By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

English is a very vexing language

Words are wonderful but I wish they were like numbers: precise, definite, exact.

In some ways our English language is a horror story: so many words almost like so many others except for shades of meaning, So many intricate rules of grammar about which even purists may disagree.

Do we end a sentence with a preposition? Oh, yes. Oh, no.

Just when I think I’m making headway with words, I meet my comeuppance, as with “irregardless.” When I once used that word I was corrected by an English-teacher friend. “Oh, Elaine,” she said, “there is no such word. Use regardless.”

Thereafter when I heard someone use “irregardless,” I thought, smugly, that I knew better than that.

My Merriam-Webster dictionary then shot down that. It advised: “The most frequently repeated remark about irregardless is that there is no such word. There is such a word, however. It is still used primarily in speech, although it can be found from time to time in edited prose.”

Needless to say, I was confused. But no, one does not use that “needless to say” phrase. Expert, William Strunk Jr. in “Elements of Style,” points out that if someone finds it needless to say something, why, on earth then, would that person write or say it?

It happens all the time: I know what I want to say but experts do not condone my saying it.

I tell my erudite friend that my recent shopping trip was fun and that I found two dresses that I really liked but I couldn’t make up my mind which I liked most.

“Oh, Elaine,” said my friend, “When we compare two things, we do not use the superlative. If you compare two dresses, you like one more — not the most.”

That’s what I mean about words. I knew absolutely that I liked one dress the most. But, no, I am permitted only to like that dress more.

Had I explained to my friend that one reason I did not buy that dress I liked “most” was because it cost over $30 more than the other. That would have resulted in another lesson.

“Oh, Elaine,” she would have said, “cows jump over the moon. ‘Over’ pertains to position, whereas ‘more than’ generally refers to numbers.”

“Between” and “among” also are confusing. When referring to two items I am to use “between.” But when there are more than two, I must say “among.” Thus, Mary and Ruth divide their winnings between them, but Anne, Helen and Phyllis divide their winnings among them.

Sometimes I’d like to challenge rulings of these grammarians. Their rules and exacting standards make me fearful to open my mouth or write a sentence. They explain that the purpose of all this is to enable readers to more easily grasp content of the written word.

Listen to this: the authorities say that I error when I write “pomegranates, pears, peaches” because I list them in the wrong sequence when I do so. Always I should list the shortest word first, thence on to the longest. Further, if these words have the same number of letters, I should count the syllables. The word with fewer syllables is listed before the one with more syllables. I must be careful, careful to write, “pears, peaches and pomegranates.”

The same principle applies to “from simple to compound.” The reader then more easily grasps the meaning, we are told.

At times I wonder if some of these expert opinions aren’t hogwash. But then I note an example with regard to this sequential business. It’s the phrase, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And, I agree, had those words been written, “pursuit of happiness, liberty and life,” they would have been much less profound.

Still, I get disgruntled because I do not have freedom of speech. At Christmas I was grumbling about having so much to do: company for dinner, shopping, wrapping gifts, addressing cards. “How are you going to get everything done?” my teacher friend asks. “Oh,” I said, “I’ll cope.”

She then explains that I indeed will not do so. “Cope,” she says, “is an intransitive verb and I cannot just ‘cope.’” I must cope with something although I have already enumerated the many things I must do.

And again I think about the perversity of words, because surely I know whether I can just “cope.”

These examples go on and on. I am prone to write, “My opinion is as good or better than his.” Purists strike that in a hurry. I should write, “My opinion is as good as his, or better.”

When I start to write a sentence I feel as if I am on the horns of a dilemma. But no. Bruce Ross-Larson, in “Edit Yourself,” explains that one does not use “horns of a dilemma.” Dilemma, of itself, means two or more alternatives. It is quite unnecessary to be on the horns of a dilemma. I shall merely face the dilemma without horns.

Once in a while I learn something about language that ups my morale. I think that I now know when to use “farther” and when to use “further.” Farther refers to distance; further to time or quantity.

But always there are exceptions and qualifications and exclusions for all these rules, so I am not sure.

I start to write, “Hopefully, I’ll make progress.” But oh, no, no. Mr. Strunk strenuously discourages this use of “hopefully,” He uses this example: “To say ‘Hopefully, you will leave on the noon plane,’ is nonsense. Do you mean you’ll leave on the noon plane in a hopeful frame of mind? Or do you mean you hope you leave on the noon plane?”

I see your point, Mr. Strunk. Hopefully, I’ll never use it again.

Despite all — words are wonderful. We can toss and tumble them about at will and let the experts do as they like. But how grateful we readers should be that there are editors and proofreaders out there to clean up everything that is dumped into their laps.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at

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