The Penultimate Insult

by admin on April 26, 2012

Keeping on the topic of vocabulary, I’d like to tell a story of a very unintentional insult given in public.

One Sunday during church, our very well read, well educated, exceptionally intelligent pastor proceeded to introduce a guest speaker by referring to him as being the “penultimate authority”. Can you guess why I and a few others gasped hearing that?

What do you think “penultimate” means?

Wait for it…..

It is a commonly misused word which people think means the “supremely ultimate”, the “best of ultimate”. Hmmm…not quite. It actually means “second to last” or “next to last”. In the context it was said by the pastor, it definitely would be an insult but certainly not one he intended. When I mentioned his error to him, he would not believe me so I challenged him to look it up in the dictionary. He was chagrined to the max, we still laugh about it years later and of course, insert the word every chance we get into our conversations. One Sunday he even inserted it into a sermon to see if I was paying attention.

I have heard very competent news reporters and news anchors misuse the word thinking it is a compliment or positive descriptor. So, one can be quite well educated and still royally mess up a word meaning. It pays to presume the person is merely ignorant of the meaning and intended well.

{ 87 comments… read them below or add one }

sonia April 26, 2012 at 5:07 am

On my morning commute we have a train guard whose nickname is Mr Penultimate. He morning spiel includes “please note, the last carriage and the last door in the penultimate carriage, will not be on the platform at Redfern”. It cracks me up every time he is on the train.

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Stacey Frith-Smith April 26, 2012 at 6:28 am

Good one, OP! Humor is a great way to memorialize these events. I remember saying I “could care less” about something and having to relearn that I meant “couldn’t care less”, having somehow parsed the phrase as a double negative. Our brains are sometimes faulty!

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Binne April 26, 2012 at 6:37 am

That’s a funny story — and a nice to hear that both parties navigated a tricky situation with grace and good humor. When I was in college and studying music, we sometimes had occasion to refer to the antepenultimate and preantepenultimate measure in a musical score — i.e, the third and fourth bars from the end. Funny words, but useful to fix attention on a particular time or place.

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Angela April 26, 2012 at 6:54 am

Add that to a list of things that don’t mean what a lot of people think they mean, like “I could care less”. My favorite is “so-and-so made a 360 degree change” in some endeavor or another.

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Bint April 26, 2012 at 7:03 am

That’s actually weird – penultimate is something I’ve never known anyone misunderstand.

“Irregardless” – euw!!!!!

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Margo April 26, 2012 at 7:10 am

When I read the first paragraph, I assumed that the Pastor was implying that he considered that god was the ultimate authority, and therefore anyone else could only be the *penultimate* one. I was all ready to give the pastor credit for his wit, then I scrolled down.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone mis-use the word in the way you’re describing – I wonder whether it is in more common use in the UK, and therfore more people know what it means, or if it just coincidence that I haven’t heard it being misused.

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Angel April 26, 2012 at 7:32 am

This is hilarious! Irregardless is one of my biggest pet peeves. It is NOT a word. My mother used to misuse it all the time around me and finally I clued her in. She was chagrined to say the least when she finally looked it up and all the sources backed me up. I told her I was sorry but I hated to see an educated woman like herself misuse language in that way. I don’t hear penultimate used that often, it sounds like an SAT word–but I can see it getting misused as well :)

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Mabel April 26, 2012 at 7:35 am

Wow, thanks, I didn’t know that either and I’m a writer. Shame on me!

I usually say “I could not possibly care less,” just for emphasis. The one that bugs me is when people say “cut and dry.” It’s cut-and-DRIED. Arrgghh!

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Linda April 26, 2012 at 7:54 am

Strangely enough, the only place I ever hear the word “penultimate” is on TV when my husband is watching off-road motorcycle racing. The announcers are always referring to the penultimate race of the Supercross series, and they are using the word correctly. It always amazes me that dirt bike racers know that word–they’re not usually the group you think of when you think of big words.

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Shelly April 26, 2012 at 7:55 am

My biggest pet peeve is when people add the letter ‘s’ to the end of the word ‘anyway’ to make it ‘anyways’. It makes me cringe every time. My boss once snottily corrected my pronunciation of a French restaurant that he and a client were attending (he did it in front of the client). The best part was that I was completely correct in my pronunciation and the client was French-Canadian. She gave him a funny look and then emailed me after the lunch to tell me that she knew I was right but didn’t want to embarrass my boss. That boss was a total jerk and it made my day. I had to sit on my hands so I wouldn’t be tempted to foward her email to him.

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Miss Ann Thrope April 26, 2012 at 8:03 am

I noticed that people often use malaphorisms when they attempt to sound more educated or flowery. Simple language is often the most elegant language.

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Melissa April 26, 2012 at 8:12 am

My seven year old daughter loves big words and tries to get ‘penultimate’ into as many sentences as possible. What’s very cool is that her current teacher didn’t know the word and, instead of faking it or getting angry with my daughter, asked her what it meant. Then the two of them looked it up in the dictionary and the teacher told my daughter that her definition was correct. What a great lesson for a younger child that grown-ups don’t know everything and that one can learn new things from anyone.

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Powers April 26, 2012 at 8:13 am

On the contrary, I don’t see why “penultimate” would be an insult, /especially/ when speaking about authority within a house of worship. If the speaker was the “penultimate authority”, then in a church it should be obvious who the “ultimate authority” is.

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admin April 26, 2012 at 11:09 am

I should clarify that it was “penultimate authority” on a specific subject matter.

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Erin April 26, 2012 at 8:26 am

“Penultimate” is one of my favorite words. It reminds me of the Far Side cartoon about the Next-to-the-Last of the Mohicans.

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Kitty Lizard April 26, 2012 at 8:29 am

When I was very young and in my first summer job, I worked for a not-very-well educated black woman
who loved to try to use French words. At that time, I had studied French in school and her mispronunciation of French words was absolutely excrutiating. It took every ounce of self-control not
to correct her as she sat in her office butchering the French language. (It was a Head Start program.)
To make matters worse, she would occasionally try to use the words in letters, and would argue with me
as to how the words should be spelled in letters (she favored phonetic spelling) and I tactfully would
try to tell her that was not how the word was spelled. When I (thankfully) moved on to another job
and, with her permission, used her as a reference, she gave me a favorable letter. When my next
boss called her, as I was sitting there, she blasted me, calling me an idiot, telling my next boss that
she was fluent in French and then proceeded in her pseudo French to try to tell him, that I couldn’t
do anything right. I nearly fell off my chair laughing into my hands. My new boss finally hung up
on her and hired me on the spot.

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admin April 26, 2012 at 11:08 am

I painfully listened through a radio program on famous artists in which the main speaker could not pronounce a single artist’s name correctly. Picasso – Pick a sew, Monet – Moan-ette, Gaugin – Gauge-Inn, etc.

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Athena C April 26, 2012 at 8:39 am

I like “conversated.” Used by people to try to sound formal and intelligent. The word is “conversed.”

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admin April 26, 2012 at 11:03 am

Wouldn’t “conversated” mean one is “all talked out”?

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Moralia April 26, 2012 at 8:43 am

“Penultimate” always makes me think of Monty Python:

Pope: (loudly, ex cathedra) There were only twelve disci…
Michelangelo: I’ve got it, I’ve got it! We’ll call it…’The Penultimate Supper’.
Pope: What?
Michelangelo: There must have been one. I mean, if there was a last one, there must have been one before that, right?
Pope: Yes, but…
Michelangelo: Right, so this is the ‘Penultimate Supper’. The Bible doesn’t say how many people were at that, does it?
Pope: Er, no, but…
Michelangelo: Well, there you are.
Pope: Look!! the Last Supper is a significant event in the life of Our Lord. The Penultimate Supper was not…even if they had a conjurer and a steel band. Now I commissioned a Last Supper from you, and a Last Supper I want!
Michelangelo: Yes, but look…
Pope: With twelve disciples and one Christ!
Michelangelo: …ONE!?!
Pope: Yes – one! Now will you please tell me what in God’s name possessed you to paint this with THREE CHRISTS in it?!?
Michelangelo: It works, mate!!
Pope: It does not work!
Michelangelo: It does, it looks great! The fat one balances the two skinny ones!

XD

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amyasleigh April 26, 2012 at 9:04 am

Miss Ann Thrope (post 11) — I fear that you’ll hate me for this; but the word is, correctly, “malapropism”, after the character Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan’s “The Rivals”, who loved using big words “to sound more educated or flowery”, but always got them wrong. (If your using the word you did, was deliberate and humorous; then, my apologies.)

The business of “I couldn’t / could care less”: my understanding is, that many people use one form, many the other — the division running to some extent, along the lines of different parts of the English-speaking world. I see “couldn’t care less” as being more obviously sense-making; but “could care less” as potentially making a kind of sense, too. A multi-page discussion of the issue on the forum “Wordreference.com (English Only)” ended up with a consensus that the “could care less” form is less logical and less clear in meaning — but is one of those expressions which, despite its shortcomings in those ways, many people persistently use and probably always will.

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Cat April 26, 2012 at 9:06 am

That’s not the worse mistake I have ever heard a pastor make. It was not to do with his vocabulary but with his biblical knowledge. The topic of his Easter sermon was how the Mother of Jesus Christ came to the tomb and found it empty.

Wrong Mary. The Mary who was the Mother of Jesus Christ never came to the tomb on that Sunday at all. It is one of the great mysteries of the Bible.

The other women came because the burial was done hastily and was incomplete. So why didn’t His Mother come? Too prostrate with grief? Thought all was over and there was no need?
I like to think she was a woman of such faith that she trusted God as she had throughout her life or that perhaps Jesus had told her as He had told the apostles though they did not believe him.
If I knew that I was going to go through something like that I would have given my Mom fair warning and told her it was going to come to a glorious conclusion. I sure wouldn’t have let her suffer thinking I was dead and gone.Maybe that’s just me.

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KMC April 26, 2012 at 9:10 am

Oh, this brought back a memory. My husband, back when we were dating, once told me that of all the girls he had dated, I was the “penultimate girlfriend.” He had just heard the word a few days before, and like many people assumed it meant something like beyond ultimate, or super. I laughed, told him I appreciated the compliment he intended to give me, but he needed to look up the word before he used it again.

He did, and called me the next day. We both had a good laugh.

This same sweet man told me the other day that I needed to get my injured ankle looked at by a doctor soon. When I asked him why he was so concerned, when I was was sure it was nothing but sprained, he said, “I’m just worried you could have narcolepsy in your foot and not know it.” What he meant was neuropathy. It was on his mind because a friend of ours has had problems with her foot for the past two or three years due to neuropathy. I laughed and said “Well, my foot does seem to fall asleep pretty often…”

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Enna April 26, 2012 at 9:10 am

This is an amusing post!

Enna the Latin Geek: “passion” comes from a Latin word which means “suffering” so that’s why we get the Passion of Christ.

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Wink-N-Smile April 26, 2012 at 9:44 am

Sonia – so does that mean that those are skipped, and the carriages and doors in the ULTIMATE carriage ARE on the platform?

And is this physical anomaly only happening in Redfern? LOL!

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Wink-N-Smile April 26, 2012 at 9:47 am

I once had a collection of malapropisms. They included “He slammed his hand in the scream door,” “Vanilla envelopes,” “She needs to nick that in the butt!”

360 degree change – Heehee!

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gramma dishes April 26, 2012 at 10:22 am

With a Master’s Degree I did not know the true meaning of that word. Like your pastor, I presumed it meant “the best of the best”.

Fortunately, although I’ve heard the word often, I don’t believe I’ve ever used it myself. Darned good thing apparently! ;-D

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slipstitch April 26, 2012 at 10:28 am

Miss Ann,
did you mean malapropism? I agree.

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Ponytail April 26, 2012 at 10:39 am

Margo, I agree – penultimate isn’t what I’d consider a ‘big word’, it’s a hell of a lot easier to say than ‘second-to-last’. The context I’d expect to see it in most is for TV series – the penultimate episode before the final cliffhanger episode, for example. Mind you, I think people in the US use words that I’d consider old-fashioned, so it’s just swings and roundabouts really ;-)

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LovleAnjel April 26, 2012 at 11:01 am

I’m with Margo, I assumed the pastor meant his guest was just below God, since God has the ultimate authority and final say over everything. In that way, for Catholics the Pope is the pentultimate authority.

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delislice April 26, 2012 at 11:06 am

I agree, “penutimate” and “antepenultimate” came in pretty handy when our Greek teacher was telling us where those pesky accent marks went!

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twik April 26, 2012 at 11:15 am

My favourite misused word is decimate, which actually means “reduce by 1/10″. It now seems to be used to mean “wiped out”.

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Lynne April 26, 2012 at 11:42 am

I thought that you were going to say that the pastor said he was the penultimate authority, because the ultimate authority is God!

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Gloria Shiner April 26, 2012 at 11:42 am

@Wink-N-Smile, I love “nip it in the butt”! Seems like that might produce exactly the opposite result from “nip it in the bud”.

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Miss Ann Thrope April 26, 2012 at 11:56 am

Amyasleigh–thank you for the correction and amusing background story. That was actually a typo. I must have the coffee BEFORE I start typing. Slipstich–thank you for pointing out the typo as well. When I was in the military, I often saw malapropisms in award packages and performance reports. The word “superfluous” should not be confused with “super.”

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Stepmomster April 26, 2012 at 12:32 pm

My office adores using Irregardless, LOVES it, because we have a grammar and word authoritarian here that went into a 20 minute tirade when one of our co-workers used it in a sentence. He was under the belief that the word can’t ever be used, and is a double negative, but the word does in rear its ugly head..often. Here is what the Merriam Webster Dictionary has to say about the subject.
“Irregardless originated in dialectal American speech in the early 20th century. Its fairly widespread use in speech called it to the attention of usage commentators as early as 1927. The most frequently repeated remark about it 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. Its reputation has not risen over the years, and it is still a long way from general acceptance. Use regardless instead.”
Here is what the office had to say about it…Don’t embarrass your foreign colleague over the use of an English word she hears almost every day (and so thought was ok) in a rabid, bizarre tirade that ends with her blinking tears out of her eyes… for a WORD. We now all use it as much as we can in his presence to make him roll his eyes and laugh. Someday we might let him off the hook, but probably not until she goes back to Germany.

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Calli Arcale April 26, 2012 at 12:40 pm

Cat — I always figured there was no mystery at all; Jesus’ mother was probably pushing middle-age by then, and not able to get around as well anymore. ;-)

Moralia — that is EXACTLY the first thing that always comes to my mind when I hear “penultimate!” :-D

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Framb00s April 26, 2012 at 12:41 pm

I didn’t know that people had a problem with the word “penultimate,” but maybe that’s because I’ve become very familiar with the term, having studied foreign languages. For example, if you’re trying to trying to pronounce a word in Spanish, for the most part the natural stress is on the penultimate syllable. Of course this depends on how many syllables are in the word and, of course, if there’s an accent mark present, natural stress be damned.

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Library Diva April 26, 2012 at 12:53 pm

I always loved “vanilla paper/vanilla envelope.” I think anyone who’s worked in an elementary school has heard that one. To a 6-year-old, what the hell is Manila paper? But vanilla, they’d be familiar with that concept. And the paper itself does kind of look like what would happen if you took plain white paper and added some vanilla extract. It’s sort of the same color as the ice cream.

On Craigslist, you can often see “Chester drawers” advertised. Datsun puppies are also available often. And my sister once had a student (in college!) who wrote in a paper that “you minus well” take a particular course of action.

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Rug Pilot April 26, 2012 at 1:07 pm

Again, eschew bombastic grandiloquence.

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Lisa April 26, 2012 at 1:07 pm

I agree with PPs about “irregardless.” Gah, that just drives me up a wall!

Question for admin: Under what circumstances did you point out to the pastor that he used the word incorrectly? It seems rude to point out an error in a sermon.

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admin April 26, 2012 at 3:04 pm

Lisa,

It was after the church service was over in order to give the pastor enough time to clear up any misunderstanding to the guest speaker before he left. I believe I phrased it as a question, “Did you mean to use ‘penultimate’ to describe the guest speaker?”, which then lead the conversation into eventually revealing that his word choice was wrong.

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Melissa April 26, 2012 at 1:35 pm

“I thought that you were going to say that the pastor said he was the penultimate authority, because the ultimate authority is God!”

Maybe I’m misunderstanding, but penultimate doesn’t mean second best (as implied in this comment and many others), but next to last. So if you were to make a list of all the authorities on a subject, God might be the ultimate authority, but the penultimate authority wouldn’t be second on the list but at the very bottom, presumably right above someone who knows close to absolutely nothing about the subject.

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Kirsten April 26, 2012 at 1:51 pm

It drives me bonkers when people say “the proof is in the pudding.” The correct phrase is “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

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Diana April 26, 2012 at 2:08 pm

I learned what penultimate meant from reading the Series of Unfortunate Events books. And now I use that word whenever I can ^-^

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Calliope April 26, 2012 at 2:12 pm

“I noticed that people often use malaphorisms when they attempt to sound more educated or flowery. Simple language is often the most elegant language.”

Agreed, Miss Ann Thrope. I tried arguing this point on the last post here, and many seemed to misunderstand and to think I wanted words with more than two syllables banned from the English language, or that I wanted everything “dumbed down” a la Idiocracy. Perhaps my argument was too wordy.

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badkitty April 26, 2012 at 2:13 pm

My husband and I once had a rather lengthy argument (internet wasn’t handy just then) as to whether the expression is “you’ve got another thing coming” or more correctly, “you’ve got another THINK coming.” I’ve also gently corrected professionals and simultaneously taught them about the word fiscal (because they were not at the end of their “physical year”) and it makes me giggle every time someone uses “liable” when what they really mean is “libel.” (This one is especially funny because it tends to come up when people are trying to sound all official and lawyer-y, and it’s such a miserable fail.)

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Wink-N-Smile April 26, 2012 at 2:21 pm

@Gloria Shiner – Actually, it was spoken as NICK it in the butt, which made me visualize the woman chasing down an anthropomorphized version of the problem, waving a scalpel at its buttocks. I laughed so hard, but have since then been very careful in my own pronunciation of the phrase.

I adored the “scream door.” It just seemed so very apropos.

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Wink-N-Smile April 26, 2012 at 2:24 pm

KMC – I think I would really like your husband.

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Wink-N-Smile April 26, 2012 at 2:29 pm

Melissa – your daughter has a wonderful teacher! Fantastic!

KittyLizard – good for you for holding your tongue, and I’m so glad she pulled that on the phone, so you could really impress on the job interview. She had no idea the favor she was doing you. LOL

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Amanda H. April 26, 2012 at 2:30 pm

@twik, that one gets me too. So many people say “decimated” when they really mean “devastated.”

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Cat Whisperer April 26, 2012 at 2:49 pm

My husband occasionally comes up with some malapropisms that have people in stitches. My all-time favorite was when he and some colleagues in the engineering profession were discussing a government program representative that they’d all had to deal with and found to be a royal pain in the patootie. I didn’t know the guy, but I’d heard stories about him, and if just a fraction of what I’d heard was true, the guy was not the sharpest pencil in the pack by a long way.

Anyway, my husband brought the conversation to a screeching, grinding halt when he described an incident in which this guy had done something that really didn’t make any sense at all. “He’s a GENITAL IDIOT!” my husband concluded.

There was an astounded silence for about five seconds, and then the whole place blew up in laughter. (The worst part was that the people who heard this nicknamed the government rep, whose name was Gerald, “Jerry the genital idiot.” Sometimes engineers aren’t so different from school kids.)

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TylerBelle April 26, 2012 at 2:52 pm

I’ve not heard the word very often, and really had no idea as to its meaning (learning something new every day!). Showing how far off base I’d been and how much attention I’d been paying to the context in which the word was being used, my mind would seem to envision a pendulum. Oh goodness, not too close on it ;).

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livvy17 April 26, 2012 at 2:53 pm

I think the mistakes that generally bother me the most are the ones that are not only wrong, but don’t gain anything by being wrong. What I mean is that I can forgive slips that actually save time, or come from lazy enunciation…those are more natual processes, and one might even argue are part of the evolution of the English language. I’m talking about additions such as, “Where are you at?” instead of “Where are you?” Or, more recently, the ansertion of an apostrophe into every single word ending with an “s”. Such as “Open Sunday’s.” Those make me crazy!

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