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Op-ed

What happened to the English of Shakespeare and Milton?

With all the misuse of English — especially jargon and grammatical mistakes — our language is still alive and well, at least according to the 50-plus Sunpaper readers who responded to my Aug. 28 op-ed on jargon.

Nearly every person who answered listed his or her pet peeves. It was fun to categorize them. There are awkward phrases and verbose expressions; there are those words and phrases that instantly bring up strange visual images; and there are those words and phrases that are so ridiculous one can only laugh.

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Awkward phrases: Lynne Miller, my friend in Greenwich, Conn., puts "gone missing" at the top of her bad expression list. If someone is gone, wouldn't he or she be missing? And if a person were gone, that is, deceased, well, you might miss him, but he would not be missing!

Speaking of the dead, Thomas Shettle, a Baltimore reader, claims he saw a death notice in which a person "transitioned." "I hope he died first," wrote Tom. If he or she were a good person, I would hope the "transition" was from earth to heaven and not below!

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Adds Tom, citing the venerable "Wall Street Journal," a reporter wrote about someone "bellyaching." Ugh. That's a rather disturbing image.

Then there is wordiness — always awkward and a time waster for both the reader and the listener. Don't "reach out repeatedly; just call, and don't take it to the next level," says my friend Tim Armbruster, a wordsmith himself, and don't say "at the end of the day," just conclude, advises Tim.

Among the words and phrases that conjure up strange images is "skin in the game," writes Richard Fleishmann, another Sun reader. That one, I must say, makes my skin crawl.

Another abhorrent phrase, submitted by Jerry, who characterizes himself as "an 84-year-old high-school dropout," is the use of "a ton" to mean a lot. "A ton," says he, is "simply a weight of 2,000 pounds." Hyperbole taken to an extreme.

My minister friend Sharon, also a grammarian, says she can't help but be amused when she asks someone how he's feeling and he says, "I'm good." Does that mean he used to be bad?

Peter Bell, another Baltimore reader, cites the following "hated" visuals, as I call them: "let's be clear," "are you getting push back," and, as he accurately observes, today some politicians must, all too often, "walk back" what they said the previous day.

Two other so-called political expressions are "collaborative" instead of together and "proactive." Irwin Weiss, who submitted them, admits he "cannot stand" either.

Larry in New Jersey, writes "LOL," that he constantly sees in e-mails, for "I am laughing," is a pet peeve, as is "irregardless," which is not really a word and is also most annoying to W. Brooks Riley, another Baltimore reader.

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What has happened to the language of Shakespeare and of Milton? Do students today even study those great and timeless writers? In my "Great Writers in Small Doses: The Short Story" course at Hopkins, I have no problem finding stories by outstanding classical writers. I just wonder outside of classes how many people read great writers for pleasure.

Lest I sound like a curmudgeon, let me close with a laughable word and comment by Tim Armbruster, who has never been accused of lacking a sense of humor, a trait sorely needed in politics today. "Is 'interface'," asks Tim, "something one does with clothes on or off?"

Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Odyssey Program of Johns Hopkins, is president of BWB-Business Writing At Its Best Inc. and author of "The Feminine Irony" and "Working With Words in Business and Legal Writing." Her email is lynneagress@aol.com.


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