Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Linguistic pet peeves

Working in a multinational environment in which English is the pre-dominant working language, I have noticed how non-native speakers pick up mistakes from each other. Here are five very common ones, which annoy me every time I hear them, as they are so simple to avoid.

Think out of the box: This actually means the opposite of what (most) people want to say when they use this expression. If something comes in a box, it is all standard packaged, mass-produced, ready to be unpacked and used as it is. Plug-and-play. Out-of-the-box. So to think out of the box is in fact to think conventionally, standard, with no extras or individual input.

What you probably want people to do is to think outside the box! Meaning that you have the box, or probably many boxes, that objects and ideas and ways of thinking are already stowed into, categorised and labelled. And you want new input, original ideas. You want outside-the-box thinking.

Fewer/less: ‘Fewer’ is used for things that can be counted. ‘Less’ for things that cannot. Fewer working hours and less productivity. Fewer coins and less money. Fewer mistakes and less incorrectness. Or, actually, more correctness. Maybe that is the reason why people make the mistake — the word ‘more’ is the antonym both for ‘fewer’ and for ‘less’.

It is exactly the same principle as for ‘many’ and ‘much’, but for some reason much fewer people make that mistake. Many working hours, much productivity, many coins, much money, many mistakes, much correctness.

How it looks like: No, no, no! You can ask or tell how something or someone looks, or what something or someone looks like. But not how it looks like or what it looks. It simply not correct although everybody seems to say it and thus confirm each other in making this mistake.

Eventually: It seems that in all languages apart from English, this refers to something possible, not something definite. Thus a sort of ‘maybe’. But not in English. Here, it means ‘in the end’, and I would go as far as to say that the vast majority of my colleagues use it in the wrong sense. Every time my Director says ‘we will do that iffentually’ (he’s Dutch), I wonder if he means that we will definitely do whatever he is talking about at some point, or if he refers to the possibility of doing it.

A friend showed me recently how the Oxford Dictionary (as opposed to Merriam-Webster) does list the possibility of ‘eventually’ meaning ‘maybe’. In that case, I recommend using a different word as to avoid confusion. 

Encode: This is a frenchism. In French, it refers to writing a computer programme or simply entering (for example) data into a system. Work environments influenced by French native-speakers risk introducing this verb in English when they mean just that. In English, as in most languages, it refers to the opposite of ‘decode’, i.e. to convert something from coded language to uncoded language. To encode is thus to put something into code language. If you want a word for entering data, just use …well, ‘enter’.

If you recognise any of these common mistakes in English, I very much hope that you will state an excellent example by starting to make fewer mistakes, thinking outside the box to eventually show what correct English sounds like, so that there is no need for decoding.

Happy talking :)
©2015 Bjørn Clasen 

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