Four Language Errors That Make You Sound Pretentious

There are some grammar errors people insist on perpetuating (not you, you’re awesome!). Some are just common errors that we all make. But others are errors people make in the hopes of sounding smarter or somehow official. (Think government talk or cop talk.)

I heard the first error — “an historic” — on NPR the other day, and thought of all media outlets, this one should know better. And it actually annoyed me so much, I not only shouted at the radio — “A historic, dammit! A historic!” — I wrote this post.

So here are four language errors people make that sound a little pretentious.A unicorn rearing back atop the Falcon Square Mercat Cross in Inverness, Scotland.

1) It’s Not An Historic

Just because you heard them say it on the BBC doesn’t make it true. The reason you say “an” anything is if the next word starts with a vowel sound. Not even a vowel — a vowel sound.

An apple. An MBA. An honorable profession.
A unicorn. A universal truth.

Say “historic” out loud. What sound does it start with? “H.” That’s not a vowel sound. Unless you’ve got a cockney accent, you didn’t just say ‘istoric. The only reason you’d say “an historic” is if you dropped the H sound in front of the word.

And since you’re not an 18th century bootblack, you’re going to keep the H and say “a historic.”

2) Bemused is not Amused

This is a tricky one, because “-mused” is the root word. People seem to think bemused is a form of amused, like it made you chuckle or smile slightly.

It isn’t.

Amused means you think something is funny. It means you found it slightly humorous. Bemused means confused or bewildered. It means you’re cocking your head like a puppy hearing a weird noise.

Bemused is not one step above amused. It’s not “more amused.” There certainly will never be “cemused.”

Just remember, bemused = bewildered.

3) You Don’t End Your Sentences With a Preposition EVER

Regular readers know that I hate and despise the “don’t end your sentences with a preposition” rule, because it’s wrong. However, not everyone got the memo, and some people are just mentally locked in to this idea. So I don’t begrudge the people who write this way, because they were bullied into thinking this is correct.

But if you speak that way, it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard.

It makes you sound like you’re trying too hard to be grammatically correct. But even most die-hard word nerds don’t speak like they write. They end their sentences with prepositions. They use slang. They have weird accents. But they don’t try to speak correctly all the time like an overenthusiastic school marm.

The most famous example is Winston Churchill telling an aide who misapplied the preposition rule to a speech, “this is utter nonsense up with which I shall not put.”

If you contort your brain and vocal cords to speak like this, you sound stilted and overly formal.

When you talk, end your sentences with a preposition, if that’s the way you would normally talk. If you’re not comfortable doing it, try to figure out a different way of saying what you wanted to say.

Like adding, “you know?” at the end.

4. Stop Saying “Myself” When You Mean “Me”

A lot of people say “myself,” when they mean “me.”

“Please email your questions to Bob or myself.”

I heard this a lot during my state government days. I think people did this to sound smarter or more official, but it’s wrong, so it negated any effect they were going for.

Using “myself” in most cases is almost certainly the incorrect usage. There are a few times you can use it — as a reflexive pronoun or an intensive pronoun — like “I see myself in the mirror” (reflexive) or “I built the workbench myself” (intensive) but that’s it. You would never use “myself” as the object or subject of a sentence.

Wrong: Give the cookies to myself.
Wrong: Myself baked some cookies.

The best way to see whether or not to use “myself” is to remove the other person — Bob — and see if the sentence makes sense: “Please email your questions to me.”

In this case, “email your questions to myself” just sounds wrong, so you know to use “me” instead.

We’re starting to learn that a lot of our hard-and-fast grammar rules are changing, either because common usage is rendering them unnecessary, or because they were never right to begin with (see #4 above). If you can avoid these, you can feel morally superior to people who make these mistakes in an attempt to sound smarter than everyone else.

I feel that way myself.

Photo credit: ranil (Flickr)

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    About Erik Deckers

    Erik Deckers is the President of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing and social media marketing agency in Indianapolis, IN. He co-authored three social media books, including No Bullshit Social Media with Jason Falls (2011, Que Biz-Tech), and Branding Yourself with Kyle Lacy (2nd ed., 2012; Que Biz-Tech), and The Owned Media Doctrine (2013, Archway Publishing). Erik has written a weekly newspaper humor column for 10 papers around Indiana since 1995. He was also the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL.


    1. Great notes on copyrighting Erik. Totally agree with you on 3 points and learn something from bemused. Big thx.

    2. I am so glad that I read your post. I never want to sound Pretentious and I certainly do not want to write that way either. Many people tell me I write like I speak, well maybe that is true, but I am not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing. Oh well, I will just keep doing what I do, and read people like you who help me see those times that I am sounding like a complete ass! And we all know that is not terribly difficult for me.

    3. Love it. Thanks for posting this!

      I wrote a couple of similar blog posts; one is called “Me and him, him and I” and the other is “A is a letter.” That one is a real pet peeve of mine… using the letter “a” instead of the word “a” (pronounced “uh”) in an effort to sound proper.

    4. I have the copy-editing duties on our site, so I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this article. A Way With Words on NPR did a discussion about the preposition thing and explained that a lot of our weird grammar & usage rules stem from the conception that classical Latin was the perfect language and, as such, its rules should be applied to English. (You CAN’T end a sentence with a preposition in Latin, so, clearly [sarcasm] you shouldn’t do so in English.) Anyway, since Latin’s not the perfect langauge and the rule comes from a different (and mostly dead) language, the “don’t end a sentence with a preposition” rule is really, really silly.

      Finally: Decimate = to reduce by 1/10. I see that one all over the place, used to mean “destroy” or “nearly eliminate.”