Work of Art: A regime for the New Year

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By Art Trujillo

Possibly due to strict upbringing, or maybe because of a year with Sister Immer Richtig at Immaculate Conception School, I’m accustomed to saying, and, especially, hearing, “That’s wrong.”

Teachers are discouraged from using the “w” word, lest somebody’s ego gets crushed and Mommy and Daddy need to run interference for the brutalized child.     

Let me explain:

In what may seem like a concession on my part, on the part of the most persnickety Language Cop alive, I’m coming around to accepting the fact that language changes and — dare I admit it? — language is what people make of it, not necessarily what dictionaries say it is or should be.

Most dictionaries are descriptive, in the sense that they simply report how words are used. Textbooks generally are prescriptive, in that they explain usage called “proper.” Well, I didn’t really need prescriptions when I was a child; having my father monitor every word, in two languages, was prescription enough. And he was quite heavy on the “say it this way, not that way” admonition

Old habits die hard. Naturally, I chose the discipline about which I had received the most discipline. That is, Dad did the verbal disciplining, and I eventually chose to study languages. As either a teacher or a newspaper reporter/ editor, I filled my days with occasions to rough up someone else’s copy. “You must follow Associated Press style,” I repeatedly told those less experienced than I.

And the same thing happens in the classroom. Students in one class at Highlands even talked of buying me a set of rubber stamps, with the words “trite,” “cliché” and — my favorite — “n.s.w.,” for “no such word,” “That way, you can stamp these on the margins and don’t even need a red pen,” one student explained.

Ah, wouldn’t it be great if correcting stories and compositions were that simple! Now, before I come across as completely forsaking my profession as a comma-chaser, let me explain that teachers have the right to prescribe the kind of usage that goes into a composition. If the teacher decrees that “ain’t” isn’t a word or that the student must not use “I” or “me,” those are the rules.

But is there anything a teacher or editor can do to reverse the tide of verbiage that’s degrading our language? And is anybody prepared for the damage coming down the pike, wrought by texting? Lol!

Years back, a long-time editor of the Optic, Walter Vivian, apparently caught several errors in my copy and explained why I was never to use them again. He said, “Don’t ever misuse ‘hopefully.’“ The same for “comprise” and “regimen.”

That was more than 50 years ago. My editor had picked three terms which people still misuse. Have people always butchered these words, or is it as my friend and former colleague, Jessie (Querry) Farrington recently asked? She wrote, “I’m sure you must have written about words or phrases, like Black Friday, that all of a sudden everyone is using as if they have always been a feature of the language, but that you, at least, have only recently become aware of.”

Of course I’ve written about that question. Usually around election time, politicians move words like “conflate” and “convoluted” out of cold storage. Soon everybody’s using them, for all occasions.

People invariably misuse “hopefully” in constructions like “Hopefully I’ll get a raise.” Wrroonngg. We can say, “I hope I get a raise,” but “hopefully” means “full of hope.” And that expression might better be used in, “I opened my pay envelope hopefully, expecting a Christmas bonus.”

“Comprise” is not the same as “consist of” or “composed of,” and never ever the equivalent of “compromise.” And nothing can ever be “comprised of” anything. For example, people will say, incorrectly, “New Mexico is comprised of 33 counties.” Turn the sentence around: “New Mexico comprises 33 counties.” The larger unit (New Mexico) comprises — or embraces, or surrounds — the smaller units (counties).

And I’d get queasy when people would interchange “regimen” and “regime.” “I see you’re on an exercise regime,” my neighbor once said. “When I think of ‘regime,’ I think of a temporary form of government, usually in South America,” I told my neighbor.

Well, you can’t win ‘em all. As I was searching for documentation for my stance on “regime,” I came across a slew of dictionaries that use the terms interchangeably. To them, a diet regime is acceptable.

And even language maven Edwin Newman, in his book “Strictly Speaking,” gives “hopefully” a qualified thumbs up in expressions like “Hopefully, he’ll arrive on time.”

Experts still regard “comprise” as distinct from “compose,” but usage and custom probably will legitimize “comprised of.”

The closest my dad ever came to explaining why this word is right and that one is wrong was to insist, “because I said so.” He did, however, point out that where there are multiple meanings of a word, listed in the dictionary, the first one is “preferred.”

Strictly speaking, then, I proffer the injunction: check the dictionary so you will have an authority to fall back on. And because the dictionary is bound to change, replace it every three years or 100,000 words — whichever comes first.

Art Trujillo is a copy editor at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached by calling 425-6796 or by e-mail to artbt@rezio.net or atrujillo@lasvegasoptic.com.