somewhat of a pet peeve

So today I'm somewhat vexed. Actually, it's not just today, it's the past six months or so. There's an awful misuse of English going on, and it seems to be spreading like Marmite on toast. That is to say, it spreads very well, but with the consequence that you are left with a piece of delicious bread covered in Marmite, an industrial solvent which the British often mistakenly use for making sandwiches.

So the spreadage is bad. I hope that's clear now.

See, I'm something of a linguaphile. I love studying language and how it is used, whether it's deciphering the exotic scripts of other languages for the first time, translating Latin passages (very very simple ones that don't go past the third declension or the second conjugation - I'm talking puellae in taberna sunt kinda level here), or simply marvelling at the way the Welsh use the alphabet.

I've never studied linguistics officially, but I've been an enthusiast since I was a young teen.
In all that time, the one thing I have learnt is that I am not a prescriptivist. I was, in high school - until I discovered that nobody likes the guy who corrects their grammar all the time.

[I'm convinced, incidentally, that there's an underlying cause for that, besides the obvious irksomeness of having a know-it-all tell you you are wrong. Language is for communication, and if I understand enough to correct you, I understood what you meant. So there was no need to correct you. I think subconsciously we all know this, so when someone points out a "mistake", what they are really doing is showing a mild form of belligerence. Probably not intentionally, probably as a result of something in their character that's beyond their control. But the other party recognises it as a challenge without cause, one that moreover embarasses the challengee. It's rather like responding to a friendly "Good morning!" with "Says who? What's your problem, dillweed?" Perhaps not quite as extreme, but it's along the same lines.]

Anyway, I now understand that language changes and evolves even as we speak. Language embraces change, and I embrace the fact that it does so. It's why I say things now that simply didn't exist for me ten years ago, like "spreadage" and "He's not so much with the having of the brains, you know?"

But I'm only human. And there are one or two things I really wish people would not change, because they already make perfect sense. Yes, that's right - I am proclaiming that it is foolhardy to attempt to hold back the tide of change, even as I wade out into it with my arms upraised. But you see, I only want to stop one or two little waves, not the whole ocean. So it's okay. (Canute's problem was simply one of volume, right?)

I see this type of sentence in the news at least two or three times a week:

"He's somewhat of an amateur photographer."

Then I do this:


What's the problem, you ask? Can't we say that, since you obviously know what they meant by it? Isn't that the whole descriptivist thing?

Sorry, but no. No. I can't let this one go. We don't use "somewhat" like that, for the same reason we don't say "He's something amateurish." The words are not interchangeable, they just happen to start with the same first four letters.

She's an elegant woman.
She's an elephant.

The rule is very simple:

SOMETHING OF A + NOUN (usually one denoting an occupation)
SOMEWHAT + ADJECTIVE (often one with negative connotations that we want to put as mildly as we can)

He's something of an amateur photographer.
I'm something of a poet.
He's somewhat amateurish.
I was somewhat irritated to find the salamander in my glove compartment again.

For those who've forgotten their high school grammar:

A noun is a word that denotes an OBJECT or CONCEPT
baseball player, lemons, James Roday
An adjective is a word that DESCRIBES a noun
boring, yellow, awesome (to use examples that apply perfectly to the nouns above)

For example:
She's something of a mathematician.
(she is great at math, but isn't an actual mathematician)
He's somewhat boring.
(he's boring, straight up, but I'm being polite about it)

Obviously not all nouns and adjectives work:

She's something of a James Roday.
(would work, kinda, if Roday were famous enough to have traits that everyone immediately could identify, which he should be, but that's another story)
She's somewhat awesome.
(not too bad, though it can have unintended negative connotations - [everyone seems to think she is awesome, but me, not so much] - especially if ", I guess" is affixed to the end)

The point is they are both incredibly powerful pieces of linguistic artillery whose distinction is going to disappear if we're not careful.

Stop mixing them up! Grargh!

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