15:27 Sun 17 Aug 2008. Updated: 17:56 28 Jan 2009
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(The irony of analyzing a web comic mocking pedants is not lost upon me.)

This Wondermark strip strikes me as funny in theory: set up the provocation of the language nerd, show the language nerd’s newfound determined tolerance, and then show him being overwhelmed by the deliberate transgression that’s just too much. I did find it funny, but this was offset somewhat by the fact that the final “transgression” isn’t one that gets me at all (whereas all of the prior provocations would). I’m not sure I really count as a “language nerd”, but I definitely wince at some of what they provoke him with (notably “irregardless” (sic)). So why did the final offense in this strip not bother me at all—and while I’m at it, why do the others bother me in the first place?

So in the final panel, the two provocateurs hit Larry the language nerd with “ginormous”, and it’s simply too much for him to take, despite his having previously ignored:

  • anyways
  • irregardless
  • him and me decided
  • could of
  • supposably
  • the most unique
  • I could care less

(All sic, obviously. And I might have missed one or two.)

“Ginormous” isn’t the same as, say, “irregardless”. “Ginormous”, while possibly annoying to some people, is a coining based on mushing together “gigantic” and “enormous”, and is (in my experience) used in a kind of cutesy way to emphasize something being large, as in no-really-it-was-absolutely-huge. As such, so what? I don’t really see what’s wrong with people using a new word in that way. Granted, the English language already has plenty of words for large, so it’s redundant, but I can’t think of any others that have the childlike awe that I think “ginormous” is trying to get across. “Ginormous” is you might have described something really large when you were a child, and that’s critical to its spirit, and (presumably) why people use it.

So it’s a new word, perhaps inelegant (given that it grabs two other words and jams them together, in the process obliterating chunks of the original words), and by a number of definitions it’s “not a real word”. As stated above, it could also be argued that English doesn’t need another word for “big”. On the other hand, it has a certain nuance that isn’t captured by those other words, and so its creation/use could easily be defended on that basis. It’s comprehensible and effective, and why should the creation of effective new words be condemned?

Fine then—so why do the other examples bother me? If I’m so blasé about new words, shouldn’t I accept “irregardless” with open arms?

No. The difference is that when people use “ginormous”, they’re not actually trying to say either “gigantic” or “enormous” and getting it wrong. It’s another option, one that they’re choosing over it (presumably because of certain subtleties they prefer about it). “Irregardless“, on the other hand, is the result of ignorance, of someone taking “regardless” and tacking “ir-” on the front because they have confused it with “irrespective”, or because they’re just confused.

Most of the other early provocations in the comic are similar, although “anyways” and “I could care less could have cases made in their defense that they don’t arise through pure mistakes.

In other words, I’m mostly fine with regional variants and with neologisms, but ignorance-based mistakes drive me crazy.


I’m not sure. It’s not deliberate on my part. I recognize that Larry is mostly correct when he points out that the correction of such things is worse than the transgression, too, yet I often can’t seem to help making that correction.

The reason for the correction is fairly clear to me, at least. I know myself well enough to know that it’s not done egotistically, or to put down the other person, and in fact I often feel bad about making the correction at all because I know it’ll often be misinterpreted that way. What prompts me (or tempts me) to make it is the strong desire to stop its spread.

Again, why? What is it about that kind of thing that makes me risk social awkwardness and offense? The meaning is clear, so communication has been achieved, so what’s the problem?

The initial reaction, before any thought of a correction enters my mind, is involuntary. I wince, and I just don’t have control over that, although I might be able to manage merely wincing inwardly. But the reaction is there.

The nearest I can come to explaining this reaction is to liken it to music. If you’re listening to a musician and they hit a wrong note, it can feel painful and jarring. That’s what it feels like to me when I hear something like “irregardless” or read something like “your an idiot”. One additional wrinkle is that the musician will have been aware of hitting the wrong note, whereas the speaker/writer of something like that is usually not aware of it… which is what brings up the issue of correction.

I suppose that my appreciation of language, generally a positive thing, brings with it the negative of being highly sensitive to such missteps, and I have to accept it as part of the package.

I do consider language something to play with, not an ossified set of absolute rules that must be followed—but sounding discordant language notes because you don’t know what you’re doing doesn’t strike me as play, espcially when you’re effectively spreading those discordant notes to other speakers. (It’s perhaps interesting also that mistakes commonly made by non-native speakers don’t tend to bug me much, in part because it’s clear that they’re learners.)

There’s something else here, caught in that last paragraph about how speaking or writing isn’t just like a musical performance but is also almost viral, because of how we humans spread language to each other, and I suspect that this is an important factor in why these mistakes bother me, but I’ll have to leave that for another time.

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