Thursday, June 15, 2006

Recurring problem

I have seen the term “reoccur” used in (admittedly) informal business communiqué, by otherwise intelligent people. The term is used in the context of indicating that a situation that happened previously but appeared to have ceased has returned; yes, that something that occurred in the past has occurred again. It’s not that the meaning of the term has not been clear in these cases. The thing is this: there’s a word that means to occur again, but it’s recur. I didn’t think it was so obscure that people would resort to inserting the typical prefix “re” for indicating repetition in front of “occur” for this purpose (and write two extra letters in the process), but it appears clear that doing so is not uncommon.

Heck, even Microsoft Word doesn’t flag it as misspelled. However, if I try to look up a synonym in the thesaurus, it gives none, and doesn’t even seem to recognize the word. Similarly, if I do a search on, it finds no results for “reoccur” (nor for “re occur” nor “re-occur”). I’m not suggesting that it isn’t a word by virtue of its absence from these electronic research elements; as noted, someone at Microsoft was of the opinion that it was worth including in the default spell check dictionary, so it is (as I suggested) not uncommon enough to have been thusly included.

I understand that the language continues to adapt, and that the custodians of the lexicon who decide what to include in the dictionary adopt these misusages when they become common enough. For example, “irregardless”—the unnecessary bastardization of regardless, which means the same as regardless—is another term that the spell check leaves unmarked as misspelled, because it has been accepted.

It’s a bit disappointing that the ignorance of some catches on so well that it gets adopted by those who (at least ostensibly) know better, but it’s nothing new. What surprises me is how these terms that involve extra letters catch on. Are people so stupid as to think having to expend more effort to compose the word that means what they intend to convey makes them seem more intelligent? Alas, probably so.

I grasp that the reason people would use reoccur or irregardless is simple ignorance, and that such words gain acceptance is because other people see or hear them and assume they must be the best choice and keep using them. All of it stems from the fact no one who knew better (that's what we’ll call it for our purposes here) interceded and alerted them to the terms in existence (recur, regardless).

I’m sure there’s plenty of in-the-know folks who would delight in being able to display their knowledge and correct (to the extent that use of such terms is incorrect) these others, but I have long since ceased to be such a person. In my experience, most people don’t like having their mistakes pointed out, even if the intend behind mentioning it is benevolent; no amount of diplomacy seems capable of buffering the recipient’s mind from his/her ego and insecurities, so rather than recall a superior word choice to convey one’s meaning, the only lesson learned is that I am a big jerk.

I suspect a more insidious delight could be gained by those in-the-know by intentionally not interceding because it gives them the secret handshake of sorts; they can identify the others who learned the proper terms (by virtue of these others using said terms) as worthy, and can feel superior to the rest.

Frankly, that’s likely always been the unconscious motive behind codifying spelling and grammar by those who decided what the rules are. On a conscious level the idea was that we need to have some consistency so that meaning may be conveyed, and that’s very true, but it’s too altruistic to explain why people would bother with such measures; we’re too petty in those little recesses of our psyches to go to that much effort if we didn’t get to lord it over others at times.

(Come now. Do you think your auto mechanic doesn’t take some small pleasure, even if without realizing, from being able to tell you that your car needs some part replaced that you didn’t even know your car had? Do you think the I.T. guys don’t snicker at you after you’ve called them with some inane computer problem that a 10-year-old could have resolved?)

Any area where one party has vastly superior knowledge and/or expertise than another is either an ego boost or a lesson in humility, depending on which side you find yourself.

I suspect someone might harp on being too much of a stickler for the conventional when it comes to language, suggesting that it is an evolving entity that blossomed into what it is by virtue of people introducing new variations on old words. One might even suggest the clever use of words is a cornerstone of literature.

Yes, English certainly needs more words—especially ones where there’s already words in place.

As soon as I discern anything clever about such terms I’ll applaud. One must know the rules to know when one is breaking the rules in interest of creating anything literary.

While it is, in a manner of speaking, inconsiderate to the (we’ll call them) misusers of language (and I know “misusers” is not a word, formally speaking, so suggestions for superior terms are encouraged) to allow their ignorance to persist, it seems more considerate to just leave well enough alone. If I’ve learned anything in my life, it is this: Being a stickler for grammar and spelling (when that is not specifically and explicitly requested) will make one no friends; I am plenty capable of being unpopular without having to resort to such measures. Even people who know me pretty well and would understand my intentions would be benevolent (were I to say something) are likely to resent it (perhaps despite their conscious efforts; this strikes a less-cognitive part of the mind (or maybe it's in the psyche).

Expecting me to risk what little social acceptance I’ve built up over the years is a bit much if you can't crack open a dictionary once in a while.

(Speaking of resort and resent, which I used two paragraphs ago: those are terms I’ve seen misused as well; to indicate something that was previously sorted or previously sent is being done again, there should be a hyphen in there: re-sort, re-sent. “I re-sent the message” takes on a bit of a different tone when it is “I resent the message.” I digress.)

All that aside, any casual perusal of the 'net reveals how unimportant such language concerns have become (whether it was ever important is another story). That such thoughts even occur to me—whether I mention them or not—makes me more of a pariah than most any other flawed aspect of my personality.

Well, the worst of it is how I blather on this long, but concern with spelling and grammar—even without any delight therein—is certainly a close second.

So go ahead and tell me what I’ve done wrong here. It would be hypocritical of me to not take it when I’ve dished it out.


  1. What's up with using quotation marks some of the time and italics other times?

  2. Aaaah...a topic I can really relate to. Here is what I have found in my own thinking on this subject:

    1) No one, and I mean no one, wants to be corrected when they are speaking. Even English types find it difficult to speak with no grammar errors. After all, we cannot proofread the words that are coming out of our mouths.

    2) No one, except for English types, cares about grammar in e-mails, memos, or similar brief communications. Much like when speaking, it just seems like too much trouble to proofread such speedily written thoughts.

    3) Everybody cares, though, (or should) about their grammar when it comes to longer written communications that matter and will actually be read by any significant number of people. When somebody writes a cover letter or resume, for example, they have somebody in the know proofread it for them. This may seem unfair or dishonest (like making someone appear smarter than they are) until one considers your example of the machanic or IT tech. That's what those of us who know what we're doing are there provide the service (for which we may CHARGE as well, seeing as it is becoming a service more and more in demand as fewer and fewer people care about decent grammar).

    That said, it seems as though those people in charge of word usage (like whoever makes the spell check list), have a responsibility to maintain a sense of what is correct, and what is simply WRONG. I do my part by pointing out all of these stupid errors to my students so that they are never under the mistaken impression that the incorrect words they are using somehow don't matter. My pet peeve? "Till". Spell check doesn't catch it because it actually is a word, but not as a substitute for "until". The word is UNTIL or 'TIL, NOT "TILL"!!!!!!!! I see "Till" used all of the time in published material, and it makes me want to SCREAM!

    And don't even get me started on the misuse of quotation marks...

  3. perhaps spelling/grammar/word usage has just become a victim of the "greater materialism leads to less sense of responsibility" paradigm. i like spelling & grammar because it is objective...well, that and because its misuse irritates me...and, evidently, i like being irritated...and because i was scarred by my high school rhetoric teacher having a love affair with her webster's; irregardless *wink*, its objectivity doesn't keep people from rampant misuses.

    a friend of mine uses the word "flusterate", and she thinks it's a real word.

    i just found out that "orientate" is actually a word, and it means "to orient". apparently, one can add the suffix "-ate" to any verb, create a new word, and have it mean the same thing as the initial word. sounds brilliant to me );


So, what do you think?