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Washington Voices

She can’t get over misuse of language

So, how are those New Year’s resolutions coming? I am happy to report that my one and only one – resolving that 2010 shall be my personal year of curmudgeonly embrace – is going swimmingly.

I know, gloating is so unseemly, but there it is. While I shall strive not to be a perpetual buzz-killer this year, I am pretty sure I can be sufficiently grumpy often enough to be true to my resolution. Let me roll out two current irritants – concern that our effort to blow apart the English language is climbing higher up the lexicographical food chain, plus I also have a few words about e-mail.

First, language. Sure, all sorts of poor word usage is expected in popular media and at the mall, but I gasped at the headline in last week’s The Economist. Although diminished some in recent years, the magazine provides insightful and intelligent stories from across the globe, including places where we don’t (but should) put much thought.

But, alas, the cover of the Jan. 2 issue showed one of those WWII Rosie the Riveter women flexing her muscles, with the cover line “What happens when women are over half the workforce.” Pardon my Associated Press Stylebook, but that is so wrong, fingernails-on-the- blackboard wrong.

The word “over” is most commonly used for spatial relationships, as in: Do you mind if I swing this ax over the top of your head? Yes, there are some other uses – St. Bernards towering over Chihuahuas and parents watching over their children – but that’s pretty much the rule. When in doubt, ask two questions: Does it sound right, and is it subject to misunderstanding?

As to the former, sadly, too many of us have no idea. So, defaulting to the latter – yes, in The Economist’s use, it is subject to misinterpretation. The cover line could easily mean that women supervise 50 percent-plus of the workforce. It should read: What happens when women make up (or are) more than half the workforce. Clean, clear and correct.

And to drive it home, the story on the inside has a subhead reading: “The rich world’s quiet revolution: women are gradually taking over the workplace.” The word is used correctly there, so someone on the headline writing staff at The Economist knows the difference. I sigh deeply that the over/more than misapplication has reached such a quality publication.

And since I’m on a roll, let me whine about a bit of grinding behavior: mass e-mails and the pathological need to forward them on to as many people as possible. Jokes, political diatribes, cartoons and cute bunny pictures – all of them arrive in my e-mail inbox every day, and from friends, yet. I appreciate an occasional online laugh or sentimental statement, even a pointed political observation. The ones I welcome are the ones friends have taken the time to consider that I might enjoy, knowing my tastes and peculiarities. That comes under the heading of selective forwarding.

But too many people forward e-drivel on to everyone in their e-address books, and with no filtering employed. I have gotten forwarded to me some of the most outrageous political rantings from friends who know I don’t lean in the direction being ranted about. C’mon, people, think about this. Are you tweaking me? Trying to persuade me? Hoping to annoy me? Or just not thinking at all? Yes, I believe it’s that last one.

And the absolutely worst of all are those forwarded e-mails that end with the suggestion that if I forward them on to 10 of my best friends, I’ll get lots of good luck or blessings or maybe a nice surprise back by e-mail. The words “nice” and “surprise” in the same sentence give me pause, and I’m pretty sure luck or blessings don’t result from online chain letters.

I know, I know – fussy old lady needs to get a grip. I have one – on the English language, I hope, but the language is getting so slippery (stay with the metaphor, please) that it’s hard to keep hold of it. And lest you think I focus too much on the subject, I still seem to be able to find other irritating behaviors to bring to your attention, like the e-mail thing.

Still, the English language will always be high on the list. It’s more than just curmudgeonly ranting. English is a wonderfully expressive, poetic and beautiful language – and I haven’t gotten over caring about it. (Proper usage of “over” noted, please.)

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by e-mail at Previous columns are available