Petty Annoyances

Most who read my columns think that I’m only annoyed by politicians, growing government and Americans who have little respect or love for liberty and our Constitution. There are other things that annoy me.

One annoyance is people’s seeming inability or unwillingness to differentiate between the number zero and the letter “o.” I’ve had conversations with telephone operators who have told me that I can reach my party by dialing, for example, 31o-3o55. Sometimes I’ve asked, “If I follow your instructions, by dialing the letter ‘o’ instead of the number zero, will I reach my party?” They always answer no and that I must dial the zero. Then I ask, “Why did you tell me ‘o’ when you meant zero?” Our chitchat usually degrades after that. It’s not only telephone operators. How many times have you heard a student or teacher say, “He has a 4 point o GPA”?

I wonder whether the confusion stems from the fact that both o’s and zeroes are round. Here’s a definition that distinguishes them: “O” is a vowel and the 15th letter of the alphabet. Zero is defined as any number that when added to or subtracted from another number does not change the value of that number.

I recently made Microsoft Outlook my default email client, but I’m having a bit of a problem with it. When it’s initially turned on, there’s a message that reads, “Trying to connect.” Similarly, on a cloudy morning, I hear weathermen say that the sun will try to come out later. So if Microsoft Outlook didn’t connect or the afternoon didn’t turn out to be sunny, could we say it was because Microsoft Outlook or the sun didn’t try hard enough? But it’s not just computer software technicians and weathermen who use teleological explanations that ascribe purposeful behavior to inanimate objects. Recently, I listened to brilliant lectures on particle physics by a distinguished physics professor, who said that strange quarks want to decay. In a cellular respiration lecture, another professor said that one mole of glucose wants to become 38 units of adenosine triphosphate. I’m wondering how these professors know what strange quarks and glucose moles want to do; have they spoken to them?

You say, “Williams, you’re being too picky! What’s the harm?” There’s a great potential for harm when people come to believe that inanimate objects are capable of purposeful behavior. That’s the implied thinking behind the pressure for gun control. People behave as if a gun could engage in purposeful behavior such as committing crime; thereby, our focus is directed more toward controlling inanimate objects than it is toward controlling evil people.

How many times have you heard a statement such as “Harold and myself were studying”? When one of my students makes such a statement, I sometimes ask, “What if Harold were not studying with you? Would you say, ‘Myself was studying’?” That’d be silly. Words such as “myself” and “himself” are reflexive pronouns. Their proper use requires reference to the subject of the sentence. For example, “Harold injured himself.” A reflexive pronoun can also be used intensively for emphasis, for example, “Harold himself was injured.”

I have another grammar annoyance. How about when people make a statement such as “He is taller than me”? Whenever I hear such an error, I visualize Dr. Martin Rosenberg, my high-school English teacher during the early ’50s, putting both hands on his waist and sarcastically asking the student, “Do you mean ‘He is taller than me am’?” “Am” is the elliptical, or understood or left out, verb at the end of the sentence. The subject of a verb must be in the nominative case. To be grammatically correct, the sentence should be, “He is taller than I.”

Considerable evidence demonstrates that most people are not bothered by my petty annoyances. I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. It may be that it’s I who is getting old and out of touch, having been educated during ancient times when nonsense was less acceptable.

  • Paula Douglas

    You have just scratched the surface, Dr. Williams. There’s the complete inability of government school grads to distinguish between the contraction for “it is” and the possessive “its,” or between “your” and “you’re.” Recently there’s been an uptick in the number of people who think that “would of” is the same thing as “would’ve,” or at least more of them have been leaving Web commentary where I can see it. It’s not petty to be irritated by sloppiness in writing any more than it’s petty to be irritated by sloppiness in bridge engineering or brain surgery or the flying of passenger jets. All that slop has its source in the same inability or unwillingness to think clearly.

  • DogmaelJones1

    Speaking of grammatical gaffes, one that annoys me no end (and probably annoys Williams) is when someone over the phone asks me, “Where you at?” or “Where are you at?” Sometimes I answer, “I’m not ‘at’ anything. I’m here.” “Well, where’s that at?” “I’m right here.” “At” of course is completely redundant. “Where are you?” is perfectly clear. Another common confusion is over the meanings of “impel” and “compel.” When I hear someone say something like, “I was impelled to vote for Obama,” I can’t help but picture the person being catapulted in the direction of a polling station. And, yes, Paula Douglas, the confusion over “its” and “it’s” has reached pandemic proportions.

  • Tom von Mises

    Using “O” for zero in the Army was a quick trip to the twenty or fifty push-up line. Using it in aviation would get some strange responses from the tower or ATC.

  • Paula Douglas

    The same people who are impelled are probably impelled literally.

    I do make some allowances for regional speech patterns: It makes my boyfriend mental when I say, for example, “Do you want to come with?” Another friend says that that’s a regional tic of Midwesterners, but whether that’s true or not I generously forgive it in myself.

  • ConservativAtheist

    The statement “needless to say” is, more often than not, followed by a deliberate and detailed explanation of what did not need to be said.

  • writeby



  • writeby

    Oh, the humanity!

    · “there” (adv. (at or in that place); pronoun (unspecified person); adj. (as an intensive), noun (that place or point) or interjection (There, there)) for “their” (possession) or “they’re” (they are)
    · “then” for “than”—As in: “I like you better then him.” It’s “than him.”
    · “alright” (all right)
    · “alot” (a lot)
    · “would of” (would have)
    · “more happy” or “more fast,” etc. (it’s happier, faster, etc.)
    · “chester drawers” (chest of drawers)
    · “I could care less” (I could not (couldn’t) care less)
    · “my bad” (—my bad what? It’s “my mistake” or “my error” or even “I goofed.” There’s no moral component to an honest error.)
    · “liquid water” (Is there any other kind?) & “frozen water” (that’s called “ice”)
    · “At this point in time” (now)
    · “On account of” or “Due to the fact” (because)
    · “paradigm (model)
    · “metric” (standard)
    · “impacted” (affected—an impact is a collision.)
    · “role model” (example)
    · “deployability of the infrastructure” (I have no idea what this means.)
    · “acquisition integration” (ditto)
    · “it spoke to me” (I understood it; I was emotionally moved by it; etc.)
    · “obtain” –As in: “meaning obtained in the text” (I understood, etc., the text.)
    · “Predecisional” (meaningless—or simply: gathering the facts; researching; etc.)
    · “proactive”–As in: “We took a proactive approach.”

    o “We made a plan.”
    o “We anticipated the problem.”

    · “Think outside the box” (If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard some project manager spout this bizarre phrase, I’d be rich. Of what “box” are we speaking? Where is “outside” it?)

    As with slang, idioms, neologisms, etc., such expressions are vague, ambiguous, confusing.

    Instead, how about:

    o Invent a new device.
    o Or: Devise a new system.
    o Or: Use your ingenuity.
    o Or even: Be more imaginative in your solution to the problem.

    These identify clearly what is the “box” and what it means to “think outside it.”

    · “Gender” in lieu of “sex” when referring to whether someone is male or female. Gender refers to words:

    gen·der (jµn”d…r) n. Grammar. a. A grammatical category used in the analysis of nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and, in some languages, verbs that may be arbitrary or based on characteristics such as sex or animacy and that determines agreement with or selection of modifiers, referents, or grammatical forms.

    For instance, in Latin “praise” (lauda) is feminine, “war” (bellum) is neuter and “people” (populus) is masculine. English vocabulary has few such gender qualities, except the obvious.

    The point here is to be concerned with the usage of the words themselves, namely “gender” and “sex”:

    o We chose to learn the sex of our baby before birth, so we could decorate the nursery appropriately.

  • Paula Douglas

    You forgot “utilize.”

    I think that “gender” was originally substituted for “sex” by people who are obsessed with sex but squeamish about appearing to be obsessed with sex.

  • writeby

    And “incentivize.”

    So many jokes, so little time. ;o)

    Given the Puritanism of feminism, I’d agree.

    For a thorough evisceration of those who use words as cant, etc., please see:

    Especially Dr. Mitchell’s Less Than Words Can Say:

    ” ‘Words never fail,’ Mitchell declares–and inane words never fail to damage the brain. All too often, words are used imprecisely by administrators and bureaucrats, as unintelligible public documents, oblique grant proposals, and pretentious administrative memoranda attest. Mitchell’s cantankerous crusade indicts government agency “chairs” for the intimidating and obfuscating “legalese” of their profession, obsequious grant-seekers who supplicate foundations in time-honored cant, and aspiring academics who speak in the Divine Passive.

    “According to Mitchell, this bureaucratic jargon is turning us into a nation of baffled, inept, frustrated, and–ultimately–violent people, and the public schools are to blame. For the past thirty-five years, they have taught children to socialize rather than to read, write, and cipher–the only disciplines that foster clear language and logical thought. Mitchell’s alarming conclusion is that our schools are turning out illiterates who will never manage their lives–because, lacking ‘the power of language,’ they can’t think.”

    You might find this amusing, Paula. It’s my little tribute to Mitchell’s “Underground Grammarian.” I sent it to the GE VP who composed this ad on Monster:


    The Grammarian Fairy
    Fighting for Clarity, Logic and the American Language

    Seen in a recent General Electric advertisement for employment on Monster:

    “Essential Functions (Responsibilities):

    “Support specific functional leaders and organization exempt development needs

    “Conduct content, job and task analysis to develop appropriate performance development frameworks and strategies to support common needs for acquisition integration….”

    Upon first reading this advertisement, the Grammarian Fairy was struck by the requirement that an “essential function” of this position was the support of “specific functional leaders.” In other words, one’s function in this position would be to support the functions of others. A fully functional functioning support of the functional functioning of functional leaders.

    Then it struck the Grammarian Fairy: Are there corporations today happily employing non-functioning or dysfunctional leaders?

    Given the current context, a question that is perhaps not too farfetched.

    The Grammarian Fairy, though, digresses.

    Whilst one supports “specific functional leaders,” the Grammarian Fairy further notes that one is also expected to support “organization exempt development needs.” Would those needs be to create a method of development that was not exempt from being organized? Perhaps this is what has lead to the need to support leaders that function. Perhaps such leaders, so long in functioning without organization, have developed a need for development that is organized.

    Maybe they are at the ends of their functional ropes.

    Perhaps, too, that is why another “essential function” of this position is “to develop appropriate performance development frameworks.” Past development frameworks, it would appear, simply have not been developed in an organized fashion.

    Of course, one can then see why there is a common need “for acquisition integration.” In any attempt to organize development, one must definitely acquire all of the parts necessary to achieve an organization within a development framework whose essential functions function in a functional manner for all functional leaders.


    In closing, the Grammarian Fairy would like to commend the composer of said advertisement for having worked so diligently to ensure that his prose was clearly understood. If said writer had not placed “responsibilities” in parentheses next to “essential functions,” Lord knows what sort of confusion might have befallen the reader.

    Thankfully, General Electric—the company responsible for this advertisement—endeavors to hire only the best.

    Comforting to know.

  • writeby

    PS. On a more scholarly note, you might finding this intriguing: “The Great Vowel Shift.”

  • Paula Douglas

    Good one. Defacing that kind of office-speak rubbish is why I never leave home without a fresh black Sharpie in my pocket.

    Haven’t seen The Great Vowel Shift, but I’ll give it a try. Mitchell, on the other hand, has long been one of the few gods I worship.

  • writeby

    “Mitchell, on the other hand, has long been one of the few gods I worship.”

    A kindred spirit.

    Any more like you back home, Paula? ;o)

  • Paula Douglas

    Nah. There was some mold breaking involved. It’s why my squeeze is so glad he found me.

  • writeby

    I need to find where those kinds of molds are made and wait outside the exit.


  • John J. King

    Walter: As a fellow Philadelphian you are exhibiting that Philly borne crankiness that gets us a bad reputation. I know because I have the same affliction and we’re about the same age. I’ve been this grumpy most of my life however.

  • writeby

    PS. Newest addition to my list: “reputational harm.”

    Source: A press release from George Washington University Law Prof. John Banzhaf, summarizing the state of the campus sexual assault litigation crisis in which the professor quotes lawyers for member universities of the American Council on Education [ACE].

    I guess we could then call false accusations of ‘rape’ ‘fornicational harm’ and subsequent university mock trials, ‘prosecutional harm.’

    In this instance, we can begin to see Mitchell’s thesis that links befuddled English to an inability to think. The logical result is mindless action.

    I submit that the “gobbledegookinal” (“jargonal”?) misuse of English is far more than a “petty annoyance.”

    Following its catechism of linguistic obfuscation, Western academe is finding its way back to the Dark Age feudal Medievalism from which it (& its architecture) originated, with all the tedious, pompous Puritanism proper to dogmatists whose “trivium” consists of cant, argot and the neologistic and whose quadrivium consists of feminism, multiculturalism, political correctness and social constructivism.

    Welcome to Borgia U. Go Inquisitors!