For better or worse (mostly worse), I had to attend 12 years of Catholic school when I was a kid. My parents (well, mostly my Mom) were very religious, and wanted to make sure that I had lots of God in my daily routine. Grades 1–8 were in a school run by nuns, and for the most part they were nice enough, but there were several who definitely had a sadistic streak. We even had one nun whose main M.O. was to make you place your hand palm down on your desk, so that she could whack your knuckles with a metal ruler. These nuns ruled by fear, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I was deathly afraid of incurring their wrath.
One of these scary nuns was our English teacher, and that included learning all about grammar. In everything you said or wrote, your grammar had to be impeccable, or you risked injury. As a result, these things are etched deeply in my brain, and to this day I still can’t relax when I hear incorrect grammar.
The thing that set me off on this line of thought was yesterday being the 4th of July (American Independence Day, when we declared our independence from England), there was lots of quotes from the 18th century founders floating around. The one that irritated me, and has irritated me since I first read it, is in the Preamble to the Constitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.Preamble to the US Constitution
Why should that bother me? It’s the phrase “a more perfect union”. The word “perfect” is an absolute: something is either perfect, or it’s not. Therefore, one thing cannot be “more perfect” than another. You can get better, you can become closer to perfect, but once you are perfect, you cannot be more perfect.
Now why does this matter? It doesn’t! Everyone who reads that understands that it means “a better Union”. No one thinks the authors are treating perfect as a matter of degree; the intent of the words is clear. Yet every time I hear it, a voice in my head screams “No!!! That’s wrong!!!”. I think that this is the result of childhood trauma brought about by those sadistic nuns – a sort of long-term PTSD.
Speaking of absolutes, here’s another one: unique. It means “one of a kind”. It means that there is nothing else like it. So why do we hear things “one of the most unique experiences you can have!”? Or “she dresses in a very unique style”. Again, the meaning of those sentences is understood: they are using the word “unique” to mean “different”, as things can differ from each other by varying degrees. Still, every time I hear unique used this way, I cringe.
There are some grammatical patterns that have arisen long after my childhood, so I guess I can’t blame the nuns specifically for my aversion to them, but I think my tendency to notice these things is their fault.
Have you every heard someone say something like “I’ll try and do that by tomorrow”? The phrase should be “try to do that”. The first form says two things: “I’ll try”, followed by “do that by tomorrow”, neither of which makes sense by themselves. This is a form of lazy expression, like when people say “I should of left earlier” instead of “I should have left earlier”. “Should of” is forgivable in speech, as it sounds nearly identical to “should’ve”, but in writing there is no excuse for it. But there is no such similar-sounding justification for saying “try and” instead of “try to” – it’s just wrong.
So how about you? Are there any particular phrasings, ungrammatical or not, that irritate you when you hear them? Or are you one of the fortunate people who can accept that communicating meaning by emitting a series of sounds is amazing in and of itself, and leave it at that?