Thursday, July 30, 2009

What Is Pet Peeves?

Pet peeves


A PET peeve is something you find especially irksome, bothersome, or annoying. (Peeve is a noun created from the adjective peevish, which has been in English for centuries and whose origin is unknown.)

Pet peeves differ from regular peeves in that you return to them again and again in order to get upset or worked up about them. Some people take pleasure in whining (American for whinging) and moaning about something that annoys them.

Peeves are usually expressed in rants – long, repetitive statements coloured with negativity and accusation. Given the frequency with which people like to rant, it is, apparently, quite enjoyable.

Of course, a lot of people have pet peeves about language. Most of them are what I call borrowed peeves.

These are things that someone has heard someone else gripe about. They remember the energy, passion, and conviction with which the peeve was expressed and they are motivated by it – moved, even – to adopt those views themselves.

Teachers are often the spreaders of peeves. They have a captive audience, after all, and they can carp (complain) at length to an audience that might be receptive to ideas about which they have not yet had a great deal of education. The student sometimes follows the teacher and adopts the peeve for themselves.

Thing is, a lot of these peeves are wrong. Or at least, they don’t merit the kind of angry energy that is being directed at them.

Here’s one: a lot of people think that “till” is wrong in this sentence: “I’m leaving the house, so don’t go outside till I return.” They claim that the word should be “’til,” which is a contraction of “until”.

They’re wrong, though. In fact, both “till” and the “til” in “until” come from the same root. “Till” is actually the older form and has never fallen out of use. Both are acceptable.

Another one is “done”. Some people believe that you can’t say: “I’m done with school for the summer. I go back in autumn.” They claim that people can’t be done. They say only things can be done.

Of course, they’re wrong (or else I wouldn’t be mentioning it here). Of course people can be done with something! You can say finished, if you want, but there’s nothing wrong with done.

This kind of peeve is the result of over-analysis, in which people examine their own English to the finest level so that they can try to construct a rule from the barest understanding of how they themselves use a word. But of course, English is a messy language, held only loosely together by habits of disparate groups. Expecting consistency in English is like expecting dogs to sing and dance.

There are still, too, a number of people who believe that new words should not be created in English from the roots of different languages, such as Latin and Greek.

My response is, why in the world not? Some Latin is based on Greek, anyway, and English is the biggest mutt (a mixed-breed dog) I know. English can handle it!

And so can English speakers.

This kind of peeve is based on absurd notions of language perfection and purity. To call one language more pure or more perfect is merely an opinion.

It is no more true than picking a particular star out of the sky and saying: “Oh, that’s the one! That’s the perfect star.” There’s no objective (scientifically fair) way to measure languages against each other.

Those who claim otherwise have minds clouded with patriotism, ethnic pride, and sometimes even bigotry (an intolerance toward people who are different).

But we love our languages the same way we love our children: they’re ours and they are part of us.

A classic pet peeve is to complain about the word “troop” being used to mean a single soldier. Peevers feel that this term should only be used to refer to a group of soldiers.

Problem with that is, that’s not how the American military does it. This usage is so widespread as to be ordinary there.

Which leads me to one of the bigger categories of peeving. That’s peeving about jargon.

Jargon is the language of professions. Each profession or trade has its own language that its practitioners used among themselves in order to speed communication.

It works.

But when that jargon leaks to the outside world, it can have the effect of repulsing people. That’s because they’re outsiders. If they were insiders, they would probably also use jargon without thinking about it.

Some language is not intended for everybody. If you find yourself feeling like language doesn’t sound right, then maybe you should either bone up on it (educate yourself about it) so that it sounds normal to your ears, or else butt out (mind your own business)!

> Grant Barrett is editorial director of Wordnik,, a new online dictionary that aims to collect every word in English.

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