Posts Tagged ‘English language


Things You Say That Irritate Language Nerds: Part II

Several people chimed in to tell me they enjoyed my “Things You Say That Irritate Language Nerds” post from a few days ago, and that they wanted more. Never let it be said that I’m above blatantly pandering for attention, friends. I’m stepping up with another installment. But I’m also in a bit of a rush today — Erin is coming in for Mardi Gras, so I don’t have too long to spend on this one. I’m afraid today’s gripe is a bit of a softball…

Today’s Episode: “I could care less…”

You’ve probably noticed this yourself, how this phrase doesn’t really make any sense, but I’m sure many of you have never quite stopped to think about what’s wrong with it. That’s why I’m here, friends.

When someone says “I could care less,” they are typically using the phrase in a derisive way, so as to indicate they do not care at all about whatever the topic of conversation is:


BOB: “Hey, did you hear that the Lions are in town?”
BILL: “I could care less about football.”
BOB: “Actually, I meant literal Lions. They’re eating your grandmother right now.”

In this exchange, Bill’s intention is to indicate that he does not care about football. But that’s not what he’s saying. He’s saying “I could care less.” This means that on some level he has to care, because otherwise, caring less would be impossible. Whether he cares just a teeny bit or whether he cares immensely is unknown, because by its very nature this statement could be applied at any point of the caring spectrum above zero percent.

To illustrate this point, imagine a large plate of bacon. Bob has just cooked an entire slab and, unless Bill is a godless communist, he’s going to want some.


BOB: “Hey, Bill, want some bacon?”
BILL: “I could eat some bacon.”

And he can. Because the bacon is there and Bob is kind enough to offer some to Bill, even though he was kind of a pretentious jerk in Example 1. So Bob and Bill go back and forth until, alas, there is no more bacon. This is a sad event in anyone’s life, of course, but it’s inevitable, as the natural consequence of the existence of bacon is that people will eat bacon until there is no more bacon to be eaten. But Bill, whose phone rang during the meal and he had to step outside because he didn’t want his Vegan girlfriend to hear the sound of bacon being chewed, is unaware of this when he returns to the room.


BILL: “Can I have some more bacon?”
BOB: “I couldn’t give you more bacon.”

And Bob can’t. Because the bacon is gone. And now everybody is sad.

Anyway, try to imagine that “caring” is something that could be counted physically, like strips of crispy bacon. If Bill says “I couldn’t care less,” he’s saying that there is no caring to be had in regards to the subject at hand, which is what the person who says this always means. But when Bill says, “I could care less,” he is implying that there are, in fact, strips of caring still available, which is clearly not what he intends.

So, to summarize:

  • Say “I couldn’t care less” if the point you’re trying to make is that you don’t care about a subject.
  • Only say “I could care less” if the subject is something you have feelings about, but wish that you didn’t. Basically, this is the attitude of the film Brokeback Mountain.
  • Now that the bacon is gone, it’s Bill’s turn to supply the next plate of bacon. It’s only fair.

Things You Say That Irritate Language Nerds: Part I

I am, as I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned before, a high school English teacher. As such, I have a greater-than-average awareness of language, punctuation, and correct word choice. And although I try not to be an utter grammar Nazi about it, there are some things people say that are so blatantly incorrect that it makes me want to slap them with a cold fish.

This will undoubtedly be a series.

Today’s episode: “You have two choices…”

I hear this all the time. On TV. In the movies. Around the halls of my school. And frequently said by people who are, in fact, very intelligent. Despite this, they go forth with this horribly incorrect phrase.

  • “You have two choices… live or die.”
  • “You have two choices… study hard and pass, or slack off and fail.”
  • “You have two choices… chocolate with Bavarian Cream or the engine block of a 1972 Studebaker.”

In all of these situations, the person being spoken to is told he must make two choices. But he doesn’t. He has one choice. He has two options. If a person is being told he must choose between life or death, there is only that one choice — life or death. The choice is the action — the single action, mind you — of selecting between the available options. This is true no matter how many options a person has.

  • “You have six choices… life, death, a guided tour of the Wonka chocolate factory, electrolysis for that thing on your lip, a package of AAA batteries and a partridge in a pear tree.”

This person still only has one choice to make, because he is being given the option of choosing between these six items. Also, the person giving him this option is either patently insane or the host of the strangest version of Let’s Make a Deal in history. Which I admit may be the same thing.

Here’s a case where a person actually has two choices:

  • “You have two choices… save the baby’s life or allow him to grow up to be Hitler. Also, do you want fries with that?”

In this situation, the person being presented with the choice has two decisions to make. Will he allow an innocent baby to die even knowing he will eventually become history’s greatest monster? Plus — hey, fries? These are the sorts of moral implications that can weigh on a person for the rest of his life, especially if you start to consider such vital factors as “curly,” “battered,” or “cajun-style.”

But these four options come with two choices, not four, as some people will undoubtedly say.

Here’s an easy way to remember. When facing the situation, ask yourself how many decisions a person has to make. “Cake or pie” is one decision, which means one choice, which really means no choice because pie almost always wins. Unless it’s ice cream cake.

To summarize:

  • The number of choices is equal to the number of decisions, not the number of options.
  • Increasing the number of options has no effect on the number of choices that must be made.
  • Pie always trumps non-ice cream cake.

Using the right word MATTERS: An English teacher’s rant

This afternoon, I was doing some work for my ongoing horror movie project, which included a quick stop-in at, specifically the entry for John Carpenter’s 1978 classic Halloween. While I was reading, I noticed some unusual wording in the synopsis…

The first flick in the trilogy from director John Carpenter, Halloween almost single-handedly invented the 1980s slasher genre…

I read this a couple of times just to make sure I understood it correctly. “Trilogy?” The Halloween trilogy? What on Earth is GetGlue talking about? Who wrote this?

By what possible definition is the Halloween series a trilogy?

Now I admit, I’m a little more anal about my use of the term “trilogy” than most people are. To most people — and to the dictionary — any series of three can rightly be called a trilogy. Personally, I prefer only using the term for a story conceived to be told in three parts, rather than a series that happens to stop after the third installment. So by my definition, the Lord of the Rings series is a true trilogy, whereas the Blade series — to give just one example — is not. And yes, we can start splitting hairs about The Hobbit and whether it counts as part of the LOTR series or as a separate but related story or whatever. That’s not the point. The point is whether you’re as obnoxious about what you call a trilogy as I am or whether you  just go by the accepted definition, there is no way to count Halloween as a trilogy.

  • Number of Halloween movies, as of this writing: 10.
  • Number of Halloween films made with the involvement of John Carpenter: 2
  • Number of Halloween films made starring the character of Michael Myers: 9
  • Number of Halloween films, excluding the remakes and the weird part III, which doesn’t really count: 7
  • Number of Halloween films made before any sort of “reboot” was instituted: 5 (1, 2, 4, 5, 6)
  • Number of Halloween films that ostensibly follow Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode character: 4 (1, 2, 7, 8 )
  • Number of Halloween films in the reboot-remake series: 2
The point is, even if this entry had been written after only three Halloween films had been made (back in 1982, when GetGlue wasn’t yet as popular as it is now), that sentence STILL makes no sense, because Carpenter had no involvement whatsoever in the third one.
So the English teacher in me has a plea for all of you: think a little bit before you start writing things. A “trilogy” is not the same thing as a “franchise” or a “series” or an “array of miniature porcelain ponies.” It actually has a specific definition that would be very grateful to you if you would use it properly.
On behalf of the English language, I thank you for your time.

Time Travel Tuesdays: English as a Second Language

Even before I was actually an English teacher, friends, the rampant misuse of the English language drove me straight up the wall on a fairly daily basis. Now that I have to try to impart this information on young minds as my profession, it’s even worse. Here’s an old-school rant about people who just don’t talk good.

Oh — and I do now know the difference between “who” and “whom.”

August 17, 2002
English as a Second Language

As you may have gathered over the many moons I’ve created this column, I fancy myself something of a writer. Oh, I may not be Mark Twain or Julius Shakespeare or anything, but when it comes to stringing words together, I are pretty good.

And that, my friends, is why the way some of you out there are mangling the English language makes me want to scream gerunds at you in the past infarctive tense until your alliteration pops open like a dangling participle.

Now I don’t expect everyone to have the same brilliant grasp of the language that I obviously do, but there are certain blunders that are made over and over again. Blunders that common sense can fix. Blunders that irritate me enough to make weird “gerund” jokes like in the last paragraph.

I am brought to this state by something I see nearly every day here at the newspaper office — press releases announcing something as a “first annual” event. Great secrets revealed time, my friends: There is no such thing as “first annual!” It’s impossible!

Webster’s Dictionary defines “annual” as “an event that occurs yearly.” Webster’s also defines “annatto” as “a yellowish red dyestuff made from the pulp around the seeds of a tropical tree.” That has nothing to do with this rant, but I found it interesting.

The point is, the first time something happens, it cannot have occurred “yearly,” now can it? Nothing can be “annual” until at least the second time it happens! What you’re having is just the “first event!” Sometimes I find myself wishing an earthquake would swallow up these activities, thereby negating any possibility of there being a “second annual” event and making them feel quite foolish in the process.

And while we’re on the subject let me vent a little about how the way a lot of people misuse the word “anniversary.” “Anniversary” and “annual,” of course, have the same root word, “anno,” which was Latin for “year.” (Examples: “Hey, did you see what Billy wrote in Suzie’s Senior Annobook?” and “Remember when Latin was still a viable language? That was a heck of a lot of annos ago.”)

Teenagers are particularly guilty of this crime — you see them making schmaltzy eyes at their boy-or-girlfriend du jour and proclaim things like “it’s our one-month anniversary.”

No it isn’t! You can’t have a one-month anniversary! Anniversaries can only denote the passage of year-long increments of time! And you’re never going to last a year anyway because he’s going to dump you as soon as you introduce him to your friend on the cheerleading squad!

And you know what else bugs me? When somebody says, “I could care less.” People always use this term in an attempt to indicate that the level of concern they have for a certain subject — let’s say the gross national product of Tanzania — is as low as mathematically possible.

Well friends, you’re saying it wrong!

When you say that you could care less about the gross national product of Tanzania, then mathematically there is still some padding of concern beneath you! That means, on some level you care! What you mean to say is that you couldn’t care less, but evidently the mental exertion required to enunciate the phrase “n’t” is too much for people!

And since I’m busy using exclamation points, can’t we just end the suspense now and give Kelly Clarkson the grand prize on “American Idol”? ARGH, that R.J. guy just bugs me so much!

And furthermore does anybody know the difference between “who” and “whom”? I know I don’t know anymore! It’s impossible to keep track! Every time I say “who” I’m afraid it should be the other one! (Examples: “Okay, whom ordered the kegger and the eight gallons of Jell-O?” or “Have you seen Larry?” “Larry whom?”)

All of this adds up to one inescapable fact, guys. People just don’t know how to talk anymore! Why is that? Inadequate schooling? Lax parental involvement? The popularity of Country Music?

Whatever it is, sometimes it seems that Americans speak English as a second language. Especially in California. So let’s all make an effort, in the future, to talk more gooder whenever possible.

Do it for the children, my friends. Do it for me.

Blake M. Petit is one of five people left in this hemisphere who knows what a “gerund” is. Contact him with comments, suggestions or a list of the grammatical errors in this column, for those of you who didn’t get the joke, at

June 2023

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