon, though, is a different issue. The only way to do that, unless you’re actually in the know, is to find someone who uses the appropriate jargon all the time.

  5. Avatar
    Beverly Snyder September 30, 2015 at 5:53 am #

    Thank you. Several of those drive me crazy. And I’m certainly not a seasoned wordsmith.
    Karen, I wonder if something is missing from your sentence just before the paragraph beginning “Next week…”: “And trying to sound intelligent only works when use language correctly.”

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball September 30, 2015 at 12:05 pm #

      Too funny! I’m laughing that I made a mistake in that specific sentence! See? We all make mistakes.

      The sentence should read: “And trying to sound intelligent only works when we use language correctly.”

      And this is why we all need copyeditors!

  6. Avatar
    Johnnie Alexander September 30, 2015 at 6:07 am #

    Here’s mine: pore/pour. No one can “pour” over a document unless her superpower is to become liquid.

    • Avatar
      Andrew Budek-Schmeisser September 30, 2015 at 6:21 am #

      Reminds me of the Reader’s Digest story of a fire at a college library. A professor was watching, turned to a hose-wielding fireman and said, “Poring over some old books, eh?”

      To which the literate fireman’s reply was to hose down the prof, for to pun is to throw a stone from one’s glass house.

    • Avatar
      Deanna September 30, 2015 at 8:59 am #


    • Avatar
      Karen Ball September 30, 2015 at 12:06 pm #

      Oooh, good one, Johnnie!

  7. Avatar
    Robin Patchen September 30, 2015 at 6:12 am #

    I rarely comment anymore, Karen, but you’ve found a subject near and dear. The less/fewer thing drives me nuts, especially when applied to people. I can still hear my journalism professor saying, “people are never less.” Oh, and when people are referred to as “that,” as in, “the man that uses poor grammar…” People are always “who.”

    I’m still annoyed when people use “proven” when they mean “proved.” I was taught that proven is an adjective, i.e. “a proven fact,” and proved is the past and perfect tense of the verb “prove,” i.e. “The scientists have proved…” But it seems I’m behind the times, because even Merriam-Webster allows for proven today.


    • Avatar
      Karen Ball September 30, 2015 at 12:09 pm #

      Don’t you find it fascinating–and a bit disheartening–when even Webster’s gives way to popular, albeit incorrect, language? I’m dreading the day when YOUR becomes UR and so on.

      Double sigh.

  8. Avatar
    Sue Faris Raatjes September 30, 2015 at 6:21 am #

    I cringe when television reporters say, “He had ran the red light.” The young one also seem to use “funnest” a lot. In their profession, they should know better.

    Confession: occasionally, in conversation I will purposely misuse “who” & “whom” to avoid sounding like a stuffy old English teacher (even though I “are” one!)

    • Avatar
      Sue Faris Raatjes September 30, 2015 at 6:23 am #

      Please add an “s” to the above comment. Edit, edit, edit.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball September 30, 2015 at 12:15 pm #

      True confession time. I seldom watch the news because I find myself muttering at the language gaffes all through the broadcast.

      • Avatar
        Iola October 1, 2015 at 2:33 am #

        I also don’t watch the news – where I live, they insist on telling it in the present tense (using lots of -ing participles), even when it’s already happened not something that is currently happening.

  9. Avatar
    Jennifer Hallmark September 30, 2015 at 6:45 am #

    Please explain the that vs. which rule…

  10. Avatar
    Mocha with Linda September 30, 2015 at 6:46 am #

    Oh, you are singing my song! The improper use of “I” and “myself” are like fingernails on a chalkboard to me! And those same people who overuse “I” often start a sentence with “Me and my friend….”

    And ditto Deb’s comment about people not using piqued. As well as the gal who mentioned “poring” over the book. And don’t even get me started on apostrophes for plurals! LOL

    One other irritant that has become so common today is “gone missing.” Inanimate objects don’t “go” anywhere. And people don’t “go” missing either. It makes me “go” crazy. 🙂

  11. Avatar
    Peter September 30, 2015 at 6:56 am #

    10 items or less goes to arguments of countable vs uncountable objects, so if it can be counted, fewer applies. Well, my take on English is that, as the most mature of all languages, usage is adaptable. Indeed, the US led the way in adapting words like cheque to check and so on. Hence chronic is now in the Oxford as a “serious illness”, even though it implies only a time-related illness. If I was a supermarket owner, I would want to achieve my primary objective, which is to communicate a message … I actually want everyone with more than 10 items to do something unmentionable on a family blog – a message not just for the wordsmiths in the queue or is that cue. So to me, less is, in this case, more, well more or less so. I must then reflect on Americanisms and Dolittle’s contention that English has not been spoken much there for a while and ask, “why do so many, even at scriptwriter level, fuss about precisions that seem so out of context to the story (as in a hillbilly with no teeth caring about whether it is I or me that is about to be hit), yet they happily say “different than”. To the point of fewer or less, difference is an absolute, not a relative reference, so it is different to, except of course in the US where it seems okay to say “Can I have a hotdog” or “We will deplane shortly” or better yet, my all time favorite on a flight into Newark: “At this time will you please put away your laptops, close your window, stop staring so obviously at that turban (try the turbine outside, that might help), and fasten your seat belts” – methinks “now” would be adequate.

  12. Avatar
    Ivane Luna September 30, 2015 at 7:02 am #

    Choosen instead of chosen. Bugs me every single time.

    Also, it really gets me when people misuse “big” words to sound intelligent. A friend was saying something about “delusion of grandeur fuss”. In my mind, I was like, “What are you talking about?”

    (Is it just me? Were you extra careful with your grammar while writing your comment? I was almost afraid to post a reply.)

  13. Avatar
    Pam Meyers September 30, 2015 at 7:25 am #

    So many times I hear or read statements saying something like. “Summer vacations were always the best for my brother and I.” Of course it should read my brother and me. I even see authors doing this on Facebook and that’s a double cringe. LOL

    Also the wrong use of insure. Many times the correct usage is ensure. Insure is to be only used when speaking about the kind of insurance we buy to protect us. I sometimes wonder if people aren’t aware there are two ways of spelling that word.

  14. Avatar
    Sue Faris Raatjes September 30, 2015 at 7:26 am #

    Worse grammar-correcting story ever: Years ago, a friend emigrated from Europe. She received a letter from her fiance back home. With a red pen, she corrected his grammatical mistakes and returned the letter. Obviously, he called off the engagement. There’s a time for correcting and a time for compassion.

    • Avatar
      Sue Faris Raatjes September 30, 2015 at 7:27 am #

      Yeesh. I meant “worst”…….shows how easy it is to slip up. Keeps me humble, I guess.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball September 30, 2015 at 12:21 pm #

      Okay, I’m passionate about using language well, but for her to do that was just…

      SO wrong!

      Grace. Grace. Grace…

  15. Avatar
    Bobbie September 30, 2015 at 7:37 am #

    There/their Right/Write Past/Passed
    Any of these errors bug me, especially when I am reading. It brings me write (ha ha – got you) out of the story.

    • Avatar
      karen Ball October 3, 2015 at 7:47 pm #

      Bobbie, I’ve always said English has to be the most difficult language to figure out. The ways so many words are spelled and pronounced just don’t make sense!

  16. Avatar
    Lee Carver September 30, 2015 at 7:58 am #

    Incorrect grammar from a pastor speaking to the whole church and on camera bugs me the worst. The most common mistake is something like, “Thank you for inviting my wife and I…” When I spoke to the pastor later, he said “my wife and I” sounds better, more educated. And then there’s the modern use of “they/their” for the singular third person. I was fine with “his or her.” It’s become so frequent now that many people use “they/their” even when they know the sex of the singular person. It may be a few years before I can accept this down in my little nit-picky heart.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball October 3, 2015 at 7:49 pm #

      Boy, I’m afraid I’d have told the pastor it only sounds more educated to the uneducated. And you know, I don’t think that’s being disrespectful because he made it about sounding intelligent, and he’s greatly mistaken.


    • Avatar
      dorothy de kok October 6, 2015 at 12:09 am #

      I love our pastor, even though there were EIGHT ellipses in his last 10-line comment in the church notices. But I am learning to overlook them.
      However, I warned him that if ever he wanted to write a book, I would NOT let him do it without my help. So now I have been asked to edit his memoir, “From Heroin to Hero in Jesus”.

      You should see all the ellipses… :-/

  17. Avatar
    Donna Clark Goodrich September 30, 2015 at 8:19 am #

    Pet peeves: it’s/its; lightning/lightening; lose/loose; me/I; led/lead, and our pastor always referring to “the book of Revelations.”

  18. Avatar
    Carol Ashby September 30, 2015 at 8:21 am #

    It truly grinds my gears when I see “10 items or less” instead of “10 items or fewer,” especially when I have 11 items and all the other lines are long and slooow.

    As for “funner”, let me add some complexity to the issue.

    “Reading is fun, but writing is (funner)(more fun).”

    The correct choice comes down to whether “fun” is a noun or adjective. The general rule for making an adjective comparative or superlative is determined by the number of syllables. If one, the comparative adds “-er” to the basic word and the superlative “-est.” If three or more, the comparative is made by adding “more” and the superlative by adding “most.” If two syllables, it depends on the specific ending of the word. As a noun, a quantity of “fun” is not counted out with numbers, so the correct modifiers would be “more” and “less” (not “fewer”).

    By this analysis, it is clear that you can be more fun if it is a noun for you and funner if it is an adjective. In other words, everybody can be right! So, does clarifying this make me funner, more fun, or just a grammar-loving troublemaker?

    This post is fun, Karen, but not the (funnest)(most fun) I’ve seen.

  19. Avatar
    Sarah Bennett September 30, 2015 at 8:58 am #

    “I’ll give you some guidelines that I keep in mind (not, you will notice, which I keep in mind).” Oh, Karen, how I laughed at THAT sentence. I am hypersensitive with “that/which” because I’ve been told by more than one editor that it is lazy to use the word “that.” But, to be honest, it’s helped me learn the proper use betterer. 😉

    My sister now adds “I don’t care how it’s spelled” on some texts to ward off my Pavlovian response. 🙂

  20. Avatar
    Davalynn Spencer September 30, 2015 at 9:27 am #

    “These ones.” Aaaauuuugh!

  21. Avatar
    Morgan L. Busse September 30, 2015 at 9:42 am #

    I know I’m not very good at grammar, but that doesn’t stop me from searching out the right word usage when it is brought to my attention. However, for a long time it hurt when someone would point out my mistakes in a way that made me feel stupid. Then one day I realized that my grammar mishaps keep me humble and remind me that I am human, and to give grace to others.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball October 3, 2015 at 7:52 pm #

      Well said, Morgan. Back to honoring all people, right?

  22. Avatar
    Faith McDonald September 30, 2015 at 9:47 am #

    The statement I hear often that drives me crazy: “the reason why is because…” Why not say: the reason is…

    I struggle to use affect/effect correctly. I used to know, but then I started teaching college writing. Students use affect/effect wrong so often that I got confused and can’t tell the difference. I have to look the words up every time. Give me an easy way to remember, beyond affect is action…because effect is action sometimes, too. Isn’t it?

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball October 3, 2015 at 7:53 pm #

      Good question. I’ll tackle it next week.

  23. Avatar
    Carol Ashby September 30, 2015 at 9:53 am #

    Karen, are you going to expound on the difference in meaning conveyed by “will” and “shall” and how that varies depending on whether it is 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person?
    We wrote out dozens of drills on will/shall in elementary school in the 1960’s, so it must be really important.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball October 3, 2015 at 7:53 pm #

      No, but you can feel free to do so!

  24. Avatar
    Holly Varni September 30, 2015 at 12:20 pm #

    I give people grace when they speak. It doesn’t bother me as much as seeing the written word mutilated. It’s texting, quick emails and twitter that has destroyed the English language. My niece wrote on a note, “Thx 4 the gift! I luv it cuz I can use it now! When r u coming to visit? I’ll prolly see ya guys soon!” She’s nineteen and believes that is the proper way to write someone. I literally started to hyperventilate.

    P.S. Karen, I am officially terrified to ever speak to you.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball October 3, 2015 at 7:54 pm #

      LOL! Holly, don’t be afraid. I really don’t correct people often. It’s more of an inner agony.

  25. Avatar
    rochellino September 30, 2015 at 12:34 pm #

    This has been a very entertaining hoot! To the average person we probably sound like a bunch of highfalutin elitists. Having been a member of Mensa for the past few decades this discussion is far from new to me. It is a chronic source of vociferous complaint heard (and sometimes voiced) by many of my fellow eggheads. BLOVIATING ABOUT IT GIVES US A GREAT OPPORTUNITY TO EVENTUALLY LAUGH AT OURSELVES AND OUR MOMENTARY POMPOSITY.

    A wise old business attorney advising me as a young man before going into court with a case I brought once said “there is the technical law and then there is the practical law”. I applied myself to learn fully what that meant. I, many times, apply such sage advice to the English language (and many other things) as well. Excusssssse me! lol

    To me, the English language is liquid, constantly in transition and “changes” imperceptibly at the speed of a glacier, particularly when incorporating slang as it presents itself. My guess is that most people wouldn’t even know what we are talking about, much less care. Just sayin!

    God Bless

  26. Avatar
    Steve Laube September 30, 2015 at 5:12 pm #

    When I was employed as an editor for Bethany House I was tempted to get a vanity license plate that read “EDITUR” !!?!! It would have been perfect for my inability to porfread my own writing.

    Now it would have to read “AGNT” and no one would understand.


    • Avatar
      rochellino October 2, 2015 at 6:07 pm #

      hahahahahahahahaha, Think of all the entertainment you would provide facilitating folks feeling better about themselves

      “Look Myrna, everyone knows its spelled editer”

      “Look at the guy over there “AGNT” means he’s “against” something, I wonder what? People are never satisfied”

      God Bless!

    • Avatar
      Ivane Luna October 2, 2015 at 8:59 pm #

      People might actually read that as “America’s Got No Talent”. I immediately connected it with the TV show. *grin*

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball October 3, 2015 at 7:56 pm #

      Steve, I almost got that very same license plate! As for the Agent plate, how about AJINT?

    • Avatar
      dorothy de kok October 5, 2015 at 11:57 pm #

      Or you could just use ‘A GENT’ and the ladies would smile as you pass by. 🙂

  27. Avatar
    Janet Ann Collins September 30, 2015 at 5:37 pm #

    English is a living language and some things mentioned, like the way teenagers talk, will probably become accepted usage in the future. But some of the grammatical mistakes mentioned give me the creeps. It’s like the difference between an instrument from another culture that sounds weird to us and the sound of fingernails scratching on a blackboard.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball October 3, 2015 at 7:57 pm #

      Janet, for it it’s more like something taking an instrument I know and love, like the flute, and using drumsticks to play it. It’s just wrong. And, at times, it hurts.

  28. Avatar
    Burton September 30, 2015 at 9:37 pm #

    Why do people say ray-she-oh if they don’t say nay-she-un? It’s ray-sho and nay-shun. Ratio and nation.

    • Avatar
      Janet Ann Collins October 1, 2015 at 7:21 am #

      Burton, I think that’s a dialectical difference. People pronounce words differently in different parts of the country. I was once in poorly administered internet critique group and didn’t sty with it long, but I did learn from the comments things that scan and rhyme in some dialects don’t in others.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball October 3, 2015 at 8:01 pm #

      Burton, that’s a whole different blog. As Janet said, that’s more about regional differences in pronunciation. In my own home we talk about taking the dogs to bathe in the creek (pronounced as both creak and crick), about shooing birds off the roof (rufe/ruff), and pulling clothes out of the washing machine (warshing/washing).

      I love regional differences like that.

  29. Avatar
    Candace Blevins October 4, 2015 at 6:27 am #

    I live in the south, so my pet peeves are double subjects, double negatives, and double superlatives.

    Oh, and “Me and her went to the store.” Ugggg.

  30. Avatar
    Cynthia Dawn October 4, 2015 at 4:05 pm #

    I have a lot of fun answering the question, “How are you?” I always answer with. “I am well.” Then I ask them how they’re doing, and they respond, “I’m good.”

    I then say, “Only God is good. The Bible says, ‘There is none good, no not one.”

    And then comes the puzzled expressions and theology debates… ^_^

  31. Avatar
    dorothy de kok October 5, 2015 at 11:52 pm #

    As an academic editor (who is sometimes called in to do fiction editing), my greatest axe movements are applied to the use of infinite verbs. E.g. ‘Leaning toward her, heart beating and pulse racing, the moment of truth dawned on him…’

    That’s one amazing moment of truth!


  1. When Trying to Sound Intelligent Backfires - Th... - September 30, 2015

    […] So, I’m at a writers’ conference—a professional setting, yes? With folks who are clearly well educated, especially about the use of words, yes?–and this is what I hear: “Just give Jim and I a call, and we’ll talk it over.” Cringe. Then came a recent commercial on TV, where a …  […]

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