English is a largely syntactic language. Instead of using suffixes, prefixes and/or changes in spelling (like Latin, or Russian) to indicate the grammatical usage of a word, English puts a word in a specific place in the sentence. English, especially American English has a zillion and three words that can be used as several different parts of speech — noun, verb, adjective, etc., — depending on where you put it in the sentence. For example, there’s a big difference between “the right to bear arms” and “the right to arm bears.” (I’m waiting for the tee-shirt with the legend “the right to bear arms” and a picture of a person whose arms have been replaced by the forelegs of a bear.)
In fifth grade English class, we were taught to diagram sentences. Parsing, it’s called. You take a sentence apart, map out what grammatical roles the words play in it, and see how it works. Apparently, they don’t teach that in school any more, which may explain why I run across things like this: “…seems as though ‘hard SF’ refers to novels and stories written by mostly white dudes.” (What, I wonder, is a “mostly white dude.” An octaroon?) What she meant was “mostly refers to novels and stories written by white dudes.”
And lately I’ve been running into “in the meanwhile” — two of my most favorite authors have used it in their books (!) — and their book publishers’ editors seem to think it’s OK. No. I’m sorry. It’s not OK. It’s a horrible franknonsense monster* cobbled together from two perfectly good expressions: “in the meantime,” and “meanwhile.” I can go along with using “because” as a preposition, and I can play along with sticking “non-” on words that have perfectly legitimate “un-” forms (like using “nonresponsive” to mean “unresponsive”), but “in the meanwhile?” No. Just, no.
And then, on “How the Universe Works” — a Science Channel series I love and highly recommend — there’s this usually quite well-spoken Ph.D. (astronomy) who is describing how the orbital mechanics of Jupiter and Saturn disrupted the orbits of Uranus and Neptune, and caused comets from the Kuiper belt to be “slung-shot” into the inner solar system. I actually cringed when she said it. Darling**, if you use the compound noun “sling shot” as a verb, the business end of the verb would be “shoot,” because that’s what you do with it, shoot at things. It would have the grammatically correct, albeit awkward sounding present tense of “sling-shoot.” The past tense of “sling-shoot” would be “sling-shot,” since “shoot” is regular when a euphemism, but irregular when a verb.
And while we’re on the subject of word usage, I’ve been hearing the word “deserve” being used in commercials a lot, not only in ads for the “ambulance chaser” variety of law firms (“We’ll get you the compensation you deserve”), but for firms touting knee braces and back braces (“get the pain relief you deserve”). As long as we’re getting what we deserve, I believe I deserve more TV and fewer commercials, especially from attorneys who apparently have run away to join a media circus — We’ve got one who calls himself “The Strong-arm” and another who calls himself “The Gorilla.” They sound more like professional wrestlers than attorneys.